Tag Archives: 2016 Books

The Best of 2016: Novellas

love novellas, and this year they constituted about a third of my reading. I’m still reading almost all of the Tor.com novellas as they come out, and I’ve started paying more attention to other novella-length work, though I still stick to professionally published books rather than delving into the vast world of self-pubbed stuff out there. Consequently, this list is definitely a bit biased towards the Tor.com books, but I did try to check out some different stuff in 2016. If I missed one of your favorites, be sure to leave it in the comments.

Coral Bones by Foz Meadows
2016 was a good year for Foz Meadows, whose most recent novel, An Accident of Stars, is a fun, fresh and feminist take on the portal fantasy genre. However, this short novella–included in Abaddon Books’ Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare’s Fantasy World–is wonderful. It’s a new perspective on The Tempest‘s Miranda, and Meadows takes a look at what it might really mean for a young person’s identity to be brought up in that kind of isolation. It’s a thoughtful portrait of an outsider figuring out their place in the world, a clever riff on Shakespeare’s own themes, and a playful update to a very old classic.
Buy it here.
Or buy the collection here.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle
There were several Lovecraft-inspired novellas published in 2016, but Victor LaValle’s is definitely the best of them. The Ballad of Black Tom is directly in conversation with Lovecraft, being a retelling of sorts of the insidiously racist short story “The Horror at Red Hook,” and LaValle ably weaves together a general critique of Lovecraft’s racism with a fairly straightforward tribute to Lovecraft’s enduring influence on the genre, crafting a smartly written and well-paced homage that perfectly encapsulates the complicated feelings that many people have towards Lovecraft.
Buy it here.
Read “The Horror at Red Hook” here.

Lustlocked and Pride’s Spell by Matt Wallace
Matt Wallace’s Sin du Jour series continued this year with its second and third installments, and they are excellent. Matt Wallace has a gift for telling funny stories that aren’t trying to be too clever, and each volume of this series is better than the one before. Wallace starts with a simple joke and focuses on creating a diverse cast of interesting characters to carry the story, and it works. Every time.
Buy Lustlocked.
Buy Pride’s Spell.
Buy Envy of Angels (the first book in the series).
Pre-order book four, Idle Ingredients.
Read the Sin du Jour short story, “Small Wars.”

Runtime by S.B. Divya
I would never have guessed I would love Runtime as much as I did, as I’m generally not into anything even remotely sports-related, but this story about a young woman entering a cyborg race with the hope of bettering herself and achieving a more secure future for her family is a fantastic fast read.
Buy it here.

Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky
While I haven’t been as into nostalgia in my media as some have this year, I absolutely adored this D&D-ish sword and sorcery adventure from Adrian Tchaikovsky. It’s got an unexpected and unique protagonist, some interesting ideas, and an entertaining villain. Tchaikovsky pokes gentle fun at some classic tropes and deftly uses others in a way that shows his deep love for and broad knowledge of the genre.
[Edit: Just learned that Spiderlight is actually 300 pages long, so not actually a novella. I was so delighted by it that I rushed through it in a single sitting and didn’t even notice.]
Buy it here.

A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson
Kai Ashante Wilson’s 2015 novella, Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, marked him as an author to watch, and this 2016 effort, set in the distant past of the same world, establishes Wilson as one of the most original and compelling voices in fantasy right now.
Buy it here.

The Convergence of Fairy Tales by Octavia Cade
The Convergence of Fairy Tales is this year’s Book Smugglers Halloween horror story, and it’s also their very first novella. Hopefully, it’s the first of many, because it’s really, really good. The unifying theme behind many of my favorites of 2016 is rage, and this is a very angry book. Which makes sense, as it’s the story of the princess from some of Western culture’s most beloved–and most monstrously unfair–fairy tales, stitched together here as the story of a singular heroine who learns to channel her pain and fury into action that helps her move on from what has been done to her. It’s a powerful validation of rage as a response to injustice and victimization, and it’s beautifully written to boot.
Buy it here.

carrigernovellasPoison or Protect and Romancing the Inventor by Gail Carriger
I have enjoyed Gail Carriger’s steampunk-ish romance adventure novels in the past, but I’ve never gotten hugely into them, and this year I learned why. They’re all just too long. 2016 found Carriger kicking off not one but two novella series–the first dealing with the now-grown characters from her YA Finishing School books and the second detailing the romances of queer minor characters from the Parasol Protectorate and Custard Protocol series–and the first installments of both are delightfully fun and sexy enough to be exactly what I need to fill my occasional desire for light smut.
Buy Poison or Protect.
Buy Romancing the Inventor.

The Raven and the Reindeer by T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon)
The Snow Queen reimagined as a queer romance adventure? Yes, please. I do think this book might be over the word count for eligibility as a novella for the Hugo Awards but not by much, and it’s short enough and a fast enough read that it feels more like a novella than even a short novel. Simply magical. If you haven’t read this one yet, it’s the ideal book to curl up with a cup of hot cocoa and a blanket and read on a cold winter’s night.
Buy it here.

Book Review: Goldenhand by Garth Nix

Goldenhand is a welcome return to Garth Nix’s Old Kingdom universe, but it unfortunately feels, overall, a bit half-baked. It’s an enjoyable read if one doesn’t think too hard about it, but the truth is that Goldenhand is problematic in numerous ways that detract from the joy of revisiting such a well-loved fantasy world.

Goldenhand is a direct continuation of Lirael’s story following the events of Abhorsen and picking up about a year or so later. It also incorporates events from the novella The Creature in the Case, which continued the story of Nicholas Sayre after he returns to Ancelstierre at the end of Abhorsen. Lirael has been hard at work learning in her role as Abhorsen-in-waiting to her sister, Sabriel, and she’s given the chance to take on more responsibility when Sabriel and Touchstone go on their first vacation in twenty years. Meanwhile, after accidentally freeing and empowering a dangerous free magic creature, Nick is on his way back towards the Old Kingdom in pursuit of it. Meanwhile, Chlorr is still stirring up trouble in the north, and it turns out there’s a whole previously unmentioned group of people that are being used for Chlorr’s nefarious ends. There’s a lot going on, at least ostensibly. Perhaps the biggest problem with Goldenhand is that, despite the ambitious worldbuilding and great number of things happening, none of it particularly works.

It was interesting at first to be introduced to Ferin and her people, but with only Ferin as a point of view for that part of the world and no sense of what normal life is like for the tribes, there’s ultimately very little to learn about these new people and their culture. Ferin herself has a very specific and non-normative experience within that culture—she was raised to be basically a sacrifice, sequestered from the rest of the tribe and denied even the humanity of a proper name (“Ferin” is from a childish mispronunciation of “Offering”)—and she’s the only one of her people the reader meets directly. The rest are faceless villains and obstacles for our heroes to overcome, and there’s no real sense of who these people are and how they normally fit into the regular fabric of the Old Kingdom. This diminishes the reader’s investment in Ferin’s history and struggle, and it’s not helped along by Ferin’s extremely practical nature. She’s so pragmatic about everything that happens to her that it ends up feeling as if she isn’t affected very much by anything she goes through. This would be frustrating in a minor character, but Ferin is a point of view character for fully half of this book, and it’s extremely difficult to become really immersed in a perspective that is so poorly socialized and without enough context for understanding why and how she’s the way she is. Ferin is a weird character, and not in a good way. Rather, she takes up a lot of page space without ever being compelling enough to be a proper balance or complement to Lirael, who we already know from previous books.

Sadly, Lirael, too, is a lot less interesting this time around. Lirael and Abhorsen were heavily focused on Lirael’s journey to discovering her own identity and finding her place in the world, and there was a clear and well-executed character arc as she came of age. Goldenhand gives us a Lirael who is much more confident and self-assured to start with, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but this Lirael doesn’t have nearly so much to learn or so far to travel, for all that she goes fully from one end of the Kingdom to the other. Some attention is paid both to Lirael’s lost hand and her grief over her missing friend, the Disreputable Dog, but neither of these things are given the weight they ought to have. Indeed, Prince Sameth has already built a magical gold hand for Lirael by the start of the book, which effectively erases her disability. Most of Lirael’s thoughts about her hand are marveling at how functional the magical prosthetic is rather than lamenting the loss of the real hand. Similarly, Lirael does at times miss the Dog, but with everything else going on there’s not much time for truly exploring her feelings of sadness and loss. Instead, Lirael’s primary arc in this book is a romantic one, mostly centered around her growing feelings for Nick and her relationship with him. While Lirael’s final dealing with Chlorr/Clariel seems intended to be a climax for the story, it happens quickly and the novel is then ended rather abruptly, which prevents the event from having much emotional weight.

This lack of impact is, frankly, characteristic of Goldenhand. Erasing Lirael’s disability and glossing over her grieving process in favor of focusing on her burgeoning relationship with a man she barely knows (and who doesn’t get much development of his own, by the way) makes for a very slight novel. Both that romance and Lirael’s quest to stop Chlorr once and for all rely far too much on previous books in the series to generate what interest they do hold. If you haven’t read Lirael, Abhorsen, and Clariel (and preferably The Creature in the Case as well), you’re likely to find yourself more than a little at sea in Goldenhand. Goldenhand is not an entry point into the Old Kingdom for new readers; it’s a book for superfans who will consume anything they can get in this setting without being too picky about things making sense. This overall effect might have been counteracted if Ferin’s story was stronger, but Ferin’s goals and purpose are never quite clear; she is trying to do something to save her people I guess, but most of her chapters are taken up by an aimless chase that never manages to feel dangerous or high stakes enough to justify its existence. Instead of acting as a powerful new addition to the series, Ferin’s story functions mostly as a rather dull and uninspired distraction in what might otherwise have been a decent piece of fan service.

While Garth Nix does a lot of work here to expand the world of the Old Kingdom and provide more theoretically fertile ground for, presumably, future sequels, Goldenhand is plagued with enough craft problems and various missteps that it’s hard to get very excited to learn what comes next. Unless it involves queer Ellimere (I mean, come on—everyone else has been paired off heterosexually now) and lots of Mogget (there was not nearly enough Mogget in this book), I can’t say I’m very interested.

Book Review – Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickey

If you want to read ghost stories, read something besides this book. Certainly, Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places contains ghost stories, but if you’re looking for titillating tales of terror for an autumn evening, you won’t find it here. Colin Dickey’s Ghostland isn’t about scaring its readers; rather, it’s a smartly eclectic work of history that looks to examine the whole ghost story phenomenon. Why do we tell ghost stories? Whose stories get told? What do these stories tell us about the places and people with which they’re associated? What do these stories say about the ways in which we, as a society, interact with death and with history? How do ghost stories help us connect with our past—and in what ways do they help us disconnect from aspects of the past that are unpleasant? If Dickey isn’t entirely successful in answering all these questions, he’s nonetheless crafted an engaging work of popular history that does a great job of introducing these ideas to the reader and encouraging further inquiry.

Ghostland is at its strongest early on, and Dickey’s exploration of the Winchester house in San Jose, California remains my favorite part of the book. Born and raised in Ohio, myself, I’d only heard the sensationalized story of the house and its unusual history, so it was wonderful to read such a thorough and well-researched counterpoint to the more mystical narrative. I appreciate the more feminist interpretation of Sarah Winchester’s life, although I must admit that I sometimes think Dickey’s conclusions about her motives are a bit of a stretch. Even if this is the case, however, the story and the way that it’s been embroidered and exploited over the years still serves as a perfect illustration of the points Dickey is trying to make about the way that female eccentricity is peculiarly pathologized. I tweeted early on while reading the book that the read would be worth it for this chapter alone, which is still true, but the whole book is packed full of these sorts of fresh looks at old stories.

Dickey’s thoughtful analysis touches on issues of gender but also includes issues of race and delves into some of the uglier episodes of U.S. history. Some of his chapters, such as those dealing with the slave trade and plantation culture of the South could easily be developed into whole books on their own, and I sincerely hope to see someone take these ideas and run with them. Ditto for Dickey’s look at some of the legends and ghost stories surrounding Native Americans. Throughout Ghostland, I often felt as if there was an enormous body of material and research that this book, ambitious as it is, was only capable of skimming the surface of. It would be great to see some of Dickey’s bigger ideas—especially about the ways in which ghost stories serve to erase and whitewash history—given more space to breathe. Here, the treatment of these concepts is necessarily brief (this isn’t that long a book) and sometimes shallow, and there are sometimes jarring shifts in tone and subject between chapters, particularly in the back half of the book.

Also evident in Ghostland is the author’s love of architecture and literature, and both of these things figure largely in Dickey’s historical analysis. Sadly, there are no photos in the book, which would have been a great addition to the stories it contains. Dickey dwells often on unusual architecture as being sort of inherently predisposed to being perceived as “haunted,” and it would have been nice to see some illustrative examples. Similarly, while the book is meticulously footnoted, it could have benefited from a bibliography or other section with suggestions for further reading or even just a list of literary works mentioned in the text. These lacks wouldn’t be felt so keenly in a more focused book, but in a history so wide-ranging, offering so many glimpses into little-known and lesser understood topics, some further guidance on where to look for more of the same would be much appreciated. That said, if you don’t mind digging through the notes at the back of the book, there are a wealth of resources, just not organized in the most useful possible way.

Ghostland is, on the whole, an excellent primer for the subjects that it covers. It’s full of interesting and entertaining information, and Dickey puts forward a lot of thought-provoking ideas that make this book a perfect reference for writers as well as readers. The questions that Dickey sets out to answer here are worthy ones, and there’s a lot to think about regarding the way we produce and consume ghost stories. With genre conversations often focused these days on issues of diversity and representation, Ghostland is a potentially very valuable conversation starter. I only hope that it is treated as the beginning of the conversation and not the end of it.

Buy the Book:

Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBound

Further Reading:


The SF Bluestocking Fall Reading List

I didn’t make it through my entire Summer Reading List, though I did better than I thought I would and even ended up reading a few things (albeit mostly comics) that weren’t on there. There’s not as much coming out over the next few months that I’m excited about, but I figure that just means more time to read some of what I missed this summer. Here’s what I have on my list:

fall2016tornovellsTor.com Novellas
I always read all of these when they come out, and I cannot recommend them enough. I love that they’re such a variety of stories, which helps me to read outside my normal genres and preferences pretty regularly (it’s good to try new things!), and the $2.99 price tag means I can buy one almost every week without breaking the bank. The only one slated to come out this fall that I may skip is Andy Remic’s The Iron Beast. I’ve read the first two books in that series and haven’t enjoyed either of them, so I think I could spend my time better elsewhere.

  • Cold-Forged Flame by Marie Brennan – September 13
  • The Warren by Brian Evenson – September 20
  • Impersonations by Walter Jon Williams – October 4
  • Hammers on Bone by Cassandra Khaw – October 11
  • Everything Belongs to the Future by Laurie Penny – October 18
  • A Taste of Honey by Kai Ashante Wilson – October 25
  • The Lost Child of Lychford by Paul Cornell – November 1
  • The Burning Light by Bradley P. Beaulieu and Rob Ziegler – November 1
  • The Iron Beast by Andy Remic – November 8, if you’re interested.

I backed the Kickstarter earlier this year for Lightspeed‘s POC Destroy SF project, and POC Destroy Horror and POC Destroy Fantasy will be coming out in October and December, respectively. I also backed Uncanny Magazine‘s Year Three, and I’m looking forward to that in addition to a couple of issues I haven’t gotten around to yet from Year Two. I also bought a subscription to Fantasy & Science Fiction because it’s been on sale for $5, so I will surely be reading some issues of that as well.

Must-Read (Fiction) Books

  • Everfair by Nisi Shawl (already finished, actually)
  • The Obelisk Gate by N.K. Jemisin (halfway through)
  • Death’s End by Cixin Liu
  • Cloudbound by Fran Wilde
  • Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
  • Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake
  • A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers
  • Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
  • The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu
  • Goldenhand by Garth Nix
  • Infomocracy by Malka Older


Nice-to-Read-If-I-Have-Time (Fiction) Books

  • Borderline by Mishell Baker
  • Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter
  • Furthermore by Tahereh Mafi
  • Black Wolves by Kate Elliot
  • Half-Resurrection Blues by Daniel José Older
  • Midnight Taxi Tango by Daniel José Older
  • Prudence by Gail Carriger
  • Not Your Sidekick by C.B. Lee
  • Heroine Complex by Sarah Kuhn


Nonfiction That I Have No Idea How I’m Going to Fit in But That I Really Want to Read Before the End of the Year

  • How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
  • Speculative Blackness: The Future of Race in Science Fiction by André M. Carrington
  • Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction edited by Gerry Canavan and Kim Stanley Robinson
  • My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
  • Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein

What are you reading this fall? Is there anything I’ve missed that I simply must check out?

Book Review: Runtime by S.B. Divya

I read all of Tor.com’s novellas, which is a good thing because I otherwise might have missed out on this gem by S.B. Divya. I would never have picked up a story about a cyborg endurance race on my own, but I’m glad I read this one. Runtime is a marvel of world building and character portraiture wrapped around a perfectly executed straightforward plot and just the right amount of smart-but-not-overbearing social commentary. It’s a near-perfect use of the novella length, and I cannot wait to see what S.B. Divya does next.

Marmeg Guinto is as prepared as she’ll ever be for the grueling Minerva Sierra Challenge, but she’s nonetheless not nearly as prepared as some of the other racers, with their support teams and wealthy sponsors. In a race where people compete and win on the strength of extreme body modifications, Marmeg has cobbled together her cyborg enhancements from cheap parts, black market materials, and sometimes literal garbage. Still, she’s determined to race well enough to win a better future for herself and her family. When she actually gets out on the trail, however, things don’t go entirely as planned, and Marmeg soon has to make some hard choices that put her future plans in jeopardy. The surface narrative here is simple enough and fits neatly into the popular genre of stories about young people who participate in extreme sports or contests in order to help their families in dystopia-ish futures. It could have been banal, but S.B. Divya does several things in Runtime that elevate it above the usual stories of its type.

Partly, this is accomplished by cleverly adding layers of meaning and nuance to a simple story. Within the simple framework of the race/survival story lies a cleverly integrated fable with something to say about cheating and good turns. Wrapped all around the story and built into the fabric of Divya’s excellent world building is some insightful social commentary about capitalism, gender, immigration, and community. It sounds like a lot, but it never feels like too much for the reader to take in. There’s never any obvious lecturing or moralizing, which is often a mistake made in these kind of stories, and the ending is satisfying and thematically appropriate without feeling pat.

The heroine, Marmeg, also accounts for a great part of Runtime’s appeal. She’s a nicely complex character but without falling into either any of the common Strong Female Character tropes or the common Morally Grey Character tropes. Instead, she’s highly distinctive, with a backstory and personality that are both well-considered and well-constructed. The key here is the specificity of this character and her background. Marmeg isn’t a Generic Dystopian Heroine, and the reader’s understanding of her situation, her family, and what she’s willing to sacrifice for them is absolutely necessary for the story to work. Fortunately, Divya communicates all of this information clearly and concisely with sparely elegant prose that is perfectly styled for the story she’s telling.

Where S.B. Divya excels most notably, however, is in simply balancing all the many moving parts of this novella. The race itself necessarily takes center stage, but Marmeg is a strong enough personality to really carry the story by getting the reader invested in it. There’s a nicely cinematic quality to the action, enough to earn this little book a place on my ever-growing list of things I’d like to see adapted for film or television. Marmeg’s peril feels like a very real threat, and there are a couple of small subplots that nicely augment the main story and could provide fodder for more stories or even a full-length novel in this same universe. Every piece of Runtime is meticulously crafted and fitted together with every other piece in order to make a whole that is even greater than the sum of its parts.

Book Review: The Ghoul King by Guy Haley

I didn’t hate Guy Haley’s first Dreaming Cities novella, The Emperor’s Railroad, though it wasn’t one of my favorite reads of the year so far. Nonetheless, I was intrigued enough to read this second installment of the series. The Ghoul King seemed to promise more action and a female character with something to do besides die for male character development, and I was hoping to see Haley dig a little deeper into some of the potentially very cool world building of his post-apocalyptic landscape. Sadly, I found myself disappointed on all counts with this book, and this is another series that I’m very unlikely to continue with.

Here’s the thing about these books: they’re fine. Haley has a handful of neat ideas, and a solid (if a bit hackneyed) premise. Quinn is a perfectly serviceable anti-ish-hero; the angels are theoretically compelling antagonists; and a post-apocalypse full of zombies and robot dragons marauding brigands and petty feudal-esque politics should offer plenty of minor conflicts and quests for an itinerant adventurer. Unfortunately, once you get past the initial observation of “huh, that’s cool,” there’s very little actually happening under the surface. Haley is great at window dressing, and the books’ appeal is helped along by sharp-looking covers, but when I finished both of these books I was just sort of like “is that it?”

Quinn is as inscrutable and laconic as ever in The Ghoul King, but he never manages to be in the least bit likeable or even interesting. Perhaps because of the choice to have the action narrated again from a point of view that isn’t Quinn’s, Quinn remains a bit of a cipher, as the first person narrator is never quite able to connect with him or get to know him on a personal level at all. Once again, Quinn is a sort of cowboy-ish character who rides into town, impresses the locals and rides away with his cloak of mystery intact. He’s a notably old-fashioned construct of stoic masculine heroism that just… isn’t fun to read about at all. Unless that’s your thing, in which case do you, but it’s not much fun for me.

There are a couple of female characters this time around, though only one, Rachel, plays a major role in the action. In fact, she’s the instigator of this novella’s adventure. Unfortunately, she’s also—through sheer ineptitude and ignorance—kind of the story’s main antagonist as well, and Rachel’s search for pre-apocalypse technology doesn’t end well for pretty much anyone. It’s an almost archetypal arc, with Rachel cast as a sort of Eve who lures men on a fruitless quest for knowledge that ends in tragedy and, ultimately, their expulsion from the seat of knowledge and into an uncertain future. On the one hand, there’s something almost mythologically epic going on. On the other hand, it doesn’t seem as if Haley has anything in particular to say with any of the mythology he’s crafting.

Certainly not every story has to be deep and insightful, and there’s something to be said for straightforward, uncomplicated adventure stories, but there still has to be something to engage the reader, make them care about the events they’re reading about, and keep them coming back for more. Without a likeable protagonist or any discernable message, and with the world building stalled out (there’s not much new information revealed in this volume at all, sadly) this series doesn’t do that for me.

This review is based on an advance copy of the book received through NetGalley.

Book Review: Return of Souls by Andy Remic

I won’t be reading anything else by Andy Remic. I didn’t care for most of his first Tor.com novella, A Song for No Man’s Land, but it got interesting right at the end. Unfortunately, Return of Souls doesn’t deliver on what little promise its predecessor held. Instead, it doubles down on everything I didn’t like about the first book in this planned trilogy and adds a heaping dose of blatant misogyny that makes it a deeply unpleasant read.

Spoilers at the end, so beware.

Once again, we’re following Robert Jones through his time in World War I, only he’s come somewhat unhinged since the events of the first book and we’re now navigating his deteriorating mental state and his journeys through a sort of dark, war torn Wonderland, still pursued by the walriders that were introduced in A Song for No Man’s Land. Though all his friends died in the last book, this time around Robert is joined by a mysterious young woman named Orana who also seems to be running from the walriders. I’m sure that there are other things going on in this novella (I think I remember Bainbridge’s ghost showing up at least once), and I still get the feeling that Remic has some point that he’s trying to manfully make about war or something, but all of that is eclipsed by the sheer disgustingness of Robert’s relationship with Orana.

I mean, come on.

First off, Orana is barely even a character at all. Instead, she seems to be a sort of generalized embodiment of Remic’s ideals of womanhood, created to both tempt Robert and to motivate him to new acts of chivalrous heroism. Over and over again, Orana is described in infantilizing and fetishistic terms as childlike, naïve and in need of protection. When Robert and Orana finally have sex, even Robert feels as if he’s raping her, and indeed it’s difficult to understand exactly how this strange child-woman in need of rescue could be truly consenting. Either way, it’s gross to read.

But, wait! It gets worse. After about a hundred pages of detailing Robert’s creepily paternalistic relationship with Orana, the final revelation of the book is that Orana was a walrider all along and was, I guess, using Robert Jones to help her reach her home? Or maybe she was just tricking him deep into walrider territory? Or maybe Orana’s transformation really is just a misogynistic commentary on the inherent duplicitousness of women? I don’t even know, and it’s hard to care very much. Robert Jones is a highly unlikeable and, frankly, boring character, and honestly, by the time I got to the end of the book I was just ready for it to be over. Unfortunately, there’s no real ending here, just this major revelation and a sort of teaser for the trajectory of the final book in the trilogy, which I just don’t think I can bring myself to read.

I’d like to say that it’s not Return of Souls, it’s me, but I’m having a hard time even thinking of reasons why other people might enjoy this title. Its pace is slow, and its prose is only workmanlike. Its horror elements are sloppy, and its fantasy elements, drawn from real-world mythology, are poorly researched and badly implemented. Robert Jones is a character in turns profoundly dull and remarkably despicable, but he’s at no point enjoyable to read about. There’s no humor to speak of in the book, no spark of fun or joy to speak of; rather, it’s just unrelentingly dark and almost nihilistic in tone. But, hey, maybe that’s your thing. I won’t be back for more, though.

Book Review: The Jewel and Her Lapidary by Fran Wilde

I adored Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, so I was thrilled when I learned she had written one of Tor.com’s novellas. The Jewel and Her Lapidary was one of my most anticipated books for the first half of 2016, so imagine my surprise and dismay when I turned out to just not care for it very much.

Where Wilde excels, of course, is with world building, which was proven amply in Updraft and confirmed here. I loved the idea of the Jewels and Lapidaries in this novella, and I found the magic system Wilde describes interesting enough. And I liked the framing of the story as piece of folk history. Unfortunately, for all the fine world building on display, there’s just not a whole lot else going on here. I knew going in that this novella was somewhat on the shorter side, but there’s barely even a short story worth of actual story buried under all this world building, and it’s not that interesting of a story.

Instead of a proper novella, this feels like background work for a novel, which would be a much better use for such a complicated premise and would have given the characters, in particular, much more room to breathe. It’s hard to really get a sense of Lin and Sima and their relationship with such limited exposure to them, and most of what we learn about their friendship feels like an awful lot of telling rather than showing. For that matter, it’s unclear whether we should even consider their relationship a friendship or not, as the bond between Jewel and Lapidary is kind of weirdly symbiotic, not entirely consensual (they are assigned to each other in infancy), and has the Lapidary in a decidedly subordinate position. The thing is, none of the implications of this—which are all genuinely fascinating—are examined in the text, and instead Lin and Sima’s relationship is portrayed as somewhat simplistically sister-like.

Worst of all, the story, such as it is, ends so abruptly that it feels unfinished and was certainly unsatisfying. While I don’t require a happy ending, the melancholy of this one was an unpleasant surprise; the vague cover art and the book description suggested something that was going to be much lighter in tone than what I got. Sure, one isn’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, but this one is misleading at first glance, and being an ebook reader I only really looked at the cover the one time. Things get fairly dark very quickly in this little book, and then they just end bittersweetly—with a distinct emphasis on the bitter part. Which would be fine if this story was part of some longer work to give it some context, but the framing device (much as I do like it) of it as folklore just isn’t quite enough to keep it from being rather unrelentingly and yet meaninglessly sad.

The Jewel and Her Lapidary isn’t the worst thing I’ve read this year, but it wasn’t great. There are the bones of a potentially great fantasy world here, but they’re wasted without a compelling story to bring them to life. I’m bummed by how little I liked this much-looked-forward-to book, but do I have to say that I’m definitely here for it if Wilde decides to revisit this universe in a longer format. In the meantime, I can always reread Updraft, and I’ve got Cloudbound to look forward to next month.

Book Review: A Court of Mist and Fury by Sarah J. Maas

I really liked A Court of Thorns and Roses when I read it last year, so I was looking forward to A Court of Mist and Fury quite a bit. After how neatly ACOTAR seemed to wrap things up, especially with the romance between Feyre and Tamlin, I wasn’t entirely certain where ACOMAF was going to take things, and I was honestly very concerned that it was going to veer into tiresome love triangle territory. I needn’t have worried. ACOMAF wasn’t what I thought it would be, but it was engaging, exciting, and sexy enough that I read it in a single day.

Light spoilers below.

After the events of ACOTAR, Feyre has fallen into a deep depression that Tamlin doesn’t seem to notice or care about, even as the day of their wedding approaches. She ends up rescued from the untenable situation by none other than Rhysand, which I expect most readers will see coming a mile away. However, the rest of the story is much less expected. Though it functions as essentially an “after the fairytale” narrative, ACOMAF for the most part doesn’t rely on tired tropes or worn out gimmicks, and Sarah J. Maas does a great job in this book with Feyre’s character development as Feyre recovers from her harrowing experiences in the first book and finally has the time and space to process her feelings about and examine her relationship with Tamlin. ACOMAF is a book about healing from trauma and disappointment. It’s also a book about finding a space where you can grow to be your best self and fighting for it.

While Feyre’s growth throughout the novel is exceptional, and the development of her relationship with Rhysand is well-executed, most of the other secondary and tertiary characters never manage to fully come to life. While the seeds of ACOMAF Tamlin certainly existed in ACOTAR, the revelation of him as a truly villainous character is somewhat abrupt and borders on straight up character assassination although it’s presented more as a clever plot twist. Surprise! The main love interest from book one is an abusive piece of trash! There is also a whole cast of new characters that Feyre meets at the Night Court, but they are largely interchangeable and barely exist except to further Feyre’s story and development. All this is fine, really, as it’s clear throughout that Feyre is the main character, but still. It wouldn’t hurt for some of the side characters to have a bit more to do in a 600+ page book.

Here’s the thing about this book that makes it kind of great, though. Whereas ACOTAR was a fairly straightforward fairytale retelling, ACOMAF transforms Feyre’s story into something much grander. It’s not quite epic fantasy, but it’s much more than a simple romance. In fact, the trajectory of this series (and Maas’s Throne of Glass series as well) reminds me far more of pulpy boys’ adventure stories and other heroes’ journeys of the 20th century, for all that Maas has a modern sensibility when it comes to characterization of her leading ladies. Feyre’s depth and nuance is at odds, to a certain degree, with her fairly straightforward adventures, but Maas makes it work. Wonderfully.

ACOMAF and its predecessor are probably more firmly in the fledgling New Adult genre, with their frank depictions of sex and more grownup understanding of relationships, but however this series is classified I’m glad it exists at all. It’s not a perfect book, with its heavy focus on its heroine, who can occasionally be tiresomely self-aware, to the exclusion of the other characters, and while Maas tries (in her way) to include some diversity I wouldn’t recommend this title on that score. Some plot developments feel a little too heavily scripted, some feel downright forced, and not everything truly makes good sense. But A Court of Mist and Fury scratches a very particular itch for me and, I expect, for many girls and women who enjoy the same sort of self-aggrandizing, moderately sexy fluff reading. It’s a specific kind of almost-adolescent wish-fulfillment fiction that is seldom done well enough to be more than a mildly embarrassing guilty pleasure.  Sarah J. Maas does it marvelously, and she consistently creates books that I can see myself reading over and over again. Proudly.

Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is a tremendously, gloriously wonderful book that seems like an obvious contender for all of the genre awards next year. It’s a remarkably original, refreshingly optimistic (but not cloyingly so), and deeply challenging read that demands the reader’s full attention. It’s a novel that is difficult at times, but it’s very much worth taking the time—and it may take quite a while—to work through.

The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a convict in a utopian future where the world is administered collectively by enormous “hives” of philosophically like-minded people and tied together with a system of flying cars that have made travel faster and safer than ever before. As a convict, Mycroft’s sentence is a life of servitude and enforced poverty; he and others like him are essentially public property, bound in service to the community for life. Too Like the Lightning is the first part (I understand the series is planned as four books) of Mycroft’s account of significant events in the year 2454.

There’s not much to say about the plot that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that there are several slowly, methodically unfolding mysteries contained in this book. It’s a story that isn’t as complicated as it seems, with much of the book’s seeming complexity owing to Ada Palmer’s intricately humane portrayal of Mycroft Canner as a character rather than to any particular complexity of the plot itself. Some of the novel’s high reading level also comes from the affectation (Palmer’s and Mycroft’s) of telling the story in such an antiquated fashion (in the style of the 18th century from which most of the book’s characters’ philosophies are taken). As a great lover of 18th and 19th century literature and philosophy, this put Too Like the Lightning about a hundred and ten percent right up my alley, but it definitely makes for a novel that may require some googling in order to truly appreciate it if you don’t have the requisite background to “get” it right away.

Where Too Like the Lightning really shines is in the worldbuilding department, and there aren’t even proper words to describe how delightful it is to read something so fresh and different. Certainly, one can see marks of many of the usual genre influencers along with the influences of more literary classics as well as works of philosophy and actual history, but Too Like the Lightning really isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read. For one thing, in a sea of modern dystopias that seek to explore all the ways in which theoretical utopias can fail, Palmer’s imagined future stands out for being an actually utopian one, and the book is a sort of look at what makes that kind of utopia tick. From eliminating gendered language to banning public displays of religion to the system of flying cars that are teased on the book’s cover to the reorganization of family life, Palmer has thought of answers for nearly all the world’s problems. Those she hasn’t, she’s been sure to include a group of people—the Utopians—in her book that are dedicated to improving on near-perfection.

Margaret Atwood has said that every utopia has a little dystopia in it, and Too Like the Lightning digs deep into examining this idea, looking for and often directly at some of the underlying ugliness that supports the world its author has dreamed up. Mostly, this is accomplished through the observations of the narrator, Mycroft, who offers a unique perspective on a world that he is decidedly set apart from while still embroiled in the events he’s recounting. Mycroft’s personal history, which is one of the central mysteries of the book, comes into play about two thirds of the way through and in a significant way that forces the reader as well as some of the other characters to wrestle with some big ideas. I won’t say it was entirely unexpected, but it’s a pretty major twist and I love a book that challenges my expectations the way this one did.

All things considered, though—little dystopia or not—the world of Too Like the Lightning is one I wouldn’t mind living in, and I feel privileged to have gotten to spend so much time there with this novel. If there’s one problem with it, it’s only that there’s not enough of it. There is no real resolution to most of the problems and conflicts the book introduces, which makes me think that the ultimate success of it is going to rely on the how well things go with the rest of the series. That said, I have a feeling it’s going to be just fine, and I can’t wait to read Seven Surrenders and find out what happens next.

This review is based on a copy of the book received through NetGalley.