Tag Archives: fantasy

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.

Terciel and Elinor

YAY OLD KINGDOM.

If you haven’t read any of the other Old Kingdom books, let me tell you these things: the Old Kingdom is a place where some people can summon the spirits of the dead, usually using bells and a variety of magic. It borders Ancelstierre, which is kind of early 20th century England? ish. They don’t have magic there. In this story, Terciel lives in the Old Kingdom and Elinor is across the border and they’re brought together by, unsurprisingly, some tragedy and much adventure. It’s really, really, good.
OK, now go and read it and don’t read the rest of this review.

If you HAVE read Sabriel et al…

OMG. Given the opening pages of Sabriel – which, yes, of course I read immediately after finishing this – this was such a bittersweet story! I am SO, so glad that Nix went back to this world and gave Elinor and Terciel their own story. I am always intrigued to read about a young man when I originally knew them as an older man, and of course we had no knowledge of Elinor at all (which is such a classic, if awful, circumstance for YA fantasy). This is a really wonderful addition to the Old Kingdom, and to an understanding of the kingdom and the Clayr and, in particular, the Abhorsens – Terciel’s experience as In-Waiting was not the best!

This is, of course, beautifully written; it’s fast-paced – I read it in a day – and balanced with lovely dialogue and character moments. Definitely going onto the bookshelf for rotation every year or two. (I really need to buy a new copy of Clariel, since someone has nicked mine.)

Quantum of Nightmares

I read this book courtesy of NetGalley and the publisher, Tordotcom. It comes out in January, 2022.

This is a Charles Stross novel on… whatever drugs you take that make you talk at, like, three times the normal speed. (Hmm. Is it speed?)

One blurb says this is a Laundry Files novel. Another says that it is Laundry Files-adjacent… and that’s the accurate one. I haven’t read every Laundry Files, but I’ve read enough that I know what’s going on. The start of this novel, though, was unrecognisable… so then I went to look it up, and it’s the sequel (not mentioned in the blurbs I saw) to a spin-off. So… that’s all important information to have on hand. (There is no Bob Howard in this novel.) Having said that, I did read the whole thing and I did largely enjoy it, so Stross manages to get enough background info in without dry info-dumps to make it understandable… eventually.

CW: there’s some pretty gross stuff here. Think… meat packaging… and really the very worst bits about what can go wrong in abattoirs. Also, and I’m only slightly joking, if you have a phobia about HR and their policies, this is not the book for you; it takes corporate speak and the ill-intentions of large corporations to a whole new level. I suspect this does count as horror, because of those aspects, in which case this is right on the giddy edge for me.

There are many different strands entwined throughout this story. There’s a pseudo-nanny looking after kids who are not what they seem (well, they’re annoying little kids but with Extras); there’s loafers who just want to play D&D who get pulled into annoying real world stuff; there’s the aforementioned HR and a truly heinous view of cut-price supermarkets and a nightmarish future for how they might turn a profit. There are desperate people and sad people and bewildered people; there are double-crosses and worshipping of sinister entities and ruthless acts that just made me blink at their atrociousness. It’s not a particularly happy book; nor is it uplifting; so if that’s what you need right now, go somewhere else. But there is a dark humour to parts, and there’s a diverse cast of characters (trans, queer, not-Anglo), and the occasional good deed, so it’s entirely and unrelentingly depressing.

… when I put it like that I’m not sure how I managed to get through it! It’s not quite as bad as that makes it sound. For one thing, it rockets along at a tremendous pace. I never quite got lost but it was occasionally a white-knuckle, hold-on-tight and trust that Stross is in control of the narrative kind of experience. I probably only kept going because I do, indeed, trust Stross to land such intricate stories in a way that makes sense. Which he does here, yet again.

I don’t think I’ll go find the first book now – I suspect much of it is now spoiled, because I know who survives various difficult situations. Also, if it’s like this one, I need a fair while to balance out the grimness. But I don’t regret reading this one.

Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction (2021)

I read this courtesy of NetGalley.

As someone more au fait with anthologies than me pointed out, this anthology doesn’t have a introduction. So there’s no discussion of what speculative fiction is, let alone what African speculative fiction is. Which means that the answer to both of those questions is: These stories. All of them. These authors write that.

A few of these names – Sheree Renee Thomas, Tobias S Buckell – were familiar to me, but most were not. Part of this is that I don’t read a whole heap of short fiction these days, especially not the online magazines – it’s too hard – but it’s also partly about the speculative fiction scene that gets a lot of notice still being really white (I am not very wired into the whole scene these days anyway). Which makes an anthology like this excellent… because we’re a long way away from not needing such a thing, so don’t bring me the “but everyone’s work should be judged on merit” nonsense.

Anyway: the stories! This is a truly diverse set of fiction. There’s magic and there’s robots and there’s myths and there’s so-close-to-reality, and there’s horror (sometimes akin to the close-to-reality); there’s stories set in recognisable places and future places and past places and nowhere-places. Women and men and ungendered and who cares, families and not, hope and not,

I didn’t love every story, but I never do, with an anthology. And some of those were horror, which I pretty much always don’t enjoy. There was only one story that I got impatient with and skimmed over, which is a pretty good hit-rate in 360 pages.

This is great. I hope it’s the first in a long line of such volumes, as the cover page suggests.

The Hood, by Lavie Tidhar

I received this book courtesy of NetGalley.

This was… completely bonkers.

Some context: I studied medieval history at bit at uni, and I also did a subject about medievalism in modern society; I did an essay on Robin Hood. I am by no means an expert, of course, but I have some awareness of the whole mythology. Which is why I was so excited to read this. I had loved what Tidhar did with the Arthurian stuff in By Force Alone, and I was wide-eyed at what he would do here. The Robin Hood stuff is so wide-ranging – in history and in modern incarnation (Disney’s version is still the best) – that there’s just so much to play with.

Fascinatingly, Tidhar begins with Maid Marian, and goes somewhere I didn’t expect at all. And then goes to Will Scarlett, and likewise. And then to Rebecca – riffing off Ivanhoe – and… well, there’s a very long section of the story that’s exploring things other than a man with a bow and arrow and Lincoln green. In fact, I would argue that “Robin Hood” is probably the least important main character in the entire narrative. Which is a very interesting choice and one I’m still chewing over. Many of the characters recognisable from old and new stories make an appearance – Guy of Gisborne, the sheriff of Nottingham, Sherwood Forest, Little John and Tuck and Much the miller’s son – although perhaps not as you would expect them (that aspect I’m completely happy with).

The different sections, especially in perhaps the first third, are almost like stand-alone ballads; and maybe that’s intentional, reflecting the structure of those early, medieval ‘Gestes’. But it is somewhat disconcerting if you come to this expecting a straightforward “Robin Hood story” – because it definitely isn’t. I have no problem with this idea; disjointed narratives can be brilliant. Many of the early ideas do eventually have their pay-off later in the narrative, and often in quite clever ways; but it often didn’t feel like enough of a pay-off given the set up. I think perhaps there’s not enough of a crescendo – I finished the book feeling a little flat, a little lost – surprised: “is that it?”

(For those having read By Force Alone: that too was somewhat chaotic, but to me it always seemed like a coherent chaos. In contrast, I think The Hood doesn’t always succeed in coherence, narrative or character wise.)

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy the book. It’s a rollicking ride from the Anarchy of Stephen and Matilda’s civil war of the 1140s through to the 2nd, 3rd, 4th Crusades; Tidhar incorporates a surprising and unexpected amount of English history that’s usually not connected to the Robin Hood stories at all, commenting along the way. There’s an excellent range of characters, all stubbornly themselves and threatening to break away and live their own damned lives, thanks all the same. It’s not always easy to read – Tidhar clearly has a love of language and he likes playing with repetition and surprising slang – but it’s also not a slog.

I have no regrets about having read The Hood, and I will read whatever books Tidhar puts out in the Matter of Britain series (I think I heard it described as a quadrology, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what else will be included).

Buried Memories, Simon R Green

I received this via NetGalley.

I have not read any of the previous Ishmael Jones books; the NetGalley description doesn’t make it clear that this is part of a series. However, I am a long-time fan of Simon R Green, and as with many of his other books he provided enough background – without it being a massive info-dump – that I was able to carry on my merry way and enjoy the book regardless.

Ishmael Jones arrived on Earth in 1963; his dying spaceship turned the sole survivor into a human and wiped his memory of what had come before. Over the next few decades – covered, I assume, in the books I haven’t read – Jones has both tried to hide his identity from nefarious groups who would like to exploit aliens/their technology, and also investigated mysteries himself – because Simon R Green never missed an opportunity to do clever things with mysteries and whodunnits. In this narrative, Jones has realised he was not, in fact, the only survivor of his crash, and he’s going back to where it all started to try and get some resolution.

There’s banter, a spooky rural English village, murders, twists and turns and double-crosses, and ultimately a fairly satisfying conclusion.

Also, any book that opens with “Call me Ishmael” (except for the original) is going to get an appreciative eye-roll from me.

This was fun. Fans of Simon R Green know what they’re getting. Possibly not the place for those new to Green to begin their adventures (I would say that’s the Nightside books; the Blue Moon stories are a different kettle again).

Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee

I received this to review via NetGalley.

I haven’t felt especially like reading big fantasy, or dragon fantasy, for quite a while now. Even when the author was Yoon Ha Lee, whose Machineries of Empire I love exorbitantly, I just thought… nah.

More fool me. Lucky that books don’t disappear forever, and that I have now been able to read this.

Jebi is an artist. All they want to do is make art. They apply for a position as an artist within the Ministry of Art, which will mean art but also working for the conquerors of their nation. When they fail to get that position, they must find an alternative option if they want to keep eating… and this leads to twists and turns they never expected, discovering friends and enemies and further difficulties of life in a conquered land.

This is set in a secondary world but it seems to me that Jebi’s home is analogous to Korea, with Japan as the conqueror, although it’s not a direct parallel. There’s magic, usually fairly low key and initially I wasn’t sure if it was intended to be ‘just’ superstition (later events show not). There’s also technology, sometimes working in tandem with the magic, as with the automata that seem like golems to my largely European trained eye; I don’t know if there’s a Korean or other Asian analogue. There’s tanks and guns but electricity is unevenly distributed – it’s a really interesting look at a world with unevenly distributed technology.… like our actual world. It’s also, as already implied, a deeply interesting take on the issue of colonialism and empire and collaboration and compromise and I really, really loved that aspect.

Brilliant. Hugely enjoyable.

A Master of Djinn

Fatma: an Egyptian woman dressing in smart (dapper, even) Englishman’s suits; a woman in the still male-dominated world of the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities; someone with the tenacity, determination, and bull-headedness that characterises the best (fictional, I suspect) investigative types. I love her madly.

Fatma lives in an alternative Cairo: it’s 1912 and thanks to a man living several decades earlier, djinn and other such ‘supernatural entities’ walk the streets not only of Egypt but elsewhere in the world. They’ve added art and craft and technology, as well as opportunities for crime and political scheming to the world. Egypt has become the sort of world player that it didn’t manage until probably the 1950s in our world (thanks to imperialism etc). And I love this, too: I love Clark’s evocative descriptions of Cairo – by which I do not mean that it’s all “exotic” or whatever; I mean that his descriptions bring the streets and palaces and people to life in the ways that the best literature does.

Everything about this novel is marvellous. I love the characters; I love the setting. I love the exploration of how humans might interact with the supernatural when it becomes basically mundane, and I love the police investigation aspect (a lot). I love that it’s set in Egypt and deals sensibly, sometimes snarkily, with the imperialism issues that would still have been present despite the magical changes (the patronising ‘exotic’ comments from the white mouths are just… so on point). I love the language and the pacing and the revealing of important clues and… Look. Everyone should read this.

Wendy, Darling

I received this book via NetGalley.

Jean Rhys gave me the story of Bertha, Rochester’s first wife, in Wide Sargasso Sea. Seanan McGuire made me consider what happens to children when they come home from their otherworld adventures. AC Wise gives me the story of Wendy, and what happens after Neverland, and the reality about Peter Pan.

Peter Pan is an awful person.

(I should note that it’s well more than 20 years since I read Peter Pan, so it’s possible that I’ve missed some of the more subtle and clever nuances that Wise brings to the story. (And to be honest when Hook was mentioned, my brain immediately went to Dustin Hoffman…). Clearly, though, this is not a problem for appreciating the novel, Whether it would be as thoroughly appreciated with zero knowledge of the original is unclear; I suspect it would be fine, given the depth of story about Wendy as a human, but some of the references might be a bit weird.)

Wendy, Darling presents its story over a few different timelines: Wendy in Neverland. Wendy after World War 1, when she is committed – by her brothers – to an asylum. Wendy married, and a mother. And the story of Jane, Wendy’s daughter… I think you can guess what happens to Jane.

This book is amazing. This book is compulsive reading (I read it in 24 hours, and it only took that long because ugh, life). This book is sharp and piercing and reflects on a whole lot of the issues that the (white, patriarchal) world has come aware of since Barrie wrote his original. (Uh, hi there Tiger Lily….) And this book balances being well-paced and driven by action in some parts, with being deeply reflective and thoughtful in other parts. You know how sometimes you get to a different timeline in a story and you’re all “get on with it! get back to the other bit!”? That never happened here.

It’s about memory, and family, and loss, and compromise, and fidelity. The pain and the joy of growing up, the complexity of relationships, how much we can hurt the ones we love and how we can make our own families. And the fierce, wonderful, difficulty of life.

I just love it. Everyone should read it. It should be nominated for all the awards.

In the Watchful City

I received this book to review via NetGalley.

This… is a really hard book to write a review on.

I could just say it’s amazing, but that doesn’t give you much sense of, well, anything.

I could just say it’s a book you have to experience to appreciate but… that’s so deeply a cop-out I can’t even.

So. Let’s try this.

Characters? Varied and intriguing and even though you’re with most of them for such a short period of time, I felt emotionally connected to pretty much all of them. I’m pretty stony-hearted so that’s saying a lot. Gender diverse (two, I think, non-standard pronouns), very little physical description so imagine what you like of skin colour etc (aspects of Chinese-based world-building like references to foot binding had some impact on my imagination).

World-building? One of those instances where there are so many little moments where something is mentioned and I’m like “wait WAIT what? You need to explain that more!” and the author just ignores me (unsurprisingly) and although I don’t fully understand some idea (which might be my lack of cultural context or it might be deliberate), it turns out actually I don’t need those details to fully experience the world and the story. Having said that, by the end of the story I had a lot of tantalising detail that gave me a very full sense of the world – far more full than might be expected from a fairly short story, and especially one that’s not entirely linear.

Plot? There’s one main one – Anima lives in Ora, and works basically as part of a surveillance system, designed to keep citizens safe. Anima meets someone very unexpected, as well as experiencing tragedy. But along with that, there are additional stories, told to Anima via representative objects… and I loved Anima but maybe I loved the stories more? Some involve great loss and some involve victory and they all help to develop a sense of the world in which all of this is taking place.

It’s SF and it’s fantasy. The writing is gorgeous. It’s utterly absorbing. It’s going on my list of things to nominate for awards next year.