Category Archives: Book Reviews

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.”

 

Book Review: INFOMOCRACY and NULL STATES by Malka Older

It took me a long time to read Malka Older’s Infomocracy. I couldn’t get into it right away when it came out last summer, and then the 2016 election happened and it was, perhaps understandably, just far too painful, upsetting and infuriating for me to even think about reading a book centered around election shenanigans for a good while. After a couple of false starts earlier this year, I picked up the paperback of Infomocracy and couldn’t put it down. Luckily, I had an ARC of Null States waiting for me when I finished it. The downside, of course, is that I have to wait another full year for the next installment of the series. The Centenal Cycle so far is a brilliantly clever, deeply entertaining, and extremely timely series full of great characters and smart insights into the back-end business of politics and governance.

Though it’s not hard to see how some readers may interpret the series as dystopian, perhaps my favorite thing about the Centenal Cycle is that it’s decidedly optimistic about the power of systems and public servants to achieve positive change in the world. Older recognizes the flaws in institutions and the people administering them, but in a profoundly (and refreshingly) humanist move she also recognizes the power of individuals to enact change, for good or ill. The micro-democracy depicted in the books isn’t perfect, but it’s an improvement on our current system of government, and Older does an excellent job of exploring both the possibilities and pitfalls of such a system. The global organization of Information is key to both the successes and challenges of micro-democracy, and Older’s nuanced look at the ways in which media affects elections and the ways in which information can be manipulated and controlled to achieve desired outcomes is as timely as it is erudite and insightful.

In a SFF landscape that reveres meticulously detailed worldbuilding, the world of the Centenal books stands out as an example of a setting that isn’t so much built as it is just perfectly realized. Every inch of it feels real and lived-in. They say one ought to write what one knows, and Malka Older knows a good deal about a lot of things (or at least did a lot of research to make it seem like she does), which makes for a pair of novels that work on every level. The technological advances she describes feel plausible, and the ways in which technology is used—for travel, surveillance, security, media consumption, and so on—make sense and are entirely natural-seeming extrapolations from current trends. A particularly nice touch is the names of political parties in micro-democracy. Groups like Heritage, Liberty, PhilipMorris and others are clear references to current political factions and business interests, and it’s easy to imagine how those power players would survive and thrive in the kind of political environment created by micro-democracy.

The greatest thing about these books, however, isn’t the political wonkery (though that is a quality I deeply appreciated); it’s the characters. Mishima is a consummate badass, and Ken is a perfect complement for her. They’re both easy to root for, and their intertwining stories as they work both apart and together to foil a massive conspiracy in Infomocracy are highly entertaining. The main protagonist of Null States, Roz, is something else, however. Like Mishima and Ken, she’s tough and smart and resourceful and principled, but Roz’s work in Darfur is very different than either Mishima’s or Ken’s. The stakes in Null States are, at least on the surface, less global in scale, and they’re certainly much more personal as Roz gets to know the people of the area. What’s most lovable about Roz isn’t her capability or strength but her capacity for empathy, and this quality is a driving force in her narrative. Much of Roz’s story is about the ways in which empathy, caring for others and openness to new ideas and different points of view is integral to public service, and I love that Malka Older imagined Roz to embody so many of those qualities, even if she does have to grow into them a little over the course of her book. Also, Suleyman is a babe.

The optimism of the Centenal Cycle isn’t obvious, judging by the number of people who call the books dystopia, but it’s my kind of optimism. It’s not the optimism that there’s some perfect system of government that’s the silver bullet to solve all the world’s problems or that aliens are going to show up on the eve of a technological revolution and save us all. It’s the optimism that hard work and decency never go entirely out of fashion, that they pay off and that individuals can and do make a difference. It’s the reminder that the arc of history bends towards progress and that we don’t have to have all the answers in order to do some good. And all that optimism is conveyed not with speeches or platitudes, but through the actions of Mishima, Ken, Roz and others. I cannot wait to find out what these characters do next.

Recent Reads: Summer Magazines and Short Fiction

One of the few New Year’s resolutions I’ve kept this year was to read more short fiction, and I’ve been doing that largely through magazines. It’s a great way of discovering new-to-me authors and catching on early to new trends in genre publishing, and after many years of not reading much short fiction I’ve been having a great time rediscovering  all the things I loved so much about short fiction in the first place. Here’s what I’ve been reading and loving lately:

Apex Magazine #99:
A Celebration of Indigenous American Fantasists

I’m generally not a cover-to-cover reader of Apex Magazine, instead reading whatever sounds good when their content shows up online for free, but I recently subscribed to it,. It turned out to be the perfect time to do so. #99 was the first issue I got, and it’s one that’s definitely worth reading cover-to-cover. Guest-edited by Amy H. Sturgis, it’s got non-fiction by Daniel Heath Justice and Daniel José Older and four wonderful short stories by indigenous women. The highlights, however, are “Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience” by Rebecca Roanhorse, an absolutely gutting near-ish future sci-fi story about Native identity and the harm caused by cultural appropriation, and “Skinny Charlie’s Orbiting Teepee” by Pamela Rentz, which tackles some similar themes with a lighter, more humorous touch in a very different sci-fi setting.

FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 3: Sundown Towns

FIYAH continues to do exactly what it promised when the project was announced, delivering a solid collection of black speculative fiction in a gorgeously packaged quarterly publication. In fact, though it may just be the bright, warm colors on this one, but I think Geneva Benton has delivered the best cover art to date on this issue. I was hoping for a vampire story, which the issue did not deliver, but Sundown Towns nonetheless offers a great selection of takes on its theme. If you only have time for one story from the issue, though, be sure to make it Danny Lore’s “The Last Exorcist.” “Toward the Sun” by Sydnee Thompson and “Cracks” by Xen are also excellent, but “The Last Exorcist” is the story I continue to find myself thinking about weeks later. Also, I don’t know of another publication that’s sharing issue playlists with each issue, and if there is I know it can’t be as good as the ones from FIYAH. Check this out.

Uncanny Magazine, Issue 17: July/Aug 2017

Issue 17 of Uncanny is, for Uncanny, pretty middle-of-the-road, but Uncanny is an unusually and consistently excellent publication. There’s a good interview with Maurice Broaddus, whose fictional contribution to the issue, “The Ache of Home,” is also well worth reading. I loved “A Nest of Ghosts, a House of Birds” by Kat Howard and “Packing” by T. Kingfisher (I always love a T. Kingfisher story). Mary Robinette Kowal’s “The Worshipful Society of Glovers” is an interesting and surprisingly dark fairy tale in the mode of “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” while Seanan McGuire offers a charming origin story for Maine Coon cats in “How the Maine Coon Cat Learned to Love the Sea.” Sarah Gailey’s essay, “Why Millennials Yearn for Magical School,” fell a little flat with me, likely because I’m just old enough to not really identify with it, like, at all, but I saw it floating around Twitter enough to know that it hit its mark with those less crotchety than me. If you like poetry, I thought “Domovoi” by Rose Lemberg and “Questions We Asked for the Girls Turned to Limbs” by Chloe N. Clark were the standouts this issue.

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #232

I’m an infrequent reader of Beneath Ceaseless Skies, but I always read issues that feature work by authors I like. The major draw for me in #232 was a new story by Benjanun Sriduangkaew. “No Pearls as Blue as These” is a gorgeously clever queer romance with a great setting, a fascinating protagonist and a nicely hopeful message that makes it pretty much exactly the sort of thing I want to read these days. “Red Bark and Ambergris” by Kate Marshall turned out to be a nice bonus, a well-conceived and fresh take on a story of a lady poisoner that works well as a thematic complement to Sriduangkaew’s story. At the website, though it’s not in the ebook version of the issue, BCS recommends the courtly romance/quest story “Y Brenin” by Cae Hawksmoor, which is always worth a reread (or a first read, if you haven’t read it yet, you barbarian).

Fireside Fiction

The most important thing I’ve read recently in Fireside is actually non-fiction. Their second annual #BlackSpecFic Report came out last month, and it’s a must-read for anyone working in publishing or with more than a passing interest in the genre. Don’t miss the extra articles and interviews that go along with it.

I’ve still been slowly making my way through Infomocracy by Malka Older, but I loved her short story in that same universe, “Narrative Disorder,” and her follow-up essay about it.

“The Witch in the Tower” by Mari Ness is a short, smart reimagining of “Rapunzel.”

Finally, Fireside is publishing a new serial story by Sarah Gailey, The Fisher of Bones, and the first two chapters (“Naming” and “Cycle”) are available now.

Tor.com

I’m about to start never shutting up about J.Y. Yang’s Tor.com novellas, The Black Tides of Heaven and The Red Threads of Fortune, now that we’re getting closer to the publication date (9/26) but in the meantime you should read Yang’s Tor.com short story, “Waiting on a Bright Moon.”

Cassandra Khaw recently released the perfectly delightful urban fantasy novella Bearly a Lady at The Book Smugglers, and she’s got another Lovecraftian novella, A Song for Quiet, coming out this coming Tuesday (8/29) from Tor.com, but if you’re getting antsy for another Cassandra Khaw story, “These Deathless Bones” just came out a couple weeks ago.

A new Kai Ashante Wilson story just came out yesterday. You should go read “The Lamentation of Their Women” as soon as possible, and, while you’re at it, read (or re-read) his 2014 story, “The Devil in America.” It’s only getting more and more timely and important.

Recent Reads: Comics and Graphic Novels

Victor LaValle’s Destroyer
Issues 2 and 3
by Victor LaValle and
Dietrich Smith

The first issue of Destroyer was all promise, with it’s compelling and timely premise and gorgeous artwork. Issues 2 and 3 deliver on a lot of that promise. There’s a lot more action in these issues as well as a lot more depth of feeling as we delve into the real meat of the story. The literary allusions are a little on the nose, especially in a work that’s a little too serious to fall under the category of pastiche, but as the story gets darker I find these humorous nods to the book’s inspirations to be a welcome bit of lightheartedness. Also, and probably because I’m not a great reader of comic books, my favorite thing about this series so far is Victor LaValle’s essay at the end of Issue 3 where he writes about how the two different endings of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein led him to write this comic.

Kim & Kim Vol. 1
by Magdalene Visaggio, Eva Cabrera, Claudia Aguirre, Zakk Saam, and Katy Rex

Full disclosure: Kim & Kim was an impulse buy because I happened to see someone mention it on Twitter right when I was looking for something to put me over the $25 threshold for free shipping. It sounded cute, but it turned out to be even more fun than expected, a nice balance of sci-fi bounty hunting adventures and character-driven drama with a bright, punk rock aesthetic. The only downside of the book is that Issue 4 ends on a little bit of a sad note, and it’s not clear if/when there’s going to be an Issue 5. In the meantime, however, Kim & Kim creator Magdalene Visaggio is currently offering free pdf copies of Volume 1 to anyone who donates at least $20 to The Trevor Project or Trans Lifeline through Friday, August 4, 2017:

Monstress Volume 2: The Blood
by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

The second trade paper installment of Monstress is, like the first, a true thing of beauty. Every page is filled with Sana Takeda’s sumptuous artwork, which is in turn full of gorgeous details, erudite flourishes that reference numerous artistic inspirations, and subtly lovely colors that marvelously convey setting and mood. With a title like “The Blood” I was rather expecting more of the same unflinching brutality as in the first book, but that’s not so much the case. Instead, this volume combines Maika’s continued search for answers about her identity, the increasing danger posed by the Monstrum that lives inside her, and a seafaring journey with a fascinating and visually distinctive new cast of minor characters.

Angel Catbird, Vol. 3:
The Catbird Roars
by Margaret Atwood, Johnnie Christmas, and Tamra Bonvillain

Angel Catbird has never been more than a light, fun likely-vanity project of Margaret Atwood’s, and it didn’t suddenly transform to something more profound in its final volume. The Catbird Roars has the same deliciously silly verbal puns and visual gags that characterized the first two volumes, the same occasional side-barred cat facts encouraging readers to keep their pets indoors, and the same fast-paced absurdist plot that has our heroes dealing with the evil rat army once and for all. The biggest thing that sets this volume apart from the rest is the excellent foreword by Kelly Sue DeConnick, which tells us more of the inspirations and thought process behind Angel Catbird and to put it into a historical context that explains some of its quirks. As someone who is only lately getting into reading comics and doesn’t have a wide knowledge of the longer and broader history of the form, this information really helped me to understand and enjoy the book more fully.

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.