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Monthly Archives: August 2019

“Beneath the Twisted Trees” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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The fourth book in Bradley P. Beaulieu’s Song of the Shattered Sands series ramps up the action and the stakes even more than the previous volumes. The simmering tensions among the Kings of Sharakhai come to a head, a new faction enters the power struggle, and Çeda continues her quest to free the asirim.

In my review for the previous book, I noted that the gods were beginning to take a more active role in the story. This trend continues in Twisted Trees, with no fewer than three deities putting in personal appearances. We even get a brief section from the point of view of one god. One plot thread also provides more information about a previous generation of deities who left the setting uncounted ages ago. What started as a conflict between human factions has expanded, and at this point in the story, it’s clear that Sharakhai sits at the center of a divine plot centuries in the making. Beaulieu doesn’t let this rob his mortal characters of agency, however. Powerful as the gods are, they aren’t omnipotent, and we’ve already seen some of their designs thwarted by the actions of Çeda and her friends.

The increasing complexity of the plot isn’t limited to divine intervention, either. Twisted Trees brings a new faction to the forefront of the plot: the Enclave, a group of blood magi operating in Sharakhai. They’re only one plot thread among many, and several of the characters are newly introduced in this book, so we haven’t had as much time with them as we have with other groups like the Moonless Host or the Kings. Despite that, Beaulieu is able to give a sense that these are fully developed characters with their own histories, relationships, and agendas. The romance between Esmeray and Davud does suffer a bit for the relatively little page space spent on the blood magi, but overall their inclusion adds another layer to the story.

We also learn a bit more about both Mirea and Malasan. As the Shattered Sands series has progressed, its focus has expanded to include the nations around Sharakhai. As with the gods, the machinations of Sharakhai’s human neighbors have come out into the open as the Kings are weakened. Of the two, I found the Mirean plotline more engaging, largely because I’ve had a soft spot for Brama since he was introduced. (And while his ehrekh companion Rümayesh isn’t exactly a sympathetic character, she’s certainly intriguing.)

As the book ends, things are shaping up for the final conflict, and there’s a cliffhanger for one major character. The final book in the series, When Jackals Storm the Walls, is slated to come out in 2020. In addition, Beaulieu is currently working on a novella set in the Shattered Sands universe. I’m eagerly looking forward to both of these. While it will be sad to see this series come to a close, I have no doubt that Beaulieu will bring it to a satisfying conclusion.

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

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The third book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, is in some ways a return to the beginning. The plot kicks off when timey-wimey shenanigans result in the character Sumi having a daughter, Rini—despite Sumi having been murdered in the first book, before ever having conceived a child. But reality is catching up to Rini, and she’s gradually fading away. Unless a group of students from Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children can somehow restore Sumi to life, Rini will disappear forever.

Kade and Christopher, two of the side characters from Every Heart a Doorway, take their place in the spotlight here. McGuire also introduces us to new characters, and with them, new worlds. The dimensions to which the Wayward Children travel have always been almost characters in their own right, and the latest installment gives us more insight into how they work. The terms used to categorize the worlds, such as Logic and Nonsense, aren’t just descriptors. They have real weight, and we see the difficulties a character attuned to a Logical world faces in moving through a Nonsense one. Moreover, some worlds are metaphysically closer to each other than others. Christopher, whose doorway took him to an Underworld, feels almost—but not quite—at home in a different Underworld that the characters pass through in their quest to rescue Sumi.

Belonging is one of the major themes of the Wayward Children series. The children stay at Eleanor West’s school because it’s the one place where their experiences will be affirmed. Sometimes, it’s just as much of a struggle for them to receive validation of the more mundane aspects of their identities. Every Heart a Doorway introduced us to Kade, a transgender boy who was forcibly returned to the “real” world when the all-female society of his otherworld rejected him. Nancy, in the same book, faced widespread incomprehension of her asexuality. Beneath the Sugar Sky gives us Cora, an overweight girl who also happened to be a mermaid in her otherworld. Her fear that others will react negatively to her weight pervades many of her experiences, from cramming into the backseat of a car to traveling through Rini’s Candyland-esque native reality. Seeing her find acceptance among the other Wayward Children was heartwarming.

A fourth installment in the series, In an Absent Dream, is already out, and a fifth, Come Tumbling Down, is scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m hoping we’ll see more of Cora and Rini in these stories, as well as the more-established characters.

“The Girl in the Tower” by Katherine Arden

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The Girl in the Tower is the second book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. Having escaped from the Bear, but at the cost of her father’s life, Vasya (Vasilisa) flees her home. After taking shelter with Morozko for a time, she sets out to travel, wanting to see more of Rus and perhaps beyond. But when she comes across burned villages whose survivors tell of kidnapped children, she finds herself drawn into a plot that threatens not only her family, but her whole country.

The book gets off to a slow start but is really engaging once it picks up. We see Vasya’s brother Alexei and sister Olga again, and the relationship between Vasya and her siblings forms the emotional core of the book. In particular, there’s a focus on how her bond with the chyerti and with more powerful magical beings like Morozko strains her relationships with other humans. That tension helps to keep the story grounded, even as it introduces a couple of famous figures from Eastern European folklore. Vasya’s relationship to some of these people, human and otherwise, changes substantially at the climax of the novel, which sets up an interesting situation for the third and final installment.

One aspect of the story did bother me, but as it involves spoilers for a major plot point, I’ll discuss it below. Overall, I enjoyed The Girl in the Tower and am looking forward to seeing how Vasya’s journey resolves in The Winter of the Witch.

 

 

 

 

For a large part of the book, Vasya is disguising herself as a boy. While the bulky clothing worn by people during a Russian winter makes it easy for her to hide her feminine body shape, her long hair is another matter. She stuffs it under a hat, but inevitably the hat is lost during an incident that involves strenuous physical activity, and her gender is revealed. It seems to me that it would have been much smarter for her to simply cut her hair, and while Vasya can be impulsive, she’s never struck me as being so stupid or oblivious that the idea wouldn’t occur to her. Having her keep her hair felt like the author was handing her the Idiot Ball to facilitate the dramatic reveal.