Tag Archives: Tor.com novellas

Book Review: The Last Witness by K.J. Parker

The Last Witness is decidedly not my kind of book. If I wasn’t making a point of reading all of the Tor.com novellas in publication order, I would never have picked this one out based just upon its back cover copy. Needless to say, I’m glad that I’m working on this reading project, because I would be sad to have missed this little gem of a story.

The Last Witness deals with some rather heavy ideas about memory and storytelling—specifically the stories that we tell others and ourselves. It’s a fascinatingly speculative story with an intriguing perspective and a main character with a powerful magic that is the very definition of a double-edged sword. He can steal memories, but he remembers them all perfectly, himself. The story answers some of the questions that must be asked as a matter of course once you think up that kind of magic power.

As the story unfolds, we learn more and more about Parker’s wonderfully unreliable narrator, where he came from, and what having this power has made of him. There’s not a lot in this premise that is terribly surprising, but the story is well-constructed, and when the twist comes near the end it’s, well, not unexpected exactly, but so perfectly placed and executed that it provokes a deep emotional response as one is forced to change the way one thinks of the narrator and the story he’s told up to that point.

My biggest criticism of the book is that there are parts that are just plain confusing. Because of the mechanics of the narrator’s magical ability, he sometimes has a difficult time differentiating between his own natural memories and those that he’s gleaned through his work. While everything becomes clear by the end of the story, there were several times in the first third or so where I found myself struggling to make sense of it. This isn’t aided, either, by the fact that there are no chapters or other markers to clarify shifts between the narrator’s memories and other people’s memories that are being remembered by the narrator or between flashbacks and the present day events of the story. It’s not bad enough to make the story unreadable, but I could definitely see this being off-putting for people who (unlike myself) have no problem abandoning a book partway through.

I don’t expect that The Last Witness will be among my favorites of the Tor.com novellas, but I’m happy to have read it. It’s a solidly written story with an interesting protagonist, a clever twist, and a satisfying conclusion.

Book Review: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

binti-book-coverBinti is the first of the Tor.com novellas that has turned out to be slightly disappointing to me, but I think that’s because my expectations were so very high after reading Nnedi Okorafor’s previous work over the last few years. It was always going to be hard for this story to live up to the power and beauty of Lagoon or Who Fears Death or The Book of Phoenix.

This isn’t to say that I didn’t like Binti. Indeed, there’s a lot to love about this little book, although probably my first complaint about it would be that it is so very little. Of the Tor.com novellas I’ve read so far, Binti has by far the lowest page count, which is a shame if for no other reason than I never want any book by Nnedi Okorafor to end.

My second complaint, and a more substantive one, is that Binti relies a little too much on magic in order to move the story along. Okorafor has always created worlds with a synthesis of magic and science, but here the magic becomes too much of a deus ex machina. Considering the book’s hefty messages about colonization, racism, and the nature of humanity, this excessive mysticism may be intentional, but I found it a bit much at times.

Binti‘s greatest strengths, on the other hand, lie in Okorafor’s gift for crafting characters and cultures. Binti herself is a wonderful heroine, if perhaps a little unrealistic in her lack of any real flaws, and her Meduse counterpart Okwu is excellently conceived and nicely-written. The Meduse people in general are fascinating, although their grievance was resolved a little too neatly in the end.

The very best part of the book, though, is the way Okorafor weaves in Binti’s personal history and shows the complicated feelings Binti has about her people, her culture, and her sense of self. There’s something rather melancholy about the ways in which Binti’s journey changes her, but I quite like the idea that every journey–no matter how much we start on our own terms–is a journey into an unknown and uncontrollable future. What I like even more, however, is the idea that we can always save something and take it with us. I love the idea of something as culturally and regionally specific as the Himba people’s otjize lasting long enough in time and space for someone to wear it to college on another planet, and in Binti otjize becomes a perfect symbol of resistance, endurance, and connection to the past.

I just wish there was a little more plot happening. There’s just not much going on, and the novella ends up feeling both uneventful and overstuffed with meaning. Without a strong story to support all of the big ideas Okorafor is weaving together, Binti starts collapse under its own weight. It’s a shame, because Binti herself is a great character that I’d love to see more of.

Book Review: Sunset Mantle by Alter S. Reiss

sunset-mantle-coverSunset Mantle is a sort of strange little book. It’s an interesting mix of things that I love (epic fantasy, low key romance, a huge battle scene) and things that I usually hate (military stories, few women characters, overly stoic and maladaptively principled hero), and I’ve kind of fallen in love with it.

Cete is exactly the sort of outcast slightly grizzled warrior character that would normally bore me to tears, but the first thing we learn about him is that he appreciates and longs for beautiful things. This is a simple, honest desire, and it’s a small aspect of the character of a man whose only business and skill is death, but who loves art. It’s this desire that is always at the core of the story in Sunset Mantle, and its frankly miraculous that Alter S. Reiss manages to make this novella work without it becoming mawkish and trite, but he does.

Marelle, the artisan who created the titular sunset mantle, is kind of a fascinating character to me. I really appreciate the first physical descriptions we get of her which are pleasantly unsexual and focus on qualities that are representative of her experiences and the unique ways she exists in the world. Her age is unstated, though it’s clear that she’s a young-but-mature woman, and her beauty or lack thereof is never remarked upon, though it’s shown amply later in the story that Cete at least finds her desirable. In the beginning, though, we learn about the way she carries herself, the ways that hard work has marked her, and the way she smiles directly at Cete–“the smile of one man to another, rather than that of a woman to a man.”

This particular passage is one that Reiss handles with delicate precision, establishing Marelle as a character who is both comforting and challenging to Cete and establishing Cete as a man who (sadly unusually in the epic fantasy genre) respects Marelle in a way that is refreshingly unpatronizing. The first two pages of this novella might be my favorite thing I’ve read in the fantasy genre in years, and they are the key to understanding and appreciating the rest of the book. It’s a great cold open that, while light on action, deftly and economically introduces the two most important characters in the story and makes them interesting and likable without resorting to any hackneyed or offensive tropes.

The world-building in Sunset Mantle is similarly superb, although there was a stretch between the opening scene and the end of the first third of the book where I wasn’t entirely sure I understood what was going on. This might have been intentional, to build suspense or something, but I found it just confusing, and I would have preferred a more straightforward explanation for how some of the political structures of this world are organized. All the same, when I finally got my bearings, I was impressed by the depth of detail Reiss has packed into such a short book. I’ve read 800-page novels with less world-building than Reiss packs into just over one hundred pages, and this world could easily support a much bigger story than the one told here.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Sunset Mantle is that it’s just plain well-written (aside from the above-mentioned early confusion about the political situation). It’s tightly plotted, generally easy to follow, contains an excellent battle at its climax, and has a satisfying ending that feels natural and earned. It’s a small and personal story that still manages to feel epic, and it has enough darkness and high stakes to be compelling but stops well enough short of being grimdark that the word “fun” can still be reasonably used to describe one’s Sunset Mantle reading experience.

Book Review: Witches of Lychford by Paul Cornell

Witches of Lychford is every bit as beautiful as its truly lovely cover (somewhat reminiscent of the posters for my favorite ’90s teen witch flick, The Craft) suggests. Like its cover, Witches is a story painted in subtle tones to develop its themes with both a clear sensibility for small town life and a gentle humor that makes it a joy to read.

The story deals largely with themes related to the disruption and destruction of small towns by corporate interests. The villain here seems to me a pretty thinly veiled reference to Walmart (or Asda, I suppose, in the UK), and we learn that what’s at risk is not just destruction of the expected small town community virtues but also the destruction of the border between two worlds.

The really standout aspect of this novella, though, is its characters. The three women around whom the story revolves all have their own separate and unique personalities and character arcs, which unfold at a pace that is both tightly managed to fit inside just 144 pages but also leisurely enough to be enjoyable reading. Judith, Lizzie, and Autumn are exactly the sorts of women that I love to read about: smart, funny, brave, resourceful, flawed enough to feel real and with just the right amount of magic. They’re also supported by a cast of small-town characters that feel familiar without the use of any tired tropes and have enough depth to make me care about them and become even more invested in what happens to their town by making Lychford feel like a real place.

The plot is simple and straightforward, which is ideal for novella length works. It’s never too complicated and Paul Cornell has a real gift for knowing just how best to develop his story and characters. While the urgency of the story builds throughout the book, events never feel rushed, and emotional moments happen exactly when they need to. The ending is satisfying, but it isn’t too tidy or trite, and it’s open-ended enough that I could easily see this story being continued in another novella or novel.

Recommended reading for a lazy Sunday afternoon in fall. I’d suggest making a day of just reading and watching stuff with witches in it. Combine with Practical MagicHocus Pocus, and something pumpkin spice flavored.

Book Review: The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps by Kai Ashante Wilson

The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps is the first thing I’ve ever read by Kai Ashante Wilson, and I’m so glad I did, if for no other reason than that I went out right afterwards and also read his short stories, “The Devil in America” and “Super Bass,” which are similarly excellent. As the first of Tor.com’s new line of novellas, which have all been heavily promoted, I had high hopes for this book. I wasn’t disappointed.

This is a book that is deeply concerned with language, and this is apparent in every intricate detail of Wilson’s superbly crafted prose. The plot is thin and linear, with most of the “story” functioning as character portrait and world building. I could see this being a problem for readers who are looking for something more exciting, but the adventure here is less the physical journey of the caravan and more the emotional and spiritual journey of the titular character.

Demane is a character who has come a long way already by the time we meet him at the beginning of Sorcerer. He’s very much an outsider in the group of caravan guards that he’s currently traveling with as well as their more well-to-do employers. As the caravan travels into a large and untamed jungle, amidst rumors of a beast that is marauding along the road, we’re treated to a thorough exploration of Demane’s outsider status, largely through his interactions with other characters.

The worldbuilding is where The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps really stands out, though. It reminds me a little bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Zahrah the Windseeker, which also contained a large and mysterious jungle and a city on the edge of it, but Sorcerer is much broader in its scope and is focused less on the exploration of the forest and more on an exploration of Demane’s interactions with the people he meets on his journey. Even the monster Demane must defeat at the end is never concretely described.

I would have liked to see more actual adventure and less standing around in a town talking about stuff. Because so much time was spent on what mostly amounted to a whole lot of incredible worldbuilding mixed with some incisive social commentary, the action at the end of the book felt rushed and the ending felt a little tacked on. While this was somewhat frustrating, it did whet my appetite for the setting, and I really, really hope that Wilson revisits this world in some longer fiction.

A final note: I bought an .epub version of the book, and I found the formatting to be a little bad. It wasn’t always clear when the story shifted between the present and flashbacks, and I don’t know if this was intentional or not. Either way, it was sometimes confusing and took me out of an otherwise immersive story.