Monday, 1 July 2013

Review: The Ghost in the Crystal

The Ghost in the Crystal
The Ghost in the Crystal by Matt Posner

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I went in deliberate search of indie urban fantasy on Google and Amazon, and found a number of possibilities. This was the first one I tried, and it was excellent.

Any book about a magic school will inevitably be compared to Harry Potter, so let's get that out of the way first. The difference between the two is that Harry Potter is built on the basis of whimsy. Apart from about half the magical creatures, it doesn't draw on much prior art from myth, legend, history, literature or historical people who believed they were practicing magic. It makes it all up out of whimsical whole cloth. This is a strength as well as a weakness, and probably helped its widespread appeal, but it introduces a note of silliness that's hard to ignore, even among the very dark material.

School of the Ages is not whimsical. The magic is based on medieval and renaissance beliefs about magic, including the Jewish practice of cabala. The school is in New York, and is combined with a Jewish cabala school, and the initial antagonist, the Malfoy character, if you like, is a Chasidic Jew with the wonderful name of Mermelstein.

The tone is serious, and so are the characters. The quarter-Indian, quarter-Jewish, quarter-Hispanic, quarter-English first-person protagonist is a very serious young man. He's a young man who wants to fight his own battles, even when he probably shouldn't, and his mentor, while annoyed at this, puts up with it. I think this is because he has enough experience teaching young people to know when they won't be talked out of something. Of course, that leads to problems, which the main character confronts with the help of his friends, well-drawn characters with their own quirks and motivations.

It doesn't all go well. In fact, it goes tragically. That's all I'll say, because more would be a spoiler. There's hope amid the tragedy, though, and it's the kind of tragedy that matures the people who go through it.

Early on, one of the teachers says, "To master the skills we teach here requires great mental and emotional stability." This is something that's missing from a lot of "young wizards" stories, including Harry Potter, who never did concentrate properly on his occlumency. In far too many fantasy stories, kids develop powers not by practice and training and mental discipline, but suddenly and spontaneously in a crisis (because they're the Chosen One, usually). This leaves them free to be angsty, erratic and explosive all the rest of the time. This isn't how you gain skills in real life. Training and mental discipline, and emotional stability, are also a big emphasis in traditions like cabala, so this gives the magic an authentic feel that's often missing in this kind of story. It also means that, while the main character certainly feels powerful emotion, he's not an emotional loose cannon like so many young heroes. He can't afford to be.

The writing is competent. I found eleven errors in the whole book, and all of them were the kind that I would have blamed on the typesetter back in my professional editing days, when typesetters still roamed the earth. Someone's done a find-and-replace and messed it up, resulting in quotations that end like this:

,". Tinker

instead of:

," said Tinker

That accounts for five out of the eleven typos I found, and the remainder were even more minor.

When I finished this book, somewhat shocked by the emotional power of the ending, I immediately bought the next one, and even though I have other books I've committed to review, I'm reading it because I really want to know what happens next.

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Matt Posner said...

Thanks for the review, sir. If I may be of assistance, let me know. -- Matt Posner, author, School of the Ages series

Mike Reeves-McMillan said...

And contrariwise, if you want to know where the typesetting errors are, I'm happy to let you know. Even fewer in the sequel, so far, though I'm spotting a couple.

Oh, and if you ever revise the sequel: aboriginal people at Lake Mungo would be in Australia. Moas would be in New Zealand. Despite what so many Americans think, those are not the same place, and in fact are separated by hundreds of miles of sea. We New Zealanders get very annoyed by such confusions.