Category Archives: Book Reviews

Recent Reads: Comics and Graphic Novels

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
Issues 2 and 3
by Victor LaValle and
Dietrich Smith

The first issue of Destroyer was all promise, with it’s compelling and timely premise and gorgeous artwork. Issues 2 and 3 deliver on a lot of that promise. There’s a lot more action in these issues as well as a lot more depth of feeling as we delve into the real meat of the story. The literary allusions are a little on the nose, especially in a work that’s a little too serious to fall under the category of pastiche, but as the story gets darker I find these humorous nods to the book’s inspirations to be a welcome bit of lightheartedness. Also, and probably because I’m not a great reader of comic books, my favorite thing about this series so far is Victor LaValle’s essay at the end of Issue 3 where he writes about how the two different endings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein led him to write this comic.

Kim & Kim Vol. 1
by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam, and Katy Rex

Full disclosure: Kim & Kim was an impulse buy because I happened to see someone mention it on Twitter right when I was looking for something to put me over the $25 threshold for free shipping. It sounded cute, but it turned out to be even more fun than expected, a nice balance of sci-fi bounty hunting adventures and character-driven drama with a bright, punk rock aesthetic. The only downside of the book is that Issue 4 ends on a little bit of a sad note, and it’s not clear if/when there’s going to be an Issue 5. In the meantime, however, Kim & Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio is currently offering free pdf copies of Volume 1 to anyone who donates at least $20 to The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline through Friday, August 4, 2017:

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood
by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The second trade paper installment of Monstress is, like the first, a true thing of beauty. Every page is filled with Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork, which is in turn full of gorgeous details, erudite flourishes that reference numerous artistic inspirations, and subtly lovely colors that marvelously convey setting and mood. With a title like “The Blood” I was rather expecting more of the same unflinching brutality as in the first book, but that’s not so much the case. Instead, this volume combines Maika’s continued search for answers about her identity, the increasing danger posed by the Monstrum that lives inside her, and a seafaring journey with a fascinating and visually distinctive new cast of minor characters.

Angel Catbird, Vol. 3:
The Catbird Roars
by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain

Angel Catbird has never been more than a light, fun likely-vanity project of Margaret Atwood’s, and it didn’t suddenly transform to something more profound in its final volume. The Catbird Roars has the same deliciously silly verbal puns and visual gags that characterized the first two volumes, the same occasional side-barred cat facts encouraging readers to keep their pets indoors, and the same fast-paced absurdist plot that has our heroes dealing with the evil rat army once and for all. The biggest thing that sets this volume apart from the rest is the excellent foreword by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which tells us more of the inspirations and thought process behind Angel Catbird and to put it into a historical context that explains some of its quirks. As someone who is only lately getting into reading comics and doesn’t have a wide knowledge of the longer and broader history of the form, this information really helped me to understand and enjoy the book more fully.

Recent Reads: Some Tor.com Novellas You Should Be Reading and/or Pre-ordering

While I’m still working out how I want to do book reviews at SF Bluestocking going forward, I’ve managed to accumulate a pretty sizable backlog of stuff that I’ve been reading while too depressed to do much else. The good news, of course, is that I’ve read some great stuff, and I’ll be talking about it over the next week or two as a work to get back to the level of productivity I’d like to be maintaining here.

I’ve been reading almost all the novellas released by Tor.com Publishing since they first started doing novellas, and they continue to deliver consistently compelling and entertaining books two-to-five times a month. While I’m by no means caught up on everything coming out over the next couple of months, I’m caught up on recent releases and I’ve made some inroads on some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited about.

35664957The Ghost Line
by Andrew Neil Gray and
J.S. Herbison

Tor.com has had a whole series of excellent space opera stories coming out this summer, which came at a perfect time for me, as I’ve been in the mood for science fiction more than fantasy these last few months. The Ghost Line finds a small group of salvagers exploring a vast abandoned luxury cruise ship and discovering more than any of them bargained for. The book’s best quality is its lovely, thoughtful descriptions of the abandoned ship and the way in which it allows the reader to become immersed in the exploration of the haunted ship. It’s not the strongest of Tor.com’s 2017 lineup, and it feels slight and a little uninspired (while at the same time owing perhaps a little too much of what inspiration it has to The Expanse) in comparison to gems like All Systems Red or even Killing Gravity, but The Ghost Line is nevertheless a solidly entertaining read worthy of a lazy afternoon.

The Ghost Line is available now.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion
by Margaret Killjoy

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is the first book in the queer anarchist punk demon hunter series you didn’t know you needed. Danielle Cain is a smart, resourceful heroine, and I am looking forward to the further adventures of her and the friends she makes in this book. However, the real star of The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion is its unique setting–a utopian squatters’ community in the imaginary Freedom, Iowa–and the magic with which Margaret Killjoy has infused it. The three-antlered deer spirit summoned by some of the town’s residents to assert order in a crisis has begun to turn on its summoners, and the debate over what to do about it has created deep divides in the community. Killjoy’s cast of characters must wrestle with ideas at the core of their beliefs and deal with a situation that threatens the very foundations of the home and families they’ve built for themselves, and the setting of Freedom is a cleverly crafted heightened reality in which to do so.

The Lamb Will Slaughter the Lion will be available August 15.

The Five Daughters of the Moon and
The Sisters of the Crescent Empress
by Leena Likitalo

Jacqueline Carey’s cover blurb for The Five Daughters of the Moon calls the book “a lyrical elegy to the fall of an empire,” and the book description is clear that this duology is inspired by the 1917 Russian revolution and the final days of the Romanov sisters, so you must know going in that this story doesn’t have a happy ending. In alternating chapters told in first person from the perspective of each of the titular five daughters–ranging in age from six to twenty-two–Leena Likitalo brings each girl to vivid life and lets them tell their own stories. Fifteen-year-old Sibilia (whose chapters are excerpts from her diary) and sixteen-year-old Elise have the strongest voices of the five, and Sibilia’s journey and coming of age is perhaps the most profound and deeply-felt story of any of the girls. However, Likitalo also does a lovely job of portraying the little girls, Alina and Merile, though the author’s vocabulary is far better than any six- or eleven-year-old’s would be. Eldest sister Celestia is a more difficult character to get to know and love; she’s often distant from her sisters, focused on her own trauma and still trying to bear up under the weight of her responsibilities in a situation that is far different and more dangerous than anything she was ever prepared for.

The best part of this duology, however, is the way that Likitalo manages to capture the ambivalence of revolution. There’s tragedy here, for sure, and there’s a definite villain, but there’s also a recognition of the hope the revolution offered to many people and some meditation on the idea that there’s always a human cost in any system; the question is just who has to pay it and who benefits from it. The Waning Moon duology is a gorgeously written and deeply humane meditation on this question and its answers.

The Five Daughters of the Moon is available now, and The Sisters of the Crescent Empress will be out November 7.

Acadie
by Dave Hutchinson

Acadie describes a future in which a colony of genetically modified and enhanced humans has been on the lam for several hundred years after fleeing restrictive regulations on Earth. It’s a smart, snappy and often very funny space opera with some neat ideas, an entertaining POV character, a load of crowd-pleasing pop culture references and a genuinely unexpected ending. I’m a huge fan of shorter, rather than longer, novellas, and Acadie clocks in at under a hundred pages, which combines with Hutchinson’s engaging, conversational prose style to make for a fast read, but it’s also a book that will keep you thinking well after you close it. I still don’t know if I’ll ever get around to reading Hutchinson’s longer Fractured Europe Sequence, but I can say with certainty that I’ll be snatching up any more shorter work he puts out as soon as I see it.

Acadie will be out September 5.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune
by J.Y. Yang

Listen. There’s basically a 100% chance that anything Kate Elliott calls “effortlessly fascinating” is going to be wonderful, so it’s no surprise that this pair of novellas by J.Y. Yang are pretty close to perfect. Yang has crafted a meticulously beautiful fantasy world that cleverly melds science and magic together with a central sibling relationship that sustains the heart of both books. Much will surely be made of Yang’s treatment of gender and sexuality, and any accolades on that score are well-deserved; in Yang’s Protectorate, sexuality is fluid and gender is self-chosen, confirmed or not as the individual decides, and gender-neutral pronouns are commonplace. That said, Yang’s worldbuilding in general is marvelously executed, and they do a great job of managing the expansion of the world readers are exposed to between The Black Tides of Heaven, which really ought to be read first even if the books are being sold as standalone companions, and The Red Threads of Fortune, which takes place several years later and has an emotional arc that provides a resolution to a major subplot in Tides, albeit from a different perspective. That said, there’s really no wrong way to enjoy such a marvelously balanced mix of magic, romance, revolution and dinosaurs.

The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune will both be out September 26.

Review + Giveaway: The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis

The Guns Above is a whip-smart, fast-paced, and surprisingly funny military fantasy. I didn’t think that I was interested in reading stories about a woman having to overcome systematic sexism anymore, and I was double not interested in reading anything like a redemption arc for that woman’s sexist antagonist, but Bennis manages to breathe some new life into both of those stories. I’m very glad that I was interested enough in airships to read this book despite my misgivings, as it turned out to be a wonderfully readable, remarkably fun and ultimately optimistic (but not cloyingly so) take on its subject matter.

After an act of combat heroism, Josette Dupris gets a promotion that makes her the first woman to captain an airship in a military with strict limits on women’s service. This would be a tough enough challenge on its own, but Josette is also saddled with a spy, Bernat, a spoiled nobleman with no military or airship experience to speak of, but whose job is nonetheless to report back to his powerful uncle on any of Josette’s failings, real or imagined. It’s definitely the sort of thing that one needs to be in the mood to read, especially since there aren’t easy answers to Josette’s problems, but it’s also definitely worth reading. This isn’t a book about one woman smashing the patriarchy single-handedly, and in fact Josette is largely unconcerned with doing so; she just wants to do her job like she knows she’s capable of. The Guns Above is about the way in which an ambitious woman can exist and find ways to thrive in a sexist society, and it’s about the incremental changes and personal fights that slowly push the needle of progress forward. It’s also about gritty, action packed airship battles and snarky humor, which makes it a perfect light-ish summer read.

You need this book for the beach or next to the pool or out on the porch or inside an air-conditioned building or wherever else you’re reading this summer.

Luckily, courtesy of the publisher, I have a hardcover copy of The Guns Above that I’m giving away.

CLICK HERE ENTER THE GIVEAWAY – Ends July 16

Book Review: The Waking Land by Callie Bates

This book was slow enough in its first third or so that I nearly put it down in frustration, but when it gets good it gets very good. It’s got some issues with exposition and pacing that are likely just due to its being a first novel, but there’s quite a lot to enjoy about it nonetheless. For one thing, it’s got a drop dead gorgeous cover (designed by Kathleen Lynch and illustrated by Ben Perini), and inside you’ll find an intriguing magic system, a resourceful (if flawed) heroine, and an interesting take on fantasy politicking, and if The Waking Land isn’t a great read, it’s still a more or less promising debut that sets up Callie Bates as an author to watch.

Elanna Valtai has been raised like a daughter by the king who exiled her parents after a failed rebellion, but when the king is poisoned she finds herself on the run, forced to confront some unpleasant realities that she’s been kept ignorant of, and discovering parts of herself she didn’t know existed. It’s a solidly conventional fantasy set-up, part coming of age and part political intrigue, but Bates tweaks the narrative just enough to keep things somewhat fresh. Elanna’s attachment to her foster father and the way she identifies with her adopted country turn out to be an interesting exploration of something very like Stockholm syndrome, and there’s a lot of page time dedicated to Elanna’s feelings about her confused identity. It’s easy to follow Elanna’s growth from the sheltered girl who thought she’d come to terms with her childhood trauma to a girl learning that she didn’t even understand what had been done to her to a self-actualized woman who has resolved her inner conflicts and is ready to both forge her own path and work together with others to build a better future for their people.

One thing I love about Elanna is that, though she’s not, in general, unlikeable, she’s written with very little seeming concern about likeability. Instead, while not written in a naturalistic fashion—it’s hard to have true naturalism in this kind of fantasy—she is allowed to just exist and have feelings without any attempts within the text to justify or make excuses for her worst tendencies. When Elanna is selfish or cowardly or uncertain, the text is nonjudgmental and, for a book with first person narration, nicely free of self-loathing. Elanna’s internal conflicts are rarely about whether she feels capable of achieving what she wants; instead, she struggles both with knowing what she wants for herself and with trying to figure out the best way to live up to her inherited responsibilities. That said, in early chapters, Elanna’s self-absorption and ignorance can be tiresome. It makes for a compelling and coherent character arc when she finally starts to grow up a little, and Elanna proves herself time and again as a staunch friend, loving daughter and loyal ally, but there are a solid hundred pages where she borders on being insufferable.

On a more positive note, the setting and supporting characters are mostly strong. Bates has crafted a smartly imagined fantasy world with a sort of 17th century aesthetic and elements of French and what seems like Welsh (or some mix of Welsh, Scottish and Irish) culture. There’s gunpowder-based technology, extravagant palaces, salons with shade of the Enlightenment, and a democratic-revolution-minded rebellion in the works. The magic system is left somewhat ill-defined, but it’s also not overpowered, and none of the book’s major conflicts are resolved through solely mystical means. For a YA fantasy, naming conventions are reasonably good; “Elanna Valtai” is the fussiest name in the book, and the rest of the characters and places are named pronounceably and with consistency and good sense. There’s even some effort made at diversity, though it’s done in that weirdly subtle, vague way that seems calculated to be inoffensive to a presumed white audience.

The biggest problem weighing down the story, however, is a lot of very clunky exposition (including a wholly unnecessary prologue) all of which is only made more unwieldy by the choice to tell the story in first person present tense. While this seems to be the reigning popular point of view for YA fantasy, Bates struggles to make it work here, especially in lengthy expository sections about Elanna’s background, the backgrounds of other characters, the history of the land and the political situation. Sadly, the earliest parts of this novel really are enough of a slog to deter many discerning readers; at 400 pages, The Waking Land feels much longer than it is, and there are faster and more evenly paced options for those without the patience to stick this one out until it gets better.

This review is based on a copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.

Book Review: Keeper of the Dawn by Dianna Gunn

Dianna Gunn’s Keeper of the Dawn combines a smartly plotted adventure with a sweetly written romance in a richly imagined fantasy world with plenty of space for more stories if the author chooses to return to it. Unfortunately, it’s all a bit much for a novella-length work. It’s a little overstuffed, and the sequence of events, while well-considered, has a tendency to read like a run-on sentence of “and then this happened and then this happened” and so on; all characters aside from the protagonist are underdeveloped, sometimes to the point of being cardboard; and the denouement could have used good deal more space to breathe. Still, there’s a lot to like about Keeper of the Dawn, and there aren’t so many YA lesbian romances featuring asexual heroines that it’s not still important representation despite its flaws—especially when the biggest flaw is simply that the story could have used another hundred pages or so to address its shortcomings.

While the secondary characters leave quite a bit to be desired, Lai is a mostly well-crafted protagonist with a distinct character arc and notable growth over the course of the book. Her early motivations are a little obscured by the trauma and disappointment of her failure in the trial to become a priestess—it would have been nice to have a deeper understanding of why being a priestess was so important to her and what it was about her mother and grandmother that made her want so much to emulate them. The failure to achieve a lifelong dream works well as the spark to start off Lai’s journey, but there’s too much time spent in the early part of the book dealing with Lai experiencing some mild-to-moderate bullying and struggling with her own resentment over her widower father’s remarriage. It delays the start of the story, and it’s confusing and frustrating when none of this stuff is revisited later or resolved by the end of the book.

That said, once Lai gets going, things improve a great deal. Her decision to run away is impulsive, but it makes sense for her as a character, and the early aimlessness of her journey as she tries to figure out what to do with her life after such a major disappointment is relatable, if not always entirely compelling. Still, even at her lowest point, Lai never falls into the unnecessarily and unpleasantly melodramatic angst that some teen heroines are prone to, and once she discovers the possibility of a future that though different than what she had hoped for herself has the potential to be equally fulfilling, Lai is steadfastly driven to succeed. One particularly admirable trait of Lai’s is that, though she is disappointed by her early failure, she never loses a core of confidence in herself that sustains her through hard times and encourages her to find different ways to achieve her goals of worshiping her goddess and honoring the memories of her mother and grandmother.

The worldbuilding is overall strong, and the idea of sister cultures separated by hundreds of years and miles but still connected through their shared faith is an interesting one. As with many other aspects of the book, it would have been nice to see some of these ideas given more space for development, but fortunately Gunn doesn’t overdo it with details. Necessary exposition about the world is delivered in a competently sparing fashion that never overwhelms the reader with history and backstory. Much of the in-universe history is only learned as Lai learns it on the page and with a minimum of info-dumping. There are a couple of issues with unfortunate implications—primarily with the strict-seeming binary gendering of social roles—and the use of stereotypes as shorthand for cultures and characterization but nothing especially egregious.

Finally, the romance between Lai and Tara is nicely done, without relying too heavily on hackneyed YA romance tropes. At the same time, it’s a romance with a good, comfortable, lived-in quality, without any major relationship-derailing conflicts and with an uncomplicated happy ending. The depiction of Lai’s asexuality seems sensitive, and it’s nice to see a YA-targeted romance that deals so frankly with issues of consent and addresses the potential problems of mismatched sex drives in a healthy and mature way. As a love interest, Tara isn’t extremely exciting, but what she lacks in excitement (which too often means emotional or physical danger in romance) she more than makes up for by being a solid, kind and caring presence, helping Lai to settle into her new community and being a supportive partner to Lai as she undergoes her new set of trials to become a Keeper of the Dawn.

In the end, the biggest shortcoming of Keeper of the Dawn is that it ought to have been longer. There’s a novel-sized story here, especially with the decision to include so much material about Lai’s life before she runs away, and to squeeze it into a novella-sized word count, some areas have to suffer. Another hundred or two hundred pages would have made that decision easier to justify, and it would have offered plenty more space for Lai to work through her issues with her father and stepmother and to explore her feelings about her best friend achieving the goal she had for herself. It also would have allowed the ending of the story to play out less hurriedly, giving more room for Lai to have a return journey instead of just a time-jump and for her to, again, process her feelings about returning to her people and family of origin. The extra length would also have allowed Gunn to give more depth to the secondary characters and add even more worldbuilding flourishes to make her fantasy world come alive.

Book Review – Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies, Edited by John Joseph Adams

The new John Joseph Adams-edited anthology, Cosmic Powers, is the first great anthology of the year, jam-packed with smart, entertaining sci-fi adventure stories that bring a nicely modern sensibility to old ideas and tropes. There are several recurring themes throughout the anthology. Religion figures largely in many of these stories, and several of the stories deal with gods or with beings who have amassed nearly godlike power with the aid of time and technology. Artificial intelligences of various kinds make several appearances, as do post-humans of multiple kinds. Examinations of families both biological and found are significant as well, and several stories look at the responsibility of people to each other, personally, and to humanity as a whole; it’s “the personal is political” writ across space and time. It’s a remarkably cohesive collection that nonetheless contains a wonderful variety of stories by a diverse group of authors to offer a well-rounded perspective on the idea of stories that take place on a cosmic scale.

The collection kicks off on a strong note with Charlie Jane Anders’ very clever, very funny adventure story, “A Temporary Embarrassment in Spacetime,” and Tobias S. Buckell’s “Zen and the Art of Starship Maintenance,” which is at least as clever as its predecessor, telling the story of a maintenance robot’s creative circumvention of its own programming. It’s seldom that any anthology starts off with three knock-out stories in a row, but these two are followed up with Becky Chambers’ “The Deckhand, the Nova Blade, and the Thrice-Sung Texts,” a delightful epistolary exploration of the Hero’s Journey from the perspective of an unlikely Chosen One.

The next three stories aren’t as good. Vylar Kaftan’s “The Sighted Watchmaker” is fine, and I’m sure it will be appealing to those who enjoy this kind of thing, but it wasn’t for me. It lost me with the Richard Dawkins epigraph and never quite managed to recapture my interests. I had already read “Infinite Love Engine” by Joseph Allen Hill in a recent issue of Lightspeed, but rereading it didn’t help me “get” it any better than I did the first time. I want to love the sheer weirdness of it, but it verges on a degree of psychedelia that makes it difficult to nail down exactly what the story is about. Still, I expect this is a story that I’ll return to again; I think maybe I just need to read it the right way and it will all make sense. “Unfamiliar Gods” by Adam-Troy Castro, with Judi B. Castro, is a mostly straightforward deal with the devil story, played for laughs and with an absurdist “twist,” but it’s not particularly funny or thoughtful.

Caroline M. Yoachim’s “Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World” covers some of the same thematic ground as “The Sighted Watchmaker,” but more effectively and with an interesting story structure that works well to break up Yoachim’s big ideas into easily digestible portions. “Golden Ring” by Karl Schroeder and “The Universe, Sung in Stars” by Kat Howard similarly work with ideas relating the nature of god and time, but neither of these approach the excellence of “Seven Wonders.” The Kat Howard story is beautifully written, but all the lovely, poetic prose in the world isn’t enough to make up for a somewhat trite premise.

From Alan Dean Foster comes the workmanlike but ultimately anti-climactic “Our Specialty is Xenogeology,” in which a Star Trek-ish team of space explorers almost make first contact but then think better of it. I expected to love A. Merc Rustad’s “Tomorrow When We See the Sun,” having liked all the previous work of theirs that I’ve read, but I didn’t. (Still can’t wait til I get my copy of their first short fiction collection, though. So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories came out May 2 from Lethe Press.) I barely remember Jack Campbell’s “Wakening Ouroboros” and Dan Abnett’s “The Frost Giant’s Data,” and together with the sadly unremarkable Kameron Hurley tale, “Warped Passages”—which is only notable due to its seeming connection to Hurley’s excellent space opera, The Stars Are Legion—they made for a finish to Cosmic Powers that wasn’t nearly as strong as its start.

Fortunately, there’s still a few more excellent stories tucked in the middle. Seanan McGuire’s “Bring the Kids and Revisit the Past at the Traveling Retro Funfair!” is a cool, fun adventure with some high stakes. It’s perhaps a little too tidy, but I’d definitely be down to read the continuing adventures of these characters as a novel. Linda Nagata’s “Diamond and the World Breaker” has a similar tone and similarly high stakes, and I loved the exploration of the mother-daughter relationship between Diamond and Violetta. As the current parent of fourteen-year-old girl, I found the conflict relatable, and Nagata does a good job of capturing some of the frustration and joy of watching one’s child grow up. Sandwiched between these two stories is “The Dragon the Flew Out of the Sun” by Aliette de Bodard, a thoughtful musing on the long-term ways that war damages communities and families. It’s the story in the book that is least like any of the other stories collected here, but it resonates in a compelling way with the stories that immediately precede and follow it.

Finally, there’s a new Yoon Ha Lee story, “The Chameleon’s Gloves,” set in his Hexarchate universe but offering a very different perspective than what has been seen of that world so far. Before now, the Hexarchate stories have been very concerned with specifically military stories, with a lot of focus on the complex calendrical mathematics that fuel the Hexarchate’s technology, but “The Chameleon’s Gloves” is a bit smaller, more personal story centered around a character who is something of an outsider to all of that. It’s not my favorite thing Lee has ever written, and if you really want to get a good idea of his oeuvre you ought to pick up his superb 2013 collection, Conservation of Shadows, but it’s a great place to start, especially if you’ve only read Ninefox Gambit and not any of Lee’s short fiction.

Book Review: Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

Ellen Klages is having a good year, which is also a boon for those of us who love good short fiction. Klages’ Tor.com novella, Passing Strange, is sure to be among the best of 2017, and it was a fortuitous discovery for me as I hadn’t read anything by Ellen Klages before. When I saw that she had a new collection of short fiction coming out from Tachyon just a couple of months later, I was thrilled.  I was even more thrilled when I got approved for the ARC on NetGalley, and my excitement turned out to be totally warranted. Wicked Wonders is, with one significant and honestly baffling exception, full of consistently thoughtful, clever, affecting stories, all overlaid by a sort of gently reassuring feeling of nostalgia.

The only major criticism I have of the collection specifically concerns the story “Woodsmoke,” which starts off as a nice story about girls bonding (maybe even falling in adolescent love) at a summer camp but then turns into the horrendously sensationalized reveal that one of the girls has an intersex condition, complete with immediate misgendering and melodramatic handwringing about “I don’t know your real name.” It’s a bizarre bait and switch that feels like a betrayal of the characters (who deserve better treatment) and the spirit of the story (which up to that point was fine, if unremarkable). Frankly, I don’t know what Klages was about with this story, and her explanation of it in the Story Notes section at the back of the book is unhelpful except to say that she hopes to make it part of a novel length work at some point (please no). If “Woodsmoke” had appeared early in the collection, I may have stopped reading the book altogether because it was so deeply upsetting; as it is, I can only recommend Wicked Wonders with a major reservation.

Regarding the rest of the collection, many of the stories in Wicked Wonders deal with childhood, and Klages has a real knack for capturing something of the bittersweetness of coming of age moments. “The Education of a Witch” explores a young girl’s identification with a villainess, and it’s a story that will likely be relatable, albeit in different ways, both to those of us who grew up before princess culture and those who grew up immersed in it. “Singing on a Star” is looks at the anxieties that surround a child’s first sleepover. Often, Klages’ stories feature precocious girls with creatively clever and interesting ways of looking at the world, as in “Gone to the Library” (which also features a cameo by Grace Hopper).

Most of these stories deal with transitions of one kind or another. In “Amicae Aeternum” (a story which legit made me weep when I read it and is literally making me tear up as I write this), a young girl says goodbye to her best friend before moving very far away. “Echoes of Aurora” is a gorgeously melancholy autumnal love story that deals with a non-childhood life change. “Hey, Presto!” is a smart and thoughtful coming of age story about a young woman reconnecting with her father and discovering they have more in common than she previously thought. In “Goodnight Moons,” a story that that recalls nothing more than Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, an astronaut takes a much bigger leap for humanity than she thought she was going to when she signed up to go to Mars.

Also evident in this collection is a sharply wry sense of humor, and Klages often uses ironic turns of phrase and sly references to great effect. “Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl” is a smart and funny original fairytale that should appeal to fans of Ursula Vernon. “The Scary Ham” is a short, humorous nonfiction story about the grieving process (and it was a very scary ham). “Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox” carries social nicety between women to a logical extreme, making use of a single strong central joke for maximum effect.

To be sure, there’s a decided slightness to all the stories in this collection, which is sometimes at odds with the ostensibly serious subject matter Klages writes about. While there is a little darkness in some of the stories, Klages’ endings are almost universally happy, or at least optimistic, and I suspect this won’t appeal to all readers. Still, there’s something to be said for short, sweet stories that don’t require a great deal of thought to understand and enjoy, and Wicked Wonders, for the most part, has a pleasantly restful quality that makes it quietly delightful to read.

This review is based on an advance copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.