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Monthly Archives: June 2020

“Deeplight” by Frances Hardinge

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A famous childrens’ book author (I want to say it was A.A. Milne, but I can’t find the quote now to verify that) said that you can’t write down to children. That is, a book intended for young readers may have a simpler plot structure or be less explicit in discussing certain themes, but it shouldn’t be condescending. Kids and young adults may not have as much experience of the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or oblivious. Frances Hardinge has taken this advice to heart in her latest young adult novel, Deeplight.

This is most obvious in the way Hardinge portrays the relationship between the main character, Hark, and his best friend Jelt. They both grew up as orphans and quite literally relied on one another to survive. Those experiences have forged a bond as close as any blood relation. But at the same time, their relationship is toxic. Jelt repeatedly pressures Hark into taking on jobs that he’s not comfortable with on account of their danger, guilt-trips him whenever he objects to one of Jelt’s plans, and becomes resentful if Hark obtains something he lacks. It takes Hark most of the book to consciously acknowledge this. When he does, it’s cathartic but also sad, because it means losing a friendship that truly was meaningful to him. The complexity of this central relationship is something I hadn’t expected to encounter in a YA novel.

All of this is presented against the background of a fascinating, original setting. Hark’s home is a sprawling island chain called the Myriad. Its people once placated a collection of distinctly Lovecraftian gods who dwelled in an abyssal ocean level known as the Undersea. Thirty years before the start of the book, those gods turned on each other, literally tearing each other to pieces. The inhabitants of the Myriad have largely adjusted to the new, god-less world, but the developments of the novel threaten to turn their lives upside down again. Most of the action takes place on Hark’s home island of Lady’s Crave and the nearby Nest, but it’s clear that there’s a lot more out there, and I hope we get to see more of the Myriad in future books.

The characterization of Selphin is another strength of Deeplight. The teenaged daughter of a renowned smuggler, she gets entangled in Hark and Jelt’s latest adventure. She’s also deaf, the result of burst eardrums from an underwater accident. There are a number of people in the Myriad with a similar condition, and they’ve developed a form of sign language. I loved the way Hardinge shows Selphin’s emotions through her sign language. At one point, her signs are described as “angry stabs of motion;” at another, we’re told that she “threw up her hands, then hit the heels of her palms against her forehead in frustration.” It’s also nice to see that while Selphin’s disability obviously has a large impact on her life, it isn’t her only defining characteristic. She’s clever, brave, stubborn, and fiercely loyal, and all these traits are just as important as her deafness.

I don’t read YA often and had never heard of Hardinge before receiving a copy of Deeplight through NetGalley as part of the Hugo Awards voters’ packet. I enjoyed it enough that I’m looking forward to seeking out more of Hardinge’s work.

“Shorefall” by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside was one of my favorite books of last year, so the sequel became my first reading priority as soon as it became available. Three years after the previous book, the upstart Foundryside Limited is thriving, and Sancia has established a happy relationship with Berenice. But Clef is still silent, and the plot to restore Crasedes Magnus is near fruition.

The stakes are even higher than they were in the first book, and Bennett provides a number of spectacular setpieces for the action. There are quite a few take-your-breath-away moments here, for both the characters and the readers. Bennett never forgets the importance of the characters’ personalities and relationships, though. The growing love between Sancia and Berenice is genuinely heartwarming. And despite Orso’s general irascibility, it gradually becomes clear just how proud he is of Berenice’s accomplishments as a scriver. If anything, I was even more invested in the characters than I was while reading Foundryside. There were moments that made me smile, moments that made me laugh, and one or two that almost brought me to tears.

My only criticism had to do with one of the side characters. While her goals are generally aligned with those of the main characters, she has a different outlook on some things, which made her an interesting addition to the cast. While she does play a role in the story, Bennett didn’t do as much with her as he could have.

To the best of my knowledge, a release date and title haven’t yet been given for the final book in the trilogy. When it comes out, I’ll be just as eager to read it as I was to read Shorefall.

2020 Hugo Award Nominees: Short Story

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It’s that time of year again! The voters’ packet for the 2020 Hugo Awards has been released, so I’ve been reading through the entries.

In the short story category, only one of the nominees is a story I’d previously read. This is pretty unusual; I’ve typically read at least three of the six nominees. This year’s group is excellent. I was especially happy to see Fran Wilde and Nibedita Sen make the list, since I loved Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy and I’ve enjoyed several of Sen’s previous short works.

“A Catalog of Storms” by Fran Wilde—This is exactly the kind of story I love, with magic that’s beautiful and dangerous at the same time. 5/5.

“As the Last I May Know” by S.L. Huang—A poignant story based on the idea, once suggested but never used, that the nuclear launch codes would be on some sort of computer chip embedded in the vice president’s chest. Huang is careful to make neither the president nor the Order out to be some sort of cardboard villain, and it’s a story that really makes you think. 4.8/5.

“Ten Excerpts from an Annotated Bibliography on the Cannibal Women of Ratnabar Island” by Nibedita Sen—I love this kind of story as well, where so much of it lies in what’s left unsaid. 4.75/5.

“Do Not Look Back, My Lion” by Alix E. Harrow—Eefa loves her husband Talaan but is tired of sending her off to war over and over. (Note: The combination of “her” and “husband” to refer to Talaan isn’t a typo; in the setting of the story, the terms “husband” and “wife” denote a social role rather than strictly adhering to gender.) When their son dies in battle, things come to a head and provoke both of them to drastic measures. The relationship between Eefa and Talaan is loving but complex. Talaan spends most of her life dedicated to what she sees as patriotism and basks in the adulation of her countrymen, but her love for her family ultimately overcomes her societal conditioning. I found the ending moving, though I was hoping that the story would end with Talaan catching up to Eefa. 4.5/5.

“And Now His Lordship is Laughing” by Shiv Ramdas—The “Denial of Rice” and “Denial of Boat” policies referenced in this story are real. In 1942, the British colonial government destroyed or confiscated rice stocks and boats to deny them to the Japanese army, which they expected to invade Bengal. Unsurprisingly, these policies led to widespread famine and hardship among the Bengali. Apa’s despair when the policies cause the death of her grandson is heartbreaking, and although she does avenge his death, the story still ends in a pretty dark place. 4.4/5.

“Blood is Another Word for Hunger” by Rivers Solomon—There’s deep, powerful emotion in this story, but I would have liked to learn more about the other revenants. Also, it didn’t seem realistic to me that the deaths of Sully’s mistress and her family would have gone unnoticed for so long. 3.5/5.

“A Book of the Sea” by Mark Beech (editor)

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The British small press Egaeus Press prides itself on publishing “morbid and fantastical works.” Their A Book of the Sea, edited by Mark Beech, certainly fits the bill, although not all of the stories are completely satisfying.

As the title suggests, this anthology features stories in which the sea plays a prominent role—in some, it’s a character in its own right. Some of the stories are strikingly imaginative. In Stephen J. Clark’s “The Figurehead of the Cailleach,” an artist is commissioned to restore an old figurehead half-ruined by the elements. As he works, he begins to suspect there’s something unusual about this figurehead and about the isolated cove where his studio has been set up. The central conceit of the story doesn’t fit into any of the typical marine motifs—pirates, mermaids, ghost ships, and so forth. It’s a truly original and intriguing piece. Karim Ghahwagi’s “The Sorrows of Satan’s Book” is a similarly imaginative tale. It blends a murder mystery with an interesting theological premise, all set in a Danish seaside town.

Interestingly, the book’s other strength is in stories that do hew closely to old tropes. A couple of the pieces here perfectly capture the feel of a folktale from the Old Country (wherever that happens to be for you) or the modern equivalent, the friend-of-a-friend narrative. “Dancing Boy” by Colin Insole tells of a cursed ship built to punish a malefactor, while Steven Pirie’s “The Woman Who Walked into the Sea” is the story of a long-ago mystical bargain fulfilled.

Unfortunately, a few of the stories are marred by purple prose. Albert Power’s “The Final Flight of Fidelia” is a moving story of a revenant seeking justice for a grave wrongdoing, but the emotional impact is somewhat blunted by the artificially old-fashioned writing style. And while I don’t object to a dense narrative, the writing in Jonathan Wood’s “From Whence We Came” crosses the line from dense to impenetrable.

One last note I want to make here is about the production values for this book. Egaeus Press says they strive to produce “volumes of a quality of ornateness rarely seen in modern books,” and they are not kidding. The book, as a physical object, is beautiful. It’s a sturdily-bound hardcover, with reproductions of a gorgeous painting on the front- and endpapers. Each section of the book, as well as the beginning and end of each story, are marked by line drawings. This is a quality you rarely see from large publishers, let alone a small press.