Category Archives: Fantasy

Book Review: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

Amberlough is a brilliantly inventive and gorgeously accomplished first novel for Lara Elena Donnelly, who manages to both test the limits of the fantasy genre and craft a whip smart and timely political thriller at the same time. Comparisons to Cabaret and Le Carré are accurate enough (and certainly intriguing enough for marketing reasons), though I always think we do a disservice to fresh, original work by using such comparisons to shape reader expectations. Amberlough is a fine novel on its own merits, full of bold world building, great characters, big ideas and a thoughtfully bittersweet ending.

For a fantasy world, this one is remarkably devoid of magic. Amberlough City, where the majority of the novel’s action takes place, is the capital of one of several nation states arranged in a loose confederacy called Gedda. Technologically, culturally and aesthetically, things feel somewhere in the neighborhood of the real world’s 1920s to early 1940s—there are cars and telephones and electric lights and cabarets—which is highly appropriate for a story of the rise of a fascist political party. It’s an interesting decision to write this story as a fantasy novel, and I kept half-expecting there to be some magical or supernatural twist or deus ex machina, but none ever comes. The fantastical element here is only the secondary world itself, and Donnelly does a wonderful job of bringing it to life. It’s a setting that feels familiar without the opportunity of being dryly historical—indeed, the choice to build a secondary world setting frees Donnelly from any demands for historicity—and has a pleasantly lived-in quality that makes Amberlough feel plausible and compelling as any historical fiction would be.

Like the world in which they exist, Amberlough’s characters are also multi-dimensional, well-drawn and with a good level of complexity. The three main characters—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia—each have distinctive personalities, motivations and journeys, and the secondary and tertiary cast also has enough depth to not be completely overshadowed by the main characters. That said, Cyril is the king of terrible and stupidly self-and-otherwise-destructive decisions, and Aristide is slightly underutilized for most of the book, so it’s Cordelia who is the real stand-out character. Which is okay. Because I adore her. She’s exactly the sort of difficult woman that I love best to read about, and she undergoes a thorough transformation over the course of the book. Cyril is a self-deprecating fuck-up; Aristide is a charismatic survivor; but Cordelia has a political awakening, and it turns out that Stories About Women Having Powerful and Profound Political Awakenings is my favorite genre of 2017.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Amberlough is how serious a book it is. It’s not a hopeless novel, but Donnelly doesn’t sugarcoat anything, either. The historical inspirations for the book are fairly obvious, and parallels to the Weimar Republic are easy to discern. It would be easy for this story to be simply a facile and thinly veiled parable about how fascism is bad, but Amberlough is much more than that. Cordelia’s character arc of political awakening is my favorite aspect of the book, probably because it’s, in a weird way, the part of the story that I found most hopeful and encouraging. Cordelia’s story makes me want to (and feel like I could) go punch a thousand Nazis in real life, but the Cyril and Aristide threads are important as well, with much to say about political and personal compromise. Cyril tries to walk a line that he thinks is far wider than it actually is between double agent and straight up collaborator, and it might destroy him and everyone he cares about. Aristide has to deal with his own changing status under the new Ospy regime and find a way to survive when things start to get really scary.

Some readers may not appreciate the ambiguous-at-best-and-quite-probably-devastating ending of Amberlough, but I loved it. Too many writers contort the denouement of their stories in order to please their readers or to just wrap things up tidily, but Donnelly chooses to eschew a happy ending here, opting instead for an impactful and haunting one. Still, I can’t help but wonder what it would have been like to read this book if Hillary Clinton were President. It’s true that antifascist narratives never really go out of style, but in light of our current terrifying political situation in the US, Amberlough has a timely relevance that I can’t imagine was completely intended. This may also be why some of the marketing for the novel seems to undersell it and indicate a much slighter story than it actually is, but either way it’s something of a failure to manage reader expectations. Amberlough isn’t a fun thriller-romance like the cover copy suggests; it’s a powerfully written look at how people exist in the birth of a fascist regime. The message isn’t one of hope; it’s a call for resistance.

Book Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite novels of 2016, and it was certainly among the year’s most unusual and ambitiously daring pieces of speculative fiction. Nevertheless, it felt a little unfinished, and anyone who loved it has no doubt been waiting with bated breath for the sequel that seemed necessary to complete what Too Like the Lightning started. Seven Surrenders is everything I thought/hoped it would be, with a vivid setting, intricate plot, high level philosophical and political ponderings and fascinating cast of characters, a truly worthy sequel to its brilliant predecessor and a powerfully compelling introduction to the conflict to come in the next book in the series.

The future that Palmer envisions is still utopian-seeming, though some of the shine was certainly worn off by the end of Too Like the Lightning. In Seven Surrenders, we get even more details of the organization of society, government and families in this imagined future, and many of the questions that Lightning left us with are answered. The relationships and interplay between the various Hives are more interesting the more one learns of them, and the ‘bash family unit is more fully explained in this volume as well. In short, everything makes more and more sense the more you read of this series. I love that Palmer doesn’t spend a ton of time on tedious exposition on these matters, which would amount to hand-holding, but a glossary, appendix or wiki could be highly useful.

That said, I read Lightning as an ebook but Surrenders in hardcover and I found it of great convenience to more easily be able to flip back and forward in the book to check information and reread sections to make sure I understood it. This is definitely a title that benefits from being read on dead trees instead of a screen, which I suppose is, incidentally, appropriate given the deliberately old-timey style of Mycroft Canner’s narration. Though I’ve largely transitioned to reading books digitally over the last few years, every now and then a title comes along that gives me a renewed appreciation for books as useful objects, enjoyable tactile experiences and beautiful artifacts. This is one of those books. If you can, get the hardcover. You won’t regret it, and it will look great on your shelf when you’re done.

Mycroft Canner continues to be one of the most challenging characters in the genre. After the revelations about his past crimes in Lightning, he begins Surrenders in something of confessional mood. Though many of the ugly details of Mycroft’s crimes have already been revealed, Surrenders gives us a much deeper understanding of why he did it. We also learn more about nearly all the book’s other characters as their murder conspiracy, which keeps the whole world at peace, is unraveled and falls apart. Mycroft’s relationships to the structures of power in this world are explained. Other characters’ secret identities and motives are revealed. There are plots on plots on plots that are uncovered over the course of four hundred pages that detail just a few days of events and a couple of legit miracles. It’s heady stuff. I suggest taking notes.

The big draw to this series, for me, is still the philosophy and the politics. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly plausible future society, though that may simply be because I have a very difficult time imagining how we might evolve from here to there, but it’s a marvelous idea for how to organize a peaceful society. The political dynamics are complex and nuanced, and the Saneer-Weeksbooth conspiracy adds a great dystopian element to be explored. Palmer’s ideas about gender are somewhat less well-developed, although significant time is spent on gender in this volume. Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns is inconsistent and the explanation given for Madame’s plot to reintroduce gender roles into society is less than convincing; frankly, I feel as if there is some huge complicated idea trying to be communicated that I’m just not quite getting. My hope is that this theme will carry on to the next books in the series, which promise to be about war.

Listen. There’s not a ton to write about this series without giving the whole story away, and it’s hard to discuss the ideas in it without it turning into a lengthy thinkpiece, and I can’t even guarantee that you’ll get the concept. But there’s nothing else like this series being published right now. Too Like the Lightning was a revelation, and Seven Surrenders shines even brighter than its predecessor. The stage is set for the next pair of books to explore what a war might looks like in a world that hasn’t warred in centuries, and you can’t possibly want to miss that. I know that this isn’t a series for everybody, but I still can’t help suggesting that everyone read it as soon as possible. It’s a work of rare and special genius.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an early copy for review. 

Book Review: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

So, I read Miranda and Caliban because I love Shakespeare and had never gotten around to reading any of Jacqueline Carey’s other work. I also read two other Tempest-based stories last year (Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed and Foz Meadows’ Coral Bones—both excellent) and thought it would be interesting to compare this one to the others. For what it’s worth, Miranda and Caliban is beautifully written, well-structured and readable, but the question I kept coming back to the longer I read it was “Is it necessary?” Sadly, I don’t think it is. I don’t regret having read it, but I also wouldn’t say that it deepened my understanding of The Tempest, Shakespeare or their themes, and what insight it gave me into the author’s understanding of these things didn’t impress.

Miranda and Caliban tells the story of about ten of the twelve years that Prospero and Miranda spent on the island prior to the start of the play, beginning with six-year-old Miranda and story of the “taming” of the wild boy Caliban, who comes to be Prospero’s servant and Miranda’s friend. Over the years of the novel, the narrative is split between Miranda and Caliban’s points of view as they are both educated and come of age on the island, detailing their friendship and their respective relationships with both Prospero and Ariel. Rather than digging deeply for a fresh take on this material, however, Carey chooses to depict it as largely standard fare coming of age tragedy, and the tone of that tragedy infects the entire book with a bittersweetness that quickly turns cloying.

Though I went into the book knowing the ending, I was disappointed that there were so few surprises in store over the course of four hundred pages. There’s not a single event in Miranda and Caliban that couldn’t have easily been extrapolated from the play, and everything that happens is so absolutely banal that it’s barely enough to hold one’s attention. I kept expecting a twist or turn that would challenge my expectations or offer some new thought on the play, but Miranda and Caliban is literally exactly what it claims to be. I suppose that’s fine, but the tragic nature of the story also prevents it from being bland, relaxing comfort food, which sends me right back to the question of the necessity of this book.

Even the revelation of Miranda as an artist with a kind of magic of her own that complements her father’s doesn’t do much to elevate the novel. While Miranda is bright and clever and kind, she remains, ultimately, a passive character in a story that is happening around and to her. She’s never able to use her magic to help herself, her brief romance with Caliban is too inevitable-seeming to evoke much passionate feeling, and in the end she seems resigned to being a pawn of her father’s with no particular ambitions or goals of her own. Caliban, for his part, is much the same as depicted in the play, if perhaps somewhat more sympathetic with a fuller knowledge of his childhood. However, he too is at the mercy of Prospero and, later, of Ariel, with no opportunity to change his sad fate and no fresh shading added to color our understanding of his actions.

It’s possible that readers unfamiliar with The Tempest may feel differently, coming to this book with fewer expectations and preconceptions about the material, and longtime lovers of Carey’s work may just be happy for a new title by a favorite author, but as a first exposure to Carey’s work I can’t say there’s much here that makes me want to come back to it. Pretty prose and a flair for the occasional poetic description isn’t enough to redeem a dull and flawed premise, especially one that has so little of substance to say.

On the other hand, look at that incredible cover with art by Tran Nguyen and designed by Jamie Stafford-Hill. It’s gorgeous enough that even if you don’t love the book you might want it on your shelf.

This review is based on a copy of the title received for review via NetGalley.

Book Review: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer’s Crossroads of Canopy was one of my most anticipated debut novels of 2017, and I’m pleased to report that it did not disappoint. Crossroads is a truly tremendous book, full of fantastically original worldbuilding, fascinating mythology, and a cast of compelling characters led by one of my favorite fantasy heroines in a very long time.  It’s a gorgeously magical and delightfully challenging novel that only gets lusher and more incredible the longer you read it.

Things start off promisingly with the introduction of Unar, an abused child about to be sold by her parents, and Dyer does a good job in the opening couple of chapters of introducing the city of Canopy and something of its societal structures and religion. Things quickly shift gear, however, when Unar evades enslavement by pledging herself as a servant of the life/fertility goddess, Audblayin. This initial transition and subsequent time jump–about ten years–are more than a little jarring, verging on confusing, and the rest of the first half of the novel often struggles with keeping a good pace and maintaining connections between many moving parts. It makes for a slow start to the book that may be offputting for less dedicated readers, but I still found Unar’s story gripping enough to keep reading, and it pays off big time in the back half of the novel, where things get amazing.

In the end, I loved the deliberateness of the way the tone and depth of the story reflects Unar’s character growth. We start the journey with her as a young child, inquisitive about her world, engaged in what’s going on around her, and this is reflected in the vividness of the opening chapters, in which Dyer paints a clear picture of the world of Canopy. As a teenager, Unar has become ambitious, but also self-absorbed, convinced that she has a great destiny, obsessed with achieving it, and resentful towards anyone who she sees as an enemy or impediment (and that’s basically everyone). She chafes at the restrictions of Audblayin’s Garden, flouts rules, and ultimately takes actions that force her onto a very different path than what she thinks she deserves. Most of Unar’s story, then, is about Unar’s long, painful struggle to understand her world and her place in it, and the way that Dyer deploys worldbuilding details reflects that, taking the reader on the same journey that Unar must take from disconnection to understanding. It makes for somewhat frustrating reading early on, but the payoff at the end, when so many things really come into focus for Unar–and for the reader–is well worth the wait.

Unar herself is one of the most fascinating and infuriating and deeply lovable protagonists I’ve read about in years. I love her pure, unadulterated stubbornness and grit and her dogged belief in herself, even as she grows to learn that her destiny–if it is a destiny at all–isn’t what she wanted it to be. I love Unar’s ability to make mistakes, even disastrous ones, and still keep going because even when she doesn’t have a clue what she’s doing, she can’t stand to give up. Most of all, I love Unar’s ever present drive to be better. She has a strong sense of justice that evolves and grows over the course of the novel as she comes to think more of others and learns more about the world outside herself. Crossroads of Canopy is Unar’s coming of age story, but more than that it’s a story about Unar’s political awakening.

I have long had a soft spot for difficult women as protagonists, and Unar is exactly the kind of character I want to read about these days. Certainly she grows up in many ways throughout this book, but Unar’s deeper and more important journey is to figure out where she fits into an imperfect world and how she can leverage her strengths–both personal and magical–in order to fight the injustice she is still slowly coming to understand at the end of this story. I cannot wait to find out what Unar does next.

Comic Review: Lady Castle #1

Lady Castle is, for me, the first must-read comic of 2017. I don’t read a ton of comics, to be honest, and I’m pretty choosy about what I spend my time and money on, usually going for limited projects with women writers and artists and steering clear of superhero stuff. I’ve also, in recent years begun avoiding any of the trite ’90s-esque girl power stuff being put out by a certain breed of right on self-identified feminist white dudes, which has sadly left me with a medieval fantasy adventure comic-shaped hole in my life. Long story short, Lady Castle is exactly the comic that I’ve been yearning for over the last several years. It’s perfect and I love it and you should be reading it right now if you haven’t already.

Delilah S. Dawson has been on my to-read list for some time, and this was a great first taste of her work. Lady Castle is smart and funny, with snappy dialogue, but it’s never twee or precious. It’s clever, but straightfowardly so, which works really well to make the book great fun to read, especially in combination with Ashley Woods’ brightly colorful and crisp artwork. I’m not always a huge fan of this style of obviously animation-influenced comic art, but I like it here. Each character is recognizable and distinctive, and the style is a perfect fit for the tone of the story.

Probably my favorite thing about Lady Castle, however, is that it wears its feminism on its sleeve, but without beating the reader over the head with a trite message. The “what if all the men disappeared” set-up isn’t unique or groundbreaking in genre fiction, but the smart, incisive commentary on issues of gender, specifically the difference in governance styles between men and women, is timely and valuable. It’s a great piece of escapist fiction, and I laughed aloud more than once while reading it, but it’s also a book with some smart things to say about important subjects at the perfect time. This is exactly the kind of enjoyable feminist story I want to read to relax and distract myself from the ubiquitous ongoing coverage of U.S. conservatives working to destroy everything good in the world.

Book Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

I love that Dreadnought is a thing that exists in the world more than I actually enjoyed reading the book, though I did rather like it. It’s being marketed as great for fans of last year’s The Heroine  Complex and Not Your Sidekick, and both of those were titles that I just never did quite manage to get around to reading, mostly because I’m not super into super hero stories. Like these other books, Dreadnought centers around an unconventional protagonist, in this case a fifteen-year-old closeted trans girl named Danny who has to quickly come to terms with her identity when she is unexpectedly gifted with both superpowers and the body she’s always known she should have. Danny is a smart, plucky, relatable heroine who I expect will be an education for some readers and a much-needed bit of representation for others. Nonetheless, Dreadnought is a book that I read with the constant awareness that it wasn’t for me. Danny’s story of self-discovery and actualization is one that will be compelling for any reader, but I imagine it will resonate most deeply with readers who share more of Danny’s experiences as a trans girl.

Superhero narratives have long dealt with issues surrounding identity and marginalization, and author April Daniels has written a novel firmly in that tradition. Daniels’ geek credentials are on full display here, and it’s obvious that she has a thorough knowledge of genre conventions, which she deploys in a perfectly pitched tale that is both a top notch example of its type and a wholly fresh take on a set of familiar tropes. Dreadnought‘s fairly straightforward hero’s journey structure is a tried and true framework that works well here to provide a foundation upon which Daniels can build a strong, clearly messaged modern superhero story. It’s an excellent example of the value of not reinventing the wheel, and Daniels shows a good instinct for when to utilize common tropes and when to subvert or interrogate them for maximum effect.

I love that there’s no real preamble to Danny’s story. Daniels digs right into things from the first page, with Danny undergoing her transformation almost immediately and being thrust into a vastly changed life by chapter two. The pace of events never does let up, which makes for fast reading. I didn’t make it through Dreadnought in a single reading session, but only because I had other obligations that kept me from it. Each scene in the novel feels necessary and has an easily identifiable purpose, moving along the plot, fleshing out characters, or communicating part of the book’s message. This trimness is a great asset, especially in the YA market where the fashion for some years now has been great sprawling, meandering fantasy stories with indistinct characters and bland ideas. At an economical 276 pages, Dreadnought is a refreshing departure from that trend.

Trans issues take up a lot of page space in Dreadnought, but I still wouldn’t say its a particularly message-heavy title. Danny is a transgender teen, so she’s got a lot of stuff to deal with, but Daniels presents it all matter-of-factly and in a naturalistic enough fashion that most of it feels about the same as reading about any other teen drama. It’s not that Danny’s struggles with parents, friends, doctors, and various associates aren’t specific to her trans-ness; it’s just that these things seldom feel like the point of the book. While Danny’s trans-ness figures largely in the novel and is inextricably bound up with her superhero abilities, being trans is only one part of Danny’s character, and many of the scenarios Danny must deal with as a teen with sudden superpowers are pretty standard stuff for the genre. Sure, she has to deal with some blatant transphobia from her parents and others, and that will no doubt be new to many readers, but a lot of her problems are still just versions of the same banal coming of age crap everyone has to deal with as a teenager trying to figure out their place in the world.

In most ways, Dreadnought is a run of the mill teen power fantasy. It’s always obvious who the villains are in this book, and while it doesn’t flinch away from depicting some darkness, I never felt any real fear that the bad guys were going to win. Even the authorial choice to complicate things by exploring the double-edged nature of super powers as both blessing and curse and the decision to interrogate the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing isn’t altogether new or particularly noteworthy. It’s well done, though, and it’s still sadly rare for there to be a book like this written by a trans woman about a trans girl. April Daniels offers a fresh perspective on her topics of choice and has created a great character with whom a disgracefully under-served population will be able to identify. Dreadnought isn’t an exceedingly ambitious novel, but it is a well-written, highly entertaining, and ultimately optimistic origin story of a heroine I look forward to reading more about.

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

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange is an absolutely magical story and by far my favorite thing I’ve read so far in 2017. In this gorgeously imagined romance, Ellen Klages brings the queer side of 1940s San Francisco to glittering life and peoples it with characters who are fresh and interesting and yet still feel like the kind of old friends one wants to visit with over and over again. It’s a book that works precisely because of the specificity of its characters and its setting in time and space, and Klages does a great job of balancing the reality of history with the light fantasy elements she introduces over the course of her story. It’s still early in the year, but I fully expect Passing Strange to make a lot of year’s best lists, my own included.

Structurally, Passing Strange is slightly odd, with a lopsided framing story that leads off with an almost too-long sequence in the modern day (or possibly the near future) that introduces an extended flashback and then a final very short coda that wraps up both stories with a clever punchline. While the payoff is totally worth it in the end, it did make for a bit of a slow start to the book, and I was a little disappointed that Helen Young didn’t get more page time in the middle parts, especially when there were other characters introduced who felt much less consequential overall as a consequence of the bookends of Helen’s present day story. The problem, however, is mostly a matter of managing expectations. It’s not that Helen is unimportant after all or that other characters are given too much importance in the narrative. It’s simply that the early focus on Helen kind of leads the reader to think we’re getting more of Helen’s story, and the realization that we’re not takes a while and then doesn’t fully make sense until very late in the book. That said, once I figured out what Klages was doing, I found it easy to appreciate the deliberate way in which she reveals her story.

Passing Strange is less a straightforward love story (though romance figures largely in it) and more a detailed portrait of a specific time and place and an examination of a particular set of experiences, here, the lives of queer women in San Francisco in the 1940s. I love the way Klages introduces her characters once the flashback starts, and the picture she paints of all these interconnected women, their struggles and friendships and the joy they have in spite of often difficult circumstances is vivid and real-feeling. Klages seamlessly weaves together scenes of sweetness with scenes of visceral pain without shying away from depicting the ugliness of the era (which is sadly not always very different from our current one) but without dwelling on darkness. It’s a balancing act that can be hard to manage, and Klages does so superbly, crafting a story that is true to reality but still ultimately optimistic.

If there’s any real complaint to be made about Passing Strange, it’s that the fantasy elements of the story are only slight until the very end, when magic is almost (but not quite) a deus ex machina. It’s hinted at throughout the book that magic is both real and not very uncommon, but there’s only one actual magical event of any significance, and it’s not tied to the other magics that are described elsewhere in the book. Just in general, I would have loved to see all of the various magic and witchery suggested in the story be expanded upon more fully, to be honest. The richness of 1940s San Francisco is a lush backdrop for the story already, but Klages hints at an equally rich world of magic just out of the reader’s sight.

All this said, Passing Strange is still a near-perfect novella. The few complaints I have about it all amount to just wanting more of it. I want more stories about women loving women, and I want them to have grand romances, magical adventures, and happy endings. As delightful as Haskell and Emily and their friends are, they aren’t enough. Passing Strange deserves to be more than a singular work of its type, and if Ellen Klages ever decides to revisit this setting or any of these characters, I’m here for it. If anyone else is writing anything like this I’m looking for it.

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