book reviews

Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun

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“Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun to Beget Works of Great Virtue and Power…

The title went on for another half page.”

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Cover of The Mystic Marriage, by Heather Rose Jones.

The Mystic Marriage is a historical fantasy taking place in the fictional European principality of Alpennia, beginning in the year 1821. Both a romance and an adventure, its primary plot revolves around Antuniet Chazillen, last daughter of an Alpennian noble family that has been disgraced and all but destroyed. Antuniet’s life is bleak and devoid of most comforts and securities she’d been raised to. She’d been a scholar and her access to continuing her studies is severely restricted so, like many young women in her position, she makes a strained living by tutoring more wealthy students. The only bright spot in her life, if it could be termed such, is her single-minded quest to redeem her family’s reputation through the art of alchemy and her discovery, mostly by chance, of a singular alchemical text.

 

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Stay Crazy by Erica Satifka

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“Look, I know I’m crazy. I know that. You don’t have any reason to believe what I’m about to tell you[.]”

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Disclosure: I received an ARC of Stay Crazy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The most important thing to note about Stay Crazy, of course, is that the protagonist is insane. Well, yes, of course. It says right in the blurb that she was discharged from a mental hospital. And yet, she is also at the center of a vast conspiracy. It would have been so easy to make this the story of someone who only appears to be insane, when they are in fact the only ones who see the truth. Most often when I see spec fic stories involving characters confined in mental wards or the like, the story is one of false imprisonment, and draws a sharp line between the POV character and all those other people, the real crazies.

Em is as real-crazy as they come. Despite her unflattering descriptions of her fellow patients, she explicitly sets herself among them, the other psychotics. The book is written in a very subjective and often claustrophobic first person narration, dragging the reader deep into Em’s periodic bouts of hallucination. It’s difficult to immediately determine, during each episode, whether is is delusional or merely trans-dimensional. The silver insects crawling over her boyfriend’s plate at the restaurant, the swallowing brown smoke at the bowling alley, even the TV psychologist’s hidden messages. Which of these are conspiracy, and which are artifacts of the mind?

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A Very Serious Meditation on the Sexual Commodification of Drones

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Cover to The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells.

The Cloud Roads is the first installment of Martha Wells’ Books of the Raksura series, a vivid and imaginative secondary world fantasy populated by a wealth of strange and fascinating creatures. Primary attention is given to the Raksura, a species of reptilian shapeshifters with a curious insectile social structure. This book is driven by worldbuilding, and as such, it must introduce a point-of-view that can ease the reader into the rich vitality of the setting, one piece at a time. Moon’s backstory as it is given is far from original, but as a vagabond traveler orphaned at a young age, he serves the book’s needs perfectly.

A well-rounded review requires revealing to the reader some things that the protagonist himself is initially ignorant of. Moon begins the story as a solitary being, camouflaged among strangers and unable to answer even the simplest questions about what he is or where he came from. The only others of his kind who he knew are long-dead. He does know a few things about himself, some of which he reveals to the readers, and others which he holds back. But the first turn of the plot is stated in the very beginning of chapter one, before doubling back to expose the transition in full.

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Adventures with Mermaids

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Web cover art for The Daring Mermaid Expedition.

I’ve been obsessed with mermaids since I first watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid when I was six years old. Reportedly, after the movie I menaced my father with complex natural science questions like ‘what do mermaids eat?’ Fairy tales never really stopped having an appeal for me, even as a teenager when I grew frustrated with their simplistic and formulaic nature. It’s a good thing, too, because studying fairy tales taught me more about writing than almost anything else. To this very day, there are some words that, if I see them on a book cover, will spark an immediate interest: “dragon”, for example. Or “mermaid”.

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Zen Cho -Sorcerer to the Crown

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I read Sorcerer to the Crown, beginning to end, in under three days. Not a usual occurrence for me, not since my high school years. There’s a particular joy to be had in devouring a book and not being able to set it down, and this is exactly the sort of book you want for this type of adventure. Light without being frothy, romantic without being cloying, and effortlessly funny. My favorite stories are the ones that have well-balanced measures of comedy, drama and action. It’s a pretty difficult trick, but I think this book manages it remarkably.

The most obvious draw of Sorcerer to the Crown is the two protagonists. Zacharias Wythe, the eponymous sorcerer, is cautious, withdrawn, abstract-minded and secretive. As the child of African slaves adopted by an English gentleman and raised to become the first black magician in England, he has better reason than most to be reserved, not to say insecure. Prunella Gentleman is a plucky orphan living in a girls’ school under the sufferance of a family friend, but instead of being filled with gentle forbearance, she is as pragmatically ambitious a heroine as I might want. The contrast between the two starts paying off almost as soon as they meet.

Prunella is a woman who knows how to work the system. She wants her independence, but independence means cash and she is not above acknowledging that the most realistic way for a pretty girl to come into a fortune is to marry well. Zacharias is almost as confined as she is by the walls of convention and expectation that box him in on every side, but of a naturally ideologic temperament. His foster-parents, alive and dead both, struggle to deal with this very impractical tendency of their son. Zacharias is a man who can ill-afford lofty ideas of social change, but for all his soft-spoken civility, he as just as stubborn as a protagonist is expected to be.

And so, the Sorcerer to the Crown takes it upon himself to champion the cause of women’s education — magical education, naturally. By the cosmic forces of narrative coincidence, his first meeting with Prunella convinces him that suppressing women’s magic is a great evil. She has natural talent and is remarkably competent, which would seem to make her an ideal candidate for his apprentice. Prunella, though, is not very academically inclined. Still, she doesn’t scruple to pretend a passion for magical research to draw Zacharias into the thick of her machinations.

Meanwhile the plot rages on, pitting Zacharias against his colleagues in a fight for his position and his life. The admixture of politics and magic feels natural and compelling, as the poor beleaguered Sorcerer Royal must contend with diplomatic crises involving foreign witches, while simultaneously negotiating the relations between humans and fairies that ensure England’s access to magical energies. He seems set up to fail from every quarter, and all the while he runs afoul of his artful young student. Superficially it seems that he and Prunella are at cross-purposes, but this is an unusually compelling variation on a clash of personalities that tapers into attraction and genuine, mutual respect.

It is a feat of sheer magic to get me to read a book cover to cover without once resenting the inevitable romantic subplot. I found Zacharias and Prunella’s non-flirtations charming throughout the story. Never did I feel that they weighted the narrative or slowed it down. Their relationship progressed organically and I found its conclusion immensely satisfying, instead of grudgingly accepting it the way I ordinarily would. Even Zacharias’s evasively-worded confession was more endearing than irritating. I especially enjoyed Prunella’s utter confidence in her own powers of attraction. By contrast, Zacharias was as comically unaware of his own appeal as the most flagrant Mary Sue. It’s this kind of subtle twist that makes the book consistently funny and surprising.

Sorcerer to the Crown came highly recommended to me (from various sources), but I can honestly say that it exceeded my expectations. An instant classic, and one that I’m certain I’ll want to reread on a regular basis.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth

Seth Dickinson – The Traitor Baru Cormorant

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TTBC1_Cover1-680x1024The Traitor Baru Cormorant is a secondary world fantasy novel, taking place in an unmagical world dominated by a sprawling colonial empire.

Baru Cormorant is a brilliant native child, taken from her family by the Empire of Masks in order to be raised in a residential school on Imperial values. Her voracious mind devours everything they teach her, mathematics and astronomy at the price of doctrine and propaganda. The ruling principle of the Masquerade is “social hygiene”, an all-consuming style of eugenics that deplores sexual deviancy and obsesses over optimizing the mixture of racial traits. A reader might be jarred into attention by the absence of racial supremacy as they’ve come to expect it, replaced by a creepy pseudo-scientific fetish for “hybrid vigor” as it’s sometimes called.

The opportunities presented by a Masquerade education are irresistible to young Baru. She is nurtured by a patron who recognizes her curiosity and keen intellect, who pushes her to excel and distance herself from her family and her roots. This sets Baru on an ambitious course, to become an Imperial bureaucrat and learn the secrets of power that brought low her homeland and split up her family. She is defined as much by this ambition as by her cool, calculating nature and inordinately long view of the future.

One of the most charming and fascinating things about Baru and the Imperial Republic respectively, is the centrality of economics in their relationship. Baru gains her mentor’s attention when she comments on his commerce practices: he buys in Imperial paper notes, but sells only for gold. This is her introduction to the Empire’s most potent strategy of colonization, and presages her future position as an Imperial accountant. The centrality of economics to Imperial reign makes this a position of great power, and Baru’s natural intellectual talents make her ideally suited to it.

The title of the book (just The Traitor in the UK release) is not an idle threat. Baru is a character filled with contradictions and the most important of these is how far she is willing to go in service of her goal, to protect her homeland and her family from the Masquerade. Loyalty, in the world of the Masquerade, leads inevitably to treachery. The narrative is not at all forgiving on this point. Baru’s goals may be just and true and even noble, but they are in no way pure, and their goodness can in no way protect her from the consequences of her actions.

Baru’s treacheries span the book’s entire character arc and are directed every which way. There is no one in her life, including herself, that does not in some way suffer from her deception. The daughter of a mother and two fathers, and herself a “latent tribadist”, she still chooses to function under the Masquerade’s system of “social hygiene”, with the full knowledge of the gruesome interrogation techniques and punishments devised to enforce it. She lies to herself throughout, in the inevitable tension between her distant goals and her immediate actions, and in evading the many spies set on her by many political interests. The Masquerade, she helpfully explains at one point, is a “cryptarchy”, the rule of secrets.

Read this book. It’s clever and touching and suspenseful, and the ending left me craving more. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a book and got so exactly what I was expecting, and what I wanted. Bright and cold and calculating, Baru is exactly the kind of female protagonist I am always looking for.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.

“My Life for a Thousand” – Bounty Hunters in Space

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I binge-watched the first season of Killjoys concurrently with reading Kameron Hurley’s God’s War. The latter sat at the top of my metaphorical TBR pile for years, after having received multiple enthusiastic recommendations. I started reading it and was quickly sucked in, although at intervals there were lulls in my reading. Not surprising, given the pervasive violence of the narrative, that now and then I needed a short breather.

Killjoys suffered somewhat in comparison… at first. At one point early in the first episode, I was very close to dropping the show and going back to my book. I figured if I wanted a story about a badass, no-holds-barred, mercenary-minded bounty hunter in space, I had one on hand that had already proven its merit. As others have said, Killjoys gets off to a shaky start, and I wouldn’t say that I was hooked until episode four (“Vessel”, not coincidentally the first appearance of Delle Seyah Kendry).

These two stories contrast well. On one level, there are superficial similarities in subject matter, both dealing with a formal bounty-hunting organization with institutional reach of authority. Both the killjoys and the bel dames set themselves up as keepers of peace and social order, to some extent or another, and both are pervaded with manipulation and power-play, often at the expense of the individual agent. Their machinations, in both cases, exist on a genocidal, planet-level scale. Of course, with similarities like these, there’s an immediate need to scrutinize the differences that distinguish them.

God’s War is a darker work, psychologically speaking. Dark in a deeper sense than the type of “grimdark” fiction I’m used to seeing in both novels and television, tangling its narrative hopelessly in fatal flaws and moral dilemmas that are not readily unknotted. Nyx, the protagonist, stretches what it means to be an anti-hero, especially for a female character. More on that later. The casual brutality of Nyx’s existence is handled so precisely as to be almost unnoticeable.

Killjoys is less subtle. A television series by necessity has different rules of pacing to a novel, and this series like many others before it makes the most of that. As such, the early episodes feel more like a pulp adventure or a space procedural, while in the background each episode sets aside the building blocks of the meta-narrative. For the diligent viewer, pushing through the less interesting early episodes pays off with a juicy conspiracy plot that culminates in a painful cliffhanger.

Beneath the superficial similarity, and the more analytical distinction, there is a contrast of theme that runs more interesting than discussion of plot. After all, the attraction of the badass anti-heroine can be traced back to a single trait, the same trait that has made similarly structured male characters staples of the action genre. The characters in these stories are survivors. This is especially true of Nyx and Dutch, but here also the distinctions are just as important as the similarities.

Nyx, an unemployable ex-soldier who’s had her entire physiology reconstructed so often she has none of her original organs left. Dutch, a woman from nowhere with no family and no people, a child raised for murder by a paternal shadow assassin. Patriotism and family loyalty, an impetus or an imperative to kill. Nyx’s nightmares drive her back to her military days and fuel her continuing attachment to the bel dame motto: “my life for a thousand”. Whereas Dutch does everything in her power to leave her past behind, but adopts another absolute motto: “the warrant is all”.

Arguably, the two mottoes are more similar than they initially appear. Arguably, the bel dame council works harder to present itself as a patriotic institution working to protect their nation. Meanwhile, the killjoys live in a planetary system dominated by the plutocratic, encroaching and ominously nameless “Company”. Maybe this is what makes them more inclined to broadcast their tolerance for ends justifying means. Which organization is more cynical in its presentation?

Planetary peace-keeping militias aside, there is another important difference between the two protagonists. Rather, between the two teams. Nyx builds around herself a team of competent expatriates and assorted other losers. Contrary to genre convention, they can’t really be described as a rag-tag bunch of misfits. The team members’ ambivalence is a thread constantly visible in the book, circumstantial loyalty always promising to give way to betrayal. Or rather, the each-for-themselves attitude that found family narratives exist to unwrite.

The process of leaving behind adverse circumstances and overcoming trauma is central to Dutch’s story, as well as her co-protagonists. Forming that very same found family is a critical aspect of this process. Dutch, Johnny and D’avin are all, for lack of a better term, fucked up. They make poor decisions, hurt each other, and spend a lot of time dangling psychologically by a thread — but climbing ever upward.

Two stories of survival from two complement perspectives. The story of Dutch and her compatriots, about the adversity of climbing your way out of trauma in a hostile world, identifying your people and building support structure. By contrast, Nyx’s story is fundamentally about a downwards spiral, the story of a woman who has driven away every friend and ally and support system she ever had. What makes Nyx so dreadful is her dedication to self-destruction, not by means of drinking or gambling or a thousand other vices, but by the process of willful estrangement.

As much as Nyx’s downwards spiral is the story of an inveterate survival refusing to give up, the central Killjoys character arc is an upwards spiral, centered around people building up their lives. The characters or Killjoys are notable not only for their pervasive mental trauma, but for their variety of coping mechanisms, positive and negative.

On a personal note: after ten-plus years of major depression, it’s gratifying to be able to tell the difference.

Crossposted to Dreamwidth.