Category Archives: Books

Book Review: Amberlough by Lara Elena Donnelly

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley

The Stars Are Legion is almost certainly the sunniest novel Kameron Hurley has ever written, which was a pleasant surprise. At the same time, it’s still very recognizably a Kameron Hurley novel, with its badass women, moral ambiguity, and copious grossness. It might be the most ambitious Hurley novel to date, at least thematically; it’s a smart, quick read; and it’s full of the inventive worldbuilding that Hurley is best known for. That it’s a standalone novel rather than the first in yet another new series that I’d have to follow for several years is just icing on the cake.

To start with, there are only women characters in this book. They live in a vast fleet of living world ships and reproduce through a kind of parthenogenesis that doesn’t always produce human babies. Unfortunately, the world ships are sick and dying, and the women who inhabit the ships are at war with each other. It’s against this backdrop that we’re introduced to Zan, who has no memories as well as a quest and an arduous journey ahead of her, and Jayd, who has a valuable womb and a complicated, high stakes plan that takes several hundred pages to unfold. The book has been called, somewhat jokingly, Lesbians in Space, and this has even been adopted as something of a marketing phrase for the title. However, though all the women in the book are lesbians, there’s not much romance to be had, the sexual relationships depicted are dysfunctional at best, and the overall tone of the novel is much darker than that blithe description, humorous as it is, would indicate. I was only mildly disappointed by this, but it does seem like a failure to manage reader expectations.

That said, Hurley’s choice to have only women characters is an excellent one for the story she’s telling. War is a common theme in Hurley’s work, and complex highly stratified societies are recurring as well. Here, the decision to have complex, highly stratified and brutal societies made up of only women makes it impossible to interpret them through the lens of patriarchy. The violence endured and meted out by the characters in The Stars Are Legion isn’t gendered, and we’re able to examine it as a function of corrupt hierarchical systems without the complication of sexist gender dynamics. Hurley creates a truly alien world that frees her characters from real-world constraints and expectations and frees herself as an author from having to communicate her ideas about war, pregnancy and birth, violence and abuse, and healing with any consideration of men’s opinions, points of view or desires. This is a novel that is probably as free of the male gaze as it’s possible for a book to be, and that’s refreshing.

As always, Hurley’s worldbuilding is excellent, and the enormous world ships she imagines are just marvelous. The first part of the book is full of almost over-the-top ugliness as we first meet Zan and Jayd and are introduced to the warring spacefaring families they are members of. The world ships themselves are living things, metal is rare, and everything seems to be at least slightly sticky and/or oozing. The women themselves are battle-scarred and often cruel, even our protagonists, and things get even weirder and more viscerally disgusting when Zan finds herself “recycled,” cast down into the bowels of the ship where she finds a great abattoir ruled by enormous woman-eating beasts. Hurley’s vivid description is at times slightly overwhelming in this section, and readers without a stomach for gore may find it deeply unpleasant. If you make it through the first part of the book, however, it pays off big time. Zan’s journey back to the top of the world is compelling stuff, and the slow reveal of Zan’s history and purpose as she journeys through alien lands to finally achieve what she and Jayd planned together is masterfully executed. The other women Zan meets along the way are fascinating characters as well, and the lands they move through are less bloody than the areas described in part one but just as slimily odd and even more wonderful.

If there’s any major criticism that can be levied against this book it’s that Zan is almost too interesting. Her story tends to dominate the book, and it’s so full of adventure and excitement that Jayd’s story of political maneuvering, manipulation, and patiently waiting and hoping for Zan to return has a hard time holding the reader’s interest. In the end, it’s Zan who must make pivotal decisions and take actions to create a different ending to a story that has played out in many variations many times before. It’s not that Jayd is uninteresting or even particularly passive. It’s just that Zan has an epic journey to take in search of her own identity, while Jayd’s struggle to survive by her wits and charm doesn’t have nearly as much sightseeing to it. While Zan and Jayd have a close to equal number of POV chapters, Jayd’s story never has as much room to breathe as Zan’s, and nothing Jayd does feels quite as consequential as what Zan does.

Still, The Stars Are Legion ticks off a lot of boxes on my list of things I want to read. I love difficult and unlikable female characters, and Jayd and Zan are a pair of glorious, passionate, murderous bitches like no others. I never get tired of Kameron Hurley’s weird fixation on bugs and organic tech and lavishly described gore. An all-women space opera with war and generation ships and parthenogenesis and a bit of a hero’s journey and a message, ultimately, of something like hope? Perfect.

Book Review: Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Comic Review: Lady Castle #1

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

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

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