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Monthly Archives: October 2018

“One Way” by S. J. Morden

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S.J. Morden’s novel One Way is a murder mystery, but the main character isn’t a police officer or a private detective. He is, in fact, on the other side of the law entirely. Frank Kittridge is serving a life sentence for murdering the man who was selling drugs to his son when he’s offered a unique opportunity: the chance to help build a base on Mars. All but one of his fellow team members are also convicts, each possessing a high degree of skill in a field that will be needed to set up the base successfully. But it’s a dangerous endeavor, and Frank begins to suspect that not all of the casualties suffered by the team are accidents.

Morden has a background in geology, and his expertise in the physical sciences shows in the details of the setting. As Andy Weir did in The Martian, he makes the reader feel the peculiarities of the Martian landscape. He pays attention to things we don’t notice in our everyday lives, but that would quickly become disorienting in such an alien environment. For example, at one point Kittridge is weirded out by the way a female character’s ponytail moves—this is of course caused by Mars’s lower gravity, but it feels eerie because it’s not what his eyes and brain expect.

Most of the major characters have committed serious crimes, but Morden does a good job of making them reasonably sympathetic. I did genuinely feel bad for the deaths that occurred over the course of the novel and hoped that Kittridge would uncover the identity of the murderer. The mystery aspect is also well done, with there being plausible motivations for several different suspects.

At first, the pace of the story seems to be fairly slow, focusing on the group’s training in preparation for their mission. However, this introductory section lays the groundwork for what comes later, both in terms of characterization and familiarizing the reader with the setup of the base and the resources the characters will have access to. Once the team gets to Mars, the pace speeds up and it becomes a fairly quick read.

“Spinning Silver” by Naomi Novik

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Naomi Novik has received a lot of acclaim for her Temeraire series. Less well-known is her standalone novel, Uprooted. That was my favorite of all the books I read the year it came out, so I was excited to read her new story, Spinning Silver. Although not directly connected to Uprooted, it takes place in a similar setting: a fantasy world inspired by the folklore and culture of Eastern Europe. Miryem, a moneylender’s daughter, becomes so accomplished at her father’s profession that she brags about being able to turn silver into gold. In true fairy tale fashion, this boast attracts the attention of an otherworldly being and locks Miryem into a potentially deadly bargain.

Uprooted gave us a young woman who is far from the stereotypical damsel in distress. In Spinning Silver, Novik outdoes herself by giving us not one, but three competent heroines. Shrewd, courageous, and compassionate, they face both supernatural (a demon, the Staryk) and mundane (an abusive father, political intrigue) threats.

The main character, Miryem, is Jewish, and rather than just being another aspect of her character, her faith plays an important role in the story. It informs her actions and changes the way other characters see her. Two specific rituals of the Jewish faith—the blessing of the first fruits and the traditional wedding dance—are pivotal to the plot.

Another aspect of the story that I really enjoyed was the portrayal of the Staryk, supernatural beings associated with winter and cold. As in Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the depiction of the fairies draws from old tales in which even seemingly friendly interactions with them can be dangerous. No gift comes without a price, and you’d better be sure you understand the meaning of any agreement you make. Novik does a great job of taking the reader along for the ride as Miryem navigates the rules by which the Staryk live and die.

Spinning Silver easily lived up to the high expectations set by Uprooted. It’s currently at the top of my Hugo nominations list for the novel category, and I think it will be hard for anything to dislodge it.

“The Bedlam Stacks” by Natasha Pulley

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Natasha Pulley’s novel The Bedlam Stacks is loosely connected to her bestselling debut, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. I didn’t know this when I started reading the book, but it easily stands on its own.

The main character is Merrick Tremayne, a former expeditionary for the East India Company. Some time after a devastating injury forced him to retire, he’s sent on one last job: recovering quinine from Peru to help treat a malaria epidemic that’s ravaging India. When he arrives at a remote village in Peru, he finds that the ordinary challenges of circumventing a language barrier and coping with altitude sickness are the least of his worries. Unsettling stories about the nearby primeval rainforest abound, and some of them may just be true.

One of Pulley’s great strengths is her descriptions. From the titular glass “stacks” in a river near the town of Bedlam, to a glowing pollen that saturates the forest, to extraordinarily detailed statues, she suffuses her story with an eerie atmosphere. The town and the neighboring forest become characters in their own right.

Pulley also turns what could have been a simplistic situation into a complex one. A modern reader, particularly one attuned to the injustices of Europe and America’s colonial pasts, may be uncomfortable with a sympathetic main character being sent to smuggle a natural resource out from under the noses of indigenous people. But that natural resource is the only known treatment for a deadly disease, and most of the people suffering from that disease are also members of an oppressed minority living under a colonial regime. On top of that, the man who controls access to the supply of quinine is portrayed as something like a Mob boss, willing to use intimidation and violence to get his way, and more interested in enriching himself than in protecting the indigenous Peruvians and their culture. Merrick himself is a good man, but is his mission right or wrong? Pulley wisely lets each reader answer that question for themselves.

Another aspect that makes this novel particularly interesting is its fusion of genres. Being set in the 1850s, there are elements of historical fiction and alternate history. Some of the complex clockwork devices used by the inhabitants of Bedlam give the setting a steampunk feel, and there’s also a strong current of magical realism. Pulley blends these styles together to make a truly unique story that’s well worth reading.