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“The Twisted Ones” by T. Kingfisher

Many stories that fall under the “weird fiction” umbrella are set in either England or New England, but there seems to be a recent trend of placing such tales in Appalachia. Brian Hodge’s I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky is set in West Virginia, and T. Kingfisher’s The Twisted Ones takes place in North Carolina. This is particularly interesting since Kingfisher’s novel is very directly and openly inspired by Arthur Machen’s The White People, which is set in Wales (where Machen himself grew up). At first glance, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of commonality between the two locales, but Kingfisher vividly evokes the lonely atmosphere of wild places to create a link.

Another bridge between the settings is their folklore. The British Isles gave rise to many tales about the Fair Folk, and modern authors like Susanna Clarke and Elizabeth Hand have mined this rich history to tell beautiful and unsettling stories. But Appalachia has its own traditions of haints and odd happenings, and many of the early European immigrants to the area came from the English/Scottish border regions. A blending of the two folk traditions is thus more natural than it might first appear, and indeed Alex Bledsoe’s Tufa novels make the connection explicit. Kingfisher posits that Cotgrave, the main character of the frame story in The White People, emigrated to North Carolina in an attempt to escape some dark knowledge or threat precipitated by his reading of the Green Book. That same mystery begins to reveal itself to his granddaughter when she arrives to clean out the house he and her grandmother shared after they have both died.

Kingfisher gives enough background on The White People that one doesn’t need to have read it to enjoy The Twisted Ones, but having done so does add to the story. She also avoids the biggest potential pitfall of writing a sequel of sorts to a horror or weird fiction story: that in elaborating on some mysterious occurrence, one can reveal too much and drain all the wonder/terror out of it. While Kingfisher does explain things that Machen only hinted at, and gives more details about the mechanics of the supernatural phenomena, parts of the story were still creepy enough to make me reluctant to turn off the lights when it was time to go to bed.

In addition to the main character, known as Mouse, The Twisted Ones presents several interesting side characters. Not the least of these is Mouse’s dog, Bongo. Some reviewers I’ve seen felt Bongo’s constant presence in the narrative was distracting, while others were happy that the novel stated at the beginning that Bongo survived the events of the book. I have to admit to some prejudice here; because Bongo’s personality reminded me very much of my mother-in-law’s recently-deceased dog, I found Bongo delightful and a bit poignant.

Kingfisher has a follow-up novel (it doesn’t seem to be a sequel, but is set in the same universe) called The Hollow Places due out later this year. If it’s anything like The Twisted Ones, I think I’ll enjoy reading it.

“The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

David Wellington, a veteran author of thrillers and monster horror novels, takes a detour into science fiction with his latest book, The Last Astronaut. When an interstellar object passing through the solar system shows unmistakable signs of being piloted by an alien intelligence, a moribund NASA scrambles a mission to make contact with it. Unfortunately, the only experienced astronaut they have available is living in disgrace and self-imposed exile after a catastrophic aborted mission to Mars.

Wellington is a master of maintaining tension. He conveys the sheer strangeness of the alien object very well, and makes the reader feel the crew’s growing sense of unease as they travel through its interior. On top of that, he layers interpersonal conflicts among the crew. They haven’t had as much time to get to know each other as the crew of a spacecraft normally would, and this really starts to take its toll as the mission goes on and the difficulties mount. Mutual distrust between the civilian and military personnel rears its head, as does the team’s skepticism that the main character has what it takes to lead the mission in light of her past.

While The Last Astronaut probably doesn’t quite meet the qualifications of hard sci-fi, Wellington does keep things relatively grounded. Some aspects of the extraterrestrials’ biology are implausible, but Wellington has clearly put some thought into how such organisms might function. Once the basic premise is accepted, the extrapolations from it are fairly reasonable. And as far as I can tell, the technology used by the human characters is plausible.

The book uses a framing device in which the narrative is meant to be the text of an in-world book written about the mission. Interspersed with the text are excerpts from voice recordings made by the crew members. While these didn’t pull me out of the story as I was reading, in retrospect I don’t think the format really added anything to the story. The information conveyed through the excerpts could have simply been presented as the characters’ thoughts, and the overall framing device didn’t feel necessary at all.

Ultimately, The Last Astronaut is a clever, engaging, page-turner of a novel. I’d be interested to see Wellington return to sci-fi in the future.

“The Outside” by Ada Hoffman

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Ada Hoffman’s debut novel The Outside is an intriguing fusion of space opera and cosmic horror. Yasira Shien is an engineer in a distant future where human society is ruled by AI “gods.” When the activation of a reactor she built goes wrong, it doesn’t just blow up; it unleashes a terrifying force from outside of space and time. Yasira’s attempt to set things right puts her on a collision course with both that force and with humanity’s gods.

The far future society portrayed in the novel is an interesting one, with superintelligent AIs having taken on the role of deities and various types of cyborg designated as angels and priests. One small but intriguing worldbuilding detail is that most of the gods are described as female, although they presumably don’t have humanoid forms. The digital assistants prevalent today, such as Alexa and Siri, are also been coded as female, and some commentators have questioned whether this is due to societal perceptions of women as compliant and helpful. Are The Outside’s deific AIs female because they grew from female-coded devices of the setting’s past (our present)? It’s interesting to think of that as a potential root for their personalities.

Another interesting aspect of the worldbuilding relates to the human polities. Most far-future sci-fi presents cultures and operating on a planetary level. While individual characters might identify with a nation (Jean-Luc Picard with France, Susan Ivanova with Russia, etc.), these nations are no longer relevant political entities. Sometimes this can lead to a “planet of hats” scenario, where an alien world is portrayed as having a single monolithic culture. Often it’s part of a hopeful message about humanity putting aside tribalism. The Outside goes a different route. Yasira strongly identifies with her home planet of Jai but also with a particular nation on that planet, called Riayin. Another nation on the same planet is distinguished not just by lines on a map but by naming conventions: its people tend to have names representing positive qualities (Yasira’s girlfriend is named Productivity, for example). Despite being an interstellar civilization, humanity still maintains intraplanetary distinctions between nationalities. This was a refreshing change from the standard sci-fi political model, but I would have liked to know a bit more about how it works in practice.

There are several compelling characters in The Outside, not least of whom is Yasira herself, but Akavi was the one who really drew my attention. He’s completely committed to his mission and commits some fairly brutal actions in support of it. But we also find out that he took in his subordinates Enga and Elu when they were neglected outcasts, giving them a chance that no one else would. His complexity made him a truly interesting antagonist.

The Outside isn’t explicitly described as the first book in a series, but the ending leaves room for a sequel. I hope Hoffman writes one, because I would love to return to this world and see where Yasira’s journey takes her next.

“The Nightjar” by Deborah Hewitt

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Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel The Nightjar tells the story of Alice, a woman in a dead-end job who discovers that she’s an aviarist: a person with a magical talent for seeing the nightjars that act as psychopomps for human souls. Drawn into an alternate London populated by mages of various stripes, she finds herself drawn into the schemes of a mysterious benefactor, a cult leader, and a cabal of anti-magic bigots. The setting is a fascinating one, and I especially love the conceit of the nightjars. Hewitt does a great job of describing the mystical birds and showing how they reflect their charges’ personalities.

Despite that, the plot and characterization were somewhat lacking. Alice in particular felt like she lacked agency. She spent most of the book stumbling from one crisis to the next. While it makes sense that she would be in over her head at first, the novel would have been a lot more satisfying if Hewitt had shown her gradually gaining a measure of control over her surroundings.

A similar problem occurs with one of the side characters, Sasha. Sasha has a strong fear of water, which we see displayed several times in the story. The usual narrative for something like this would be for the character to make progress toward overcoming her fear, but this character arc goes completely unresolved.

I also didn’t buy into the relationship between Alice and Crowley. Crowley’s secretiveness is obviously an intended character trait, and he has good reasons for it, but Hewitt overdid it. After a while, I simply couldn’t understand why Alice continued to trust him.

There is one other major issue I had with the plot, but it involves significant spoilers, so I’ll leave it for the end. Overall, I found The Nightjar disappointing precisely because it had the potential to be so much better. The world it’s set in is interesting, and there were a lot of possibilities for intrigue, action, and great character interactions. There is some of all those things here, but the problems are substantial enough to bog it down.

 

–SPOILERS—

 

Alice’s primary motivation throughout the whole book is to save Jen. Every time she does something unwise, or doesn’t walk away from Crowley when she really should, her rationale is that she has to take these risks for Jen’s sake. While the Crowley thing pushed the boundaries of plausibility for me, I can understand someone doing dumb things out of desperation. But Jen dies in the end anyway! It made the whole thing feel like a “shaggy dog story.” It also didn’t seem to fit with the story tonally. The main character moving heaven and earth to save someone, only to have them die anyway, can work, particularly in a horror story. But while there are some dark moments in The Nightjar, and it’s clear that not all magic is benign, this didn’t feel like the kind of tale that should have such a nihilistic ending.

“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson

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The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive was one of the best books I read in 2019, and at about 1240 pages, certainly the longest. As the conflict between humans and Voidbringers heats up, Dalinar has to grapple with his past while trying to forge a coalition of nations to face the threat.

As usual, Sanderson does an excellent job of balancing character development with cool magic and epic battles. Dalinar and Shallan receive the lion’s share of introspection and character growth in this book. While their stories are very different, they both revolve around the theme of a person choosing who they want to be. And in both cases, their journeys in Oathbringer culminate in awesome displays of power during a climactic battle.

With all the interludes, flashbacks, and chapter epigraphs, not to mention its length, Oathbringer could easily have ended up feeling unfocused. The paralleling of character arcs is one of the tools Sanderson uses to hold it together and make it feel like a coherent story. In addition to Dalinar and Shallan, we see another pair of characters whose arcs share a common theme but are a study in contrast. (For spoilery reasons, I’m going to be vague about the identity of said characters.) Both have to face up to unsavory things they’ve done in the past, and Odium urges both of them to give their pain and remorse to him. “It wasn’t your fault,” he tells them. These two characters end up in very different places as a result of their response, and there’s ample buildup to show the trajectories they’re on.

My record with Stormlight Archives theories has been pretty terrible, and indeed, one of the ideas I came up with way back when I was reading The Way of Kings was very solidly disproven in this book. However, a theory that developed in my mind while I was reading turned out to be 100% correct, and I was very gratified by that.

Brandon Sanderson has announced that the fourth book of the Stormlight Archive, tentatively titled Rhythms of War, will be released in November of this year. I’m eagerly looking forward to it. I hope we learn more about the Radiant orders that haven’t been focused on so far, as well as seeing more people joining the ranks of the existing orders. (In particular, I think it would be great to see Fen become Radiant, though I’m not sure which order would suit her best. Truthwatcher, perhaps, since she tends to be fairly blunt and unafraid to speak her mind?) And more Rysn, Rock, and Lift, please!

“American Elsewhere” by Robert Jackson Bennett

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I loved Robert Jackson Bennett’s fantasy novel Foundryside, so I was looking forward to reading one of his earlier books, American Elsewhere. Upon learning that she’s inherited a house in the tiny southwestern town of Wink, Mona Bright travels there. She discovers that the town holds many secrets: about her mother, her own past, and perhaps even the nature of the universe.

Unfortunately, I found myself somewhat disappointed. The major reason for this is that the book has some pacing issues. The tempo of the first half of the book is very slow, although it does pick up after that. A slow burn can be very effective for a horror story; some of my favorites feature a gradually increasing sense of dread. But a slow burn requires starting the story on low heat. The first chapter of American Elsewhere shows too much and starts at too high a pitch. This undercuts the buildup that comes later. I had a couple of other issues with the book, but since they rely on plot spoilers, I’ll discuss them at the end of the post.

That said, American Elsewhere does show off Bennett’s skills at worldbuilding. The full truth about what’s going on in Wink melds classic cosmic horror tropes with some concepts more often seen in straight-up sci-fi. Like many of the best science fiction stories, it raises interesting philosophical questions about selfhood and the divide between perception and reality.

There are also some genuinely creepy scenes. One of Wink’s inhabitants, an elderly woman named Mrs. Benjamin, has a closet in her kitchen full of exotic teas. An old woman’s tea collection doesn’t seem like it should be even remotely scary, but Bennett manages to turn “retrieving a tea bag from the closet” into an eerie, vertiginous experience. There are a few other scenes like this, and they really add to the atmosphere of the novel.

While American Elsewhere was generally underwhelming, there are glimpses of Bennett’s talent in it, and I’m still eagerly anticipating the future novels in his Founders series.

 

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

 

Coburn (the scientist, not the lab named after him) appears to be trapped in the dimension Mr. First and the others came from, but Mona seems to forget about this entirely. She makes no attempt to bring him back at the end of the book when she returns Parson and Mrs. Benjamin. Also, no explanation is given for why being stuck on the other side doesn’t have the same negative psychological effects on Coburn that the human inhabitants of Wink experience when they see Mother. Both of these things feel like plot holes.

I also didn’t like that Bolan, Dord, and Mallory die without really accomplishing much.

Reading Summary, 2019

I’ve read 39 books this year, pretty much the same as last year’s total of 40. Genre breakdown:

Fantasy: 17

Science Fiction: 10

Horror: 8

Historical Fiction: 1

Mystery: 1

Mixed Genres: 1

Other: 1

During the year, I felt like I was reading more sci-fi than I have in previous years, but looking back at 2018, the proportion of science fiction is about the same. I also did not manage my goal of reading any nonfiction this year.

Favorite Book: Oathbringer, by Brandon Sanderson. At 1240 pages, it’s a doorstopper of a book, but it was worth every page. The continuing journey of the Knights Radiant, the return of a few favorite minor characters, and an epic climactic battle scene all made this novel riveting. Honorable mention to Tim Pratt’s The Wrong Stars.

Least Favorite Book: Ghost Wall, by Sarah Moss. There’s a great deal of social commentary in this book, as well as an understanding of how our knowledge about history is often incomplete. How much can we really say for certain about “how things used to be,” and how does that affect the way we view the present? However, the philosophical complexity of the narrative was undermined by a one-dimensional villain.