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“Odd Adventures with Your Other Father” by Norman Prentiss

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Odd Adventures with Your Other Father was originally published through the Kindle Scout program, which is perhaps unusual for an established author like the Bram Stoker Award-winning Norman Prentiss. The story has three main characters: Celia and her fathers, Jack and Shawn. Jack died when Celia was little, and Shawn tells her several stories about a summer they spent on a cross-country road trip after graduating from college. These are set within a frame story about Celia enacting a secret plan while she’s away at summer camp.

We learn early on in the book that Jack had a form of telepathy, and other supernatural phenomena exist in the setting as well. The incidents involving these weird happenings are well-written and interesting. But the heart of the story is the family relationships: between Shawn and Celia and between Shawn and Jack. The couple faces ordinary challenges, such as illness and prejudice, alongside the paranormal goings-on. In a similar way, Celia’s own strange experiences relate back to her life with Shawn, her sense of loss over having never really known Jack, the bonds of loyalty and understanding between herself and her best friend.

I did have a couple of stylistic issues with the novel. The primary one is that some of the dialogue doesn’t feel realistic. Elmore Leonard once said, “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it,” and some of the dialogue here definitely sounds like writing. But while it isn’t perfect, Odd Adventures with Your Other Father is a book with heart, and that counts for a lot.

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“Big Fish in a Small Pond” published by The Centropic Oracle

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I’m happy to announce that my short story, “Big Fish in a Small Pond,” is now available on the Centropic Oracle podcast!

“The Siren Depths” by Martha Wells

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In the third installment of Martha Wells’s Books of the Raksura series, Moon finds himself with exactly the opposite problem from what he’s used to. As he finally starts to settle into his home at Indigo Cloud, he discovers that another group of Raksura has taken an interest in him—and because of Raksura society’s complex rules, they may be able to force him to take up residence with them instead. Combined with gradually emerging hints about the reasons behind the Fell’s repeated attacks on Raksura settlements, this makes for a tense and dramatic story.

Although Moon is an adult, the Raksura series is in some ways a coming-of-age story, since Moon has to learn how to build relationships with others and find his place in Raksura society. This theme continues with the conflict between the different Raksura courts that want to “claim” Moon. Just as he’s beginning to feel like he might be able to build a stable life, and that he’s getting a handle on the rules by which their civilization operates, everything gets upended again. And he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to mediate between different groups with the right to call themselves his family, and who don’t always get along all that well. (Imagine one of those awkward Thanksgivings where your relatives have too much wine and start arguing about politics, but with more shape-shifting and fang-baring.)

We also get significant development on a major plot arc of the series: the Fell attacks on various civilizations, and in particular their animosity towards the Raksura. This is the source of much of the story’s action, but it’s also intimately tied to the backgrounds of the characters, especially Moon.

Wells continues the worldbuilding that makes the Three Worlds such a delight. We see not only an older and more established Raksura court, but also yet another new (to us) species. As usual, they’re given a unique culture that feels real, with its own architecture, clothing styles, and social norms. The Raksura stories, with their plethora of civilizations, evokes the same kind of “sensawunda” as the best sci-fi, despite being confined to (mostly) a single continent on a single planet.

A couple of major plot threads get resolved in this book, but there are still mysteries and the potential for further developments. I’m looking forward to reading the next book in the series, as Moon’s story continues to be a rewarding one.

“Dreams of Shreds and Tatters” by Amanda Downum

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Many modern horror writers have drawn on the works of H.P. Lovecraft for inspiration, but other early writers of weird fiction, such as Algernon Blackwood and Arthur Machen, have received less attention. Amanda Downum’s novel Dreams of Shreds and Tatters, builds on the writing of Robert W. Chambers, particularly his collection of short pieces The King in Yellow. When the main character, Liz, goes in search of an artist friend who’s disappeared, she gets drawn into a plot to open a doorway between our world and the lost city of Carcosa.

Downum does an excellent job of incorporating elements from different storytelling traditions. In addition to the King in Yellow milieu, she also draws on Lovecraft’s Dreamlands (which get used far less often by modern storytellers than the Cthulhu Mythos), and the Greek myth of the bacchante. The latter seem to overlap a bit with the Wild Hunt as well. Such a wide variety of conceits could easily devolve into a muddled mess, but Downum makes them fit together coherently. In doing so, she pulls off an effect similar to some of the best weird fiction: the idea that all of humanity’s most enduring stories reflect a deeper occult truth.

This atmosphere is lent additional strength by the vividness of Downum’s descriptions. The surreal, dreamlike quality both of the art made by Liz’s friend and of the realm it invokes contribute greatly to the story’s sense of wonder and menace. One can understand why the characters find Carcosa so alluring and why that allure threatens to destroy them.

The one flaw in the book has to do with the level of physical stress and exhaustion the characters are subjected to. Not in and of itself, but because their ability to function in such a state strained my suspension of disbelief at times. Nevertheless, Dreams of Shreds and Tatters is a great read for anyone looking for a modern twist on classic weird fiction.

“The Invisible Valley” by Su Wei

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During the late 1960s and early 1970s, nearly 70 million Chinese young adults were exiled from the cities and sent to rural areas in the “Up to the Mountains and Down to the Countryside Movement.” In addition to being uprooted from their homes and families, many of these young people were denied the opportunity to pursue higher education and have been referred to as China’s “lost generation.” One of the students affected by this policy was Su Wei, who left China in 1989 and now teaches at Yale. In his first novel to be translated into English, Su Wei draws on these experiences to create a tale of isolation, spirituality, and romance.

The main character, Lu Beiping, is sent to a rubber plantation on Hainan Island. Things get complicated almost immediately, when he’s roped into a ghost-marriage to the foreman’s deceased daughter. Being an adopted member of the foreman’s family gets him a choice assignment: managing the plantation’s herd of cattle. Taking them up to pasture on the slopes of Mudkettle Mountain allows Lu to make his own schedule and spend most of his time reading. But he’s not alone on the mountain. Lu becomes involved in the lives of a very unconventional family of woodcutters, and finds himself drawn deeper into their traditions and beliefs.

Because of their isolation, the woodcutters are dependent on nature for their survival and prosperity. They’re adept at observing minute details of the world around them, and plants, animals, and weather events are infused with spiritual significance. Wei’s narrative brings the tropical wilderness of Hainan Island to life, making it feel like a character in its own right. Some scenes have a dreamlike atmosphere, as when Lu stumbles upon a valley full of strange plants that he’s never able to find when he goes looking for it intentionally.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the author’s background, the novel also highlights the absurdity and irony of the government’s attempts to turn Lu Beiping and his fellow students into perfect Communists. The teenagers are encouraged to see flirtation and romance as distractions from revolutionary pursuits; a girl Lu has a crush on dismisses his advances as “low-minded sentiments.” But of course, without the ultimate result of such flirtations, no society—Communist or otherwise—would be able to propagate itself. The reader is reminded of this with a “miracle of life” scene in which a cow gives birth in the middle of a raging typhoon, and also by Lu’s own developing relationship with the woodcutter Jade. Far from being low-minded, the woodcutters view sexuality as a metaphysical good, an affirmation of life in the face of death. Similarly, one of the “bourgeois” attitudes the youngsters have been sent to the countryside to unlearn is belief in the supernatural. Yet the people of Hainan are more spiritual (or superstitious, depending on one’s point of view) than anyone in the city Lu came from. The ghost-marriage isn’t done merely for tradition’s sake; the foreman and his family genuinely believe it’s necessary to appease the dead girl’s spirit. Meanwhile, the woodcutter family places great emphasis on placating the spirits of the mountain, engaging in actions that propitiate benevolent spirits and avoiding those that would rouse the ire of malign ones. Human beings, in this story, both embody and are at the whims of, natural forces that make any political ideology seem small and shallow by comparison.

The Invisible Valley was published by Small Beer Press, which focuses mostly on genre fiction. Whether the various supernatural forces the characters believe in have any objective reality is left ambiguous. One could either read this as a historical fiction novel in which folk beliefs play a strong role in driving the plot, or as a magical realism novel in which the magical elements are understated and subtle. Either way, it’s a quirky, philosophical, lyrical book.

“Jade Dragon Mountain” by Elsa Hart

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The first of three (so far) mysteries set in Qing Dynasty China, Elsa Hart’s Jade Dragon Mountain tells the engaging story of an exile who becomes a detective. Li Du, banished from the capital, finds a frontier town much busier than would be expected for such a remote place. The reason soon becomes clear: the Qing Emperor will shortly be arriving to demonstrate his divine power by commanding an eclipse. When a Jesuit priest, one of the few foreigners allowed in China, dies a few days before the Emperor’s arrival, Li Du becomes convinced that his death was not a natural one.

The political situation described in the novel is volatile, so there’s no shortage of suspects. Internecine squabbles between the Jesuit and Dominican orders, court politics, loyalists of the previous dynasty, and merchants scheming for a share of China’s wealth all play a role. Although I did guess the identity of the murderer, it wasn’t until late in the book—for most of the story, Hart kept me guessing.

A large part of Jade Dragon Mountain’s appeal is driven by its interesting characters. There’s Li Du himself, a scholar and intellectual determined to do right by a kindred spirit. There’s Hamza, a storyteller whose talent and gregariousness hide an enigmatic pass. There’s Lady Chen, an official’s consort whose ambitions may or may not line up with those of her patron. There’s Mu Gao, once the scion of a noble family, now reduced to a servant. A nativist secretary, a sickly botanist, and an avaricious representative of the East India Company round out the cast. Each character gives the sense of being the hero of his or her own story. Their actions flow from their motivations, giving rise to red herrings that feel realistic (as opposed to being shoehorned in so the author can check off a box on the “mystery story elements” checklist). And when the end of the book came, I was sad to say goodbye to them.

“The Kingdom of Copper” by S.A. Chakraborty

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S.A. Chakraborty’s debut, The City of Brass, was one of my favorite books of last year. I was eager to read the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, as soon as it came out. The sequel more than lived up to my expectations, but most of what I want to discuss requires spoilers, so proceed with caution.

Throughout the first book, Nahri was caught in something of a love triangle between Dara and Ali. Kingdom of Copper adds another vertex to this with Muntadhir. Neither he nor Nahri wanted to be married in the first place, but after the timeskip that opens the book, they seem to have at least come to an understanding. But their hard-earned amity starts to fray around the edges when Ali returns to Daevabad. One of the things I liked about this book is the way it gives additional depth to Muntadhir. Despite his outward appearance as a happy-go-lucky, wine-women-and-song hedonist, we increasingly see him portrayed as a trapped man. On some level, he’s aware that the things Ghassan does are wrong, and he doesn’t want to become that kind of man, but he genuinely doesn’t see any other way to keep the powder keg that is Daevabad from blowing sky-high. On top of that, the royal duty to produce an heir means that the man he loves can never be more than a clandestine affair. One of the most enjoyable scenes in the book is when Muntadhir, Ali, and Zaynab agree to try and check their father’s power. Seeing them all on the same side for once, even if temporarily and in a limited way, was great.

I also liked learning more about the marid. The descriptions of them and their possession of Ali were both evocative and eerie. There have been a few hints of the peri being involved as well, at least as messengers/prognosticators, and I’m hoping we see more of them in the future.

Kingdom of Copper also continues examining the political and philosophical questions raised in the first book. How does a country or a people move on from a conflict in which neither side can claim the moral high ground anymore? Where does the line fall between justice and vengeance, and where are the bounds of loyalty?

My one complaint was with the revelation that Jamshid is Manizeh’s son, and thus Nahri’s brother. One implication of this is that Kaveh—whom Nahri was at odds with by this point—is her father. One would expect this to provoke some complicated feelings from Nahri, but we don’t really see that in the story.

Overall, I enjoyed this installment in the Daevabad Trilogy just as much as the first. It will definitely have a spot on my Hugo nominations ballot next year. The final volume, The Empire of Gold, is due out in 2020, and I’m confident that Chakraborty will be able to bring the story to a satisfying conclusion.