Agents of Dreamland, Caitlin R. Kiernan
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 28th February 2017
Once again, not knowing my Lovecraft tripped me up. Yep, this is yet another Lovecraft-based story, although in this case it’s a rather less well-known one: the Fungi from Yuggoth. Not one I’d have known anything about even if I’d known in advance, but perhaps I might have been better prepared for the sheer bleakness and darkness of this story had I known it was based on Lovecraft’s mythos in any way.
It’s an intriguing little novella; self-contained, though it hints at a world before and after it through one character who is, to some extent, ‘unstuck in time’. The flesh-crawling horror of the fungi, a kind of invasion we’re helpless to fight, is done really well. There’s one phrase which just made me shudder, because of all the different implications stacked together: “the fruiting corpse”. Gah. Gaaah.
It’s very effective writing, and because I don’t know to what extent it takes any of the detail from Lovecraft, I can say that it’s definitely something that can stand on its own. It doesn’t rely on me realising exactly what’s going on through familiarity with Lovecraft; the creeping unease works as well or better if you’re ignorant of where things are going.
Birthright, Missouri Vaun
Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 14th February 2017
Birthright is a fun, fast-moving story of a sort typical in fantasy: the lost heir to a throne taken by a tyrant. And this version is a fun example of the genre, with strong female characters coming out of your ears — and falling in love with each other, too. The love story is at least as important to the plot as the lost heir, which is worth keeping in mind; it motivates the way the end of the story shakes out, and takes up a good amount of the narration. I enjoyed that though Aiden is boyish and Kathryn more feminine, there’s no stereotyping — both can fight, both can rule, both know what they’re doing.
There are a couple of moments where I felt things rushed by a little too fast — the connection between the two characters grows very quickly in just a couple of scenes — and where I’d have liked a bit more depth, like the characters of Frost and of Gareth, or even Rowan. Without more background, for example, Kathryn’s jealous moment made little sense, especially since how we got to that moment felt a little contrived.
Nonetheless, it’s fun and has a happy ever after, and I’d definitely recommend it to people looking for lesbian fantasy.
Foxglove Summer, Ben Aaronovitch
Once again, this book takes a step back from the main action. It’s not that the events of Broken Homes aren’t alluded to, because they are. In the background, there’s a lot of stuff going on with tracking down Lesley and the Faceless Man. But the main action of the plot is a police procedural dealing with some missing children. I wasn’t really surprised that this book brought in the concept of a changeling child, but it did manage to give the whole idea a couple of twists that did surprise me.
For me, both the strength and weakness of the book is the lack of progression in that main series plot, and the absence of many of the supporting characters. There’s no Lesley to make Peter do the proper policing thing, and there’s no Nightingale for backup. Which leaves Peter on his own, thinking for himself, and showing that actually, he doesn’t need those two. He also keeps showing that though he might not be as good a copper as Lesley, who never misses a beat, he’s a good policeman because he’s a good man. And this book reminds us of the people Nightingale and Peter are meant to be working for — ordinary people who need protection — rather than against (mysterious practioners of unclear motive).
I’m definitely ready for more of the main plot now, but the respite from it wasn’t bad either.
Diamond Dogs, Alastair Reynolds
Diamond Dogs is a really effective novella, for my money. I reread it recently, but I remembered the key points from the first time I’d read it — a twisty story that got under my skin. There’s lots of little references and clues to point you to what the story is going to do, and there’s plenty of worldbuilding and detail to keep you wondering. It helps to know a little bit about the larger universe of Reynolds’ books, just for background… but it’s not necessary.
It’s creepy and psychological and well structured. It’s just one of those novellas which perfectly gets under the skin, scratches that itch, etc, etc. I won’t give away anything else…
Passing Strange, Ellen Klages
Received to review via Netgalley; released 24th January 2017
Passing Strange is a lovely novella which takes its own sweet time. As it opens, you expect one story, one protagonist… as it continues to unfold, you see that you were wrong. In my case, I didn’t mind that bait-and-switch at all, but I imagine some people will find that shift in POV a little jarring. Though I didn’t mind, I did find myself briefly wrong-footed by it.
The novella is set in San Fransisco, 1940, among a community of queer women whose lives intersect. I’ve seen a review where someone felt that the takeaway from this book was “yeah, yeah, we know gays back then had a hard time”. There’s that, of course, but there’s also that community, and that’s what I really enjoyed. I don’t really want to say too much about it; I think it’s best if the story unfolds itself for the reader in its own time.
I’ve also read a complaint that the speculative aspect isn’t integral. It is, but it’s subtle; the fact that it’s there, quietly but throughout, allows the ending that otherwise couldn’t be mysterious or touching or bittersweet. It’s an ordinary sort of magic, in the way that the women use it — it’s a tool that happens to be to hand.
I enjoyed the story a lot. And it’s another of the Tor.com novellas that feels like it was meant to be exactly this length, no longer, no shorter.
Miranda and Caliban, Jacqueline Carey
Received to review via Netgalley; release date 14th February 2017
I’ll probably give anything by Jacqueline Carey a chance. I’m not a huge Shakespeare fan, and I wasn’t really sure if I’d like something retelling The Tempest. But it’s Jacqueline Carey’s work, so I requested it anyway. And… I loved it quite a bit. I wasn’t sure about the narration: honestly, Miranda sounded rather like Phèdre in many ways, and far too mature considering the narration is present tense, even when she’s a small child. I wasn’t sure about Caliban’s narration either, because I’m not a fan of broken English portrayed in fiction — it quite often comes out sounding like mockery.
But all the same, the writing has grace to it, and it’s certainly easy to read and absorb, despite the tendency to thee and thou. (I wish Ariel didn’t say “Oh, la!” like he was from Pride and Prejudice or something, though. It always sounds far too comical for me.)
The relationship between Miranda and Caliban, their tenderness for each other as each helps the other, is well done. The portrayal of Prospero as a somewhat abusive father who sometimes nonetheless shows tenderness for his daughter makes perfect sense, and so does the way his behaviour pushes the two together. Ariel’s capriciousness and ambivalence works, too.
The only problem, really, is that you know how it’s going to end. I found myself hoping all the same that it would end differently — it’s a retelling, after all. But at the same time, there’s always that sense of inevitability: you know what’s going to happen. I don’t think there’s anything revolutionary about this telling, but it humanises Caliban and makes of him much less of a monster, and more of a lover. The ending gave me a lump in my throat: his hope, despite Ariel’s warnings, despite Miranda’s doubts. It’s so tender and naive.
The Prince of the Moon, Megan Derr
Received to review via Netgalley
The Prince of the Moon is a fairytale-like story of princes, queens and curses, along with true love, a pure heart, and other such trappings of the genre. The difference being that the witch burning may not be entirely justified — certainly there are at least two good witches in the story — and the people who have been cursed may just deserve it somewhat. Oh, and the romantic couple are both men, but that’s becoming more common lately and honestly didn’t feel like the point of the story. Which is kind of exciting, actually! M/M fairytales which aren’t just about changing genders, but also about interrogating other aspects of the story, like the wicked witch and her son.
It’s pretty short and mostly sweet, and the romance feels a little bit rushed… but on the other hand, of course it does: this is coming out of fairytales, after all. The only thing I honestly don’t get is why Solae keeps trying to help his family, when it’s fairly clear no one has ever stretched out a hand to him. He’s a good person, and yet he’s learned that goodness all out of nowhere.
Then again: it’s a fairytale. Who taught Rapunzel to be good?
The sex scenes are, well, not terrible or laughable or awkward, but neither were they necessary to the story. I just skipped past them, given lack of interest. But there is sex in this book, if that matters to you.
The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
What to say about this one? I don’t really like it. It’s not just the fact that Narnia comes to an end — though there’s that — but it’s also that I don’t really like any of the characters. I don’t have that same hook to make me care about what’s happening as I did in the earlier books. And it’s so preachy and obvious. There is some beauty in it — the universalism, for example, when those who do good deeds are really serving Aslan after all.
But. There’s also a ton of xenophobia and stereotypes, and let’s not even talk about the sexism as regards Susan. (Though, she’s not dead, so there’s always a chance for her. Small comfort.)
It’s hard to feel the joy of the ending after the rubbish that comes before it. I think in future, I’ll just skip this book if I reread the series again. Possibly The Silver Chair, too. It lacks the warmth and energy of the chronologically earlier books.
The Masked City, Genevieve Cogman
With The Burning Page coming out, I decided to reread these two books. Just, you know, to refresh my memory… and because they’re a lot of fun. The Masked City was similarly fun this time round, giving the reader more of the fae and the dragons, more of the background. We get to know a little more about the importance of the Library… and we get adventures and hijinks with Vale and Irene. (Mostly. Kai gets captured early in the book, so we don’t see as much of him.) There’s a nicely high-stakes plot, and everything rattles along at an incredible rate, as you’d expect. And satisfyingly, for a reader, words — Language — give Irene one of her most powerful tools.
The books play in a fun way with tropes, and the concept of the library is bound to appeal to any bookworm.
Now let me hurry up and unearth the third book from my box of books.
Memory of Water, Emmi Itäranta
Memory of Water is a slow story, a story which takes all the time it needs to unfold. Although it’s post-apocalyptic and dystopian, the focus is more on the emotional journey of the protagonist, who comes to understand her world and her place in it. The background is really fascinating, amalgamating a Finnish setting with Asian tea ceremonies. The prose and the pacing all echo those tea ceremonies: deliberate, considered, every movement relevant and part of the whole.
It’s not about dramatic clashes between armies and civilians, sudden revolutions or dramatic government takeovers. Instead, it’s about surviving day to day, about choosing who you betray, about making your own path despite the constraints around you. It’s a slow dying of thirst, not a brutal death at the hands of strangers. It’s about seeing the world change around you, but so slowly you’re almost lulled into not reacting.
It’s about humans wrecking the world, and then making it hard for other humans to live with the consequences. It’s introspective, slow. The main character might well annoy most readers because of that slow narration and its philosophical bent.
I thought it was gorgeous — and I’m extremely impressed that Itäranta wrote it in both Finnish and English. In English, at least, it’s lyrical and beautiful and carefully crafted in a way that, yes, recalls that theme of the tea ceremony.