Tag Archives: fantasy

Seasonal Fears, by Seanan McGuire

I received this book from the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out now.

Officially this is a standalone novel set in the same universe asn Middlegame (which apparently I never reviewed). And officially that’s true; I haven’t read Middlegame since whatever year it was published and up for a Hugo, and I have a bad enough memory that it’s not quite like I never read it, but close. It would be more accurate to call it a companion novel, though – the other adjective used in the press release. Because some of the characters from the first do appear here, in the second; it’s not mandatory to know who they are, but I think it probably helps a lot to have some knowledge of how this world works. Although maybe not, since Middlegame does throw the reader into the hectic world of alchemy and anthropomorphised aspects of the universe.

Where the first novel was about trying to compel aspects of the universe to take human avatars, Seasonal Fears is kind of where the alchemists got their ideas: Summer and Winter have been incarnate for as long as humans have been projecting their humanity onto faceless and terrifying natural processes. So Harry and Melanie get caught up in an ages-old quest/epic/adventure. They have been living one for most of their lives, actually: she’s got a congenital heart condition and no one expected to live to 17; he’s been in love with her (and she with him) since they first met. So that’s one narrative they’re living; then another gets shoved on top. There’s road tripping, and meeting people who variously help and hinder, and dealing with the changes happening to them whether they like or not.

So it’s a coming of age novel, yes, with that fantastically wonderful Seanan McGuire touch. There’s nice banter, and a narrator who is sometimes ruthless and sometimes unbearably caring, and characters making bad choices for good reasons (and vice versa). There are parts of this novel that are truly vicious: there isn’t just one candidate for the seasons to become incarnate in… . And yet, and yet, there is also a glorious hopefulness. Not the sort of hopefulness that means everything will be easy and okay and no one will ever be hurt: but the sort of hopefulness that means you can live through, and with, difficulty; that life is worth it; that the world is worth the pain because there are good things in it.

I really enjoyed it.

Lost in the Moment and Found (Wayward Children, #8)

Read courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out in January 2023 (sorry).

It’s a Wayward Children novella. It’s always an exciting moment.

One thing I that both makes me happy and sad with some of the recent novellas is that they’re standalone. I love that they provide new entry points for readers, and also that McGuire is exploring such interesting variations on the ‘there are Doors that lead to new worlds and young kids who need them can sometimes find them’ thing.

The only reason I’m sad is that I love many of the original cast and I will always want to know more about them. But that’s definitely about me and not about the books.

So! If this is your first Wayward Children, how awesome! And if it’s your 8th, how awesome is this series??

As McGuire herself does in the Author’s Note, I will point out that the lead character deals with an adult gaslighting and grooming them. McGuire wants very much to let readers know that Antsy runs before anything actually happens, and I deeply appreciate this reassurance. I also appreciated, as the story progressed, the narrator noting that Antsy’s fear of not being believed was in fact unfounded. Which is of little use to Antsy, of course, but perhaps of enormous use to a reader.

Antsy: unhappy at home, runs away, finds a Door… which leads her to a shop with a talking bird and a very old woman, which turns out to be a shop where lost things turn up (yes, all your odd socks; kittens and my favourite frog ear cuff, too, I expect). The bird and the woman and now Antsy catalogue what turns up, help people find lost things if they can, and sometimes sell things when they know they won’t be claimed. Many Doors open from the junk shop – which is a very different premise from what happens in most of the other stories – and Antsy goes through to visit markets and to explore. It is, of course, an adventure… and things do, of course, turn out to be not quite as they appear.

I love Antsy; I thoroughly enjoyed the story; McGuire is still doing great work in this series.

The Atlas Paradox, Olivie Blake

Read courtesy of NetGalley; it’s due out in October 2022.

This review will have some spoilers for the first book, The Atlas Six. And you really need to read the first one. Do not come to this with no prior knowledge.

This is an example of one of those books where very quickly I am pretty sick of the bullsh!t of every single character, impatient with their childishness and arrogance and lack of ability to see beyond their own selfishness… and yet I kept reading. Partly for the characters – I like Libby (and let’s not analyse that particular sentiment), and to my amusement I like Nico, and of course I like Gideon; Reina I am intrigued by. The others I find very frustrating if occasionally intriguing. But I also keep reading because I just have no real idea where Blake is going with all of this. I don’t know whether the characters are going to actually come together, or not; whether they will work with Atlas, or not; whether the world is going to end, or not. And so despite my impatience and frustration – all, it must be said, indications that Blake is skilful at creating characters; I don’t tend to waste emotions on 2D characters – I devoured this book, and am now also impatient for the third book. This situation cannot be left where it is and I need to know how it resolves.

So the book opens with Libby gone, her colleagues initially assuming she’s dead and then realising that she’s just… gone. Using his abilities, Ezra has dropped her in the past, hoping to save her or save the world or… honestly who really knows, Ezra is so messed up. The others, back in the Library mansion, are meant to spend their year doing basically an Honours project, researching their own thing. As may be of little surprise to those who’ve read the first, mostly they just don’t bother because have you ever met another group of incredibly smart people who collectively had so little interest in actually doing the work they’re expected to do? Reina is not included in that indictment. And I guess Nico isn’t either but he’s Nico, and like all the others is definitely running to his own agenda. It will also come as no surprise that things go badly for pretty much everyone at different stages of the story. They don’t cope very well with that.

There’s an enormous depth, here: Blake hints at a lot with Atlas, and with Dalton, and with Reina and Parisa in particular. There’s also terrifying potential for what could eventually occur. Both of these novels have been very well-paced; Blake uses the multiple-narrator mode beautifully to explore the variety of characters and give hints at what’s in their brains. I think, actually, that it’s using that format which makes these novels so very compelling.

The Path of Thorns

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s out at the end of June, 2022.

You know those authors where you know you love their work but somehow they’re not automatically at the top of your mind and then you see a new book by them and you think, oh yeah I should read that; and then you do read it (perhaps eventually) and you think WHY DO I FORGET HOW MUCH I LOVE THEM?

Maybe that’s just me.

Sorry, AG Slatter. I really do love your work.

This novel is set in the world of Slatter’s mosaic novels – Sourdough and Other Stories, and The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. You don’t have to know those stories to love and appreciate this one; they’re not about the same characters, or even necessarily the same places in the world. This is a world where magic is real, at least some of the time, but not everyone approves. Magic is mostly done (at least in these stories) by women, which feeds into the disapproval of that ‘not everyone’. It’s used for good and for ill and sometimes doing it for one reason ends up having the opposite consequences. In her Author’s Note, Slatter points that the world is a mishmash of the Victorian, Renaissance and Medieval – and asks readers not to go looking for historical accuracy. So there are moments that maybe kind of feel familiar from history, but they’re set with moments that really don’t.

What I particularly love about this and the other Sourdough stories is that they feel like fairytales, even though they’re definitely not tales that I know. There’s something about the ideas and themes – as Slatter suggests, “weird family dynamics, manipulation and lies, false faces, lost families and found, terrible acts and the potential for redemption”. There’s also something about the way Slatter writes, and here I am completely lost for words. I can’t tell you what words or phrases she uses to evoke a slightly eerie world, the sense that this is a world just slightly off from ours; that makes me a bit amazed that this is NEW work, rather than something that was told ages ago and has that patina of tradition, of being a well-worn and beloved story – of familiarity. And that last is particularly odd, frankly, because I really didn’t know what on earth was going to happen from page to page. She uses phrases and stories-within-stories that read like they SHOULD be as old and familiar as the wine-dark sea and Achilles’ rage, but … they’re not.

So: Asher goes to Morwood Grange, to be governess to three young children. She has a frightening experience on arrival, and brings with her some things that she immediately puts under a floorboard. And see, right from that, you just know things aren’t going to be straightforward. And so the story proceeds – making friends and enemies and figuring out how to do what she’s come to do; you already guessed that Asher didn’t come to Morwood accidentally, right? In some ways a bit claustrophobic – Asher mostly interacts with the family and few servants at Morwood – it’s saved from being TOO gothic the-house-is-trying-to-eat-me by occasional visits to the village and out into the grounds of the estate, and also through Asher’s occasional reminiscences, It’s an intense story, intensely inwards-focussed – and look, I read it in a day.

I loved it. A lot. It’s not always easy to read; the family is a deeply broken one, Asher’s not exactly perfect, and there are definitely actions that people regret (or should, but don’t). And yet, I loved it.

The Atlas Six

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

This is one of those books where the originality lies primarily in the execution, rather than the initial premise. And this is in no way an insult! Reading a new take on old ideas is exciting.

The basics: six people with extraordinary gifts are chosen to learn about a secret institution. Things are, unsurprisingly, not what they seem – and there is a lot of interpersonal tension as well.

See? Not a radically new idea. But the execution and the details made this a deeply intriguing book.

The world is one where magic is real, and even the non-magic users know about. Hard to hide a magic university in the middle of New York, I suspect. Also, some people have used their talents to get (legally) spectacularly rich. Anyway: it seems most people don’t have astounding levels of magic. So the six people chosen to learn about the secrets are told they’re pretty much the strongest, most gifted magic-users of their generation. Great way to manage those egos right up. Anyway, they are invited to learn about the Library of Alexandria – now somewhat metaphorical, as it’s not in Alexandria, although it is still a library. And that’s one of the key drawcards: the right, and ability, to search the library for anything they want… if they get through the year.

So we have magic, and we have knowledge, and we have massive personal conflict – mostly because of the individual personalities. Intriguingly, the narrative moves between all six of the initiates, meaning that there’s not automatically one of them the reader is guided towards supporting. While some of them are absolutely unpleasant people, this multi-focus allows the reader to see their complexities and thus make the story that much more complex.

It’s a clever set up, and the twists are just as clever, and the characters are right on that borderline of horrible-but-not-so-horrible (unlike, say, Heathcliff). Clearest sign I enjoyed it? Can’t wait to read the sequel.

Amongst Our Weapons (Rivers of London)

I received this at no cost from the publisher, Hachette. It’s out now; RRP $32.99.

Firstly, this is number 9 in the Rivers of London series, so do not pick it up if you haven’t read the rest. You’d be able to follow the basic plot – provided you’re ok with the idea of London police needing to deal with weird bollocks (that is, magic); but the relationships will make no sense to you and the references to past problems won’t have any impact. Also, it’s an enormously fun series (with, sadly, some thick-headed and annoying misogyny in the early books from the main character) so if you ARE fine with modern London policing engaging in magic and dealing with criminal practitioners, just start from the start.

And if you’re already on the Rivers of London train, you really don’t need me to write this review because you’re already going to be reading it whenever it comes in at the library / your preorder arrives / you nick it from your mum. So if the purpose of the review was to convince people to read this particular book… there’s really no point.

Not my main reason!

I have enormously enjoyed the development of Peter Grant over these books – I was very dubious about him as the POV when I first started, because he was just a bit … painful. Young? Smug? At any rate, not a character I could particularly connect with. But the world Aaronovitch presented – a very modern one, but where magic fries electronic circuits; his boss Nightingale, whom I always found intriguing; and the magical cases themselves – all convinced me to keep going. And Peter has indeed grown up, due to circumstances and Beverley, and has become much less annoying and more like a decent bloke and a generally good copper. So that’s been worthwhile. The cases keep being interesting – and what I like there is that Aaronovitch doesn’t feel like he has to keep uping the ante; it’s not like one book we’re blowing up a building then the city then the world. Because magic can help you do a vast assortment of nefarious things so you can just have varied crime, rather than ratcheting up.

Here, Aaronovitch takes the opportunity to make some Lord of the Rings jokes, with a bunch of people connected through university and each in possession of odd rings being targeted by a peculiar and rather terrifying person. There’s the usual work with Guleed, more Seawoll than usual, and trainee Danni – plus, of course, Nightingale. (I would love a bunch of Nightingale prequels…) Not so much Mary or Foxglove, but more foxes; plus, Beverley is very nearly at term, so there’s paternity leave to be considering, too. It’s a standard Rivers of London, which is in no way a slight! It’s exactly what I was hoping for: a bit ridiculous, some very clever connections, an enormous fondness for London as a city, lots of banter and precisely paced – brisk, but not whirlwind. I’ll happily keep reading these for as long as this standard endures.

Nettle and Bone

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

If you’re a fan of T. Kingfisher, I can say “this is exquisitely T. Kingfisher” and know that you’ll run for a copy of this book. (Fair warning: book does include reference to family violence, and an abusive partner.)

If you’re not already… maybe you’re a fan of Angela Slatter? Kingfisher’s books remind me of her work too.

What does that mean?

They’re both doing fascinating things with fairy tales… except not really fairy tales, because they’re not always familiar stories, but it’s the vibe of fairy tales – fairy tale logic – fairy tale expectations and narrative structures. And I don’t mean Disney versions, I mean grim/m and sometimes gritty and meaty and fully embedded in the world, where not everything is lovely and wonderful but sometimes they are, and sometimes by force of personality you can make a change in the world and sometimes you just have to roll with the world’s punches.

I loved this book a lot.

There’s a princess who doesn’t especially want to be and who is really sure that she’s good at it, and a bone dog, and two godmothers, and a dust-wife. Also a quest and a heavy dose of gritted-teeth determination and a good level of snark, generally dished out by old ladies, which is of course the best sort. It goes at a good pace – not so fast as to leave you spinning, but you’re also not just sitting around always admiring flowers. I read this quickly and it felt just right.

This book keeps Kingfisher as one of those novelists whose work I just read pretty much automatically. I mean, it includes such gems as: “My dog trusts me… My dog is witless and also dead” and also this, addressed to a chicken: “I know you aren’t broody, demon, but you’re going to make an exception or so help me…”.

Definitely should go on your to-read shelf.

Aspects, by John M. Ford

I read this courtesy of NetGalley; it’s out in April 2022.

Glorious. Frustrating. Confusing. Breathtaking. Heartbreaking…

It’s hard to know how to talk about this book.

The first thing that needs to be said is that it’s unfinished. The author, John M Ford, died in 2006. He had been working on this novel, it seems, for many years – at least that’s what I get from the introduction, written by a friend of Ford’s, Neil Gaiman. And so… the book is incomplete. That is, there’s no conclusion; and I suspect there are bits that might have been edited for clarity if the author had, indeed finished.

And I nearly cried when I got to the end, because this book is just so amazing. Like, this could have been the start of one of The Great Series. I’ve read only one other Ford novel, and I think a few short stories; this makes me want to go back and read absolutely everything. Because if this is the standard, well – I’ve been missing out.

Aspects is set in an alternate world. It’s kind of Britain, I think, although it doesn’t seem to be an island. It’s kind of analogous to the nineteenth century – there are trains (the Ironways), for instance, and there’s a form of electricity but some people are suspicious. But chemistry doesn’t quite seem to work the way it does here. Religion is important, but it’s not a Christianity-analogue; there’s a goddess with several faces, and matching consorts. And there’s a Parliament, with Commons and Lords, but here’s the final difference to our world: the lords are lords of the land, of religion – and of sorcery, or Craft.

So it’s kind of steampunk, but it doesn’t really fit into what I know of that category, and it’s fantasy set in an industrial context. Honestly though it just defies categorisation. It’s a deeply political work – three of the main characters are in Parliament, and at least part of the narrative revolves around machinations there, like writing a new constitution. It’s a country struggling to figure itself out several decades after becoming a republic – and it seems that the previous monarchy had been imposed by a conquering race, although that’s one aspect (heh) that I never quite got my head around. Some of the characters have the ability to use magic, which is not without its difficulties, and it’s clear that was going to a significant thread if the book had continued. There’s a romance, with its own difficulties; and such a large array of characters, all with their quirks (and bringing diversity, too) that this should have – could have – provided many, many pages of just mesmerising story. And now I’m making myself sad all over again that I’ll never read them.

Ford’s writing can be profound: “Play keeps us happy and agile, in mind and muscle; sleep and good meals keep us alive. We can misspend time – hurting people, ourselves included, making the world worse – but to ‘waste’ time – to get no motion at all, good or bad – to do that one would have to be not at alive at all” (p172 of the e-version). While I was sometimes a bit confused about what was going on, I was always captivated by the writing itself and somehow convinced – even though I don’t know Ford’s work that well – that everything would eventually make sense. And I was largely right.

Spear, by Nicola Griffith

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It’s due out in April 2022.

I adore the Arthurian mythos, and in particular that it can keep being reworked by different authors with different intentions and get completely different results that are still clearly linked. Most recently I read Lavie Tidhar’s By Force Alone, and it shook me to the core… and now Nicola Griffith gives me something completely and utterly other.

( Which begs the question, Can you read and enjoy this with no knowledge of the Arthur stories? Absolutely. And in fact it would mean that you wouldn’t have the same looming dread / fear / second-guessing that I did, trying to figure out who was meant to be who and would Griffith include that particular thing and oh noooo…. )

This was nothing short of amazing.

To begin at the end: I really enjoyed Griffith’s Author’s Note at the end, explaining both her choices and her inspirations. It wasn’t necessary, but it shows very nicely how Griffith sees herself fitting into the existing canon, and how her choices were influenced by archaeology and other sources. Also, her acerbic “crips, queers, women and other genders, and people of colour are an integral part of the history of Britain” – yes indeed.

Griffith has set her Arthur in the very early medieval period – the Romans are gone but the Normans aren’t there (it took me an embarrassingly long time to realise who the Redcrests were (Roman soldiers)). It’s the beginning of Arturus ruling a fairly small area; he is gathering Companions to help him fight off invaders and also to try and give some sort of peace, and lack of banditry, to his area. But the focus of the story is not on him: it’s on Per, Peretur, who has many names and none, who is on a quest to figure out who she is and where she fits. Because oh yes, this is Perceval / Parsifal as a woman, following in that grand tradition of “women have always fought” and having the same adventures as any of the men might. Griffith uses some of the medieval stories as a starting point – her love, and deep knowledge, of the genre is clear; and she tells a rich and compelling and human story that I just devoured.

One of the most intriguing things from an Arthurian perspective is where Griffith chooses to stop the story – which I’m not going to spoil. But it does make me hopeful of more in this world; she herself mentions the possibility in the Author’s Note, so now I guess I just have to sit here and wait. Because shut up and take my money already.

Where the Drowned Girls Go

I read this courtesy of NetGalley. It comes out in January 2022.

The first thing to note is that I love this entire series enormously. I love the very idea of asking what happens to children if they come back from their fantasy land but they didn’t want to, and then have to confront parents who want them to be ‘normal’.

Pretty early on in the series we learned that there was an alternative school: that Eleanor West’s school was for those biding their time, waiting to go back to their real home; the other place was for those who wanted to forget their adventures. It was obvious that eventually a story would be set there – but I didn’t expect it to be Cora who went. And for this reason, I do think that the previous books need to be read first; you need to understand what Cora has gone through, the trauma she has experienced in helping her friends, before you can understand why she wants to do something to try and forget. So if you haven’t read the others, you should go and do that first… don’t worry, it’s totally worth it, I promise.

So Cora goes the Whitethorn, and things are as opposite to Eleanor’s school as it’s possible to be, and completely dreadful. Unsurprisingly, it’s all even more dreadful than it initially appears, and events unfold as Cora confronts both her own trauma and the school-wide problems. It’s beautifully and devastatingly set up, and – as with all the Wayward Children stories – unfolds in complex, complicated, bittersweet ways.

McGuire continues to do wonderful things with her characters. Across the novellas she’s presented humanity in all of its myriad shapes and colours. Cora being fat has always been a part of her character because it had such an influence on how people saw her, and therefore how she saw herself, and therefore all the choices and consequences from there. In some ways I feel that the deliberate and blunt way in which Cora’s size is presented – and her implacable insistence that, of course, there is nothing WRONG with her – is perhaps more transgressive these days than discussing queer and trans folk. The world is coming to accept a gender and sexuality spectrum… but we’ve still got a lot of hang-ups about appearance. So I love that we have a fat hero, who hears and acknowledges the snark from her peers and it DOES get her down but also it doesn’t destroy her. Cora is so very, very human (and a mermaid).

This is a marvellous addition to the series and my only regret is that I read it too quickly and now I’ve got too long to wait til the next one.