Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review: Bloody Rose by Nicholas Eames

Nicholas Eames’ freshman novel, Kings of the Wyld, was one of my favorite reads of 2017, a well-written, cleverly observed and often hilariously funny adventure fantasy pastiche that adhered to genre forms while gently poking fun at well-worn tropes and presenting a refreshingly positive and downright heartwarming portrait of non-toxic masculinity in action. So I was pretty hyped to see what Eames would make of this sequel, which showcases a mixed-gender cast from the point of view of a queer teenage girl. Unfortunately, Bloody Rose doesn’t quite rise to the level of excellence of its predecessor, although it’s also by no means a complete failure at the perhaps-too-many things it sets out to accomplish.

Let’s talk about that queer girl narrator first. Tam Hashford is a potentially great character with a pretty solid, if entirely expected, backstory—parents in a band, dead mom, sad childhood—that nevertheless manages to impart her with a reasonable amount of depth and complexity to carry her through her hero’s journey over the course of the novel. There’s a lot to like about Tam, but Eames leans heavily on the dead mom thing for character motivation and to craft moments of emotional resonance while never actually creating the mother as an actual character. Sure, a dead mom is sad, but Tam’s particular story of having a dead mom lacks many specific details that would have made Tam’s pain at losing her mother feel more real. Even more disappointingly, Tam’s relationships with her father and uncle are full of those sorts of specific details, right there on the page where they belong, which makes those relationships compelling and well-drawn but also serves to highlight the lack of care taken with the story of Tam’s mother. As a further consequence of this lopsided attention to detail, Tam’s relationships with her father and uncle really feel meaningful in a way that her relationship with her dead mother never quite manages to. Instead, Tam’s relationship with her mother is best represented by Tam’s relationship to her mother’s musical instrument, and let’s just say—without spoilers—that the symbolism of this instrument in the narrative is confused.

All that said, choosing Tam as the book’s primary point of view is nevertheless a smart move on the author’s part. Writing from the perspective of a relative outsider to—albeit one with some inside knowledge of—the mercenary band life, gives the book a nice balance of distance and intimacy with its subject matter. Tam has plenty of room to grow over the course of the band’s meandering adventures, and Eames pretty much nails every step of her coming of age story. I loved reading her transformation from conflicted, self-conscious girl to confident, self-assured woman. There’s just not much more satisfying to read than a well-executed bildungsroman, and in that respect, Bloody Rose is a true success.

Where Eames also shines as a writer is in the overall crafting of the serial adventures that make up the majority of the book. The chapters are largely episodic, following Tam, Bloody Rose and the rest of Fable as they make their way towards a contract of epic scale, only to find out that the job isn’t what they thought it was. There’s something pleasantly cozy about the intimacy that forms between the characters as their friendships deepen over the course of their travels. However, though there’s a lot to like about the character dynamics in Bloody Rose, they never do quite manage to match the lived-in feel of the relationships between characters in Kings of the Wyld. This is most obviously apparent when it comes to the book’s romances. The longstanding romance between Rose and Freecloud feels lopsided and a bit too told-and-not-shown (and with tragedy telegraphed through nearly every one of their interactions), and the romance that Tam ultimately finds for herself feels abruptly settled, wholly unearned, and far short of fully logical, even within the framework of Eames’s fantasy setting.

On the bright side, that fantasy setting itself feels more alive and fuller of excitement and interest than ever before. There are numerous new characters to join familiar friends and foes from the first book, and Fable’s travels expand impressively upon the world without ever becoming a self-indulgent worldbuilding exercise as epic fantasies can be prone to do. Perhaps more impressively, Eames sets out to really look at and interrogate the world he crafted for Kings of the Wyld and does so in a compelling way that naturally drives story and character growth throughout this novel. As Tam (and the reader) is more immersed in mercenary culture, there are ongoing revelations and developments that reshape her (and our) understanding of her world and the place of herself and her friends in it.

Still, I’m not certain that it’s enough to simply question the underpinnings of one’s own worldbuilding without resolving many of the central questions raised. Bloody Rose is at times deeply concerned with the role and function of mercenary bands in its world and highlights some of the injustices perpetrated by a system that treats bands as celebrities and commoditizes their work, but the ending of the book largely amounts to a return to the status quo. Some characters may have changed or evolved throughout the story, but there’s a good deal of ambiguity about whether the world itself has been fundamentally changed by even the most momentous events of the novel. One can only hope that exploration of some of the deeper themes that were given short shrift in Bloody Rose will provide good fodder for a third book—which I will certainly be looking forward to.

Book Review: Robots vs. Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Robots vs. Fairies is my first reading disappointment of 2018. I loved Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe’s first anthology, 2016’s The Starlit Wood, so I was very hyped for this one when it was announced. Unfortunately, Robots vs. Fairies is a bit of a sophomore slump for the editing pair, with a theme that feels more questionable the farther one reads into the collection, stories that largely feel a little too written to spec, and not enough that’s new and interesting to recommend it on those scores. It might work as sort of comfort reading for those who find its table of contents—filled with some of the hottest short fiction writers currently working in SFF—appealing, but if you’re looking for exciting, fresh, innovative work, there’s not much of that here.

To be fair, anthologies in general tend to be a mixed bag, and one’s enjoyment of any collection is heavily dependent on the degree to which the reader’s taste’s overlap with the editors.’ However, the concept for Robots vs. Fairies is both too specific to generate a lot of variation in styles and themes between stories in the collection and broad enough (or, rather, bifurcated) to inhibit a true sense of cohesiveness. If it wasn’t for the book’s introduction and the explanations following each story of which “team” (fairies or robots) the authors chose and why, it would be easy to mistake this for a somewhat random collection of mostly-middling stories about robots and fairies. The choice to bookend the collection with stories (by Seanan McGuire and Catherynne M. Valente) that feature both is smart, but it’s not quite enough to tie the whole thing together.

It seems that every story included here was solicited for this anthology, and this has allowed the editors to collect a veritable dream team of most of my favorite writers of short fiction. However, it’s also produced an anthology where many of the stories feel more like begrudgingly-finished assignments for a high school creative writing course than the sort of vibrant and challenging work that many of these authors have built their careers upon. It’s all just on the uninspired side. There’s not much here that’s ambitious or surprising, plots and prose are just workmanlike, and there’s nothing in these pages that surprised or excited me overly much. Perhaps it’s a shift in the reasons and ways I read short fiction these days—I’m often reading short fiction on the search for new authors and ideas—but I don’t think I’m the only one who will be disappointed by the overall lack of novelty here.

Still, none of this is to say that Robots vs. Fairies is entirely devoid of good, or at least enjoyable stories. The opening tale by Seanan McGuire, “Build Me a Wonderland,” is an interesting take on how fair folk might survive and carve out a place for themselves in a changing world. Tim Pratt’s “Murmured Under the Moon” features a heroic librarian and a sentient book, which are both things that are relevant to my interests. “Just Another Love Song” by Kat Howard has a banshee, a brownie and women helping women. In “Work Shadow/Shadow Work,” Madeline Ashby uses fairies and robots in a way that’s more heartwarming than particularly compelling, but is still a pleasant read. It’s a silly story, and admittedly a little trite, but John Scalzi’s “Three Robots Experience Objects Left Behind from the Era of Humans for the First Time” was the first story in the collection that truly delighted me; I laughed aloud at it more than once. Alyssa Wong’s bittersweet “All the Time We’ve Left to Spend” is the singular really superb story in the collection, but no one writes fairies like Catherynne M. Valente, whose “A Fall Counts Anywhere” may be a bit of a lowpoint for her but would still register as a standout piece of work from almost any other author.

It’s not that Robots vs. Fairies is a terrible anthology. It’s alright, and I’m sure if I did the math and compared it to most other anthologies I read, it’s within a standard deviation of the norm for anthology quality. Perhaps it was unreasonable to expect Wolfe and Parisien to knock one out of the park twice in a row, but I still can’t help but feel a little disappointed that they didn’t after I got so excited about the possibility. If you want some easy-ish comfort reading for a cold winter’s night and find that that this volume has all your favorite authors in it, be sure to check it out. If you’re looking for something new and exciting, perhaps think about looking for something from a smaller press or look to see what’s currently crowdfunding, as that’s where you’ll find innovation.

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

So, I’ve finally figured out what it is about Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children that prevents me from really loving these books the way so many other people do. I just, on a fundamental level, don’t find the fantasy of this series to be an appealing one. I’m slightly distrustful of anything, in general, that smacks of radical individualism, so I’m just not especially taken with the idea that some people are just too special and different for the world they’re born into and must travel to an entirely different world to achieve self-actualization and fulfillment, with the finding and keeping of that world as their personal happy ending. It’s fine. I get it. I think I would have loved this stuff when I was a teenager. In my mid-thirties, however, I struggle with some of the broader implications of it, which impacts my overall enjoyment of the story. I don’t begrudge anyone else the escapist fantasy of a better world of their very own, but my own fantasies at this point in my life are less escapist and more about making this world a better, kinder and more just place for everyone.

All that said, Beneath the Sugar Sky is by far my favorite installment of the Wayward Children to date. Though the series may not, generally, be my cup of tea, there’s a lot to like about this volume, which both delves a bit deeper into the overall mythology of the series and gives the universe of the Wayward Children a welcome infusion of lightness after two installments that were decidedly darker in tone. Without losing any of the series characteristic gravitas and utilizing a refreshingly straightforward fantasy quest narrative, McGuire uses Beneath the Sugar Sky to explore a Nonsense world, Confection, that’s been built, layer after layer after layer, out of baked goods. It’s an altogether more purposeful-feeling story than either of the previous two books in the series, and that includes a stronger and more satisfying ending than its predecessors as well.

The book starts off by introducing a new point of view character, Cora, who has just recently arrived at Eleanor West’s school after a stint as a mermaid. She’s a likeable and engaging character, but she’s sadly not given much to do once Rini arrives and the quest kicks in to gear. If there’s any major craft problem with this novella it’s simply that there are too many point of view characters and none of them ever quite feel like main characters. At the same time, though, this ensemble quality is one of the things I enjoyed most about Beneath the Sugar Sky, as it works to offset the strong messaging about the importance of individuals and the value of individual identities and personal journeys to self-actualization. I would have liked more of Cora, mostly because I really, really like Cora, but I wouldn’t want to sacrifice a minute of time the book spends with Kade or Rini or Nadya, either.

The quest narrative and Nonsense setting makes this the most purely fantastical of the Wayward Children books yet, and it leaves behind almost entirely the mystery of Every Heart a Doorway and the Gothic-toned family drama of Down Among the Sticks and Bones. While Every Heart primarily dealt with the fallout after children are expelled from their worlds and Sticks and Bones delved into one of the doorway worlds, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers a full-on epic journey as Rini and her new friends search for the pieces of her mother, Sumi, and try to find a way to put her back together again before Rini is erased from existence. Straightforward as this quest may be, there’s still plenty of room for creative flourishes, twists and turns, and a couple of genuine surprises that let us know that McGuire isn’t sticking strictly to any storytelling formula. The worldbuilding is as at least as inventive as in the previous two books of the series, and there’s a delightfully joyous tone in McGuire’s descriptions of Confection that makes the chapters set there (and that’s most of them) great fun to read.

So, Beneath the Sugar Sky is fine. I’m still not sold on the whole premise of this series as a desirable fantasy, but I think that’s just me being curmudgeonly. Certainly, after this book, it’s started to grow on me a bit more. I like that this book is a standalone, albeit to a lesser degree than either of the first two as it deals with events from the first book in particular. Still, I’ll be recommending it to some of my similarly curmudgeonly acquaintances who weren’t enchanted by Every Heart, and I’m somewhat more excited to see what Seanan McGuire does next in this universe, especially if it involves more of Cora.

Recent Reads: Tor.com’s October 2017 Novellas

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
by Tade Thompson

Pub Date: 10/3

I don’t usually care for horror, and Tade Thompson’s The Murders of Molly Southbourne seemed like a fairly straightforward horror concept when I read the cover copy. However, I read pretty much all of Tor.com’s novellas, and I appreciate that doing so tends to get me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things. Still, I didn’t expect that I was going to start this book sometime after my midnight bedtime and find myself unable to put it down until I finished it an hour and a half or so later. It’s a compulsively readable, at times deeply disturbing fable with a compelling heroine at war, literally, with herself.

Molly Southbourne is brilliant, brave, and cruel in turns, an often unlikable woman who is nevertheless deeply sympathetic as she tries to find some way to live a normal life while dealing with a condition where anytime she bleeds, it grows a new molly who quickly becomes intent on killing her. Even Molly’s earliest memory is of murder, and she’s lived her entire life by a set of strict rules intended to keep her safe from her other selves, but it’s exhausting, physically and mentally. The mix of body horror and psychological is well-conceived and cleverly executed, and every word and image in the book feels methodically intentional. It’s a parable with several possible interpretations, all of them interesting, and Thompson makes smart use of classic fantasy and science fictional elements to touch on ideas about identity, cloning, family, and the effects living a life full of violence has on a person.

A Long Day in Lychford
by Paul Cornell

Pub Date: 10/10

I’ve loved Paul Cornell’s Lychford novellas since the beginning, but A Long Day in Lychford is very different from its predecessors and I’m still not sure if I think it’s a step forward or back for the series. Whereas the two previous books had something of a timeless feel to them—though they also dealt with the modern-day issues changing the landscapes of small towns—this one digs into the UK’s Brexit debate with mixed success. It’s a timely story, but it’s also a painful story to read.

After focusing more on Judith and Lizzie in the first couple of Lychford books, this one shows us a bit more about Autumn, who we learn is pretty much the only person of color in Lychford. After the Brexit vote, things get uncomfortable for her, and it causes a rift between Autumn and Judith that leads, albeit somewhat indirectly, to a magical mishap that needs to be fixed. It’s a definite change of pace from the first books in the series, and it feels more deeply personal and immediately relevant than the previous two novellas that dealt a little more broadly and abstractly with small town issues, but it’s also perhaps a little overambitious for its short page count. Things wrap up a little too neatly in the end, and Cornell’s main thesis is somewhat garbled by using a sort of metaphor about the border between Fairy and Lychford and tossing in some upsetting news about Judith that has some unfortunate implications re: her vote on Brexit. It’s possible to have too much nuance for a short novella.

Weaver’s Lament
by Emma Newman

Pub Date: 10/17

Emma Newman’s gaslamp fantasy series continues with a new mystery for secret mage-in-training Charlotte to puzzle through. Her brother Ben has settled into his role as an apprentice Mage, and he seems to be thriving at his new position at a mill in Manchester. The problem is that the mill seems to be haunted—either by ghosts or by rebellious workers—and Ben calls in Charlotte to go undercover and investigate. It’s a decent premise, and it’s never a bad time for a new book about workers’ rights, but everything about Weaver’s Lament feels a little rushed and its treatment of serious issues is perfunctory. Charlotte is a likable heroine, and she’s sensitive to the injustice and abuse she uncovers in Manchester, but secondary characters are given short shrift while Charlotte easily returns to her status quo at the end of the book.

Also, while I’m a fan of slow-burning will-they-or-won’t-they romances, it’s difficult to be invested in Charlotte and Magus Hopkins when they spend so little time together in stories that are so small in scope. Brother’s Ruin and Weaver’s Lament have both dealt heavily with uncovering largescale injustices that deeply affect the characters’ lives, and these things also form the primary barrier to the central romantic relationship of the series. However, there’s been very little forward movement on any front. The romance is limited to lingering glances and subtle chemistry, and the systemic injustice and probable evil of the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts isn’t confronted head-on and doesn’t seem likely to be any time soon.

Though it’s not without problems, Weaver’s Lament is still an entertaining read. It just feels like it could have used about a hundred pages more of breathing room, mostly so that it could do a bit better justice to the new friends Charlotte makes at Manchester. It’s not always a good thing when a story leaves you hungry for more.

Switchback
by Melissa F. Olson

Pub Date: 10/24

Switchback is a decided improvement over its merely workmanlike predecessor, Nightshades, which introduced Melissa F. Olson’s near future noir world in which humans are reacting—sometimes poorly—to learning that vampires exist. Whereas Nightshades was full of clunky exposition and worldbuilding, everything about Switchback is more relaxed and self-assured. It’s a better-plotted mystery with a more satisfying overall arc, and Olson makes the wise choice to focus more on Lindy, the vampire consultant who is more interesting that the rest of the main cast put together. While there are still some mysteries surrounding Lindy’s past, by the end of Switchback she feels like a fully realized character. “What if the world suddenly knew vampires are real?” is a question that has been answered many times in fiction, and I’m not sure there’s much new ground to cover on the issue, but Switchback retreads well-worn paths confidently while shifting focus to a fresher perspective than Nightshades had. I wasn’t sure about continuing with this series after my lukewarm feeling towards that book, but after this one I’m rather looking forward to seeing what Olson does with it next.

Recent Reads: Space Opera, Cosmic Horror, Hippo Mayhem and More from Tor.com

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

The first in a trilogy of short novels, A Red Peace begins with the ending of and intergalactic war fought between natural humans and the genetically engineered hybrids who have spent years being used as fodder for humanity’s wars and slaves for their industry and agriculture. It seems as if justice has won the day until John Starfire, the leader of the Jorian-cross rebellion, reveals his final solution to end the oppression that he’s dedicated his life to fighting. The book follows the points of view of Araskar, a high-ranking vat-grown soldier in Starfire’s army and Jaqi, a Jorian-cross who just wants a tomato but who gets roped into helping some strangers instead. Jaqi is whip smart and wryly funny, a perfectly reluctant and wonderfully competent heroine who’s a joy to read about. Araskar takes a bit more time to grown on you, but it’s easy to become invested in him uncovering the truth about his heroic leader and coming to terms with what that means for his own future. A Red Peace is a clever, fast-paced space opera with a classic sci-fi sensibility, memorable characters, big ideas and an even bigger heart. I can’t wait for book two, Shadow Sun Seven, coming out November 28.

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

I want to say I loved this little book, the second in Cassandraw Khaw’s Persons Non Grata series, but the truth is that I am just Lovecraft-homaged-out these days, which made it a tough read for me. That said, A Song for Quiet is a definite improvement upon Khaw’s previous Lovecraftian novella, Hammers on Bone. It’s better paced, with a more interesting main character in Deacon James, and it does a much better job of capturing the sense of truly cosmic horror that Lovecraft was known for. There’s less of Persons in this one, with Deacon as the main point of view character and the one whose actions are of the most consequence in the narrative. Khaw’s prose is lovely as always, and the book tries to answer a worthy question: What fate does an unjust world deserve? I’m just ready for this new-Lovecraftian trend to have a rest for a few years. In the meantime, Khaw also has a delightful urban fantasy romance out from the Book Smugglers earlier this year. Bearly a Lady is nearly perfect.

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

The Twilight Pariah is either a somewhat tired paint-by-numbers ghost story or a solidly-written horror story with a nicely cinematic quality, depending on how many horror flicks you’ve watched in your time and how much you like the genre. Its collection of shallow characters go through the motions of a fairly standard issue plot without any in depth examination of their motives. The only characters who die are ones that don’t matter, and the “mystery” is fairly tidily explained at the end of the book. It would have worked as a movie, where the stock characters would have been played by unrealistically attractive young people and even low-end CGI could have been combined with some creepy music to make the monster feel menacing. As a book, not so much.

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

Sarah Gailey’s first Tor.com novella, River of Teeth, got a ton of acclaim, but I didn’t love it, overall. It wasn’t terrible, but it definitely felt unfinished to me. What I did love about it was the concept, however, and there were a couple of characters who I found myself getting attached to in spite of myself. Taste of Marrow both finishes the story that began in River of Teeth and focuses mostly on my favorite characters: Adelia, Hero, and Archie. Where River was a fairly straightforward heist-gone-bad story, Taste is a nuanced, character-focused follow up that’s all about consequences. There’s fewer hippos and less mayhem, but there’s far more depth of emotion and meaning in this story where everyone’s chickens come home to roost. Gailey writes her characters with a wonderful mix of tenderness and sharpness that works far better in this less frenetic book than it did in its predecessor. Still, Taste of Marrow is only one half of a wonderful whole. Obviously, you want to read this pair of books as soon as possible, but if you want to read them together you can also wait until the omnibus, American Hippo, comes out in May 2018.

Book Review – Where the Stars Rise: Asian Science Fiction & Fantasy

Where the Stars Rise is a wonderfully diverse collection of Asian science fiction and fantasy that deserves to be on the shelves of anyone serious about being well-read in the genre. Like all good anthologies, there’s something here for almost anyone, while at the same time the collection has a distinctive character that’s all its own. A running theme of the collection is identity, with story after story examining ideas about racial, cultural and personal identity. Experiences of racist oppression figure largely in these stories, but so do experiences of parenthood, disability, trauma, loss and grieving, aging, and displacement or immigration. With a near-even split between science fiction and fantasy and a wide range of subgenres included, this is a remarkably well-rounded anthology that I found had a good mix of well-known and new-to-me short fiction writers. That a portion of the proceeds from its sales goes to benefit Kids Help Phone, Canada’s only 24/7 free and anonymous counseling and information service for young people, is an extra enticement to support the title (and Laksa Media more generally—all of their titles support charity).

The book starts with “Spirit of Wine” by Tony Pi, a cleverly droll fable set in Song Dynasty China. It’s the first of several historical (or historical-ish, anyway) stories with a sort of folkloric sensibility, though the rest appear later in the collection. Pamela Q. Fernandes’s “Joseon Fringe,” Minsoo Kang’s “Wintry Hearts of Those Who Rise,” Deepak Bharathan’s poetically lovely “Udātta Śloka,” and Anne Carry Abad’s trickster myth “Moon Halves” round out the stories in this group. As a huge fan of folk-inspired fantasy of all kinds, I was thrilled to see a nice assortment of stories of this type in the anthology.

Other stories struggle with the weight of history and work on processing some of the ugliness of diasporic experiences. “Rose’s Arm” by Calvin D. Jim deals with, among other things, anti-Japanese racism in a steampunk-ish alternate 1928 Vancouver. In Miki Dare’s “A Star is Born,” an elderly Japanese woman recalls her experiences in an internment camp in the 1940s. “Vanilla Rice” by Angela Yuriko Smith examines the existential threat that white supremacy poses to individuals. In “Meridian,” Karin Lowachee offers a futuristic take on the trauma of failed adoptions, an issue that is unfortunately timely. E.C. Myers’ “The Observer Effect” is a superhero story that discusses whitewashing and the importance of representation.

I adored Fonda Lee’s story, “Old Souls,” an acerbically intelligent story involving reincarnation and an ancient grudge. It’s probably the most commercial and polished story in the collection, and it’s got me hyped for Fonda Lee’s upcoming book, Jade City, which is her first novel for adults. “Weaving Silk” by Amanda Sun is probably my favorite story in Where the Stars Rise; I loved the way Sun turned her central conceit over and over, working it throughout her post-apocalyptic story like a bright thread. S.B. Divya’s “Looking Up” was another favorite. I’d read Divya’s novella, Runtime, and enjoyed it last year, and “Looking Up” is another showcase for her understanding of complex familial relationships but in a very different setting from Runtime’s.

The final story of the collection is “The Orphans of Nilaveli” by Naru Dames Sundar, and it’s as sharp and incisive a piece of flash fiction as I’ve seen this year. The story of a future Sri Lanka where people use programmable technology to blind themselves to others that they don’t want to see is both deeply specific and broadly applicable to the ways in which so many people already pretend that inconvenient Others don’t exist. It’s a short but powerful story that is the one I would choose if asked to name a single story from this anthology that everyone ought to read.

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

I liked Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, quite a bit and even more in hindsight, and I’ve enjoyed the several pieces of short fiction I’ve read from her since, but An Unkindness of Magicians is still a surprising book. Thematically, it covers a lot of the same ground as Howard’s other work, and like her previous novel this one deals heavily with family drama and magic. However, at its core, Unkindness is nicely summed up by the well-chosen epigraph, a memorable line from Peter S. Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, with which it opens:

“Real magic can never be made by offering someone else’s liver. You must tear out your own, and not expect to get it back.”

An Unkindness of Magicians opens with a singularly powerful image that introduces our heroine, Sydney, and gives us our first glimpse of the magic that fuels so much of the action in the book. Unkindness has been compared in some reviews to The Magicians, and though I haven’t read that book, it certainly shares some commonalities with the television adaptation. Like the magic in The Magicians, magic in Unkindness is often less about doing useful things and more about magicians putting on a great show for each other. Sure, characters use magic for some mundane tasks, but the big stuff is mostly theatrics until late in the book. The opening scene of Sidney’s impressive spellcasting as she auditions for a prestigious job is vividly described and immediately shows the reader what kind of book this is: smart, confident and beautifully written.

Howard’s first novel occasionally felt weighed down by its sometimes-heavy themes, but this one is a bit more structurally sound. It’s a good thing, too, as Unkindness is a good deal darker than Roses and Rot. One thing that helps this book immensely in this regard is the large ensemble cast. Sydney is definitely the fulcrum around which the main plot and all the other characters pivot, but with other characters capable of doing some heavy lifting, she’s never forced to carry the full weight of story or themes on her shoulders. The best part, though, is that, while characters like Laurent and Ian hold up their parts of the book quite well, Sydney is also surrounded by female characters who have stories and goals of their own while supporting Sydney and being supported by her in turn. Harper, in particular, is such a wonderful secondary protagonist that I can’t help but hope to someday read more about her.

The Unseen World is sexist and racist and classist, there are no fewer than three huge injustices (and quite a few smaller ones) being addressed in this book, and Howard does a great job of telling her story from multiple points of view that allow the reader a broad understanding of the world she’s crafting. That said, the villains in Unkindness only manage to be about two-and-a-half-dimensional, with motivations that aren’t always completely explicable. Miles Merlin’s fear of aging and Grey Prospero’s pathological desire to excel as a magician at any cost make sense, but there’s a certain level of “evil gonna evil” throughout the book. This makes more sense for Miles, who simply dehumanizes the people he hurts so much that he seems to genuinely not think he’s doing anything wrong; like all of the worst {X]-ists, Miles Merlin is nothing if not certain of his own moral rectitude.

This is less true of Grey, whose crimes are much more personal. Miles can tell himself that he does what he does for the good of all the Unseen World, but Grey is explicitly self-focused, intent on amassing personal power through his exploitation of others. Grey’s storyline (and Harper’s corresponding quest for justice) could be interpreted as metaphorical for rape and the difficulties rape victims face in trying to get justice; Grey’s violence is indeed gendered, and the way his privilege protects him is indeed reminiscent to many of the ways in which rapists are treated, but his degree of violence and the magical benefits he gains from it make it a flawed analogy at best. Howard makes her point on the issue, but without the finesse or the unambiguous success with which she accomplishes other goals in the book.

Any other criticisms of the book are simply quibbles. The New York setting has been praised by some as authentic and recognizable, but I found it somewhat generic-feeling. The naming conventions—Prospero, Merlin, Morgan—were a little on the nose, and it undercut some of the seriousness of the novel. Overall, though, it’s a highly readable book full of evocative prose, with a thoroughly lovely ambience, a snappy pace, several cleverly-plotted mysteries, and a conclusion suffused with the great catharsis of seeing justice done.

This review is of a review copy of the title received from the publisher.