Category Archives: Fantasy

Recent Reads: Tor.com’s October 2017 Novellas

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
by Tade Thompson

Pub Date: 10/3

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

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

A Long Day in Lychford
by Paul Cornell

Pub Date: 10/10

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

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

Weaver’s Lament
by Emma Newman

Pub Date: 10/17

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

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

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

Switchback
by Melissa F. Olson

Pub Date: 10/24

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

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

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

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

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

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

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

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

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.