Book Review: The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry
After reading this as well as her previous work, Unnatural Magic, I’m ready to put author C.M. Waggoner among those whose new works I most look forward to. I know I’m going to get an intriguing mix of wit and drama, flavored with flawed, complex, but ultimately awesome female leads.
The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry concerns Dellaria Wells, a grifter from the wrong side of the tracks gifted with the power of fire magic. Fire magic suits her, as she’s a hot mess, having lasted less than a month at the prestigious university for wizards before being kicked out and now seeking various ways to line her pockets, not only to make herself comfortable but to move her drug-addicted mother out of the crime-infested city. She seizes an opportunity to join a team of bodyguards (all women — all this book’s important humanoid characters are women) assigned to protect a high-ranking bride-to-be who’s been receiving death threats. She thinks it will be a fairly easy task, though her interest is less in protecting the young woman than in charming a wealthy fellow bodyguard, Winn Cynallum, and making her her meal ticket. But she soon finds herself in very deep, as the threats to the bride-to-be’s life are linked to the city’s dangerous drug trade and as she begins to fall hard for her “mark.” Suddenly the stakes are personal indeed, and Dellaria must find a way to become the hero Winn thinks she is.
The bad news is that I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as I did Unnatural Magic. While that book had three different point-of-view characters, this one sticks with Dellaria only, and while I did find Delly an engaging and richly drawn character, I missed the multiple perspectives. When the romance unfolds in Unnatural Magic, we see it through the eyes of both characters, and as we get to know them both, we see how well they work together and become more and more invested in seeing their relationship succeed. In The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, we only see Winn through Delly’s perspective, from the outside looking in, so while their relationship is charming and I rooted for them, some of the depth and intensity was lost, at least for me. I would have liked to know Winn better. Big (she’s part troll), beautiful, smart yet soft-hearted, she’s just the kind of heroine whose head I would have loved to travel in.
Still, I found much to enjoy here, from the dry humor which never completely fades out even as danger mounts to the eclectic supporting cast (among them a bitter, grieving mother, an overly proud scientifically inclined mage, and a skeletal zombie mouse, the only male character of any real significance). Delly’s narrative voice is cynical — and the thing she’s most cynical about is herself — but we still find touches of sweetness, most of them courtesy of Winn. I’d recommend this to anyone who likes their fantasy with a bit of Jane Austen flair. Four out of five stars.
Movie Review: Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret
True confession: I’ve never read the Judy Blume book on which this film is based (though my husband has), since when I was growing up I never gravitated towards stories with realistic settings and characters. I still don’t, at least where books are concerned. Movies, however, are a different matter, and I ended up loving this film for the very realism and groundedness that disinclined me toward the book. Had I read the book, I might well have been impatient with Margaret’s lack of observable hobbies or interests, but through the movie I could see her very ordinariness works in the story’s favor, as she’s just a kid finding her way, trying to figure out what she wants and what she believes in as she navigates the land mines of puberty.
Margaret (Abby Ryder Fortson) is the daughter of a Jewish dad, Herb (Benny Safdie), and a Christian mom, Barbara (Rachel McAdams). Her parents have decided to raise her without any religion, so that when she grows up she can decide for herself which faith she wants to follow. But after her family leaves New York City and relocates to suburban New Jersey, Margaret, now having to make herself at home in a new place, starts to become curious about the nature of God; on a visit to her grandmother (Kathy Bates), she insists on going to Temple for the first time, and she goes to church with a friend, Janie (Amari Alexis Price), all the while engaging in dialogues with God about the changes in her life and in her body. A flawed heroine, she makes many a mistake along her way, but we see her learn from them, and she ends her story not in a perfect place but in a good one.
Movies that take an honest, thoughtful look at a girl’s journey through puberty are sadly few and far between, but even if they were more plentiful, Margaret would still stand out. There is so much to enjoy in this movie. Abby Ryder Fortson makes Margaret an immensely likable protagonist, someone we can identify with and root for. For once, we see a somewhat functional relationship between a tween heroine and her parents; even when they’re at odds, the bonds of love among them are never in doubt. The movie also departs from its source novel in a way I can appreciate: while Margaret is the book’s first-person narrator, the movie opens up the narrative to develop her mother, Barbara, as a co-protagonist, a woman with an artistic bent who does her best to play the role of suburban housewife and stay-at-home mother but comes increasingly to realize she’s not cut out for it. In one moving scene, she spies a colorful bird through her window, and she feels she must sketch it and rushes to the art supplies she’s packed away in storage, and then sits down with her drawing pencil — only for a PTA mom’s knock at her door to scare the bird away before she can draw more than a line. Just like her daughter, Barbara must find a way to be true to herself, and McAdams, like Fortson, is enormously likable in her role.
Among girl-centered movies from the 21st century, the ones I feel work best as companion pieces with Margaret are Pixar’s Inside Out and Turning Red. Inside Out shows 11-year-old Riley having to adjust to a new home, while Turning Red tackles the physical, mental, and emotional transformations of puberty by showing 13-year-old Mei changing into a giant red panda whenever emotion overwhelms her. The three films would make a marvelous binge-watch, but as much as I love the Pixar films, I feel Margaret takes the issues and ties them together in a more satisfying package. Sadly, it hasn’t managed to find its audience in theaters, but I hold out hope that it will become a huge success when it hits its streaming platform. Five stars.