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“Of Sand and Malice Made” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

I’ve fallen in love with Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series and was happy to find out that he’s written a couple of novellas set in the same world. Of Sand and Malice Made indirectly expands on one of the story threads from the main series: Ramahd’s involuntary entanglement with the ehrekh Guldrathen. Here, a younger Ҫeda attracts the attention of Rumayesh, another ehrekh, and must extricate herself from the mortal peril this entails.

In Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, we learn that there are four nations surrounding the Great Shangazi. We learn a bit about Qaimir through Ramahd and Meryam’s storyline, a bit about Mirea through Juvaan, and a character who plays an important role in Emre’s past is Malasani. But we hear very little about Kundhun. Sand and Malice gives us a window into that enigmatic country and enlarges the Shattered Sands universe.

The novella also introduces the reader to new forms of magic and to new life-forms that inhabit the Great Shangazi. In addition to further expanding the setting presented by the main series, this portrays the world as a place where even known territories can hide wondrous (or terrifying) mysteries.

As Ҫeda seeks to free herself from Rumayesh’s clutches, she learns more about the mysterious ehrekhs. While Sand and Malice can be read independently of the main series, I can’t help thinking that some of what she learns here will be vital in the later books. It’s definitely whetted my appetite for the next Shattered Sands novel, and I’m also looking forward to seeing what other tidbits about Ҫeda’s world will be revealed in the two further novellas that are forthcoming from Beaulieu.

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“Medusa’s Web” by Tim Powers

I first became aware of Tim Powers through his collaborations with James P. Blaylock in the latter’s collection Thirteen Phantasms (reviewed here: https://ninashepardson.wordpress.com/2017/01/09/thirteen-phantasms-and-other-stories-by-james-blaylock/). He gained some wider notice when Disney adapted his novel On Stranger Tides for the Pirates of the Caribbean film of the same name. To me, Powers was a fantasy author, so Medusa’s Web was a bit different from what I was expecting when I picked it up.

Medusa’s Web tells the story of a brother and sister who return to their aunt’s decaying Hollywood manor after her suicide. There, they discover a secret network of people who use mysterious two-dimensional creatures known colloquially as “spiders” to send their minds backward or forward in time. This discovery is connected to an incident the siblings experienced as children, which left psychological scars on both of them.

Like the best science fiction stories, this book pairs an inventive premise with a compelling portrayal of human relationships. At first, Scott and Madeline get the cold shoulder from their hosts. That changes over the course of the book, but so does the affinity between Scott and Madeline, particularly as Madeline’s obsession with their shared childhood experience deepens. Powers does a great job of giving the reader both a story with a great “wow!” factor and characters they can care about.

While science fiction is usually focused on the future, some remarkable sci-fi tales have been written that are also love letters to the past. Catherynne M. Valente’s Radiance, for example, recalls so-called “golden age” sci-fi. Tim Powers does something similar here, weaving notable figures of the silent film era into the story he’s telling. While it might seem paradoxical, this focus on the past adds another layer of depth to the book.  All in all, this is an intriguing book and well worth reading.

“The Fisherman” by John Langan

John Langan’s novel The Fisherman is what you’d get if the award-winning memoir H is for Hawk had been written by H.P. Lovecraft. The first part of the book is a moving account of how a hobby (in this case, fishing) helps Abe to recover emotionally from the death of his wife. Something about sitting on a riverbank in the early hours of the morning, casting his line, soothes his grief. When a coworker suffers a similarly devastating loss, Abe invites him on a fishing trip, hoping it will have the same salutary effect on him. It does help, and the two men develop a friendship.

And then everything goes sideways.

One thing I’ve always admired about Stephen King’s novels is that they’re just as much about small-town life, interpersonal relationships, and the secrets people keep as they are about whatever supernatural being is menacing the characters. The Fisherman has a similar strength: it’s just as much about friendship, grieving, and the restorative power of a beloved pastime as it is about the malign power that dwells at Dutchman’s Creek. Abe, his friend Dan, and the man who faced the menace of Dutchman’s Creek before them are fully-realized characters. Similarly, the location of the creek is vividly described, making it feel like a place that you could stumble across while driving around upstate New York.

This is not to say that the supernatural elements of the story aren’t excellent, because they are. The Deep One-ish creatures that live in and around the creek are delightfully creepy. Langan does a good job of creating an ever-building sense of wrongness as the character get closer to the center of the mystery. And that center, when reached, turns out to truly deserve the name “cosmic horror.” (There’s also a bit of an Easter egg for readers of Langan’s short fiction, which makes the novel feel like part of a larger setting.)

The only real flaw here is an imbalance between the present-day and “flashback” sections of the book. Abe and Dan aren’t the first to encounter the ominous Dutchman’s Creek, and a large part of the novel tells us the story of the man who was. That nested tale was engrossing, but the final section, which returns to the present day and gives us the climax and denouement of Abe and Dan’s story, felt like it rushed by too quickly.

The Fisherman won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Novel, and the accolade is richly deserved. I was already looking forward to Langan’s upcoming story collection, Sefira and Other Betrayals, but this made me even more eager to read it.

“The Dispossessed” by Ursula K. LeGuin

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Although I read Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea series and one or two of her science-fiction novels in high school, I haven’t revisited her work in years. I picked up a copy of The Dispossessed at a used bookstore and was quickly reminded why LeGuin is one of the giants of speculative fiction.

Shevek, a brilliant physicist, lives on Anarres, a moon of the planet Urras that got its start as something of a social experiment. Two hundred years previously, an anarchist movement on Urras became so large that the government granted its members permission to colonize Anarres so that they wouldn’t continue disrupting Urrasian society. LeGuin’s skill at worldbuilding is on full display here—she has clearly thought about how the details of such a society would function and grounds the lives of the characters in that milieu. Various small details, like the use of “profiteering” as an expletive, aid the reader’s immersion in the world she’s created.

The book begins with Shevek leaving Anarres for Urras, where he hopes to complete his work on a theory that will revolutionize physics. As she shows us both worlds through his eyes, LeGuin resists the temptation to paint either civilization as a complete utopia or dystopia. By showing both the virtues and flaws of the conflicting social systems—some immediately apparent, others gradually revealed as the story progresses—she presents strong critiques of both capitalism and socialism. (For all that Anarres’s society is described as being anarchist, it also has notable socialist elements, with the movement’s founder having been very concerned with the well-being of the “social” organism.) Perhaps influenced by real-world events at the time of its writing (1974), the book also makes mention of a proxy war between two superpowers on Urras that bears some resemblances to the Vietnam War.

The book also presents some interesting philosophical thoughts on the relationship between an individual and society, as well as on self-knowledge and self-actualization. While the society of Anarres doesn’t seem to have a religion, some of the ideas presented remind me of a Buddhist outlook, as when Shevek says: “It’s the self that suffers, and there’s a place where the self—ceases. I don’t know how to say it. But I believe that the reality—the truth that I recognize in suffering as I don’t in comfort and happiness—that the reality of pain is not pain. If you can get through it. If you can endure it all the way.”

The Dispossessed is a very cerebral sci-fi novel. It’s a reminder of why LeGuin is one of the greats in the field, and its ideas will stay with the reader a long time after the book is over.

Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, Thirteenth Edition by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling (editors)

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Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling have edited roughly a kajillion speculative fiction anthologies. Among these are nearly twenty years of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. I picked up the thirteenth of these collections due to its inclusion of some of my favorite authors in those genres: Neil Gaiman, Charles deLint, Steven Millhauser, and Susanna Clarke. It also includes stories by some true giants of speculative fiction, such as Ursula K. LeGuin and Gene Wolfe. But alongside them were some authors I was previously unfamiliar with. One of the great things about multi-author collections like this is the introduction to new (to me) writers…even if the resultant expansion of my to-read list convinces me that the only way I will ever get to the end of that list is if I discover the Philosopher’s Stone.

As one might expect for a fantasy/horror anthology, a number of the stories draw their inspiration from folklore and legends. Susanna Clarke’s “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse” crosses over with the setting of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust in a tale of a historical personage meeting one of the Fair Folk, while Charles deLint’s “Pixel Pixies” updates the concept of sprites to the modern age. The mischievous tanuki of Japanese mythology make an appearance in Jan Hodgman’s heartwarming “Tanuki,” while North African lore is featured in Juan Goytisolo’s “The Stork-Men.” Like “Pixel Pixies,” Kent Meyers’s “The Smell of the Deer” is a modern take on an old archetype; in this case, the huntress Diana/Artemis. From what I can tell, Meyers’s body of work is mostly realistic fiction set in the Midwest. “The Smell of the Deer” seems to be a departure for him in its inclusion of clearly speculative elements, but he knocks it out of the park. This was one of my favorite stories in the book.

Reinterpretations of classic fairy tales are present here too. Patricia McKillip retells the story of the princess with the golden ball in “Toad,” and Wendy Wheeler’s “Skin So Green and Fine” puts a new spin on Beauty and the Beast. Meanwhile, Neil Gaiman’s “Harlequin Valentine” delves into one of the characters in the Italian Commedia dell’Arte.

Alongside these excellent stories that build upon pre-existing material are some wildly inventive ones that create new worlds and mythologies. Eleanor Arnason’s “The Grammarian’s Five Daughters” tells a story about the power of language using the tropes and character archetypes common to fairy tales. In “Keepsakes and Treasures: A Love Story,” Neil Gaiman presents a legendary group that produces a living treasure once a generation. And despite being only three pages long, Thomas Wharton’s “The Paper-Thin Garden” is a complex tale about the power of stories, the beauty of nature, and the tension between order and change.

This anthology is definitely worth a read for fans of horror and fantasy. Readers may also appreciate the summaries of work released in the relevant genres during the year, as it gives at least brief mentions to many novels, single-author collections, and anthologies besides those featured in the main portion of the book.

“The Bear and the Nightingale” by Katherine Arden

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One of my favorite books last year was Naomi Novik’s Uprooted, a fantasy set against an Eastern European backdrop. Katherine Arden’s The Bear and the Nightingale takes place in a similar setting, and also features as its protagonist a girl with a previously unsuspected magical talent. Bear, however, is more deeply rooted in real-world Slavic folklore. Beings such as the domovoi and rusalka play a major role in the unfolding of the story.

The novel also delves into the political intrigue of Moscow. The Grand Prince’s attempts to secure his son’s succession, the tension between the Orthodox Church and the folk beliefs of the people, and the delicate situation with the Khan of whom the Grand Prince is theoretically a vassal, all contribute to the plot. (One plot thread, however—a faction in Moscow that wants to rebel against the Khan, whose own political situation is seen as precarious—never goes anywhere.)

The main character has a large household: a father, stepmother, stepsister, four siblings, a priest who comes to live with the family, and a nursemaid who plays a grandmotherly role. Arden does a good job of differentiating all these characters (particularly the siblings and half-sibling) from each other, maintaining consistent characterization so that the reader doesn’t become confused as to who’s who.

Arden is planning to release a sequel, The Girl in the Tower, in December. I’m excited to read it and see where the further adventures of Vasilisa (a name that was surely not chosen by accident!) take her.

“Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day” by Seanan McGuire

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My introduction to Seanan McGuire’s writing came through Every Heart a Doorway, the first book in her Wayward Children series. I enjoyed that novella enough that when I saw Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day, I immediately bought a copy.

McGuire’s new tale presents a twist on the classic ghost story trope of people who died before their time (typically through some form of violence) becoming trapped in the mortal world as ghosts. Dusk takes the “before their time” part literally: a person who dies before they were supposed to must steal time from the living in order to “age up” to the age at which they should have died. The time they steal from mortals doesn’t shorten the living person’s lifespan; on the contrary, it makes them younger. As you might imagine, some living folks have found ways to exploit this process, and one such person’s scheme threatens every ghost residing in New York City.

One of the promotional blurbs at the front of the book described it as a “love letter to New York,” but I found it to be more of a love letter to small-town America. The main character comes from a tiny hamlet called Mill Hollow, and while she currently (un)lives in NYC, her hometown still remains prominent in her mind. As is the case with most of us, it shaped her personality and outlook, and it’s where she died. I love books that have a vivid sense of place, and Mill Hollow shines through the pages as a place that, despite its physical smallness, is vibrant.

One thing I particularly enjoyed about this book was the poem it uses as an epigraph. Not only is the poem itself beautiful and poignant, but references to it, whether oblique or explicit, are woven throughout the narrative. Following that thread through the book enriches the story. (I had never heard of the poem’s author, Martha Keller, before. Apparently, the poem was published in the July 1940 issue of Harper’s. It’s titled “Widow,” and given its subject matter, I have to wonder whether it was written with the then-current devastation of WWII in mind.)

As with Every Heart a Doorway, McGuire has managed to cram interesting worldbuilding and a thematically rich narrative into a relatively small space. This book won’t take you long to read, but you’ll be glad you did.