Tag Archives: fantasy

The Girl with the Dragon Heart

Unknown.jpegThis book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. I believe it comes out in Australia at the start of September; RRP $14.99.

I heard about this book from Tansy, who adored it, so when I got to a chance to review it I was pretty stoked. But a thing I did not realise: this is a sequel! When I read the first chapter or so I wasn’t sure whether Burgis was doing something quite ambitious for this middle grade/ YA book (the protagonist is 13: I don’t know how to classify books for younger readers) – that is, leaping right into the story and then adding a bit of background information. Then I found out that before this is The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and it made a bit more sense. That said, I think that the narrators are different in the two books, and obviously I haven’t read the first but I still managed to read and love this book… so it does stand by itself.

Silke is 13 and determined to write her own story of her life, with herself as heroine not victim. She and her brother have been on their own since their parents were captured or killed as the family were fleeing their homeland some years ago. Most recently, Silke has been making herself useful to the chocolate makers at The Chocolate Heart, who have employed her best friend who is usually in human form but is actually a dragon (it’s complicated). She’s waitressing, and telling stories both orally and via broadsheet. But then she gets a job from the crown princess when the neighbouring fairy royalty, who have been living underground for a century, suddenly come for a visit. Silke has the chance to prove herself but of course things won’t go as smoothly as one might hope…

There’s a lot to like here. The action moves quickly, but there’s still lovely moments of character development. And the characters are great: mostly girls and women, with genuine diversity of character. The crown princess might be well loved, but/and she’s also a ruthless politician when necessary. The younger princess feels overshadowed; the chocolate apprentice is true to her dragon heritage; the adult women are sometimes compassionate, sometimes impatient, sometimes ignorant. The male characters are also diverse – Silke’s older brother is, basically, an older brother; sometimes the men are greedy, sometimes loving. Silke herself is basically creating herself as she goes along, which is probably her most intriguing characteristic: after early trauma she is determined not to have her life written for her. And so she puts on an act – which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not, and that’s acknowledged by the text.

As for the action: it’s clear from early on that the arrival of the fairies isn’t going to be the wondrous thing that the population might hope. It takes some unexpected turns, much like Silke learning the ins and outs of the servants’ passageways within the castle. The fairies have a bit less development than some other characters, but it does all work well as a narrative.

I really enjoyed this and look forward to giving it to the younger readers in my life.

Early Riser: Jasper Fforde

Unknown.jpegI received this book from the publisher, Hachette, at no cost. It’s out now; RRP $29.99.

If you tried reading one of the Thursday Next books and you hated everything about the whimsy of Fforde’s alternate world, just stop reading now: this book won’t be for you.

If you quite liked the early Next books and got a bit sad as they got sillier, keep reading.

If you’ve never read a Fforde book, you can keep reading too.

And if you’re a hardcore Fforde fan who’s been waiting… and waiting… and waiting for the sequel to Shades of Grey… well, this isn’t it, but it does mark Fforde’s return to writing after a hiatus of a few years, so: maybe it will arrive at some point?

This book is immediately recognisable as part of Fforde’s very particular way of constructing alternate worlds. There’s just enough recognisable from our world – what else would a Welsh near-zombie play but a Tom Jones song – but with some completely and wildly different things thrown in. In the Thursday Next world, the Crimean War never ended, and genetic manipulation means people have dodos as pets. Here, humanity hibernates. The vast majority of the population packs on fat, grows a winter pelt, and sleeps away the winter. Except, in more modern times, for the Winter Consuls – and a few dangerously antisocial types. The Winter Consuls help to keep things running through the winter; like keeping the antisocial types under control.

Charlie is the focal character – he’s just joined the Winter Consuls and is, of course, discovering that everything is not as it seems (whatasurprise). Through Charlie as novice, the reader learns about the Winter and how to survive, as well as about Morphenox – the drug that helps with hibernation, preventing the previously hideous losses, although only if you can afford it – and the various criminal and/or mythical types who also stay awake through winter. Oh and this isn’t just the winter of our world; this is the sort of winter that means mammoths are still alive and well. And global warming will mean something rather different.

It’s a very silly book in a lot of ways. There are silly/amusing jokes riffing off contemporary culture, and for some reason a massive painting of Clytemnestra. But at the same time, Fforde touches on all sorts of intriguing social ideas that might come about because of the hibernation – or simply from different ways of doing things. Like mandating childbearing, but providing the option to pass that responsibility off – to the willing or the desperate. Loss of population from hibernation means that society has developed coping mechanisms such as requiring every citizen to have at least general capabilities, and significant infrastructure to be commensurately accessible to those with those capabilities. Which does interesting things to notions of mastery, I think, although that’s not a huge part of the story. There’s clearly different things going on in terms of international politics, too, but it’s barely touched on.

I feel that Fforde is quite a divisive author. Readers are either willing to go along with his particular method of looking at the world and enjoy the ride, or the first couple of pages will make you angry or annoyed or bored. In general, I really enjoy his work. I think that milking too much out of one of his worlds leads to problems like the later Next books where things went beyond my tolerances – but that’s true of a lot of sequels. Fforde is doing what the best SFF does: making tweaks to the world and showing the consequences, and making the reader think about how those things reflect the world in which we actually live. And if there are jokes about ‘Winter cutlets’ and Carmen Miranda along the way, I’m up for it.

The Black God’s Drums

image.pngThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost. It will be published on August 21.

As an Australian, I’m sure I only picked up the surface detail of what Clark is doing here in his alternative history of America. That was enough, though, to be both utterly intrigued by the world he’s imagined and to follow this awesome story that I really hope everyone goes out and grabs.

This is alternative history in two senses. One is that there’s airships and some other tech that doesn’t fit with what the nineteenth century actually had; a variation on steampunk I guess. The other is that, partly because of this technology, things went somewhat differently in Haiti after and during the slave revolt there, and when Napoleon tried to reimpose slavery; and, possibly connected to this although that’s unclear, things are also different in the USA: like it’s not the USA. This is post-Civil War, but instead of reconstruction, Confederates and the Union are still separate. Oh, and New Orleans is neutral, and basically seems to be operating as its own city-state.

There’s a lot going on here, and all of that is just background to understanding why our protagonist, Creeper, is trying to find someone to pass along some information to, and then ends up in an unexpected adventure.

This is a beautifully written novella, both fast-paced and with complex enough characters that I cared about them. Creeper is awesome, there are seriously odd nuns (I REALLY want a story about them please and thank you), and the captain of an airship who takes zero nonsense from anyone. Plus a scientist with dangerous knowledge in his head and… yeh, you get the picture. The characters are a multitude of colours and ethnicities and nationalities, as befits New Orleans as a neutral and open port; there’s really interesting discussion about old, African gods being brought to this new world, and what power they might have. This is alternative history that really works: it makes sense (see caveat above re: me and American history), and it challenges modern conservative white notions of what alternative history is; it also just straight-out challenges boring old racism pretty much just by its existence.

I loved it a lot and would be very happy to read more in this world.

Echoes of Understorey

Unknown.jpegI read and really enjoyed Crossroads of Canopy a while back, so when Thoraiya offered to send me a review copy of the sequel I was all YAASSSS GIMME. So yes, this is a review copy, and yes I know the author.

The world is Titan’s Forest, and there are classes within classes in this place. The population is divided in three: those who live in the Canopy, closest to the sunlight; those in the Understorey; and those on the Floor, who basically live in the dark. The first book was very focussed on the Canopy, even though a lot of it happened in the Understorey; this one is focussed on the Understorey, even though a lot of it happens in Canopy; I really hope that a) there’s a third book coming and b) it will give us more about Floor. But I said there are classes within classes: within each physical division, there are wealth divisions (I mean I assume this applies to Floor), too. This is one of the interesting things Dyer is doing: the books aren’t just about the lucky ones, easy as that would be, nor just about the lonely outsiders. Instead, it’s a mix, as life and society are, showing the uneasy ways in which people mingle across borders. In fact that’s the whole point of this second book: Imeris doesn’t feel like she fits either in Understorey or in Canopy, and the people around her are equally unsure. So she crosses between worlds, trying to find her place, as well as an existential threat to the societies more generally.

Imeris is a minor character in the first book, but the focus here; Unar, the protagonist of the first book, is significant but minor here. I like this a lot; it makes the society the overall focus, rather than just one character. It also means we get to see Unar as other people see her, which gives some of her actions in the first book different nuances. And honestly, much as I enjoyed Unar in general, Imeris is a generally easier character to read! She’s not quite as driven and proud and amoral… not that those things are inherently bad in a character, but I found Imeris more sympathetic in her desire to be normal, not heroic in the slightest. Unar’s ambition got… wearying… especially because of its toll on others.

At a macro level, Imeris is trying to deal with the problem of Kirrik, an issue left over from the end of the last book, basically as a way of getting everyone off her back so she can have a normal life. To do that she has to become an excellent warrior, even if she doesn’t especially want to. This leads to various clashes with people who don’t like or trust her, and she ends up being thrust into a difficult quest that’s not really something she wants to do. As so often happens. There’s setbacks and deaths and compromises and moments of happiness too. And there’s a lot about the the Canopian gods, too, who play a significant role in the organisation of Canopy, living as they do amongst their people. This book has some even more intriguing hints at what those gods have done to get their place in society, which is another reason why I’m reeaaallly hoping for a third book because I could not stand to be left not knowing what Dyer knows about those gods.

The book is beautifully written and deeply evocative of the natural environment. It made me happy every time I came across a plant that was clearly inspired by Australian flora – like tallowwood and quandong and floodgum.

I’m really happy these books exist.

The Descent of Monsters

image.pngI was sent this as a review copy by the publishers, Tor.com. It will be available on July 31.

I could have had a review copy of Yang’s double novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, but they came through when I was feeling a bit rushed and… look, I didn’t click the link, and I regretted it, ok? Because then they exploded and everyone was raving and I thought, yes I will get those eventually. And then I got the opportunity to review this sequel, and someone mentioned that not having read the first two made this one make less sense… so I bought Black and Red, and read those, so I could read this. Which is a long way around to say that all three of these books are excellent and amazing and you should definitely go buy the first two and then read this when you can. I do think that this one requires knowledge of the first two to make the most sense.

On which: in theory you can read Black and Red in either order. I read Black first and I cannot imagine doing it the other way around, maybe because my historian brain really insists on chronology. Your mileage, etc.

Tor.com calls this “silkpunk fantasy” which I guess is because it’s Asian-inspired instead of European-inspired. I don’t really know the origin of silkpunk, although I’ve come across it before (and yes I know silk originated in China). Interestingly, while I would classify it as fantasy it also has some elements of science fiction – this one perhaps more than the previous two – because one of the chief problems is that a research facility has committed atrocities and has also, um, kinda been destroyed. I don’t tend to think of people writing about research into magic-y sorts of things. (If you’ve got more recommendations about such ideas, SEND THEM MY WAY. Turns out this is something I really, really dig.)

This novella is written from a few different perspectives, using different styles – straight narrative, letters, official reports. The official investigation is being stymied because it’s not in the interests of the government to have it all come out, but the investigator refuses to give in. And this leads to characters from the previous novellas being dragged in, and wraps up some of the ends that I didn’t even realise were loose, especially from The Red Threads of Fortune.

Yang’s work is just… different from a lot of other stuff I’ve come across. The world building is fantastic – both the world itself, and the way it’s described. The characters are complex and refuse to be pigeon-holed; ‘diverse’ has almost come to be a non-descriptor, but it’s so relevant and important here. Motivations are complex, relationships are complex… it’s just great, ok? Black Tides is on the Hugo ballot this year. I won’t be surprised to see this on the ballot next year.

Underwater Ballroom Society

The-Underwater-Ballroom-Society-cover-full-size-e1516877871941.jpgOn Galactic Suburbia a few weeks ago, Tansy mentioned that she was reading this anthology and that the first story had lots of references to rock and roll – much more my thing than hers. And then I saw Stephanie Burgis, one of the editors, talking about it on Twitter and, well, I managed to get myself a review copy. Whoo!

Over here at Book Smugglers you can find out how this anthology came together; basically, someone mentioned the underwater ballroom folly on Twitter, and BOOM.

Anyway, I quickly read the first story, and not only is it about rock music but it’s specifically about Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, which is only my favourite band ever AND I was about to go see Plant actually perform with his new(er) band, the Sensational Space Shifters. So I was in delighted stitches at all of the Led Zeppelin references throughout the story and basically that one piece is worth this entire anthology happening. But maybe that’s my particular bias shining through. Whatever.

The rest of the stories are quite different, with some not even being set on Earth; sometimes there’s magic, sometimes not; some are romantic, some are crime-solving, some are coming-of-age. The underwater ballroom is used quite differently, as you would expect, although it is pretty much central in all of the stories. It’s an enormously fun set of stories. Sometimes a themed anthology gets wearisome; that doesn’t happen here. I can definitely recommend it; it’s got a fairly diverse set of characters, too, which I liked. Give it to the older teen in your life who is getting impatient with everyday fantasy and fairy stories. And read it yourself, of course.

The Silver Well

Unknown

If I tell you that reading this was like reading Angela Slatter, I think you’ll get a feel for the fact that I adored it, and for I the style of these stories.

Forsyth and Wilkins have written a set of stories that, until the last one wraps back to the first, go progressively further back in time – but always set in and around the same village in England, Cerne Abbas. In a way, it’s similar to those books of James A. Michener that I’ve read (Space, The Source) and Edward Rutherford (London, Sarum): they follow a place and a family. But these stories are generally on the more positive end, where those aren’t always; and they’re also tending towards the fantastical, which those men veer away from. Plus, neither of them ever had illustrations by Kathleen Jennings at the start of their chapters.

The book opens with Australian Rosie returning to the English childhood home of her grandparents after heartbreak, in 2017. The stories then progress back to World War 2, the 1850s, the time of the English Civil War, that of Henry VIII, the first millennial crisis of 999AD, and that of the Celts as the Romans arrive. In each case there’s some specific issue of the time that ties into the very personal experiences of the people living in Cerne Abbas, and the individual at the focus of the story. And they never stray very far from the village and its titular well.

These stories are a delight. They’re sympathetic without being cloying, sensible without being heartless; they are stories that know what it means to be human and that sometimes what’s required is hard advice, but sometimes it should be a shoulder to cry on. There’s love and loss, evil and saintly behaviour… it’s not clear exactly what each story will give you when you start reading, except that it will be sad ad mildly traumatic and possibly heart wrenching. Also, beautiful.

I really loved this collection.

The Tallow-Wife

36147725I can always rely on Angela Slatter to shatter my heart.

This wee volume was put together by Fablecroft for Conflux, the Canberra SF convention, this year. It’s a teaser for Slatter’s next volume of stories set in the world of Sourdough and Bitterworld Bible, basically. The main feature is the title story, with a couple other short bits included, and – to make it extra special – illustrations from Kathleen Jennings.

“The Tallow-Wife” is exactly the sort of story I have come to expect from Slatter, especially when it’s a story from this world. It’s a family story, it’s a gentle story, it’s a nasty story as only family stories can be. There’s hints and suggestions of machinations that aren’t spelled out, there’s layers of heartbreak and confusion, and it’s all presented in beautiful prose that sometimes bewilders me: how can such lovely words be telling a story that tears me up? It took me a good couple of weeks to read this – I read it in two sittings but after I put it down the first time I was super reluctant to pick it back up because I knew it would just hurt. And it did, but it was worth it, and I loved it for all the pain.

It must be noted that this is a lovely <i>object</i>, too. Hard cover, Jennings pictures; it’s a delight.

 

Beneath the Sugar Sky

BeneathSugarSky_hiThis novella was sent to me by the publisher, Tor.com, at no cost.

And I’m really sorry but it’s not available until 9 January, 2018. I’m sorry about that because it’s really really good.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is a prequel to Every Heart A Doorway ; this is Every Heart’s sequel, chronologically speaking. You could absolutely read this without reading the other two (although seriously, why would you not read Every Heart? It’s one of the best novellas I’ve read in… years); there are some spoilers for Every Heart in Beneath the Sugar Sky, because there’s passing reference to the events that occur, but they’re not enough to make this novella opaque.

For those just joining us: the premise is a question that’s obvious once it’s asked. What happens to those children who fall through doors into other lands when they come back to the mundane world? Some long to go back, some are traumatised terribly. Enter two schools to help out, one for each experience. Every Heart and now Beneath the Sugar Sky are focussed on the school for those children who want desperately to leave this world, because they just don’t fit; they crave a return to the world that wants them, that invited them. And so they attend Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children… and wait. And hope.

Cora is new to the school, and quickly gets accidentally sucked into a quest. There’s travel to other worlds, battling usurpers, making friends, and trying to cope in worlds that really don’t suit you (how does someone driven by Logic survive in a world driven by Nonsense?). The story itself is charming and fast-paced and a lot of fun; unexpected and upbeat and delightful.

But it’s the characters that are really wonderful, and Cora in particular. She is described as fat fairly early on – descriptively, not pejoratively – and the rest of the story has moments where she deals with (expected) responses to her size based on past experience, with her own attitudes towards her size, and most importantly pointed reminders that size in no way correlates to personality or worth or any other marker of value. She has moments of triumph and moments of failure; she is a valuable member of the group; and the other people in the group, sensible humans that they are, never make her feel like anything but.

I just love this world so much. I love the idea that the other worlds can be mapped against different ‘directions’ (Logic and Nonsense and so on), that there is a system to their connections. But mostly I love the characters that McGuire is creating here, and the way these adolescents grapple with not belonging. I am hoping for many more such stories.

A Long Day in Lychford

Another novella that I received from the publisher at no cost which I have been remiss in reviewing. Also, another novella where it’s definitely better to have read the previous stories, although not as necessary as for Sarah Gailey’s work.

Returning to Lychford, once again things are amiss with the boundaries between the worlds; this should come as no surprise (poor little village). This time, there are also significant fractures in the relationships of the three witches who must hold the place together. This, of course, leads to more problems – and the most interesting part of the story, as far as I’m concerned. The problems facing the town are definitely significant and I always enjoy the different ways Cornell dreams up to imperil the place. But these stories wouldn’t be nearly as intriguing if that relationship element were missing. All three of the women are outsiders in some way; that has played some role in the previous stories but perhaps most of all here, especially for Amber. The struggle to fit in, the question of whether that’s necessary, the actions of other people in all of that… . I liked that the tensions of how different people cope with things, and that different people experience different issues, weren’t ignored. I’m being a bit vague here but the revelation of the problems to be confronted isn’t something I want to spoil. 

The Lychford books fall into that category of stories where normal life goes on for most people while a few go to extraordinary lengths to keep it like that. Here, those few are a female priest, a wannabe Stevie Nicks, and a cranky old woman. I’m really enjoying that the location is a sleepy little village, and the way the three women interact.