Yellow JessamineGenres: Fantasy
, Horror Pages:
Powerful shipping magnate Evelyn Perdanu lives a tight, contained life, holding herself at a distance from all who would get close to her. Her family is dead, her country is dying, and when something foul comes to the city of Delphinium, the brittle, perilous existence she's built for herself is strained to breaking.
When one of her ships arrives in dock, she counts herself lucky that it made it through the military blockades slowly strangling her city. But one by one, the crew fall ill with a mysterious sickness: an intense light in their eyes and obsessive behavior, followed by a catatonic stupor. Even as Evelyn works to exonerate her company of bringing plague into her besieged capital city, more and more cases develop, and the afflicted all share one singular obsession: her.
Panicked and paranoid, she retreats to her estate, which rests on a foundation of secrets: the deaths of her family, the poisons and cures that hasten the dissolution of the remaining upper classes, and a rebel soldier, incapacitated and held hostage in a desperate bid for information. But the afflicted are closing in on her, and bringing the attention of the law with them. Evelyn must unearth her connection to the spreading illness, and fast, before it takes root inside her home and destroys all that she has built.
Caitlin Starling’s Yellow Jessamine is a horror novella, following a young woman who fell heir to her family’s estate and business after the tragic deaths of all her family. Evelyn Perdanu likes to tightly control her life, managing the business around the war that will all too soon come to her home, and managing her household according to her own (slightly eccentric) needs. Her solace is her garden, where the things she grows can both heal and harm.
Slowly, the extent of what she does becomes clear — in response to the sudden appearance of something like a new plague, which leaves people empty and catatonic, after a brief period of total obsession with Evelyn. It’s all very creepy and tense, both with the plague and with the fear of the enemy and the eventual death of the town, and the fear of being found out for what she’s done.
Where it failed for me is that Evelyn is hard to pity, since she’s ruthless despite her fragility. She thinks nothing of blinding a man, even as she’s supposed to be nursing him to health. Poison is an answer that comes easily to her hand. It’s hard to feel sorry for her — for me at least — given how culpable she is. Points for atmosphere, but the character didn’t work for me: just a step too far into her own private madness to ever seem sane and worth investing in as a reader.
Tread of AngelsGenres: Fantasy Pages:
Celeste, a card sharp with a need for justice, takes on the role of advocatus diaboli, to defend her sister Mariel, accused of murdering a Virtue, a member of the ruling class of this mining town, in a new world of dark fantasy from the New York Times bestselling author of Black Sun, Rebecca Roanhorse.
The year is 1883 and the mining town of Goetia is booming as prospectors from near and far come to mine the powerful new element Divinity from the high mountains of Colorado with the help of the pariahs of society known as the Fallen. The Fallen are the descendants of demonkind living amongst the Virtues, the winners in an ancient war, with the descendants of both sides choosing to live alongside Abaddon’s mountain in this tale of the mythological West.
I really enjoyed Tread of Angels. I was probably only partly on board, right up until the end, because it felt like the main character (Celeste) was being a bit stupid about something that was right in front of her face. It felt like everything was going to be just a bit too predictable — enjoyable, but not something that would stick in my mind. And then, at the end… consequences.
In the end, I still can’t give it five stars, because holy crap, Celeste, how are you so stupid? And how do you keep taking such terrible advantage of everyone around you? It’s a wonder you’ve managed any friends at all… That part didn’t quite make sense to me, because the profound selfishness of Celeste made me wonder how her friends hadn’t seen it.
But something about the ending surprised me; I don’t want to say too much, but it made me re-evaluate a certain character and decide that he probably was more interesting than I’d initially written him off as. The book from his point of view certainly would’ve been something.
In the end, it strikes a sad note, but it works really well.
Cover of Unto the Godless What Little RemainsGenres: Science Fiction Pages:
The internet is a lonesome god.
Liverloin is a fractured man, a collection of personas—artificial constructs of wants, fears and needs—created by underground science-artists to help him hide in a hyper-connected world. But he can’t hide from Big Momma.
She is the living internet, a benevolent AI who knows everything and everyone… and somehow is in love with Liverloin.
Agent Stevly works for DAIS, an AI on the other side of the internet: the darkness to Big Momma’s light. DAIS’s agents manipulate news, information and media and pull the strings behind world events, but DAIS cannot control Big Momma or understand why she loves Liverloin. Agent Stevly, bound body and soul to DAIS, will stop at nothing to find the answer.
Unto the Godless What Little Remains is very much designed to be a novella, and as such it gets away with things that would frustrate me otherwise, like the constantly switching point-of-view and time in the continuity of the story. It’s still a little frustrating, especially for the chapters with Stevly (which are in a horrible format with less punctuation and few capital letters), but it mostly gets away with it at this length.
The story itself isn’t too surprising to me: AI have learned to predict everything humans think, do, like or want, because everything is part of a chain of causes and effects. The AI Big Momma rules the world, and everybody lets her, because life’s easy that way. But Big Momma’s fascinated with a human, Liverloin, who acts and thinks in ways that she just cannot predict — and obviously others have a vested interest in stopping her getting obsessed with him. Liverloin flees both her and them, confused, and running from something in his past.
It all comes together pretty well; it doesn’t feel startling or surprising to me, but it was entertaining enough.
, Romance Pages:
90 Series: Whyborne & Griffin #8.5 Rating:
Shy secretary Maggie Parkhurst knows there’s nothing special about her. She’s neither sorceress, nor fighter, nor scholar. What could she possibly have to offer Persephone, the chieftess of the inhuman ketoi — and the woman Maggie’s fallen in love with?
After Maggie’s friend Irene goes missing under mysterious circumstances, she has no choice but to turn to Persephone for help. When the trail leads to a shadowy acting troupe, they discover a plot that stretches much farther than a single vanished woman.
But when a dark truth is revealed, Maggie must choose between a man from her past… and the impossible yearnings of her heart.
Undertow gives us the story of Dr Whyborne’s secretary, Maggie, and her friendship with his sister, Persephone. It’s a short one, but it has a nice action sequence, and shows us a slightly different side of Widdershins society.
I do think it’s funny that Maggie still hasn’t worked out that Whyborne’s in a relationship with Griffin. All the signs are there, she sees them, and… doesn’t clock on.
It’s nice to spend time with a character other than Whyborne, and also to see Maggie find happiness instead of mooning after him. I enjoyed it, and I enjoyed Persephone’s efforts to woo Maggie. Dead squid, indeed.
Sacraments for the UnfitGenres: Fantasy
, Short Stories Pages:
The isolation of the COVID-19 pandemic brought out the ritualist in many of us. In this collection of contemporary weird short fiction, a variety of different persons and beings try to fill up their days in varying states of isolation and mystery, real or imaginary. An angel outlives the Apparat that used to employ him; a deity complains about no longer feeling seen; a museum curator living alone begins to inexplicably alter; a medievalist suffering from vision loss gets into a strange relationship with the ghost of the codicologist M. R. James; enigmatic objects begin to work themselves out of the ground by the grave of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, prompting scholarly speculation. Sacraments For the Unfit is a series of vignettes about the transformations that can happen while staying in place.
I can see why this book has been compared with Ursula Le Guin’s work. It had the same quality I have with some of her more impenetrable stories where I just don’t quite “get it”. Some of them seem to require some outside knowledge for more clarity — a little knowledge of M.R. James wouldn’t hurt, or Wittgenstein, which is quite the ask (I know a little about James, almost nothing about Wittgenstein).
In the end I don’t regret reading it, but also it wasn’t quite 100% squarely my thing, if that makes sense. I’m eager to read more of Tolmie’s books and stories, though: I really liked The Fourth Island and All the Horses of Iceland.
The Butcher of the ForestGenres: Fantasy Pages:
At the northern edge of a land ruled by a monstrous, foreign tyrant lies the wild forest known as the Elmever. The villagers know better than to let their children go near—once someone goes in, they never come back out.
No one knows the strange and terrifying traps of the Elmever better than Veris Thorn, the only person to ever rescue a child from the forest many years ago. When the Tyrant’s two young children go missing, Veris is commanded to enter the forest once more and bring them home safe.
Received to review via Netgalley
The main character of this novella, Veris, once went into the forest to save a child. It’s no ordinary forest, and her journey is the only time anyone has been known to be successful in entering and leaving the forest, let alone bringing a lost child back. When the local Tyrant’s children go missing, he has her brought to him: she must go and retrieve his children, or he will kill her family.
Well, what choice does she have? It’s an interesting set-up, since she’s a middle-aged protagonist, and she’s full of aches and pains as she makes her way into the forest — and she’s no great witch, holds no great power to find her way, just a bit of knowledge and some luck. And the luck’s tenuous.
It’s a genuinely creepy story in that tense sort of way, with a lot of blank spots at the edge of the canvas of things we don’t really get to see/understand. The focus is on Veris’ journey, and her efforts to find the children, despite the sense that there’s so much more going on.
I found it enjoyable, though I’m still sort of letting it settle.
The Possibility of Life, Jaime Green
The Possibility of Life looks to both science and science fiction for an idea of humanity’s hopes, dreams and fears of what alien life might look like, how realistic that might be, and what it’s based on. If you’re an SF/F fan, you’ll probably recognise a lot of the references, and not just the old white men or the hit TV series of SF either: Ursula Le Guin and N.K. Jemisin are here too.
I found it very readable, and thought Green presents the scientific facts (such as they are) very well. The enthusiasm for the subject is palpable, and optimistic, but doesn’t over-egg it (we’re probably not five minutes from meeting a Vulcan or Cardassian).
Nothing too surprising for me, but I enjoyed the approach to the subject.
The Imposition of Unnecessary Obstacles, Malka Older
Recieved to review via Netgalley
It’s pure chance that I’d so recently read The Mimicking of Known Successes, but it definitely made me eager to read this follow-up. The setup continues rather Holmesian, but set on a planet full of dangers, not quite hospitable to humans, on which humanity has nonetheless made a home in a series of settlements joined by rails. Mossa is an investigator, looking into a disappearance — and Pleiti is her girlfriend.
The previous story’s shadow lingers here, with Pleiti definitely upset by her experiences, her worldview shaken, and with people around her a little wary and doubtful given her involvement in what happened. Mossa remains… well, Mossa, but her care for Pleiti shows in so many ways. I really enjoy their relationship: Pleiti has to guess a little at whether Mossa’s gestures are significant, is maybe over-reading significance into some things (and underestimating others); their relationship isn’t quite stable yet, but nonetheless, their careful attitude to it and to each other, carefully building things up, is enjoyable.
The mystery itself is less gripping to me: I enjoy it as a vehicle for understanding the world better, for seeing Mossa and Pleiti together, but any mystery would do, for that. The solution was actually a little obvious, when it came, but it was the getting there that mattered.
I enjoyed this a lot, and eagerly look forward to more novellas centring these two.
The Bookshop & The Barbarian, Morgan Stang
I feel unfair giving this one star, because I did finish it and it was mildly entertaining while it went by, but when I sit back to think about it… it just didn’t work for me. One major thing that bothered me was the broken English spoken by Asteria: I get that there’s this idea of what fantasy “barbarians” speak like, but that’s a whole heap of stereotypes about people and about how English-as-a-second-language people speak that just… nope, no thank you, please go away and keep your broken English in your head with your other patronising fantasies. You don’t have to play into that nonsense.
In addition, you can be irreverent and playful in your narration and break the fourth wall all you like, but that does open you up to people thinking your narrative voice isn’t that funny, or is kind of an asshole, and that’s where I’m at with this.
A Glimmer of Silver, Juliet Kemp
A Glimmer of Silver is a novella looking at not first contact, but how contact with an alien lifeform might evolve. It reminds me of some other story that I can’t quite bring to mind, which is driving me a bit nuts. Anyway, the idea is that the ocean of this planet is in fact sentient, and humans are — for the most part — carefully keeping themselves separate from it, thinking that this is what Ocean wants. No fishing, no drinking the water (without careful distillation), etc.
Jennery is a Communicator, but a reluctant one, having wanted to become a musician instead. Still, it seems that what Ocean wants is not at all what the status quo has established, and the humans on Ocean (other than the Communicators) are equally restless.
The solution is a neat one, and worth pondering. Overall, it’s a fairly slight story, but worth it, I think.