Tag Archives: 2017 Books

Book Review: Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer

I didn’t find out about Spindle Fire until about three weeks before its release date, but I was excited when I first read about it. I love fairy tale retellings, and I’d been looking for something that would be a kind of lighter read to help me break out of a reading slump I’ve been in for a couple of weeks. I loved the idea of splitting the story of Sleeping Beauty between two girls, the cover is gorgeous, and the title was getting a decent amount of buzz leading up to its release date. Sadly, Spindle Fire turned out to be a dreary slog of a book. The sisters, Aurora and Isabelle, barely interact and only in the first couple chapters; both Aurora and Isabelle have significant disabilities, but the way they are handled in the text is not great; the romances are at once overwrought and dull; the major “twist” is heavily telegraphed; and the book just, overall, feels choppy and disjointed, with more focus on randomly (and occasionally nonsensically) pretty turns of phrase than on building a coherent plot or cohesive character arcs.

I didn’t expect this book to be all about sisterly love and bonding, just going on the marketing copy. It was obvious that Aurora and Isabelle would be going on separate adventures, presumably to link back up in the second book of this planned duology. However, though their sisterly relationship is moderately well-presented early on, once they part ways neither one of them spares much thought for the other. Instead, they’re each more focused on the boys they meet along the way, which is tiresome. This also ties into how the girls’ disabilities are portrayed. At the beginning of the book, it’s made clear that Aurora and Isabelle are very close in part because of their respective disabilities, that on some level they need each other. Once they part, though, Isabelle’s blindness is barely a hindrance—largely compensated for by her other senses, which are written as greatly heightened—while Aurora finds her disabilities (she can’t speak and has no sense of touch) completely, conveniently erased.

There’s nothing in particular that’s offensively bad about any of this, though Lexa Hillyer does rely on some very tired tropes. Aurora’s sensual/sexual awakening could be potentially interesting in the hands of a better writer, but what little action Aurora gets is kept strictly PG and her love interest, Heath, is kind of an asshole, even to her. Isabelle’s love triangle, on the other hand, is shamefully boring, setting her up to choose between a pair men who must surely be the blandest dudes in two kingdoms. Gilbert the stable boy barely has a personality at all, and he’s conveniently shuffled off (via being lost at sea and presumed dead, natch) to make room for William, who is perfectly nice and a seemingly dutiful prince, except when it comes to doing the dutiful thing and trying to wake up Aurora and unite their kingdoms. He’d much rather just marry Isabelle after knowing her for a couple of days, which is his only real character trait. The problem with all of this romance stuff, in any case, is that none of it every manages to be romantic or sexy at all.

All throughout the book, one gets the sense that it was written from a strict outline, possibly with each chapter written separately and then published with little attention paid to continuity or foreshadowing or making sure that the story flows together or makes sense at all. While most of the chapters were told from Aurora and Isabelle’s points of view, neither of them has a distinctive enough voice to be truly compelling, and the POV chapters from other characters primarily function as infodumps, flashbacks or ham-fisted attempts at surprise reveals. Spindle Fire is a book without a strong narrative core, and the POV chapters don’t revolve around a central story so much as flounder about and jockey for attention despite being, ultimately, forgettable. Several times, I found myself having to go back and reread previous chapters to try and make sense of events that seemed inexplicable, while at other times I could easily predict major developments well in advance. There’s a balance to be found with building tension and surprising readers, and Hillyer hasn’t quite found it yet. The attempts at tension-building were simply frustrating, while the surprises either weren’t surprises at all or were surprises, but in a way that made me scratch my head in confusion.

Considering that Spindle Fire is the first in a duology, I may yet check out the second book when it comes out, just to see if things get better. It’s not at the top of my to-read list, though, as I’m not sure what could be salvaged from this wreckage of a good idea.

The SF Bluestocking Spring Reading List

I try to keep my reading lists realistic, but the next couple of months have a frustratingly uneven distribution of books I’d like to read. For one thing, I’m usually only getting through two books or magazines a week, and there are several weeks coming up that have four to six new releases that I’m looking forward to. While having access to advance copies lets me get a head start on things, the truth is that there’s just (always, natch) far more great fiction being produced and published than I’m physically capable of reading and writing about. So this is really more of a wishlist of all the fiction coming out in April, May and June that I would read if I could.

Tor.com Publishing

I generally make an effort to read all of Tor.com’s novellas because they’re inexpensive and the variety encourages me to read things I might not normally give a chance to. I’ve also really fallen in love with the novella length; it’s long enough to feel like a book, but short enough to make for quick reading. Here’s what they’ve got coming out over the next three months.

  • Winter Tide by Ruthanna Emrys (4/4)
    This is actually a short novel, and I’m sadly thinking of skipping it in spite of having been sitting on an eARC of it for months. While it’s been well-reviewed, it’s yet another Lovecraftian book, and, frankly, I’m just Lovecraft-ed out right now.
  • Proof of Concept by Gwyneth Jones (4/11)
  • Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus (4/25)
    I’m still slowly making my way through Broaddus’s recent short story collection, Voices of Martyrs, but I’m really looking forward to this title.
  • All Systems Red by Martha Wells (5/2)
  • Killing Gravity by Corey J. White (5/9)
  • Greedy Pigs by Matt Wallace (5/16)
    On the one hand, I’m thrilled about a new Sin du Jour book. On the other hand, I’m already sad that there’s only two more coming after this one.
  • River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey (5/23)
    This book had me at “bloodthirsty feral hippos” and “mercenary cowboys.”
  • Lightning in the Blood by Marie Brennan (5/30)
    A sequel to last year’s Cold-Forged Flame.
  • Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire (6/13)
    A prequel companion to last year’s Every Heart a Doorway.
  • Mapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones (6/20)

Magazines

  • FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue Two, Sipping Tea (4/1)
    I loved the first issue of FIYAH, and I have every expectation that their second issue will be excellent as well.
  • Uncanny Magazine #16 (May/June 2017)
  • Lightspeed Magazine #82, #83, #84
    My free three month subscription runs out in May, and I still haven’t gotten around to reading the March issue, just for time-constraint reasons. It’s a great magazine, and I’m hoping to get around to it, but there’s just so much else out there that I want to read.
  • Fireside Fiction
    I highly recommend supporting Fireside on Patreon so you, too, can get a convenient digital format of what they publish each month.

Comics and Graphic Novels

I had a couple of things on my winter reading list that would have been nice to read but that I never got around to. However, these are must-reads.

  • Ladycastle #2 (3/29)
  • Saga, Volume 7 (4/4)
  • Bitch Planet, Volume 2: President Bitch (5/31)
    The publication date on this has moved several times, so I may just end up grabbing the single issues.
  • Monstress, Volume 2: The Blood (6/6)

Books

  • She-Wolf and Cub by Lilith Saintcrow (3/28)
    My current read.
  • The House of Binding Thorns by Aliette de Bodard (4/4)
  • Red Sister by Mark Lawrence (4/4)
    I feel like Mark Lawrence’s work before now has been exactly the sort of thing I like to avoid, but this new series has a girl protagonist who has been compared to Arya Stark. That still puts it in the category of things I like to avoid, but Lawrence is a popular author and YOLO, so I’m thinking of trying this one out just in case I’m not going to hate it.
  • Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer (4/11)
  • So You Want to Be a Robot and Other Stories by A. Merc Rustad (May)
    I just discovered Rustad’s work last year, and they’ve quickly become one of my favorite short fiction writers, so I’m super excited for this release. You can pre-order it from Lethe Press now.
  • Final Girls by Seanan McGuire
  • A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows (5/2)
  • A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas (5/2)
  • Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages (5/2)
    Klages’ Tor.com novella, Passing Strange, was wonderful, so I’m looking forward to checking out more of her short fiction.
  • The Radium Girls by Kate Moore (5/2)
    I don’t read nearly as much non-fiction as I ought or as I’d like, but I’m pretty excited about this book.
  • The Guns Above by Robyn Bennis (5/9)
  • Behind the Mask: A Superhero Anthology edited by Tricia Reeks and Kyle Richardson (5/16)
  • The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente (6/6)
    I would read a phone book if Catherynne M. Valente wrote it.
  • Raven Strategem by Yoon Ha Lee (6/13)
    Sequel to last year’s excellent Ninefox Gambit.
  • The Changeling by Victor LaValle (6/13)
  • The Space Between the Stars by Anne Corlett (6/13)
  • The Prey of Gods by Nicky Drayden (6/13)
    One of my most anticipated debuts of the year.
  • The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss (6/20)
  • The Waking Land by Callie Bates (6/27)
  • Amatka by Karin Tidbeck (6/27)

The SF Bluestocking Winter 2017 Reading List Wrap-Up

Spring has already sprung here in Ohio, both technically and actually, judging from the amount of allergy trouble I’ve been having the last couple of weeks, and I’m working on getting together my reading list for the next three months (look for it this week!), but I thought first I’d take a look at what I’ve read in the first three months of 2017. Last year was such a terrible year for me that I ended up struggling a lot to write much about what I read, though I read quite a bit. The good news is that this year I’ve been off to a pretty strong start, getting through most of my Winter Reading List and even reading a couple of things that weren’t on there. I’ve even written about almost everything I’ve read, even if it was just a short blurb and a star rating on Goodreads, although I am still finishing up my last few reviews of titles from my winter list.

This post, however, is about celebrating the best and most exciting of what I’ve read in the last three months.

29939303Best Fantasy Novel – Crossroads of Canopy by Thoraiya Dyer

Crossroads of Canopy is a gorgeously imagined book about a young woman’s political awakening when she’s forced to question everything she knows about her society and herself. It’s set in a marvelously unique fantasy world in which people live in cities built in the tops of trees in an enormous rain forest, and it’s worth reading for the inventive worldbuilding alone, but it’s also got a wonderfully difficult and complex protagonist in Unar. Crossroads is a story about the roots of a revolution, and I cannot wait to see what happens next in Thoraiya Dyer’s Titan’s Forest series. While it’s not as thrillingly groundbreaking as, say, N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth SeasonCrossroads of Canopy is, for me, similar in the the sense that it’s exactly the sort of thing I think of when looking towards the future of the genre, especially as it broadens to include epic fantasy that isn’t set in some analogue or other of medieval Europe.

29939160Best Science Fiction Novel – The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

This book was a complete surprise to me in every way. I’ve always rather intended to pick up something by John Scalzi, but I’ve never quite gotten around to it as I seldom read work by white men and have been mostly interested in new books, standalone titles, and debut authors in the last couple of years. Tons of people I know love Scalzi’s work, though, and since The Collapsing Empire is his newest book and the first in a series, it seemed like as good a time as any to check him out, especially when I got a surprise early copy in the mail from the publisher. It’s really good and hands down the most enjoyable thing I’ve read so far this year, smartly plotted and fast-paced, with lots of snappy dialogue and a great sense of humor. I couldn’t put it down.

33775885Best Magazine – FIYAH Literary Magazine, Issue 1, Rebirth

The first issue of FIYAH is excellent from its beautiful cover art to its collection of perfectly curated short fiction. With evidence mounting up that black readers and writers aren’t being served and included the way they should be in genre publishing, FIYAH is a uniquely valuable space for stories by, for and about black people. My favorite story in this issue was “Chesirah” by L.D. Lewis, but “The Shade Caller” by DaVaun Sanders and “Long Time Lurker, First Time Bomber” by Malon Edwards were also standouts. If I have any complaint about the magazine, it’s that I’d love to see more nonfiction content in it, but that’s purely a personal preference. Issue 2 will be out on April 1.

marapr17_issue15covermed-340x510Best Novella – “And Then There Were (N-One)” by Sarah Pinsker

I at least try to read all of Tor.com’s novellas as a matter of course, and they’re pretty prolific, so I would have expected one of those to be my favorite so far. However, the fine folks at Uncanny just published their first ever (short) novella in #15, and it’s wonderful. Sarah Pinsker’s story of a convention–SarahCon–for Sarah’s from thousands of alternate reality might be my favorite novella of the last several years, to be honest. It’s smart and funny and thoughtful in perfect proportions. It was enchanting from page one, and it’s a story and concept that has been often on my mind ever since I read it. “And Then There Were (N-One)” will be available to read for free online on April 4.

33964649Best Comic Book – Ladycastle #1 by Delilah S. Dawson and Ashley A. Woods

I only read one comic in the last three months, but it was a good one. Since the sad/infuriating circumstances that led to the indefinite hiatus of Rat Queens, I’ve had a definitively medieval-fantasy-comic-shaped hole in my life, and Ladycastle is the perfect thing to fill it with. The art is slightly more cartoonish than I usually prefer, but it grew on me as I fell in love with the story and characters. The only problem with it is that there isn’t more of it, and they seem to be working on a slow production schedule with a couple months between issues. I want it all now.

31216072Best Sin du Jour Novella – Idle Ingredients by Matt Wallace

Okay, so it’s the only Sin du Jour book published so far this year, but it’s awesome. And look at that cover! I always buy these as ebooks to save space, but the covers just keep getting better and better and I know I’m going to have to have them for my shelf. And this is why my dreams of getting rid of all my stuff and living some kind of minimalist backpacker lifestyle will always stay just dreams. Seriously, though you should be reading this series. They’re sharply written, laugh-out-loud funny, and have some of the best action scenes you’re going to find in print. This volume went a little heavier on character development, but in the last one a dude fought an evil Easter Bunny demon thing and it was rad.

31707853Best Non-SFF Thing I Read – Difficult Women by Roxane Gay

I’ll just quote from my own review of this title to explain why I loved it so much: “The stories in this volume are, from start to finish, thoughtful, clever, funny, tragic and hopeful in turn. These stories are a rage-filled paean to the strength and resilience and weakness and fragility and everything in between of women. This is an ugly, heart-wrenching, beautiful book, and if Roxane Gay wrote three hundred forty-four more stories like this I would treat them like a devotional and reread them every year for the rest of my life.” There are a couple of stories in this collection that are slightly SFF, but for the most part this collection is deeply rooted in the real world and real women’s experiences.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Borderline and Phantom Pains by Mishell Baker – I skipped the first book in this series last year, but I’m so glad I finally got around to reading it now.
  • Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty – A riveting locked-door mystery in space, with clones.
  • Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman – I loved this first book in a new gaslamp fantasy series by the author of Planetfall. Probably my favorite thing I’ve read yet by Emma Newman.
  • Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer – This makes me feel about sci-fi the way that Crossroads of Canopy and The Fifth Season make me feel about fantasy.
  • Tor.com’s “Nevertheless, She Persisted” Short Fiction Event – This is well worth reading, but it just didn’t fit into any of my other categories here.

Biggest Disappointments:

  • Windwitch by Susan Dennard – I liked Truthwitch quite a lot last year, but this book only magnified all the problems of worldbuilding and character that were only minor plagues on the first one.
  • Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey – I was hyped to finally read something by this author, but this book felt unnecessary and self-indulgent, without much to say for itself or about Shakespeare or The Tempest.
  • The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden – I wanted to like this much-buzzed-about book more than I did, but I had a hard time getting past the casual normalization of marital rape, the villainization of the rape victim, and the trivialization of her eventual sad fate.

Book Review: Borderline by Mishell Baker

25692886I’m not a great reader of urban fantasy and I’ve been (sort of and unsuccessfully) avoiding new series, so I’d skipped Mishell Baker’s Borderline when it came out last year. I cannot tell you how glad I am that I finally read it. It’s a solid story that ticks off a lot of run-of-the-mill urban fantasy boxes while still being clever and original enough to be interesting. Baker takes a smartly naturalistic approach to describing the setting—I’m not a fan of L.A.-set stories in general, but she does a wonderful job of conveying a sort of warts-and-all love for the city without either romanticizing it or dwelling on ugliness. And Millie Roper is a fucking iconic protagonist with a strong and uniquely relatable (for me) narrative voice.

While I don’t read a ton of urban fantasy, I like it better when the fantastical element is fairies, as opposed to vampires or werewolves, and I especially like the way Baker imagines fairies in this series. The Arcadia Project is a more-or-less government-overseen system that manages the interactions between Earth and Arcadia, which is otherwise a largely straightforward fairyland filled with the usual fairy creatures, high and low fae, and copious magic. It turns out that humanity relies on magic—specifically the inspiration of fairy “Echoes” (think personal muses for artists and thinkers of all kinds)—for most great human endeavors, artistic and otherwise, and the Arcadia Project acts as a sort of ICE for fairies traveling to and from Arcadia. To help maintain the secrecy of the Project, its administrators recruit agents primarily from psychiatric hospitals, with the idea that those who see the world differently may be more open to and accepting of the work, but also with the knowledge that those who are marginalized due to documented mental illness are unlikely to be believed if they do tell others about the Project. Millie, who has borderline personality disorder and is still recovering from a suicide attempt that left her a double amputee, is a perfect candidate for the job.

Millie also has a background in film—she was going to film school at UCLA prior to her suicide attempt—and the film industry features largely in Borderline. Many of the secondary and tertiary characters are in some way involved in the industry, and much of the action takes place in a movie studio. It’s a very specific part of Los Angeles that I’ve seldom read about, mostly because I don’t find it particularly interesting, but Mishell Baker shows real skill in making the L.A. of the Arcadia Project feel real and lived-in. There’s a great sense of place and plenty of specific-feeling details so that even the places that are obviously invented for the book fit right in to the broader aesthetic. I wouldn’t quite say that it rises to the point of the city itself being a character, which is common in urban fantasy, but it’s a vividly immersive setting nonetheless.

It’s Millie herself, however, who truly elevates the book and makes it one of the best and most interesting urban fantasies I’ve read in years. While I’m not sure how much of my own struggles with mental illness (mostly depression and anxiety) overlap with Millie’s, there’s so much about her experience that feels familiar, and I expect that this will resonate deeply with many people who have had similar issues. Many, many people have written and talked about the value of representation in fiction, and all of that is fully applicable here. Millie will be a highly relatable protagonist for many, and for many more she’ll be a character that will, hopefully, help readers gain some new understanding of an experience that isn’t often depicted in genre fiction. Here, too, Mishell Baker takes a naturalistic approach, refusing to sugarcoat the reality of Millie’s mental and physical conditions, and both Millie’s borderline personality disorder and her double amputations have obvious impacts on her ability to function, and sometimes just exist, in the world. Millie’s troubled relationships and fraught interactions with nearly everyone she meets make for compelling drama and add another level of specificity to the story that sets it well apart from other work in a subgenre often plagued by over-reliance on tired tropes and cliché storytelling conventions.

I may have been late to the party on this series, but Mishell Baker is an author to watch, and I can’t wait to find out what Millie gets up to next. Borderline is a superb first novel and a great start to a freshly compelling new series.

Book Review: Hunger Makes the Wolf by Alex Wells

I read quite a few debut novels and had a cool half dozen on my reading list for the first three months of 2017, but Alex Wells’ Hunger Makes the Wolf was the one I was most looking forward to in the first quarter of this year. I’m happy to say that it did not disappoint. While it may lack some of the great depth and the high level of craft of some of the other debuts I’ve read so far this year, Hunger Makes the Wolf more than makes up for it in other areas. It’s a well-conceived, smartly plotted, enthusiastically fast-paced sci-fi adventure with some cool ideas and a couple of excellent lead characters who’ve got plenty growing still to do in future books.

Sometimes you just want to read something fun that reminds you of other things you like, without having to think too hard to understand it, and Hunger Makes the Wolf contains shades of all kinds of things that are relevant to my reading interests. There are shades of Firefly, Dune, Mad Max: Fury Road, and even Star Wars here, and it’s by far the most fun thing I’ve read since I read the first two books of K.B. Wagers’ Indranan War trilogy at the end of last year. Like Wagers, Alex Wells manages to draw elements from many inspirations and still create a story with plenty of originality and individual flair. The overall effect is enjoyably familiar without ever feeling like a clone of someone else’s work, and if you like any or all of the above-mentioned stories, this one will be right up your alley.

I know I’ve said that this isn’t a particularly deep novel, but I don’t know if I can reiterate enough how much that’s not a criticism. The plot is straightforward, with an easy-to-understand conflict and clearly defined villains and heroes. At the same time, the villains are never caricatures of evil, and the heroes have enough internal conflict and nuance to be compelling. Hunger is, at heart, about two things—personal political awakenings and grassroots resistance against tyranny—and Wells comes at these themes with a cleverly simple approach that makes his points easy to understand while still recognizing the complexity of characters and situations. This is all well-supported by a setting that, while obviously derivative of several other popular works, is described in plenty of vivid detail and has several unique quirks—namely an interesting (if somewhat mysterious) magic system—to set it apart from the pack.

Hob Ravani is a great protagonist of the tough-as-nails ass-kicking kind, and her journey of self-discovery is neatly described throughout the novel. The story of a young person stepping into a leadership role they aren’t entirely prepared for might be a little formulaic, but it’s executed here with loving gusto and a great deal of charm. Though Hob’s friend Mag starts off as something of a damsel in distress, she quickly comes into her own as a resistance leader in her own right. Mag’s fledgling romance with another persecuted woman deserved a little more page time, but I’d say that Mag, in general, deserves more page time. I love the way Hob and Mag complement and balance each other in the story, and Wells does a nice job of showing the ways in which people can work together from different directions and points of view to accomplish goals that are bigger than themselves.

If there’s any major criticism I have of Hunger Makes the Wolf it’s that there isn’t enough of it. It stands alone well enough, but it feels very obviously like the first book of a series. Everything about it feels like an introduction, just the first act in a much longer story arc, and there are quite a few things left unresolved at the end of the novel. The good news is that it is the first book in a series. The bad news is that now I have to wait for it, and I’m terribly impatient. It turns out that stories about anti-capitalist space biker witches are kind of my jam.

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

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.