Danika reviews The Narrows by m. craig

The Narrows is a Fantasy novel, but it is not the typical medieval Europe-based Fantasy. It’s what one reviewer called a “down-to-earth fantasy”. The Narrows opens with a barista making espressos using a small dragon. It’s an industrialized Fantasy world, and takes place mostly in the Bicycle Narrows, a little hipster side street in the city, taken over by cyclists, coffee shops, and illegal home breweries. The city has all the comforts you’d associate with a modern city, but all the gadgets are run on magic dust, trapped fairies are used as street lamps, and dwarves work in the factories. (Oh, and they have a pet unicorn cat! Drangs!) There are also magicweavers–people who are able to perform magic, with or without a wand–and questers, who train in a Battle School and will travel the world to fulfill quests and fight battles, for the right price. It’s the world that really drew me into The Narrows. I loved the mix of modern elements with traditional fantasy elements, and I think it makes this book worth picking up in itself. Unfortunately, the world has a 50s America view of homosexuality, with the characters frequenting a lesbian bar, but facing a lot of external oppression, including religious sanctions against being gay. It leads to a lot of gay angst and self-loathing. Personally, I prefer Fantasy worlds where queerness isn’t an issue, but sadly we still need stories like this, because it’s still a reality for a lot of people.

For the most part, I enjoyed the characters in The Narrows as well. Sim is on the run from her old life as a servant to royalty, where she got in some deep trouble. She’s a little naive and confused about the big city and spends most of the novel struggling to find her own voice and opinions about the politics that everyone around her is convinced they already know the right answers about. Most of the novel I found Sim charming, and all the main characters–her roommates and boss, mostly–well-rounded and intriguing. [spoilers] I found her treatment of Wood at the end unnecessary and even cruel, however. [end spoilers]

Sim also starts to come to terms with her sexuality over the course of the novel, as she falls for another girl, Wood. Wood is an anarchist type, proposing a unilateral revolution. I found the beginning of their relationship, as Sim flirts without really knowing that she’s doing it, really cute. [spoilers] As I said, though, I wasn’t a fan of how it ended. It begins to look like even though Sim is in love with Wood, she doesn’t seem to actually like her as a person. And then she pulls a whole “Nice Guy” move and gets really angry at Wood just because she doesn’t feel the same way about her, even though she constantly talks about dating guys, so it’s not like she was being very misleading. [end spoilers]

The pacing of the plot was a little bit weird, however, until I realized that it is setting up for a sequel. As I said, at the beginning of the book, Sim is on the run from Nogron, the powerful royal leader. After that, Sim settles into the city and the Nogron plot isn’t explicitly picked up again until near the end of the book. When I was reading it as a stand-alone novel, that seemed weird, but knowing that it’s the first part in a series, it makes a lot more sense. The middle of the book is mostly exposition and establishing the world. The Bike Narrows that Sim hangs around in is filled with hippies, queers, and fuck-the-system revolutionaries, including her love interest as well as her boss. One of the problems is in magic pollution, a metaphor that I thought got a little heavy handed at times (it’s inconclusive that magic dust use causes more lighting, but only because the three magicweavers that disagree are in Nogron’s pocket). They also talk about the prejudice against dwarves as racism. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice any people of colour mentioned in The Narrows, which I think is especially sad if you’re going for a political, oppression-based plot. One character does once mention the “White men ruling”, but that’s the only mention of race I noticed. [spoilers] Also, I couldn’t believe that in the end, they forgot about the dwarves! If you’re fighting against oppression, you should remember the existence of oppressed people, especially if you’re blowing up the buildings they work in!! [end spoilers]

The book itself is beautiful. I love the cover, and the texture of it. It’s especially impressive from such a small press. Unfortunately, I did notice some homonym typos that took me out of the story. One is that “breaks” is used instead of “brakes” through the whole book, as well as “loose” for “lose” (a personal pet peeve of mine).

Even though I had some issues with the book, overall I really enjoyed it. The world is so interesting and different from what I’m used to in Fantasy novels, and that really kept me hooked. I am excited for the sequel, which seems to be set up to be the more action-packed book after The Narrows set up the back story and established how the world works.

Check out Jill’s review of The Narrows, too!

Jill Guccini reviews The Narrows by M. Craig

The world of the M. Craig’s The Narrows (http://narrowsthenovel.com/) contains a lot of elements you’ll recognize: full of bicycles and outcasts, skinny jeans and crowded cafes, and of course, a healthy dose of beer, its streets very much resemble a Portland or a Brooklyn of today. Yet then there’s the Other Stuff. There’s dragons and fairies; mysterious names of cities and faraway lands; wars with ogres; wands and swords and black magic–familiar fare for the fantasy junkie. There’s elements of steampunk weaved in, too, with a badass magic-sensing pair of goggles amongst other gadgets, and plenty of abandoned and creepy factories in a very urban setting. All combined together, it creates an atmosphere and story that’s unique and engaging, well crafted and well written. I have to admit that the Brooklyn-But-With-Magic vibe threw me off at first, but perhaps that’s just because I opened this book really not knowing quite what to expect. But the more I got to know the Bikeway Narrows, and the more I got to know the story of our protagonist, Sim, the more I cared about all of it, and the more I wanted to know more.

We meet Sim right after she’s run away from a not-so-pleasant upbringing in the home of the powerful Nogron, stealing an important and mysterious wand in the process. She and the wand are lucky enough to run into a lad named Cader in a train station on her way out of town, and he generously offers her a place to stay in the city of Terresin. Herein we get to know the second most important setting after the cafes and bars in the neighborhood of the Bikeway Narrows, the house where Sim and Cader live along with two other women, Pru and Kai. Between its large, mystical garden, the delicious dinners Kai concocts, and the amount of time Sim spends drinking coffee and reading books inside of it, I wanted to BE in this house. I especially wanted to be next to Pru, a cynical, dark-but-tough woman who becomes a steadfast friend to Sim, especially when it’s revealed that they are both real big lesbians. They especially need to form solidarity as homosexuality is looked upon with scorn and disgust by the majority of society. Yet their friendship is just perfectly that, with the romance in their hearts reserved for others. While Pru spends too much time with too many ladies she doesn’t actually care about–sort of the Shane of Terresin, unkempt short dark hair and all–Sim is over her head entranced by Wood, a local college student who she meets with everyday at their favorite coffeeshop. There’s only one problem: this love is only apparent to Sim. Cue heartache central.

Other minor characters we meet are also essential to the plot: there’s Azzer, the lovably eccentric old dude whom Sim works for, who makes gadgets and fixes bikes, and then there’s a strange girl who Sim keeps running into, who keeps warning her: stay away from the Bikeway Narrows. Along with these ominous warnings, both Azzer and Wood constantly talk of revolution, of injustice, of impending environmental and societal ruin in Terresin and beyond, problems that are easy to parallel to our own imperfect world. Whereas Wood believes change is possible, Azzer rests more on the side of defeat, wondering if they can ever be strong enough to conquer Nogron and those in power. Sim lies somewhere in the middle, unsure of exactly what to feel, but increasingly sure that evil forces are at work, and that they may all be in danger–and perhaps Sim most of all.

What exactly is happening in those factories that border the Narrows? Why exactly is their society at war with the ogres? And what is so special about that wand that Sim was able to steal? And, you know, will there be any lesbian happy endings? While some questions are answered by the end of The Narrows, there’s still plenty left open–and I now, of course, lay in wait for a sequel.

Aside from the story and the writing itself, I must say that the design and cover art of this book is splendid. Small presses can be a mixed bag at times, but I loved the whole look and feel of this novel once I held it in my hands–and it was a further delight when what was inside didn’t disappoint either. My only plea to Miss Craig for a sequel, or if there’s ever a reprint of this one, would be a good map of Terresin, the Narrows, and its environs included at the beginning–because heavens knows I love a sweet map at the beginning of books that invite you into new worlds as this one does. If you’re looking for a different, enjoyable read, this one is definitely recommended.