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Monthly Archives: April 2019

“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.

“On the Wing” published at Mirror Dance

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I’m happy to announce that my flash fiction, “On the Wing,” has been published at Mirror Dance.

“Autumn Cthulhu” by Mike Davis (editor)

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Contrary to the second part of its name, most of the stories in Mike Davis’s Autumn Cthulhu anthology aren’t strictly part of the Cthulhu Mythos. They do, however, generally fall into the realm of cosmic horror, and nearly all of them have some thematic connection to autumn.

I’m a huge John Langan fan, so his story “Anchor” is the one I was most looking forward to reading when I picked up this anthology. While I found it a bit overlong, the supernatural element was imaginative and I appreciated the skill with which the relationships among the main characters were conveyed. Also, two of the major characters are poets, and the story includes excerpts from their poems which are quite good.

One of the strengths of both “Anchor” and Langan’s novel The Fisherman is that the human relationships are as emotionally compelling as the paranormal goings-on. Damien Angelica Walters’s “In the Spaces Where You Once Lived” is another such story. The love the main character feels for her husband really comes through, and the tale is as touching as it is scary. Jeffrey Thomas’s “After the Fall” is in this vein as well. The sudden appearance of massive, monstrous images in the sky almost serves as a backdrop for the main character’s attempts to mend his troubled family relationships.

Laird Barron’s “Andy Kaufman Creeping Through the Trees” truly lives up to the name “weird fiction.” A teenage girl wants to secure tickets to an exclusive show as a gift for her seriously ill father. The transaction doesn’t go as planned, but beyond that, the story is almost impossible to describe.

I loved Gemma Files’s short story collection Spectral Evidence, so I was happy to see that one of the stories in this anthology is by her. Titled “Grave Goods,” it focuses heavily on our individual and collective sense of self, and how we react when that sense is overturned.

The central conceit of Nadia Bulkin’s “There is a Bear in the Woods” might at first seem humorous: a politician sells his soul to an eldritch being to win an election. Who hasn’t joked about a politician they dislike doing something similar? But Bulkin makes the story truly horrifying, giving the reader an impression that, while the earthly consequences of the deal are pretty terrible, the metaphysical ones might be even worse.

In his introduction to the book, Davis quotes Lawrence Block as saying that while autumn is the best season, it’s also the saddest. Many of the stories deal with something or someone passing away, lending the anthology an almost elegiac feel. While there certainly is dread, and a few outright scares, in the book, they lie side-by-side with a quieter melancholy, and that sets Autumn Cthulhu apart from other anthologies in the same genre.