Seanan McGuire brings her talent for creating strong, snarky heroines and detailed worlds to the realm of superheroes with Velveteen vs. The Junior Super Patriots, a collection of stories originally published online for free but now available in a very pretty hardcover and ebook.
In the world of Velveteen, superheroes are real, and they usually end up being recruited by The Super Patriots, Inc., where the Marketing Department molds them into family-friendly, merchandise-appropriate costumed crusaders. Velma "Velveteen" Martinez, who can bring toys to life, was a member of The Junior Super Patriots, West Coast Division, until she turned eighteen and walked away from the superhero life forever. But as anyone who has ever read fiction can tell you, the past always catches up with you. Because, you see, the Marketing Department wants her back. And they will stop at nothing to get her. I want to make this absolutely clear: the villain of this book is a MARKETING DEPARTMENT.
The first volume of Velveteen's adventures is divided into nine short stories, each of which stands alone well enough—some feel a bit short and underdeveloped—but works much better in the context of the larger story, especially since many of them follow directly after the previous one. Most stories contain significant flashbacks to Velma's previous life, where we get tantalizing glimpses of her history and relationships, both romantic and platonic. And then we get "Velveteen vs. The Flashback Sequence." Woven throughout these individual stories is a very intriguing ongoing arc about the Marketing Department's quest to retrieve Velveteen...and the people who are helping her.
As always, the worldbuilding is exceptional, and I loved reading about all the superheroes McGuire came up with and the way this world deals with them, from landmark legal cases to superpower classification systems. She turns superheroes into celebrities, reality TV stars who also happen to save the world. And, through Velveteen, she reminds us that being a superhero can actually kind of suck. Although a lot of the ideas are fairly whimsical, the overall tone is actually very grounded, which allows for emotional impact to hit you unexpectedly.
I recommend this book for any superhero fan, and I can't wait for next year's concluding volume, Velveteen vs. The Multiverse!
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, has quite a reputation. It won the Hugo and made dozens of Best-of lists. It's often described as "Harry Potter for adults." It has nearly 200 footnotes. And almost every review cautions that it takes a couple hundred pages for things to really start happening.
The book concerns the two titular characters and their role in bringing magic back to England. Back, you say? Ah yes, this is an alternate history set in a 19th-century England where magic—here a force deeply connected to nature and the Faerie kingdom—has been gone for centuries, not seen since the time of the Raven King. One of the major strengths of the book is Susanna Clarke's footnotes, which flesh out the world so convincingly with stories and citations from fictional books that there were times I honestly believed them for a split-second.
And, indeed, the worldbuilding sustained my interest for a long time, as did the prose, which made me laugh out loud frequently with its dryness. It's the sort of book that's funny without trying to be funny; the narrator has a rather wry outlook on the events and the characters. So, yes, it does take a while for the plot of the book to really kick in, but I was not bored at all because I was too busy being wrapped up in the world of the book.
Even when the plot does kick in, it builds very slowly and sort of hides in the background. Much of the story is about the effect reintroducing magic has on England and the rest of the world, since the book occurs during the Napoleonic Wars (and the way magic is used in wartime is highly amusing). But this is not the sort of book where magicians go around waving wands and shooting spells at people; no, that would not be very gentlemanly at all. Magic has limitations, and it requires great study to perform properly. And, yet, Mr. Norrell, who champions the effort to reintroduce magic, does not actually want anyone else to study magic. Until he takes on a pupil, Jonathan Strange.
The book is full of strong, engaging characters and dynamic character relationships, although it is somewhat disappointing that an 800-page fantasy novel written by a woman only has two female characters of note, and they are both passive. I can attribute some of that to the time period, but still.
(A short note on the illustrations by Portia Rosenberg: they are nice but unnecessary.)
The plot kicks into high gear at the end, and shit does get real (I was shouting at my Kindle a lot), but I didn't find the end to be wholly satisfying, even though I had loved most of the book. It stalls a bit in the last third with the introduction of new characters I didn't care about and, while it doesn't pull a Gaimanesque anticlimax, the climax didn't have quite the impact I was hoping for after all the build up. This is not to say that I was massively disappointed or anything, though. One subplot does have kind of a surprisingly awesome payoff.
All in all, it's the sort of book that you don't want to end because you enjoy spending time in that world.