The Once and Future Witches, Alix E Harrow
IN THEORY, this book should be right up my alley. Agitating for women’s suffrage! in an alt world where witchcraft is real! but banned! and you Alexandra Pope and the Sisters Grimm! And I’d already read and loved Ten Thousand Doors of January.
… but when I started it, pretty soon after it came out, I bounced right off. It was something about the jagged relationship between the sisters, I think (I have a sister. We’re fine, and always have been). I stopped after about 50 pages. But I didn’t give it away, because I really wanted to go back to it.
This year I want to get through my physical TBR, and so I went back to this. And this time, I did not bounce off (I had also been assured that the sisters’ relationships were more complex and became slightly less jagged than they are at first). And it is, absolutely, a gem of a book. I loved it. I loved all of the relationships, and the worldbuilding, and the gradual reveal of everything that’s going on, and the slight left twist from our world. The use of children’s rhymes and the reclaiming of “old wives’ tales”, the terrible cost and value of love, and everything else, frankly.
High Times in the Low Parliament
Me, two chapters in: does ‘stoner’ mean something other than what I think it means? I’m confused.
A “lesbian stoner fantasy” set around an acrimonious European Parliament – dysfunctional thanks in large part to the Anglanders – with fairies who call humans ‘leggers’ and are more likely to pinch than party with them. This novella is hilarious.
If Parliament can’t make a decision, then the fairies are going to drown everyone involved – and as an Australian, I can tell you that the spiteful attitudes of the deputies, and their refusal to cooperate, all very much struck a chord. Enter Lana, a scribe with good penmanship and a winning way with the ladies, who gets dragooned into being the equivalent of Hansard. She spends a significant amount of time seeing bluebirds and flowers courtesy of various substances (it’s unclear whether these are illicit or not), makes some unlikely friends and, as the title suggests, has some high times in the parliamentary setting.
It’s not claiming to make big statements about the way politics or parliaments work, how to improve them, or how to get factions to stop being factions. It is a rollicking fun time with some very funny moments, some poignant ones, and a pace that left me breathless.
Jewel Box: a collection from E. Lily Yu
I’m afraid this is coming from Erewhon Books in October 2023. Which is a long time to wait (I read it c/ the publisher and NetGalley) and TLDR: it’s going to be worth waiting for.
I have a bad habit: I forget the names of short story writers much more easily, and much faster, than I forget the names of novelists. I don’t think it’s because I value one more than the other, but perhaps reading things in anthologies I pay slightly less attention to the author’s name.
Whatever the reason, I always forget that E. Lily Yu is a spectacular author whose work I love very, very much. Fortunately, this collection has reminded me of that fact with all the subtlety of a shovel to the face. Pretty much every story in this collection is wonderful and thought-provoking and I am beyond happy that I got to read it and see all of this wonderful work in one place.
A few highlights:
“The View from the Top of the Stair” – a woman (I think) whose great passion in life is staircases, who gets an inheritance that allows her to indulge her passion, and what life can be like when you get to be at least somewhat fulfilled. The passion is never mocked, it’s not a tragic story of ‘never what you wish for’, and it’s also not at all what you expect.
“The Time Invariance of Snow” – one of the stories I remembered that I had already read, as I was reading. A truly remarkable spin on the Snow Queen: it opens with the heading “The Devil and The Physicist”, which gives a small indication of how Yu is approaching the ideas.
“Courtship Displays of the American Birder” – heartbreaking and beautiful and lyrical.
“The Witch of Orion Waste and the Boy Knight” – witches and knights and dragons, but not at all as you think you know them.
“Braid of Days and Wake of Nights” – after reading this one, I had to go stare at a wall for a while. Friendship and cancer and unicorns, going on when everything is awful and finding magic in the mundane.
“Ilse, who saw clearly” – is not the story I was expecting from the opening; stolen eyes and a girl who doesn’t fit in, learning a craft and then still not fitting in… another one that left me unable to just blithely go on to the next story.
“The Cartographer Wasps and the Anarchist Bees” – almost certainly my introduction to Yu’s work. Wasps who are conquerors and map-makers, bees who get conquered and some of them become anarchists… it doesn’t tell you everything about Yu’s work but I suspect if this one doesn’t work for you, then I suspect her work in general won’t.
This collection is magnificent. “Jewel Box” indeed.
Dead Country: a new Craft novel by Max Gladstone
I read this courtesy of the publisher, Tordotcom. It’s out in March 2023.
I love the Craft series, and this is a really, really good Craft story.
It’s also quite unlike any of the other Craft books… although I should add that it’s been long enough since I actually read the first books that I had to go double-check that “Tara Abernathy” was actually a name I recognised. Which tells us two things:
a) sometimes I have a bad memory, but actually that can be good with things like this because it means I get to enjoy them in a different way, and
b) it means that you can definitely read this without having read the other books. The facts around what the Craft is (a variation on magic) and what the world is like (frankly a bit screwy) are all obvious enough from the get-go, as is Tara’s personality and general background.
Having said that it’s a really good Craft story, it’s actually quite different from the other books (ok, maybe from what I remember…). They are set in cities, and with high stakes in play, and quite an assortment of characters, as well as a fair bit of politics/ legal wrangling. This, though… the setting here is super compressed. Tara has come home, to the small and suspicious town she got away from on the edge of the Badlands. And pretty much the entire story is set right there, in that town: there’s Tara’s arrival on foot, and then an excursion into the Badlands, and that’s it. No bright lights. No ‘I’m the ruler and I say so’. There’s a threat to her town, and even though most of them don’t really know what to think of her and some have treated her badly, that’s not something Tara is going to put up with.
Gladstone’s sense of place is wonderful, and makes me wonder whether he’s spent some time in a small town himself. There’s all the cliches, of course, about small towns and the lack of privacy, the suspicion of difference and outsiders – my Nan moved to her husband’s small town when they married, at about age 19, and 60 years later there were still some people who regarded her as an incomer. And Gladstone uses some of those tropes, but not at all in a mean way. He shows it as the reality it is: that those aspects can be both damaging and comforting. That secrets can still exist, for good or ill, and that outsiders can still find a place – but it might have a cost. So yeah, I loved that aspect of the story a lot.
In fact, I really liked this whole novel. Tara is complex and conflicted and also highly competent. The other characters are distinct and generally interesting – I’m intrigued to see what happens next with Dawn, Tara’s maybe-protege, in particular. For all that it’s set in a small town, and there’s no suggestion that the events here will have a significant impact on the major centres of power (well… mostly…), there’s also no suggestion that it’s not important to deal with the raiders and secure the town’s safety. Too often big stories ignore towns like this one.
Think I’m going to go back and read the Craft again now.
Hopeland, by Ian McDonald
I was sent this by the publisher, Tor, at no cost. It’s out in late Feb, 2023.
My first reaction was and is: What. On. Earth.
What did I just read?
I mean, aside from “something wonderful”, which is easy and true, but gives no information.
Seriously though I was a third of the way through this book and still had no idea what sort of book I was reading. I was barely even sure of the genre.
Fantasy? – maybe?
Science fiction? – basically yes, but only once I was about halfway through?
Maybe just… fiction? But there were definitely some bits that were too weird to entirely count as mainstream, not-speculative, fiction. Also, it’s Ian McDonald.
I’ll admit I hadn’t read the blurb. It’s Ian McDonald, and it’s called Hopeland… why would I read the blurb? So part of my confusion is my own fault. But having now looked at the blurb it’s actually of little to no use in explaining what on earth this is about, so I don’t feel too bad.
So… the story starts in London, in 2011, during the riots. It’s not about the riots, but they certainly set a scene. Raisa meets Amon entirely accidentally – she’s racing across roof tops, he’s looking for a micro-gig he’s meant to be playing at. He helps her win, she invites him to a party with her family, and… it basically goes from there. Occasionally together, often apart, Raisa and Amon live through the next several decades. And see, it’s not like they become hugely important politicians or scientists or celebrities – this isn’t the story of hugely significant people. It’s a story of two people – and their families – living through the consequences of climate change and everything else in the world right now. They have their impact, it’s true, and sometimes on a large scale, but more often in the pebble-and-avalanche way.
It’s utterly, utterly compelling.
Raisa’s family are the Hopelands – more than a family, really; not a nation, certainly not an ethnicity or religion although with aspects of the latter. It takes the notion of ‘found family’ to extraordinary and glorious places and challenged a lot of how I think about family, how it’s constructed and what it’s for. Amon is a Brightbourne, a very different family but with its own legacy to contribute (and his family is where I started wondering if this was a fantasy of some sort).
I want more stories like this. It’s about the very near future so it deals with climate change – and manages to come out hopeful, ultimately, but not saccharine in any way. It’s about people and their failures and their determination to do better, to make themselves and the world better and leave it better for their kids. England, Ireland, Iceland, Polynesia; young people, old people, challenging gender binaries, and playing with Tesla coils. This book is just amazing.
Never Afters, by Kirstyn McDermott
I don’t tend to read the works of Kirstyn McDermott. Even though she’s a friend. And not for the usual reasons that friends give, either; instead, it’s because she is too good. Kirstyn tends to write horror, and I tend to find her work just too distressing.
We’ve also had fruitful and fascinating conversations about the nature of horror as a genre, so I’m not going to say that this novella series, the Never Afters series, isn’t horror. Perhaps they’re gothic and gothic is the overarching category and horror fits in that, as I believe Kirstyn would argue, and perhaps other people would formulate it differently; I don’t know. All I know is that these fairy tale continuations, while not exactly the stuff of Disney-fied dreams, also aren’t quite the stuff to bring me nightmares. So that’s nice.
#1: Burnt Sugar. Now adults, childhood long behind, Gretel is a baker and Hansel is drunk more often than not. So far, so not exceptional. But Gretel brought back more than memories from the gingerbread house…. I appreciated that the siblings’ past trauma was dealt with sympathetically without making them only victims (they’ve managed to build a life around it). I know I said these novellas aren’t the stuff of nightmares; maybe what I should have said is that it’s not more nightmarish than the original stories. Because the truth is that this is a horrific story, in the ‘being controlled is terrifying’ way. Very clever.
#2: The New Wife. I don’t think of Bluebeard’s story as being in the same category as Hansel and Gretel – perhaps my fairytale omnibuses (omnibi??) left it out, or I skipped over it in an early aversion to horror? Who knows! But this may be my favourite of the Never Afters. Unlike Burnt Sugar, this story begins within (what I remember of) the original: the new wife unlocking the room that she was never supposed to enter… and goes from there in a rather different direction, involving ghosts, and what I understand is a classic gothic trope – the terrifying house.
#3: After Midnight. How do you do a new take on Cinderella?? Add a few decades, make the prince-now-king as feckless as such types often are, and the now-queen mother to only daughters – and also hardened by her experiences (or maybe she was always so?). Make the story a diary, complete with crossed out sections. Make veiled suggestions about what other things might be happening. Maybe this is my favourite, actually.
#4: Braid. I’d read this one previously – I don’t remember where – but I do remember a conversation about how hair, out of its appropriate place, is surprisingly distressing. Because Zel’s hair is as surprising and unexpected as it was back when she lived in the tower. Like Burnt Sugar and After Midnight, this is set many decades after the time of the fairytale, and deals with what it’s like to live with the consequences of those seemingly romantic and dramatic events of youth. Zel’s life has been complicated, mostly in mundane but nonetheless real and emotional ways – good and bad, love and loss. You just keep living…
#5: By the Moon’s Good Grace. In some ways the least unexpected of the stories. Like The New Wife, it picks up in the middle of the classic story; this has Little Red learning important truths about who her family is, who she is, and the consequences of that.
#6: Winterbloom. Somehow I know the Beauty and the Beast story least well, since I had completely forgotten that the whole saga starts with the father picking a rose without permission. This final novella is another set some years after the fairytale. The Beast is a composer and musician, Beauty is intrigued by roses and creating hybrids; their marriage is generally fine but shows some cracks. And then they have a visitor, aaaand… well. That’s rarely without consequence. Maybe this is my favourite instead?
Alone, excellent; as a set, they show how old stories continue to have resonance, can be used to explore modern and perennial themes.
The books can be bought from Brain Jar Press.
After the Dragons – Cynthia Zhang
SOMEONE gave me a voucher to buy books for my birthday, and I was stumped. I love a voucher but then I get all – I must buy The Right Thing! I don’t want to waste it! So what books to buy?? And then I remembered that (at that stage) the Ursula K Le Guin Prize shortlist had just been announced, so there was an answer to that question: I bought a bunch from that list. And After the Dragons is one of them.
In the cover quote, Mary Robinette Kowal describes this book as having “quiet intimacy”, and that’s so right. It’s not about epic events (like She Who Became the Sun); it’s about the everyday joys and tragedies, in a world with lots of problems.
It’s set in a kind of tomorrow – it’s not far future – but in a world sideways to ours, because there are dragons. Not epic mythological dragons for slaying – it’s unclear whether those were ever real even here – but small, say pet-size. Indeed sometimes they are kept as pets… and as with kittens and puppies, sometimes they get dumped by their owners. And sometimes they just live as wild animals, and that means having to adjust to living in urban areas and with humans. Which doesn’t always go well. I was thinking about Anne McCaffrey’s Pern – still probably the fictional dragons my mind goes to first – and these are more the fire-lizards of Dragonsdawn rather than the later, genetically altered dragons.
For all that the dragons are there, this world is very much ours. There’s climate issues, there’s political tension, there’s racism; poverty and illness and family trouble on the personal level. The story is told from the perspectives of Beijing resident Kai – Xiang Kaifie – an artist, carer for dragons, and ill; and Eli, Elijah Ahmed, biracial American student visiting the hometown of his deceased grandmother, who gets drawn into Kai’s world of rescuing street dragons.
As I said, this is not epic. It’s low stakes on a global scale, although high stakes on a personal one: health and love and relationships and what the future holds are all immensely important to the people involved. It hints at troubling systemic issues but always focuses on the people at its heart. If you need a relief from world-shattering events this is a good choice, although I’m not promising that it’s all sunshine and light (it’s not). But it is a delight, and it is definitely worth your time.
Can’t wait to read more from Cynthia Zhang.
She Who Became the Sun
Whaaaaaat a book.
And yes, I am incredibly late to this party, since Parker-Chan was nominated for the Best Novel Hugo this year (losing to A Desolation Called Peace, by Arkady Martine, a massive favourite of mine so I’m glad I didn’t have to choose…).
This novel is just brilliant. One thing I will say is that it was a bit different from what I expected – which is entirely about me, not about the book. Because of the Hugo nomination, and my genre-leaning friends, I was expecting this to be a book with greater, or more obvious, fantastical elements. Nothing about the book itself made me think that! Parker-Chan’s bio says she was inspired by “epic East Asian historical TV dramas”, and my knowledge of such is below limited (although I am an Australian kid of the 80s and 90s, so does the original Monkey count?).
ANYWAY. It’s 1345, China is ruled by the Mongols – who think the ethnic Chinese are all barbarians, and vice versa. There’s famine in the south; two children in a family are told their destiny: he is bound for greatness, she is bound for nothing. But then he dies, which means his destiny is going wanting… so she decides to become him…
Epicness ensues as Zhu gets caught up in events far beyond what she imagined as a child. First as a monk, then as a warrior and a leader; always worried that heaven might catch on to the fact that the destiny she is grasping was not, actually, intended for her at all. She teeters on the precipice of failure and discovery – not sure which is worse – and sometimes through luck, more often through her intelligence and grit and sheer bloody-mindedness, she ploughs on through…
I believe this is a duology, and honestly the next one cannot come fast enough (which is rich, given how late I am to the party). The pacing was excellent, the stakes were high, Zhu is mighty and charismatic. The supporting cast are varied and intriguing – Parker-Chan writes a significant portion of the story from the other side, as it were: what’s going on in the Mongol camp, particularly from the perspective of a Chinese captive-risen-to-general, which gives the entire novel even more drama and intensity, emotion and high stakes.
What a book.
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.