Category Archives: Novella

Book Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Reads: Tor.com’s October 2017 Novellas

The Murders of Molly Southbourne
by Tade Thompson

Pub Date: 10/3

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

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

A Long Day in Lychford
by Paul Cornell

Pub Date: 10/10

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

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

Weaver’s Lament
by Emma Newman

Pub Date: 10/17

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

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

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

Switchback
by Melissa F. Olson

Pub Date: 10/24

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

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

Starfire: A Red Peace
by Spencer Ellsworth

Pub Date: 8/22/17

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

A Song for Quiet
by Cassandra Khaw

Pub Date: 8/29/17

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

The Twilight Pariah
by Jeffrey Ford

Pub Date: 9/12/17

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

Taste of Marrow
by Sarah Gailey

Pub Date: 9/12/17

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

Recent Reads: The Book Smugglers Novella Initiative

With just eleven days left on the Kickstarter for the Book Smugglers’ Level Up, it feels like a good time to talk about the Book Smugglers’ newest publishing project, The Novella Initiative. Over the last couple of years, The Book Smugglers has quickly become one of the most exciting new markets for short fiction in SFF, and the Novella Initiative is (for me, especially, as a great lover of novella-length work in general) a thrilling new step in their evolution as publishers. Editors Thea James and Ana Grilo have shown a commitment to showcasing work from diverse voices and fresh points of view, and it’s great to see them expanding their work.

I reviewed their first novella, Dianna Gunn’s very nice YA fantasy romance, Keeper of the Dawn, earlier this year, and their second novella, Michele Tracy Berger’s excellent Reenu-You, merited an honorable mention in my Spring Reading Wrap-Up. This summer brought Cassandra Khaw’s delightful urban fantasy, Bearly a Lady (in July), and A.E. Ash’s smart and fast-paced Special Duty Assignment (August), and there’s still one more to go, Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Girl Reporter, planned for December.

About Keeper of the Dawn, I said that it “combines a smartly plotted adventure with a sweetly written romance in a richly imagined fantasy world,” though I did find it a little overstuffed with plot; it could easily have been a full-length novel, but it was nonetheless an enjoyable read. I didn’t write much about Reenu-You, partly because it dealt with race issues that I (as a white woman) didn’t feel equal to discussing or criticizing in any depth. However, it’s a story that still, months later, has stuck with me. Michele Tracy Berger’s take on corporate malfeasance and the importance solidarity and sisterhood is powerful and timely (and, frankly, likely to be more so in the years to come).

The first Book Smugglers novella of the summer was Cassandra Khaw’s Bearly a Lady, which is without a doubt the best (or at least my personal favorite) of their releases to date. It’s certainly the most polished of the series so far, largely absent some of the copy-editing issues that plagued (albeit very minorly–I’m just nit-picky) the first couple books. The thing about Bearly a Lady, however, is that it’s simply a great deal of fun, a smart, silly, sexy romp that was exactly what I wanted to read at the time, and I am very hopeful that Khaw will write more stories about Zelda the werebear and her friends. The book is also well worth picking up for Khaw’s essay on her influences and inspirations. I loved her thoughts on chick-lit, and she’s right-on about the way light, romantic reads for women are undersold and demeaned. As she says: “…there’s a place and time for darkness and grim ruminations, and there’s a place and time for bisexual werebears with killer wardrobes and a soft spot for pastries.”

The most recent Book Smugglers novella is Temporary Duty Assignment by A.E. Ash. Temporary Duty Assignment walks an interesting middle ground between Reenu-You‘s story of people injured an evil corporation and Bearly a Lady‘s light-hearted romance. The sci-fi elements of the book are thoughtful, but it’s the characters that take center stage. Super soldier Sam and scientist Caleb are both delightful, and it’s easy to root for them, both separately and together in this second chance romance. I could have gone for a bit more romance, personally, though I liked that what romance there was, while not without problems, wasn’t especially fraught or complicated. It’s always clear and easy to understand why Sam and Caleb want to be together, and their problems have been ones of timing rather than incompatibility or mistreatment of each other. All in all, Temporary Duty Assignment is a sweet, clever sci-fi romance that’s well worth reading, but if you aren’t sure and want a small taste before diving into the novella, A.E. Ash also has a prequel story, “Nice,” available for free on the Book Smugglers website.

The final Book Smugglers novella of 2017 will be Tansy Rayner Roberts’ superhero story, Girl Reporter, in December. It’s not available for pre-order just yet (I’ll update this post when it is), but it’s always a good time to read Roberts’ essay, “One Girl in the Justice League,” or her previous Book Smuggler’s novelette, “Kid Dark Against the Machine.”

 

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.

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 – Binti: Home by Nnedi Okorafor

I didn’t love Binti when I read it in 2015, in spite of having loved everything else I’d read by Nnedi Okorafor up to that point. It was on the short side for a novella, and I’d recently read Okorafor’s absolutely superb Lagoon, which set the bar high for Binti. There were things I loved about it, but I was definitely in the minority of readers who didn’t consider it one of the top novellas of the year, so I wasn’t sure how I would like Binti: Home. This book is about twice as long as its predecessor and addresses many of the things I considered shortcomings in Binti, though it does end on a particularly unsatisfying near-cliffhanger made even worse by the lack of release date for the planned third book that will complete the series.

The story in Home picks up with Binti and Okwu a year into their studies at Oomza University, and Binti is still struggling to deal with the trauma of her experiences in the first book as well as more generally with the transition to University life. I would have liked to read more about this, but instead the book moves on fairly quickly to Binti’s decision to return home, Okwu in tow, to visit her family and participate in a pilgrimage. There’s something to be said for jumping straight into things, but Binti spent the whole first book getting to university, and it’s somewhat disappointing to see her leaving again so quickly.

That said, part of the reason I struggled to connect with Binti in the first book was because I didn’t think there was a strong enough sense of who she was before she left Earth. In Home, however, we get a much fuller picture of what Binti’s life was like before she decided to go to Oomza. I loved getting to meet her family and friends, and Okorafor does a lovely job of examining how Binti has changed and how the loss of her has affected her community. There is a lot of wonderful exploration of the dynamics of this sort of close-knit family and community and the drama and upheaval caused Binti’s leaving and returning and likely leaving again. After leaving and undergoing so much drastic change and growth away from the other Himba, Binti has to face consequences that she didn’t expect.

I don’t think I realized quite how young Binti was in the first book, which made some things a little weird in this one. I guess because Oomza is a university I perceived Binti as more U.S. college-aged, which seemed backed up by the character’s seeming maturity and independence. In Home, it’s more clear that she’s still a teenager, and what I (in my thirties) would consider a young one. Back within the context of her family and community, Binti feels younger and much less sure of herself, which I found both interesting and frustrating. As happy as I was to see more of Binti with her family on Earth, in some ways her character in Home feels like a significant regression. It’s relatable, sure, to see her revert to some childish behaviors and dynamics with her parents and siblings, but it’s not always altogether enjoyable.

Still, Binti: Home is a significant improvement upon its predecessor. A lot more happens in this volume of Binti’s story, and Binti herself feels much more fully developed in general, even if she does feel very young at times. Okorafor’s themes about identity, home, and family are evergreen ones, and examining them through the story of a Himba girl transplanted across the galaxy and back again bring a freshly fascinating perspective to classic coming of age questions. My only real complaint about Binti: Home is the aforementioned cliffhanger ending. When I finished the last page, I was devastated to realize that was the end and that we don’t know yet when the rest of the story will be out. It needs to be soon.

This review is based upon a free advance copy of the title received from the publisher via NetGalley.