Category Archives: Novella

Book Review: Genrenauts #2, The Absconded Ambassador by Michael R. Underwood

When I read the first of Michael R. Underwood’s new Genrenauts series, I compared it to the pilot of a television show—it was a solid introduction to the series, but it had a lot of pilot episode problems. The Absconded Ambassador is a rather shaky second outing for the series, and it just didn’t work for me. This time the genrenauts travel to science fiction world, which was exciting, but Underwood didn’t really do anything particularly new or interesting with the setting. The Shootout Solution had a sort of twist that, while obvious, was an interesting exploration of western adventure tropes. There’s nothing like that here, which was a little bit of a letdown.

On the bright side, there was more character development for the main characters this time around, and Leah and the rest of the genrenauts are starting to feel a little more like real people. That said, Leah isn’t a particularly likeable character, but she’s also not unlikeable in any particularly interesting ways. She also shares a lot of screen time on this outing with other characters, but none of them are very memorable, either.

If you don’t have compelling characters, a great plot is a must, but the actual plot here is whisper thin. Very few things actually happen, and those that do aren’t very interesting. The peril caused by the kidnapping of the ambassador never feels very high stakes, and the more general danger of what could happen in the real world if a genre world breaks never manages to feel, well, real.

These issues may simply be due to the limitations of the short length of these novellas and the serial nature of the story, but it’s already hard to muster up any excitement for the next installment at this point. I’ve so far compared this series to a television show, but the problem with serial novella-length installments is that they don’t come out a week apart. The next one won’t be out until months from now, and that’s a long time to wait for mediocrity.

Book Review: The Devil You Know by K.J. Parker

Alright, so I loved this book, but I kind of hate that I did because it’s actually, objectively, a lot of things that I hate. Mostly, The Devil You Know is just not nearly as clever an idea as the author seems to think it is. Still, I just ate it up, and I tore through this little book in the space of an afternoon, it was so much fun. K.J. Parker has taken an idea that has been done before and freshens it up just the right amount, but without making it overly precious or smugly faux-intellectual.

The Devil You Know takes the unreliable narrator trope and multiplies it by two, telling its story from the twin perspectives of an actual (if unnamed) devil and the great philosopher, Saloninus. While there are a couple of point of view shifts that were easily missed—to the point I had to go back and reread once or twice—this mostly works. Saloninus in particular is a wildly clever and funny character, and the contrast between his confidence and the increasingly worried tones of his devil servant is consistently hilarious enough to make up for some of the story’s shortcomings.

The biggest problem that I had with The Devil You Know was the way that women were treated in the narrative. For one thing, there are no actual female characters in this book. There are hordes of nameless prostitutes, shipped in to entertain the menfolk, and there is the woman presumed to be Saloninus’s ex-wife. The sheer lack of agency and importance of these women isn’t particularly surprising, but the way in which both Saloninus and his devil callously use women makes it difficult to truly root for either of them. It’s one thing to have a story with few or no women, but it’s something else entirely to have two essentially misogynistic point of view characters and expect them to be universally appealing.

Regardless, I rather found myself liking both Saloninus and his devil in spite of myself. Saloninus is a wonderfully wicked and manipulative character, but he is only human. The devil has the air of a sort of harried bureaucrat. His anxiety about the contract with Saloninus is palpable, and it’s highly entertaining to experience the devil’s warring feelings about the philosopher. Neither character is particularly compelling, and they definitely aren’t breaking any new ground, but they are both better-than-middling examples of their types.

While the story’s ending is somewhat telegraphed and certainly not very original, Parker manages to mostly make it work. It wraps up a little too quickly and neatly, if anything, and it would have been nice to see things go down in a way that was a little less expected. However, it’s a solidly entertaining story that one doesn’t have to think too hard about. Sometimes, that’s good enough, and this is one of those times.

This review is based upon a free advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

The Ballad of Black Tom opens with a dedication, “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” which is a handy summary of how many, if not most, modern readers feel about Lovecraft. Victor LaValle has written at some length elsewhere about his history with Lovecraft’s work and how he was inspired to write this novella in response to the Lovecraft story “The Horror at Red Hook,” so I won’t rehash that all here. Suffice it to say that The Ballad of Black Tom functions as both an indictment of and a love letter to Lovecraft, but it’s also a great story in its own right and is sure to be one of the best novella-length works of 2016.

It also doesn’t actually require a familiarity with the material that inspired it, although it does help. Even just a basic knowledge of Lovecraft’s work and his major themes will enrich your reading of LaValle’s novella and place The Ballad of Black Tom in proper context. While there’s definitely a vast difference in the length of Black Tom and the short story that inspired it, the biggest difference here is one of narrative scope. LaValle brings Tommy Tester and his contemporaries to life in a way that is directly contrary to Lovecraft’s fantasy of immigrant communities as unwashed, faceless hordes to be controlled and exploited by one malevolently erudite old white dude. Victor LaValle has done his research and combined it with his own lived reality in order to resurrect for the reader a specific time and place and people, and “The Horror at Red Hook”, in comparison, ends up looking like exactly what it is—the paranoid imaginings of a very sheltered, racist white man.

Whereas Lovecraft viewed immigrants and brown people with the same degree of horror with which we might think of tentacle monster gods in the depths of the ocean, LaValle is consistently clear on what the horrors are in Black Tom. At the same time, though, LaValle eschews any simple dichotomy of good and evil, instead preferring to explore ideas about how and why evil is made and used—and what it means when different people use it. When the climax of The Ballad of Black Tom comes, it’s a scene of catharsis that is both exhilarating to read and uncomfortable to feel so exhilarated about.

It’s a powerful reclamation of the racist narrative that Lovecraft created nearly a century ago, and it’s more wonderful and more unsettling than anything Lovecraft could have thought up. It’s a viscerally effecting and definitive illustration of the ways in which Lovecraft’s own biases and neuroses hindered him from telling this story in the way it deserves to be told. Victor LaValle has rehabilitated it and made it perfectly his own.

Book Review: A Song for No Man’s Land by Andy Remic

A Song for No Man’s Land is a dull, depressing slog of a novella that never seems to figure out what it wants to say. For all of its short length, it seems to drag on interminably before finally sputtering to a stop right when things seemed to almost start to get interesting. It is the first book in a series of at least three, so perhaps that can be forgiven, but I’m not sure I care enough about Robert Jones to want to come back for more.

The story alternates fairly rhythmically between Robert’s time as a soldier during World War I and his childhood in rural Wales, but neither setting is particularly compelling. Robert’s time in the war is characterized by pretty run-of-the-mill WWI imagery and tropes while the flashbacks to his youth are mostly concerned with introducing the story’s mystical elements. However, the use of Scandinavian mythology (the hulder) seems out of place in a story about a Welshman as well as in a story about WWI. I’m not averse to the idea of forest spirits being upset or angry at the destruction of war (that would be very Princess Mononoke), but it seems an odd choice to co-opt the forest spirits of a neutral country where there was no actual fighting during the war. Alternatively, the forest spirits could be a reference to some similar German creatures, but that still doesn’t explain what they would be doing hanging around in Wales while Robert Jones was a kid.

The other characters introduced never manage to come truly alive, though Bainbridge comes closest. Instead, they’re all simply passing through, and they don’t even seem to have much impact on Robert, much less on the reader. Even Robert’s supposed friend, George, appears abruptly in the final quarter of the book only to come to a senselessly tragic end that left me wondering why he was introduced at all. The only women mentioned are either decidedly subservient figures (mothers, a sister, a nurse) who exist only to coo over or fuck the men in the story—well, mostly just Robert—or they are the demonically horrific Skogsrå that has apparently been menacing Robert Jones since he was a little boy.

The horror elements of A Song for No Man’s Land are sadly underdeveloped. The abovementioned appropriated mythology is made regrettably generic, and the monsters themselves are left largely to the reader’s imagination. I believe that Andy Remic was trying to rely on building a horrific atmosphere and crafting a feeling of terror through language, but his workmanlike prose is just not up to the task. Furthermore, the decision to replace vulgarities with “______” is described in an introductory note as a hat tip to the time of the book’s setting, but it comes off as coy, distracting, and frankly confusing as it’s often not clear what the censored term ought to be. This choice might have made sense if the overall tone of the writing was made to feel antiquated, but in a book that is otherwise modern in its style it just feels like an on the nose anachronism.

One of the reasons I read all of Tor.com’s novellas is because doing so encourages me to read outside my comfort zone and try new things that I wouldn’t normally pick up. Often, this has paid off big time; it’s been nice to discover several new authors to follow, and it’s interesting to read stuff that isn’t my usual cup of tea. Unfortunately, this time it just didn’t work out that way. A Song for No Man’s Land might be a great story for the right reader, but I just couldn’t like it.

Book Review: The Seventh Bride by T. Kingfisher

The Seventh Bride is, loosely, a retelling of “Bluebeard,” which is a nice change from the more common fairy tale retellings that populate most shelves. I don’t see “Bluebeard” pop up that often in the vast sea of princess stories that seem to get almost obligatorily reimagined on a perennial basis, so right out of the gate I was predisposed to love this story because it was so obviously a fresh perspective. It turns out to be much more than just a simple retelling of an old tale, however. The Seventh Bride is a beautiful, clever, funny story about power, abuse, revenge, and—above all—the ties of shared experiences that bind women together and the vital importance of women loving and supporting each other.

Rhea is the fifteen-year-old daughter of a miller in a small town, and while she always did expect to be married someday, she didn’t expect to find herself engaged so young and rather against her will to the wealthy (and sinister) Lord Crevan. Although Rhea’s parents are good, loving people who want their daughter to be happy, there’s very little they can do to prevent the marriage. The marriage to the much older, more powerful, and creepy man isn’t ideal, but peasants don’t say no to lords. When Rhea goes to live at Crevan’s house before the actual wedding takes place, however, she finds out that things are much worse than she thought they were. Not only has Crevan been married before, but his previous wives aren’t dead. Well, mostly.

Perhaps what I love best about Rhea is that she’s such a refreshingly ordinary girl. This is characteristic of much of T. Kingfisher’s (Ursula Vernon in disguise) work, and so far I have never not been delighted by the total lack of exceptionalism among her heroines. It’s not that her girls and women don’t have any exceptional qualities; Rhea, for example, is exceptionally tenacious, brave, kind, and principled. It’s just that there’s nothing about a T. Kingfisher heroine that is ever framed as “not like other girls.” I feel like this shouldn’t be noteworthy, but “not like other girls” is sadly too often the shorthand authors use in order to create “strong female characters” so I’m always happy—especially in work about and for teenage girls—to see girl characters who are allowed to exist without being shown as constantly in competition with other girls and women.

Instead of just one exceptional girl, Ursula Vernon creates a whole cast of diverse and compelling women who, ultimately, have to work together in order to defeat the man who has harmed them all and fight back against a system that gives them little recourse to address the injustices they’ve been subjected to. It’s a powerfully feminist message that resonates with a deep and abiding truth that many women will relate to and all girls need to hear. At the same time, it’s a story that isn’t preachy and never gets bogged down in messaging. Rather, it’s a fast-paced tale that utilizes some familiar fairytale tropes and subverts others, all while taking place in a well-drawn and richly detailed fantasy world that is steeped in whimsy but never overly precious.

With The Seventh Bride, Vernon continues to prove herself as a consistent producer of marvelously enchanting fairy tale stories. She knows her genre and audience well enough to perfectly walk the line between comfortingly familiar and delightfully fresh and subversive.

Book Review: Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

As is often the case with  popular fairy tales, there’s very little new story to be wrung out of “Beauty and the Beast” these days, so I was a little skeptical of Bryony and Roses. Even after reading T. Kingfisher’s (a pen name of Ursula Vernon) Toad Words and Other Stories, which is full of superb fairy tale reimaginings, I was unsure if there was anything she could do to freshen up such an old and well-worn story path. An opening note that admitted an enormous debt to Robin McKinley, whose Rose Daughter is perhaps the definitive feminist “Beauty and the Beast,” was frankly more concerning than reassuring. I ought not have worried so much. Just like in her earlier fairy tale work, Vernon-as-Kingfisher does an incredible job of exploring and revitalizing ancient material, infusing it with a bright, modern, thoroughly feminist (and unequivocally delightful) sensibility.

Bryony and Roses is clearly heavily influenced by Rose Daughter. Let’s get that out of the way, first. However, it’s been nearly twenty years since the release of that book, almost forty years since McKinley’s first “Beauty and the Beast” retelling, Beauty, and close to twenty-five years since the release of Disney’s animated version. There’s also been any number of other retellings of the story, with perhaps a handful of significant new versions in any given year. While Bryony and Roses shares some ideas and motifs with Rose Daughter, it also owes a considerable amount to other versions of the story, if in no other way than that it’s very obvious that Ursula Vernon went into writing this tale with a long list of things not to do and a few tropes that she specifically seems to have set out to upend.

**Spoilers Ahead** Continue reading Book Review: Bryony and Roses by T. Kingfisher

Book Review: The Drowning Eyes by Emily Foster

I expected to love The Drowning Eyes, but I’m sad to say I only liked it. The gorgeous cover art and the book’s description had me very excited about it, but it just wasn’t quite what I expected.

In spite of the way the book description reads, The Drowning Eyes is told almost entirely from Tazir’s point of view. I had expected it to be more equally split between Tazir and Shina, so this was a disappointment. Worse, Shina’s viewpoint was utilized suboptimally in addition to simply being underused; while it did offer a point of view through which the reader is given some extra information, mostly about Shina herself, there’s just not enough of it, and Tazir’s stronger personality is much more interesting and entertaining to read. Instead of being a good complement to Tazir’s sections, Shina’s brief POV scenes ended up being a somewhat irritating distraction from the real meat of the story.

I also thought there would be more swashbuckling adventure. Disappointingly, there was basically none. This was largely made up for by Shina’s actually really fascinating weather magic and the accompanying sort of religious order that she’s part of, but still. I feel like I was promised pirates, and all I received was the rather mysterious Dragon Ships, which are never really explained very well and aren’t actually that big a threat to the characters over the course of the journey described in the book. This also has the effect of making it feel throughout the book as if we’re being told over and over again how high the stakes are without it being backed up by any action that the reader is privy to.

It’s a problem, particularly when the personal stakes are plenty high enough to carry the story all on its own. Shina’s trauma could have been handled better and given a little more page space, and I would have loved to see more interaction with Shina and Tazir regarding Shina’s decision to give up her eyes. I love the whole idea of this practice, personally; all the best magic systems have heavy costs for power, and this is one that deserves to be explored more than it was. Tazir in general is a fascinating example of a type of female character that doesn’t usually get to exist—a somewhat grizzled, world-weary, and slightly misanthropic sea captain. I would read a dozen books about her adventures is Emily Foster would just write them. The supporting characters of Kodin and Chaqal are somewhere between underdeveloped and superfluous—especially Kodin—but this is something that, again, could be helped by just a couple more pages dedicated to each of them.

Where things really fell apart for me in this book was the abrupt ending to Shina’s quest and the disorienting shift five years into the future. Frankly, I just don’t care for it, and I would rather have seen Shina’s search for the idol wrapped up a little more neatly. The break between Chaqal and Tazir and then the one between Tazir and Kodin could have still been handled similarly, but closer to the events that actually precipitated these changes in the characters’ relationships. I suppose there’s something to be said for capturing the messiness of human relationships or something, but I would rather read a story that shows things happening instead of reminisces on them years after the fact.

Even with my criticisms of it taken into account, The Drowning Eyes is a wildly enjoyable novella. It’s full of a lot of things that I love in fantasy, and I sincerely hope that it’s part of some larger fantasy setting that we’re only just being introduced to. Probably the biggest issue I have with this novella is that it feels very much as if it’s only a part of something much larger, and I feel frustrated at not having that something larger in my hands to read right now.

Book Review: Lustlocked by Matt Wallace

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

Lustlocked is the second in Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series, which began with the riotously funny Envy of Angels late last year. When I read the earlier volume, it was as part of my ongoing project of reading all of Tor.com’s new novellas, but I didn’t expect to like it much. Instead I found it quite enjoyable—smart and fast and a thoroughly fun read. I couldn’t wait for Lustlocked, and I was not disappointed.

It picks up more or less right where Envy of Angels ended, with Lena and Darren still kind of reeling from their experiences during their first days on the job at Sin du Jour and now faced with the decision of whether or not to sign on to the company on a more permanent basis. Of course they do, or there’d be very little story left to tell, and they (and we) quickly learn that there’s never a boring day at this catering outfit. The first job after Lena and Darren sign their contracts is a huge formal wedding for goblin royalty, which quickly gets out of hand when the bride complains that her in-laws aren’t always as nice to her as they could be and resident witch Boosha decides to do something about it.

Where Envy felt a little disjointed and too busy, with the fish-out-of-water story of Lena and Darren seeming almost incidental to the various other, more interesting storylines happening around it, Lustlocked finds a much better balance. There’s still an awful lot going on, including a sort of prologue that still seems somewhat out of place and disconnected from the main plot, which concerns a goblin wedding, but Lustlocked never feels overstuffed the way its predecessor sometimes did. Aside from the prologue, things flow along at a respectable and pleasantly methodical pace.

Where this second installment of the (hopefully open-ended and long-running) series really shines, though, is in continuing to bring to life its world and characters. Every new revelation about the mythology Matt Wallace is creating for this series is a new delight, and between Lustlocked itself and the bonus short story at the end (which was an excellent surprise) there was a ton of character background and development. I loved the sequence where Lena and Darren are being given a tour of the building, where I was glad to meet a couple of new characters. Wallace’s descriptions of food are delectably creative and full of vivid sensory descriptions, while his knowledge of the restaurant/catering/food business is definitely up to the task of making Sin du Jour feel like a real and lived-in place.

My only real criticism of the series so far is that I’m not quite sure what exactly Darren is there for. He didn’t make much of an impression on me in Envy, and he wasn’t much more present in Lustlocked. While Lena is really coming into her own as a character, Darren just kind of… exists. In a series as jam-packed with characters as this one, especially when being told in novella-length pieces, I kind of feel like every character really needs to exist for a specific reason. Lena is his roommate, and even she doesn’t seem to like or think about Darren very much at all, so he sadly ends up feeling superfluous.

In a bittersweet-in-hindsight turn of events, I read Lustlocked the day that David Bowie died, which feels a little like destiny, as it’s heavily implied in the book that David Bowie is/was an actual goblin king. I think this book might always be a little special to me because of that, as it’s a lovely tribute to the man, and one that I especially like because it is such pure, unadulterated fun. Of course David Bowie could be actual goblin royalty—IRL headcanon accepted.

Book Review: Patchwerk by David Tallerman

I received a free advance copy of this title from the publisher via NetGalley.

I had no idea what to expect when I opened Patchwerk, aside from what the cover blurb says about it, so it was a complete and mostly pleasant surprise. I’d never heard of David Tallerman before, and this is the only thing I’ve ever read by him. Patchwerk is a type of sci-fi story that I don’t usually seek out—the “man invents something ill-advised and hijinks ensue” sort—so it was an interesting change of pace, although it was a great follow-up to Microsoft’s Future Visions anthology of “harder” sci-fi, which I just recently finished.

In some ways, Patchwerk is an interestingly experimental work, told in a series of alternate universe vignettes, each beginning where the previous one left off so that the reader learns what is going on at about the same rate as the characters do. At the same time, I figured it out before I think I was supposed to when I read it, so that the revelation when it came felt a little redundant and slightly condescending. It felt as if Tallerman thought he was being a good deal cleverer than he actually was when he came up with the concept for the book. Still, it wasn’t a particularly egregious example of this flaw, and the concept works well in other ways even if it fails somewhat as a tool for creating suspense.

What Patchwerk lacks in suspense—the stakes are said to be high (or at least implied to be), but things never do feel all that dire, and the ending was a little too pat—it makes up for in sheer action packed-ness. At no point was I ever bored reading this little book, and I finished it almost entirely in one sitting, on the edge of my seat the whole time. Though I complain that I figured some things out before the book confirmed them, I was so delighted with what was going on that it didn’t bother me at all while reading.

Perhaps my only significant complaint about this novella is a technical one. While I’d have to reread it to find specific examples, it seemed as if Tallerman shifted pretty freely between a close third person point of view focused on Dran and an omniscient narrator with some insights to Karen that Dran wouldn’t have been privy to on his own, and this was sometimes distracting. It might have benefited from another close read during the editing process to clarify some random-seeming point of view shifts that were a little distracting.

This definitely isn’t my favorite of Tor.com’s novellas, but it’s another solid entry into the catalog, and I’m glad to have read it. While it didn’t tickle my fancy as much as Of Sorrow and Such or Binti or Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, it was a nice journey outside my usual sub-genre choices, and it gave me something to think about for the afternoon that I read it.

Book Review: Genrenauts #1, The Shootout Solution by Michael R. Underwood

Genrenauts: The Shootout Solution is the first in a new series of novellas by Michael R. Underwood that explores and interrogates genre tropes with a premise that is basically like what would happen if the mid-90s television show Sliders got mashed together with the popular fiction section of a Barnes & Noble. It’s a fun idea, and it more or less works.

Leah Tang is a great protagonist who’s funny, smart and resourceful. It’s not often that an Asian-American woman gets to be front and center in a speculative genre, and this makes her a great choice to take the lead in a story that is very overt in its critical examination of genre standards. It’s nice to see Leah’s race and gender considered as positive job qualifications that, along with her background as a stand-up comedian, make her uniquely and especially qualified for the work the Genrenauts are doing.

Starting the series off with a look at the Western genre, which isn’t widely read these days by the under-60 crowd, is an especially smart move on the part of the author. I expect that this is the genre that younger readers will be least familiar with, which makes it a perfect introduction to the Genrenauts world and an ideal backdrop for establishing characters and easing the audience in to some of the deeper ideas that Underwood is concerned with.

As an exploration of genre as a concept and an in-depth look at some of the more widely used tropes of genre fiction, The Shootout Solution feels a little simplistic, though it hints at more sophisticated genre analysis to come. Hopefully, future books in this series will raise the stakes and broaden their scope, as this one never felt particularly dangerous, and the actual solution, when it’s discovered, was obvious and too-heavily telegraphed to surprise anyone with a higher than 101 level understanding of literary criticism.

The author himself has referred to this book as the “pilot episode” of this series, and it definitely reads like one. Much of what we get in The Shootout Solution is worldbuilding, character introductions, and set-up for the rest of the series, so this volume ends up a little light on plot. Like many a promising pilot, The Shootout Solution feels just incomplete enough on its own to make me want to come back for more of the series.