Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.

Book Review: Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer

I didn’t find out about Spindle Fire until about three weeks before its release date, but I was excited when I first read about it. I love fairy tale retellings, and I’d been looking for something that would be a kind of lighter read to help me break out of a reading slump I’ve been in for a couple of weeks. I loved the idea of splitting the story of Sleeping Beauty between two girls, the cover is gorgeous, and the title was getting a decent amount of buzz leading up to its release date. Sadly, Spindle Fire turned out to be a dreary slog of a book. The sisters, Aurora and Isabelle, barely interact and only in the first couple chapters; both Aurora and Isabelle have significant disabilities, but the way they are handled in the text is not great; the romances are at once overwrought and dull; the major “twist” is heavily telegraphed; and the book just, overall, feels choppy and disjointed, with more focus on randomly (and occasionally nonsensically) pretty turns of phrase than on building a coherent plot or cohesive character arcs.

I didn’t expect this book to be all about sisterly love and bonding, just going on the marketing copy. It was obvious that Aurora and Isabelle would be going on separate adventures, presumably to link back up in the second book of this planned duology. However, though their sisterly relationship is moderately well-presented early on, once they part ways neither one of them spares much thought for the other. Instead, they’re each more focused on the boys they meet along the way, which is tiresome. This also ties into how the girls’ disabilities are portrayed. At the beginning of the book, it’s made clear that Aurora and Isabelle are very close in part because of their respective disabilities, that on some level they need each other. Once they part, though, Isabelle’s blindness is barely a hindrance—largely compensated for by her other senses, which are written as greatly heightened—while Aurora finds her disabilities (she can’t speak and has no sense of touch) completely, conveniently erased.

There’s nothing in particular that’s offensively bad about any of this, though Lexa Hillyer does rely on some very tired tropes. Aurora’s sensual/sexual awakening could be potentially interesting in the hands of a better writer, but what little action Aurora gets is kept strictly PG and her love interest, Heath, is kind of an asshole, even to her. Isabelle’s love triangle, on the other hand, is shamefully boring, setting her up to choose between a pair men who must surely be the blandest dudes in two kingdoms. Gilbert the stable boy barely has a personality at all, and he’s conveniently shuffled off (via being lost at sea and presumed dead, natch) to make room for William, who is perfectly nice and a seemingly dutiful prince, except when it comes to doing the dutiful thing and trying to wake up Aurora and unite their kingdoms. He’d much rather just marry Isabelle after knowing her for a couple of days, which is his only real character trait. The problem with all of this romance stuff, in any case, is that none of it every manages to be romantic or sexy at all.

All throughout the book, one gets the sense that it was written from a strict outline, possibly with each chapter written separately and then published with little attention paid to continuity or foreshadowing or making sure that the story flows together or makes sense at all. While most of the chapters were told from Aurora and Isabelle’s points of view, neither of them has a distinctive enough voice to be truly compelling, and the POV chapters from other characters primarily function as infodumps, flashbacks or ham-fisted attempts at surprise reveals. Spindle Fire is a book without a strong narrative core, and the POV chapters don’t revolve around a central story so much as flounder about and jockey for attention despite being, ultimately, forgettable. Several times, I found myself having to go back and reread previous chapters to try and make sense of events that seemed inexplicable, while at other times I could easily predict major developments well in advance. There’s a balance to be found with building tension and surprising readers, and Hillyer hasn’t quite found it yet. The attempts at tension-building were simply frustrating, while the surprises either weren’t surprises at all or were surprises, but in a way that made me scratch my head in confusion.

Considering that Spindle Fire is the first in a duology, I may yet check out the second book when it comes out, just to see if things get better. It’s not at the top of my to-read list, though, as I’m not sure what could be salvaged from this wreckage of a good idea.

The SF Bluestocking Winter 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

Spring has already sprung here in Ohio, both technically and actually, judging from the amount of allergy trouble I’ve been having the last couple of weeks, and I’m working on getting together my reading list for the next three months (look for it this week!), but I thought first I’d take a look at what I’ve read in the first three months of 2017. Last year was such a terrible year for me that I ended up struggling a lot to write much about what I read, though I read quite a bit. The good news is that this year I’ve been off to a pretty strong start, getting through most of my Winter Reading List and even reading a couple of things that weren’t on there. I’ve even written about almost everything I’ve read, even if it was just a short blurb and a star rating on Goodreads, although I am still finishing up my last few reviews of titles from my winter list.

This post, however, is about celebrating the best and most exciting of what I’ve read in the last three months.

29939303Best Fantasy Novel – Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy is a gorgeously imagined book about a young woman’s political awakening when she’s forced to question everything she knows about her society and herself. It’s set in a marvelously unique fantasy world in which people live in cities built in the tops of trees in an enormous rain forest, and it’s worth reading for the inventive worldbuilding alone, but it’s also got a wonderfully difficult and complex protagonist in Unar. Crossroads is a story about the roots of a revolution, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in Thoraiya Dyer’s Titan’s Forest series. While it’s not as thrillingly groundbreaking as, say, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth SeasonCrossroads of Canopy is, for me, similar in the the sense that it’s exactly the sort of thing I think of when looking towards the future of the genre, especially as it broadens to include epic fantasy that isn’t set in some analogue or other of medieval Europe.

29939160Best Science Fiction Novel – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

This book was a complete surprise to me in every way. I’ve always rather intended to pick up something by John Scalzi, but I’ve never quite gotten around to it as I seldom read work by white men and have been mostly interested in new books, standalone titles, and debut authors in the last couple of years. Tons of people I know love Scalzi’s work, though, and since The Collapsing Empire is his newest book and the first in a series, it seemed like as good a time as any to check him out, especially when I got a surprise early copy in the mail from the publisher. It’s really good and hands down the most enjoyable thing I’ve read so far this year, smartly plotted and fast-paced, with lots of snappy dialogue and a great sense of humor. I couldn’t put it down.

33775885Best Magazine – FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 1, Rebirth

The first issue of FIYAH is excellent from its beautiful cover art to its collection of perfectly curated short fiction. With evidence mounting up that black readers and writers aren’t being served and included the way they should be in genre publishing, FIYAH is a uniquely valuable space for stories by, for and about black people. My favorite story in this issue was “Chesirah” by L.D. Lewis, but “The Shade Caller” by DaVaun Sanders and “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” by Malon Edwards were also standouts. If I have any complaint about the magazine, it’s that I’d love to see more nonfiction content in it, but that’s purely a personal preference. Issue 2 will be out on April 1.

marapr17_issue15covermed-340x510Best Novella – “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

I at least try to read all of Tor.com’s novellas as a matter of course, and they’re pretty prolific, so I would have expected one of those to be my favorite so far. However, the fine folks at Uncanny just published their first ever (short) novella in #15, and it’s wonderful. Sarah Pinsker’s story of a convention–SarahCon–for Sarah’s from thousands of alternate reality might be my favorite novella of the last several years, to be honest. It’s smart and funny and thoughtful in perfect proportions. It was enchanting from page one, and it’s a story and concept that has been often on my mind ever since I read it. “And Then There Were (N-One)” will be available to read for free online on April 4.

33964649Best Comic Book – Ladycastle #1 by Delilah S. Dawson and Ashley A. Woods

I only read one comic in the last three months, but it was a good one. Since the sad/infuriating circumstances that led to the indefinite hiatus of Rat Queens, I’ve had a definitively medieval-fantasy-comic-shaped hole in my life, and Ladycastle is the perfect thing to fill it with. The art is slightly more cartoonish than I usually prefer, but it grew on me as I fell in love with the story and characters. The only problem with it is that there isn’t more of it, and they seem to be working on a slow production schedule with a couple months between issues. I want it all now.

31216072Best Sin du Jour Novella – Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace

Okay, so it’s the only Sin du Jour book published so far this year, but it’s awesome. And look at that cover! I always buy these as ebooks to save space, but the covers just keep getting better and better and I know I’m going to have to have them for my shelf. And this is why my dreams of getting rid of all my stuff and living some kind of minimalist backpacker lifestyle will always stay just dreams. Seriously, though you should be reading this series. They’re sharply written, laugh-out-loud funny, and have some of the best action scenes you’re going to find in print. This volume went a little heavier on character development, but in the last one a dude fought an evil Easter Bunny demon thing and it was rad.

31707853Best Non-SFF Thing I Read – Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ll just quote from my own review of this title to explain why I loved it so much: “The stories in this volume are, from start to finish, thoughtful, clever, funny, tragic and hopeful in turn. These stories are a rage-filled paean to the strength and resilience and weakness and fragility and everything in between of women. This is an ugly, heart-wrenching, beautiful book, and if Roxane Gay wrote three hundred forty-four more stories like this I would treat them like a devotional and reread them every year for the rest of my life.” There are a couple of stories in this collection that are slightly SFF, but for the most part this collection is deeply rooted in the real world and real women’s experiences.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Borderline and Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker – I skipped the first book in this series last year, but I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it now.
  • Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty – A riveting locked-door mystery in space, with clones.
  • Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman – I loved this first book in a new gaslamp fantasy series by the author of Planetfall. Probably my favorite thing I’ve read yet by Emma Newman.
  • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This makes me feel about sci-fi the way that Crossroads of Canopy and The Fifth Season make me feel about fantasy.
  • Tor.com’s “Nevertheless, She Persisted” Short Fiction Event – This is well worth reading, but it just didn’t fit into any of my other categories here.

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Windwitch by Susan Dennard – I liked Truthwitch quite a lot last year, but this book only magnified all the problems of worldbuilding and character that were only minor plagues on the first one.
  • Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey – I was hyped to finally read something by this author, but this book felt unnecessary and self-indulgent, without much to say for itself or about Shakespeare or The Tempest.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – I wanted to like this much-buzzed-about book more than I did, but I had a hard time getting past the casual normalization of marital rape, the villainization of the rape victim, and the trivialization of her eventual sad fate.

Book Review: Borderline by Mishell Baker

25692886I’m not a great reader of urban fantasy and I’ve been (sort of and unsuccessfully) avoiding new series, so I’d skipped Mishell Baker’s Borderline when it came out last year. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I finally read it. It’s a solid story that ticks off a lot of run-of-the-mill urban fantasy boxes while still being clever and original enough to be interesting. Baker takes a smartly naturalistic approach to describing the setting—I’m not a fan of L.A.-set stories in general, but she does a wonderful job of conveying a sort of warts-and-all love for the city without either romanticizing it or dwelling on ugliness. And Millie Roper is a fucking iconic protagonist with a strong and uniquely relatable (for me) narrative voice.

While I don’t read a ton of urban fantasy, I like it better when the fantastical element is fairies, as opposed to vampires or werewolves, and I especially like the way Baker imagines fairies in this series. The Arcadia Project is a more-or-less government-overseen system that manages the interactions between Earth and Arcadia, which is otherwise a largely straightforward fairyland filled with the usual fairy creatures, high and low fae, and copious magic. It turns out that humanity relies on magic—specifically the inspiration of fairy “Echoes” (think personal muses for artists and thinkers of all kinds)—for most great human endeavors, artistic and otherwise, and the Arcadia Project acts as a sort of ICE for fairies traveling to and from Arcadia. To help maintain the secrecy of the Project, its administrators recruit agents primarily from psychiatric hospitals, with the idea that those who see the world differently may be more open to and accepting of the work, but also with the knowledge that those who are marginalized due to documented mental illness are unlikely to be believed if they do tell others about the Project. Millie, who has borderline personality disorder and is still recovering from a suicide attempt that left her a double amputee, is a perfect candidate for the job.

Millie also has a background in film—she was going to film school at UCLA prior to her suicide attempt—and the film industry features largely in Borderline. Many of the secondary and tertiary characters are in some way involved in the industry, and much of the action takes place in a movie studio. It’s a very specific part of Los Angeles that I’ve seldom read about, mostly because I don’t find it particularly interesting, but Mishell Baker shows real skill in making the L.A. of the Arcadia Project feel real and lived-in. There’s a great sense of place and plenty of specific-feeling details so that even the places that are obviously invented for the book fit right in to the broader aesthetic. I wouldn’t quite say that it rises to the point of the city itself being a character, which is common in urban fantasy, but it’s a vividly immersive setting nonetheless.

It’s Millie herself, however, who truly elevates the book and makes it one of the best and most interesting urban fantasies I’ve read in years. While I’m not sure how much of my own struggles with mental illness (mostly depression and anxiety) overlap with Millie’s, there’s so much about her experience that feels familiar, and I expect that this will resonate deeply with many people who have had similar issues. Many, many people have written and talked about the value of representation in fiction, and all of that is fully applicable here. Millie will be a highly relatable protagonist for many, and for many more she’ll be a character that will, hopefully, help readers gain some new understanding of an experience that isn’t often depicted in genre fiction. Here, too, Mishell Baker takes a naturalistic approach, refusing to sugarcoat the reality of Millie’s mental and physical conditions, and both Millie’s borderline personality disorder and her double amputations have obvious impacts on her ability to function, and sometimes just exist, in the world. Millie’s troubled relationships and fraught interactions with nearly everyone she meets make for compelling drama and add another level of specificity to the story that sets it well apart from other work in a subgenre often plagued by over-reliance on tired tropes and cliché storytelling conventions.

I may have been late to the party on this series, but Mishell Baker is an author to watch, and I can’t wait to find out what Millie gets up to next. Borderline is a superb first novel and a great start to a freshly compelling new series.

Book Review: Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells

I read quite a few debut novels and had a cool half dozen on my reading list for the first three months of 2017, but Alex Wells’ Hunger Makes the Wolf was the one I was most looking forward to in the first quarter of this year. I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint. While it may lack some of the great depth and the high level of craft of some of the other debuts I’ve read so far this year, Hunger Makes the Wolf more than makes up for it in other areas. It’s a well-conceived, smartly plotted, enthusiastically fast-paced sci-fi adventure with some cool ideas and a couple of excellent lead characters who’ve got plenty growing still to do in future books.

Sometimes you just want to read something fun that reminds you of other things you like, without having to think too hard to understand it, and Hunger Makes the Wolf contains shades of all kinds of things that are relevant to my reading interests. There are shades of Firefly, Dune, Mad Max: Fury Road, and even Star Wars here, and it’s by far the most fun thing I’ve read since I read the first two books of K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy at the end of last year. Like Wagers, Alex Wells manages to draw elements from many inspirations and still create a story with plenty of originality and individual flair. The overall effect is enjoyably familiar without ever feeling like a clone of someone else’s work, and if you like any or all of the above-mentioned stories, this one will be right up your alley.

I know I’ve said that this isn’t a particularly deep novel, but I don’t know if I can reiterate enough how much that’s not a criticism. The plot is straightforward, with an easy-to-understand conflict and clearly defined villains and heroes. At the same time, the villains are never caricatures of evil, and the heroes have enough internal conflict and nuance to be compelling. Hunger is, at heart, about two things—personal political awakenings and grassroots resistance against tyranny—and Wells comes at these themes with a cleverly simple approach that makes his points easy to understand while still recognizing the complexity of characters and situations. This is all well-supported by a setting that, while obviously derivative of several other popular works, is described in plenty of vivid detail and has several unique quirks—namely an interesting (if somewhat mysterious) magic system—to set it apart from the pack.

Hob Ravani is a great protagonist of the tough-as-nails ass-kicking kind, and her journey of self-discovery is neatly described throughout the novel. The story of a young person stepping into a leadership role they aren’t entirely prepared for might be a little formulaic, but it’s executed here with loving gusto and a great deal of charm. Though Hob’s friend Mag starts off as something of a damsel in distress, she quickly comes into her own as a resistance leader in her own right. Mag’s fledgling romance with another persecuted woman deserved a little more page time, but I’d say that Mag, in general, deserves more page time. I love the way Hob and Mag complement and balance each other in the story, and Wells does a nice job of showing the ways in which people can work together from different directions and points of view to accomplish goals that are bigger than themselves.

If there’s any major criticism I have of Hunger Makes the Wolf it’s that there isn’t enough of it. It stands alone well enough, but it feels very obviously like the first book of a series. Everything about it feels like an introduction, just the first act in a much longer story arc, and there are quite a few things left unresolved at the end of the novel. The good news is that it is the first book in a series. The bad news is that now I have to wait for it, and I’m terribly impatient. It turns out that stories about anti-capitalist space biker witches are kind of my jam.

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