I have never read a YA fantasy novelette quite like “Spellraiser” and I mean that in the best way possible. It’s a familiar storyline: a rich prep school where those of lesser means are constantly bullied and looked down upon, except that there is a magical mystery underfoot. In the world of “Spellraiser” magic is an accepted thing, so there’s no real need for the characters to explain what’s happening to one another, which helps given the novelette’s unique styling—100 chapters of only one hundred words. In this world, spells are basically spirits that give the wielder—or the person being possessed—a wish-like attribute, be it beauty, strength, invincibility, or even the ability to read minds. The catch is, you have to release the spell every day or risk being completely consumed, and you can’t have more than 5 in you at a time or you will literally burn up. That’s not our main characters problem though. Her problem is that students keep dying mysteriously and she, as an outcast, keeps getting blamed for their deaths.
I am so impressed with this series. Each time I read a Murderbot Diary I think: “THIS! This must be the pinnacle, no way can the next book top this one!” And I am always, joyously, proven wrong. Murderbot is once again hit with complex emotions over non-fictional humans as it rushes back to help MB’s first group of (favorite) humans before GreyCris can get Dr Mensah to shut up for good about their illegal, murderous activities. Honestly, I didn’t know how much I missed Murderbot interacting with this original crew until the reality of them reuniting was upon me. So many sounds of joy were uttered while reading this novella!
I had to sit with this novella for a while after finishing; mainly to make sense of how I felt about it, or if I even understood it enough to form a valid rating. But ultimately, that was the problem I had with this story. The premise sounded great, but ultimately the quest isn’t all that inspiring, and many times I had to re-read sentences to understand what was happening, just for the author to have moved on to another topic in the next sentence, making for jumbled paragraphs and a reading experience where I never once felt really enmeshed in the story. And while the book deservedly gets praise for how it blends traditional epic fantasy prose with modern day vernacular, I personally found the shifts to be rather jarring. It’s clear that the author set out to craft a really vivid and rich world for the reader to get swept up in, only to make it really uninviting by burying it in a murky and obscure narrative.
This is the first reimagining of “The Nightingale” I’ve read, so I wasn’t too familiar with the original Hans Christian Anderson version going in. But the author did provide the original short story at the end of the novella, which was a lovely touch as it let me better see how this version and the original connected without spoiling anything. In the original, you have the Emperor of China who covets beautiful things; his gardens are impeccable, as are his palace and clothes. So, when he hears tale of a nightingale whose songs far surpass the beauty of the royal palace, he has to have such a prize for himself… I won’t say what happens next because I don’t want to give spoilers, but Williams does a wonderful job expanding on the short story by weaving in some courtly intrigue, and the plight of Kari, who needs to find a new purpose in life when she learns she will not be taking over the family business. There’s magic, too, but honestly, I don’t consider anything but the Nightingale itself to be a source of magic in this novella.
After the events of “Artificial Condition”, everyone’s favorite failed mass murdering robot is determined to find the evidence his original crew of favorite humans needs to bring down GrayCris, the corporation that so rudely tried to have them killed. But Murderbot doesn’t actually want to go back and face its humans. It’s much happier helping from afar, with no more interaction with stupid humans thank you very much! Which of course is a plan that goes up in flames in a spectacular way very early on its quest to get answers for Dr. Mensah.
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