Tag Archives: ARC

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: 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.

Book Review: Dreadnought by April Daniels

I love that Dreadnought is a thing that exists in the world more than I actually enjoyed reading the book, though I did rather like it. It’s being marketed as great for fans of last year’s The Heroine  Complex and Not Your Sidekick, and both of those were titles that I just never did quite manage to get around to reading, mostly because I’m not super into super hero stories. Like these other books, Dreadnought centers around an unconventional protagonist, in this case a fifteen-year-old closeted trans girl named Danny who has to quickly come to terms with her identity when she is unexpectedly gifted with both superpowers and the body she’s always known she should have. Danny is a smart, plucky, relatable heroine who I expect will be an education for some readers and a much-needed bit of representation for others. Nonetheless, Dreadnought is a book that I read with the constant awareness that it wasn’t for me. Danny’s story of self-discovery and actualization is one that will be compelling for any reader, but I imagine it will resonate most deeply with readers who share more of Danny’s experiences as a trans girl.

Superhero narratives have long dealt with issues surrounding identity and marginalization, and author April Daniels has written a novel firmly in that tradition. Daniels’ geek credentials are on full display here, and it’s obvious that she has a thorough knowledge of genre conventions, which she deploys in a perfectly pitched tale that is both a top notch example of its type and a wholly fresh take on a set of familiar tropes. Dreadnought‘s fairly straightforward hero’s journey structure is a tried and true framework that works well here to provide a foundation upon which Daniels can build a strong, clearly messaged modern superhero story. It’s an excellent example of the value of not reinventing the wheel, and Daniels shows a good instinct for when to utilize common tropes and when to subvert or interrogate them for maximum effect.

I love that there’s no real preamble to Danny’s story. Daniels digs right into things from the first page, with Danny undergoing her transformation almost immediately and being thrust into a vastly changed life by chapter two. The pace of events never does let up, which makes for fast reading. I didn’t make it through Dreadnought in a single reading session, but only because I had other obligations that kept me from it. Each scene in the novel feels necessary and has an easily identifiable purpose, moving along the plot, fleshing out characters, or communicating part of the book’s message. This trimness is a great asset, especially in the YA market where the fashion for some years now has been great sprawling, meandering fantasy stories with indistinct characters and bland ideas. At an economical 276 pages, Dreadnought is a refreshing departure from that trend.

Trans issues take up a lot of page space in Dreadnought, but I still wouldn’t say its a particularly message-heavy title. Danny is a transgender teen, so she’s got a lot of stuff to deal with, but Daniels presents it all matter-of-factly and in a naturalistic enough fashion that most of it feels about the same as reading about any other teen drama. It’s not that Danny’s struggles with parents, friends, doctors, and various associates aren’t specific to her trans-ness; it’s just that these things seldom feel like the point of the book. While Danny’s trans-ness figures largely in the novel and is inextricably bound up with her superhero abilities, being trans is only one part of Danny’s character, and many of the scenarios Danny must deal with as a teen with sudden superpowers are pretty standard stuff for the genre. Sure, she has to deal with some blatant transphobia from her parents and others, and that will no doubt be new to many readers, but a lot of her problems are still just versions of the same banal coming of age crap everyone has to deal with as a teenager trying to figure out their place in the world.

In most ways, Dreadnought is a run of the mill teen power fantasy. It’s always obvious who the villains are in this book, and while it doesn’t flinch away from depicting some darkness, I never felt any real fear that the bad guys were going to win. Even the authorial choice to complicate things by exploring the double-edged nature of super powers as both blessing and curse and the decision to interrogate the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing isn’t altogether new or particularly noteworthy. It’s well done, though, and it’s still sadly rare for there to be a book like this written by a trans woman about a trans girl. April Daniels offers a fresh perspective on her topics of choice and has created a great character with whom a disgracefully under-served population will be able to identify. Dreadnought isn’t an exceedingly ambitious novel, but it is a well-written, highly entertaining, and ultimately optimistic origin story of a heroine I look forward to reading more about.

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

Book Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Passing Strange is an absolutely magical story and by far my favorite thing I’ve read so far in 2017. In this gorgeously imagined romance, Ellen Klages brings the queer side of 1940s San Francisco to glittering life and peoples it with characters who are fresh and interesting and yet still feel like the kind of old friends one wants to visit with over and over again. It’s a book that works precisely because of the specificity of its characters and its setting in time and space, and Klages does a great job of balancing the reality of history with the light fantasy elements she introduces over the course of her story. It’s still early in the year, but I fully expect Passing Strange to make a lot of year’s best lists, my own included.

Structurally, Passing Strange is slightly odd, with a lopsided framing story that leads off with an almost too-long sequence in the modern day (or possibly the near future) that introduces an extended flashback and then a final very short coda that wraps up both stories with a clever punchline. While the payoff is totally worth it in the end, it did make for a bit of a slow start to the book, and I was a little disappointed that Helen Young didn’t get more page time in the middle parts, especially when there were other characters introduced who felt much less consequential overall as a consequence of the bookends of Helen’s present day story. The problem, however, is mostly a matter of managing expectations. It’s not that Helen is unimportant after all or that other characters are given too much importance in the narrative. It’s simply that the early focus on Helen kind of leads the reader to think we’re getting more of Helen’s story, and the realization that we’re not takes a while and then doesn’t fully make sense until very late in the book. That said, once I figured out what Klages was doing, I found it easy to appreciate the deliberate way in which she reveals her story.

Passing Strange is less a straightforward love story (though romance figures largely in it) and more a detailed portrait of a specific time and place and an examination of a particular set of experiences, here, the lives of queer women in San Francisco in the 1940s. I love the way Klages introduces her characters once the flashback starts, and the picture she paints of all these interconnected women, their struggles and friendships and the joy they have in spite of often difficult circumstances is vivid and real-feeling. Klages seamlessly weaves together scenes of sweetness with scenes of visceral pain without shying away from depicting the ugliness of the era (which is sadly not always very different from our current one) but without dwelling on darkness. It’s a balancing act that can be hard to manage, and Klages does so superbly, crafting a story that is true to reality but still ultimately optimistic.

If there’s any real complaint to be made about Passing Strange, it’s that the fantasy elements of the story are only slight until the very end, when magic is almost (but not quite) a deus ex machina. It’s hinted at throughout the book that magic is both real and not very uncommon, but there’s only one actual magical event of any significance, and it’s not tied to the other magics that are described elsewhere in the book. Just in general, I would have loved to see all of the various magic and witchery suggested in the story be expanded upon more fully, to be honest. The richness of 1940s San Francisco is a lush backdrop for the story already, but Klages hints at an equally rich world of magic just out of the reader’s sight.

All this said, Passing Strange is still a near-perfect novella. The few complaints I have about it all amount to just wanting more of it. I want more stories about women loving women, and I want them to have grand romances, magical adventures, and happy endings. As delightful as Haskell and Emily and their friends are, they aren’t enough. Passing Strange deserves to be more than a singular work of its type, and if Ellen Klages ever decides to revisit this setting or any of these characters, I’m here for it. If anyone else is writing anything like this I’m looking for it.

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

Book Review: The Fortress at the End of Time by Joe M. McDermott

Joe M. McDermott’s The Fortress at the End of Time might be a little bit genius, but I can’t decide if I loved it or hated it. It’s got a great classic sci-fi sensibility if, but I’m generally not one for classics. It’s a novel that, while short, is often boring, but intentionally so and in a way that mostly works if you’re a patient reader. It’s got some big ideas that are worthy of considered exploration, but none that are particularly fresh. It’s solidly written with a distinctive voice and style, but there’s nothing especially exceptional about it. It’s a book that I’m glad to have read because it is a bit outside of my usual fare and a nice change, but I don’t feel compelled to read either more of McDermott’s work or more of this sort of thing in general. It’s not that The Fortress at the End of Time is unremarkable or pedestrian; it’s just a profoundly workmanlike example of its type of thing–thoughtful medium-hard military-ish sci-fi that has something to say about some stuff–if you like this sort of thing. I can easily imagine this being a book that lots of other people love, but I can’t muster any very strong feelings about it, myself.

The story is told in first person from the point of view of one of the most unpleasant characters I’ve had the misfortune to read about in some time. Ronaldo Aldo was raised on Earth and attended a military officers’ school, after which a copy of him (not really a clone, despite what the cover blurb says) is made and stationed on a remote military base at the far end of the galaxy, where he finds himself lonely, bored, and with few opportunities for success or advancement. While the book seems intended to explore the banality of that sort of everyday experience–not everyone can be a Captain Kirk, natch–I found Aldo so unlikable that it was difficult to root for him at all. For me, this is primarily because Ronaldo Aldo is a man who really doesn’t care for women, in spite of being straight and wanting to fuck/possess one (or more) of his own.

The first introduction to Aldo is his attempt to flip a coin with a friend of his over who gets to fuck a woman they are both hanging out with, only to find out that his friend and the woman are already a couple. It speaks to Aldo’s self-centeredness and obliviousness that he didn’t know that the people who are supposed to be his two best friends are in love, and it speaks to Aldo’s deep-seated misogyny that he ever thought it was appropriate to flip a coin for access to a woman’s body. McDermott doesn’t portray this behavior favorably, and I think that it’s intended to make Aldo unlikable from the start as well as set a baseline for his behavior towards women from which we can measure change over the course of the rest of the book.

However, Aldo’s subsequent arc never actually improves his attitudes towards women very much. Throughout the book, Aldo thinks of every woman he meets (and there are few enough of them) in terms of sexual attractiveness, which is consistently gross and off-putting, specifically because there are so few female characters in this book. Aldo’s championing of women at the Citadel feels hollow, and his “romantic” relationships are dysfunctional, with the dysfunction almost entirely on his side. Aldo continues to be slightly obsessed throughout the book with the girl from the very beginning; then he almost immediately becomes infatuated with the beautiful wife of one of the other officers at the Citadel, who he later has an affair with.

Aldo magnanimously gets involved with a young trans woman, but he primarily thinks of her in terms of her beauty and her transness, which is in turns almost fetishized and slightly vilified. Amanda’s transness is suggested to be a ploy to be able to marry a man and thus gain more land on the surface of the planet, and this plays off of some extremely negative tropes about duplicitous trans women who want to “trick” good men into being with them. I’d say that the treatment of this in the book falls in depiction rather than endorsement territory, but I’m not sure it’s handled as well as it could have been. There is quite a lot of time spent on talking about Amanda’s transness, in general but especially about her lack of childbearing ability (Future people can replicate whole people but can’t give a trans woman a uterus yet? Okay.) and there are several times where characters misgender and deadname her in ways that are derogatory and unpleasant to read.

Still, thematically, The Fortress at the End of Time is moderately ambitious, and McDermott does a good job of staying on target with the story he’s trying to tell. There’s not much fat that could have been trimmed here, and the deliberately slow pacing works nicely to highlight McDermott’s theses. The interplay between the planetside monastery and the Citadel could have been given somewhat more page time, but I may only feel that way because I could have done with less of Aldo’s feelings. All in all, though, The Fortress at the End of Time is fine. It’s not great, but it’s good, and sometimes that’s plenty. This isn’t a book that was perfect for me, but if you like this sort of retro-styled sci-fi or if you have a thing for unlikable protagonists and likely unreliable narrators, it’ll be right up your alley.

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

Book Review: Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day by Seanan McGuire

It’s early enough in the year that I don’t have much to compare it to yet, but I feel confident in saying that Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is one of the year’s great novella-length works. It’s smartly written, well-paced, has a compelling cast of characters and an original mythology, and is altogether compulsively readable. It’s perfect reading for a cold day or a rainy afternoon, exactly the sort of thing that is easy to zip through in a single sitting like I did.

It might be easy to just focus on the characterization of this book as “that book about the ghost who works at the suicide hotline,” but Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is something really special and interesting that isn’t done justice by that facile, humorous-sounding description. Yes, Jenna is a ghost and she works at a suicide hotline, but this isn’t a funny book and, while a fast read, isn’t really the kind of light reading that superficial description would suggest, either. There’s some lightness here, but this is a book that deals mostly with themes relating to grief and mortality and Seanan McGuire has something quite serious to say about these issues. She does touch on some ideas about community and found family, but those are mostly incidental to the story and more implied than explicitly examined in the text.

Because the book is so emotionally and thematically weighty, the plot is a fairly basic one. After the introduction of Jenna’s predicament and some explanation of her life as a ghost, Jenna and her friend, a witch, have to rescue a bunch of other ghosts when they mysteriously disappear. We never meet any of the disappeared ghosts, so there’s not much emotional stake in their rescue, but the book isn’t really about them at all. Instead, the first person narrative puts the reader completely inside Jenna’s head for the duration of the story. And while Jenna is a kind and caring person, there’s an interesting detachment in her ways of caring for her pets (all elderly cats) and the people in her after-life, and McGuire does a great job of exploring how Jenna’s circumstances have changed her perspective and her understanding of life and death.

McGuire also has an interesting take on witches here, where they have magics tied to any number of things–streets, rats, corn… presumably the options are basically unlimited–that fuel their powers and inform and limit their abilities. The relationship between witches and ghosts is complex and adversarial rather than symbiotic, but it adds another dimension to the reader’s understanding of the themes. Like ghosts, witches exist in a social space somewhat removed from humanity, and both ghosts and witches live extended lifetimes and are subject to forces and motivations outside their control. McGuire’s “What If?” question in this book is broad and perhaps ill-defined, but I love the multiple angles from which she’s chosen to try and answer it.

Looking back on the reading experience of this one, I think the genius of Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day is that McGuire has used an extremely simple and fairly straightforward plot in order to hang a ton of mythology and worldbuilding upon, but she’s managed to do it in a way that feels complete and not as if it’s just an introduction to a bigger fictional world or a longer series. Sure, there’s tons of storytelling potential here, and there is at least one character (Delia, if you want to know) that I’d love to see McGuire return to in the future. But Jenna’s story in this volume is completely self-contained and entirely emotionally satisfying. I would definitely like to read more about this fantasy world, but I don’t think any sequels are necessary. I’d love for these kinds of singularly lovely standalone stories become a trend even more than I want to see sequels or companions to this story.

This review is based upon an advance copy of the title received from the publisher through NetGalley.