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Monthly Archives: July 2020

“Come Tumbling Down” by Seanan McGuire

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Come Tumbling Down follows directly from two previous installments of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones. Jack Wolcott turns up at the school, extremely distraught and for good reason: her twin Jill forcibly switched bodies with her. Jack and her friends Cora, Sumi, Kade, and Christopher have a limited time to return to the Moors and reverse the body-switch before Jill’s vampiric mentor turns her.

The world of the Moors is full of horror-movie tropes, and as a longtime horror fan, I found a lot to love here. While the main conflict is between the vampire and mad-scientist factions, we also learn more about a group only briefly mentioned in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, the Drowned Abbey. This new story element also gives us a bit of insight into the larger workings of the multiverse. While the powers that rule the Drowned Abbey are very different from those of the ocean world Cora went to, she still hears their call, suggesting that entities in the individual worlds might represent larger multiversal forces.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was spending more time with characters I’d gotten to know from the previous novellas. While In an Absent Dream was wonderful (and took the top slot on my Hugo ballot), it was largely separate from the larger Wayward Children milieu. The next installment, due out in 2021, looks like it’s also going to be at a remove from the rest of the series. In between these two standalones, it was great to go on another adventure with familiar characters and see how they interacted with each other and with a new environment.

One other thematic element of the story is worth mentioning. As the book starts, Jack has been forced into a body that isn’t her own. Because she and Jill are identical twins, it’s very similar, but the small differences are frequently highlighted. (For example, Jill doesn’t do much physical work, so her hands don’t have the calluses that Jack’s do.) Regardless of the broad similarities, Jill’s body isn’t Jack’s, and the narrative makes it pretty clear that Jack is suffering from dysphoria as a result. Most of Jack’s friends understand this immediately and are determined to help restore her to her proper body. When Eleanor suggests that Jack should try “being happy with the body she has,” her friends quickly shoot this idea down. There’s an obvious parallel here to the experiences of trans people, and it was great to see Jack’s friends rally around her.

The Wayward Children series has become one of my favorite fantasy stories, with a fresh take on the portal fantasy subgenre. Across the Green Grass Fields is set for release in early 2021, and I look forward to reading it.

“The Wicked King” by Holly Black

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Holly Black, the bestselling author of The Spiderwick Chronicles, has penned a new trilogy about human twins, Jude and Taryn, raised among the Fair Folk. Jude gets thrown into the deep end of Faerie politics and has to protect her younger half-brother, Oak. The Wicked King is the second book in the series, and as it starts, Jude has engineered a bargain with Faerie’s new king, Cardan, wherein he must obey her for a year and a day. Of course, being the power behind the throne only works if she can keep him on that throne, and there are any number of rivals who’d love to throw him off it, preferably with a dagger in his back.

The Wicked King is one of this year’s finalists for the Lodestar Award, and that’s the context in which I read it. Not having read the first book, I was worried that I’d be lost, but Black does a great job of summarizing the previous action in a way that gets readers up to speed without slowing down the plot. I also enjoyed her portrayal of Faerie. The many types (species?) of Folk, the palace built into the side of a hill, the horses made of reeds, and a host of other details serve to give Elfhame an otherworldly atmosphere. As one would expect from a book about Faerie politics, there are plenty of schemes and plots and complex relationships between factions and characters bubbling away in the background until they finally came to a head.

My one complaint is with the pacing of the ending. The events surrounding Taryn’s wedding and the queen of the Undersea’s plot happen in the last couple chapters of the book, at a breakneck pace. It felt rushed, and the book ends right in the middle of the action, so the reader doesn’t really have any time to process all that’s happened. I recognize that this is the second book in a trilogy, and there’s a need to set up plot threads for the final installment, but that could have been done with a denouement that resolved the action while hinting at more to come. As it is, it feels more like Black ended the book at some arbitrary page count rather than a natural pause point in the plot.

“Rotherweird” by Andrew Caldecott

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Andrew Caldecott is a barrister who’s represented some pretty high-profile clients, including Naomi Campbell and the BBC. You might expect that if he turned to penning fiction, he’d write legal thrillers. Instead, his debut novel Rotherweird is a quirky fantasy. Jonah Oblong has secured a teaching post in the town of Rotherweird, which isn’t under the authority of the British government. But there’s a price for that immunity: no one in Rotherweird is allowed to study the town’s history or any history before 1900. The reason is a secret that’s starting to re-emerge, and Oblong gets caught up in a plot that could affect the fate of two worlds.

The biggest strength of this book is its side characters. There’s Gregorius Jones, a gym teacher with a chivalrous streak who seems to have stepped out of an earlier era. There are the Polk brothers, whose steampunk-like creations whizz and whirr through the streets of Rotherweird. There’s Vixen Valourhand, a rebellious inventor who pole-vaults across the town’s roofs. And there’s Veronal Slickstone, a Lucius Malfoy-esque character who’s come to Rotherweird seeking secrets buried in his own memories.

But if the side characters are Rotherweird’s greatest strength, the main character is its greatest weakness. Oblong is a pretty passive protagonist. Throughout the novel, I felt like he was being buffeted about by chance or the other characters rather than charting a course for himself.

It’s also worth noting that there are illustrations of key scenes throughout the book. These are done in a whimsical style that matches the text perfectly. This might be a good reason to purchase the hard copy instead of an e-book.

Despite the weakness of the main character, the setting, plot, and secondary characters made this a fun read. I’m looking forward to both of the sequels, Wyntertide and Lost Acre.

“Riverland” by Fran Wilde

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I adored Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy, so I was excited to read her YA novel, Riverland. Sisters Eleanor and Mary (known as Mike) live by the banks of a river. That river extends into a dreamworld, and like many real-world ecosystems, it’s fragile. When their abusive father destroys a talisman that was maintaining the balance of that ecosystem, nightmares start leaking into the waking world, and the real river threatens to flood their whole neighborhood.

My favorite part of this novel was the friendship between Eleanor and Pendra. Many stories center a romantic arc, and this would have been even more natural in a book aimed at younger readers. But platonic friendships are just as important, and it was nice to see the main relationship in a book being between the main character and her friend. I especially appreciated that their friendship isn’t perfect. They have arguments, and sometimes Pendra gets upset with Eleanor over something petty—but that doesn’t mean they’re no longer friends. Even in a fantasy novel, the relationships between the human characters need to ring true, and this one does.

This is a book that deals with some difficult subjects, chief among them living with an abusive parent. Eleanor’s father’s abuse puts strain on all her other relationships: with Mike, with her mother, with Pendra. This felt realistic to me, and my understanding is that the way Eleanor’s parents make her feel as though she’s responsible for her father’s anger issues is also realistic. I felt that Wilde did a good job of tackling an issue that could easily have been mishandled.

There are some things I liked and some I didn’t about the climax and ending of the story, which I will put below on account of spoilers.

 

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

 

Riverland doesn’t have as crisp a resolution as most standalone novels, but I think that’s due to Wilde’s desire to handle her subject matter respectfully. While Eleanor and Mike end up in a better situation than they started in, a home situation like theirs isn’t going to be solved immediately or easily in most cases. Something that might have been a flaw in another book is, I think, a necessity in this one.

At the same time, I felt like Anassa was a red herring, or maybe an unfired Chekov’s gun. I was expecting her previous human identity to be a major revelation, perhaps that she was an ancestor or other relative of Eleanor and Mike. The fact that she was defeated without us learning anything much about her disappointed me a bit. Still, this was overall an enjoyable novel and definitely a worthy Hugo/Lodestar nominee.

2020 Hugo Award Nominees: Novelette

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Once again, I’d only read one of these stories previously, Siobhan Carroll’s “For He Can Creep.” But I was happy to see offerings from N.K. Jemisin and Ted Chiang make the list, as both are outstanding authors.

“The Blur in the Corner of Your Eye” by Sarah Pinsker—This is a wonderful story. At first, it seems like a straightforward mystery, but when the speculative element is introduced, it makes sense because of small hints earlier that point toward it. 4.8/5.

“Omphalos” by Ted Chiang—This was an interesting and moving story. While there were a few infodumps, they were interspersed through the story so they didn’t feel as intrusive. I liked both the setting and the main character. 4.7/5.

“For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll—This was an engaging story, and I loved Nighthunter Moppet. Christopher Smart was a real person, and it was interesting to read a story inspired by his life and poetry. 4.6/5.

“Emergency Skin” by N.K. Jemisin—I love the premise of this story, and I was surprised by the twist of the old man’s identity. However, the narrative device of having the implanted AI be the POV character rather than the soldier himself meant that a lot of information was conveyed through the old man repeating things the soldier had told him. That made for a lot of “As you know, Bob” dialogue that weakened the story a bit. 4.55/5.

“Away with the Wolves” by Sarah Gailey—I like the new twist on the werewolf myth here. Both the main character and her best friend are sympathetic, and I love that the friendship between them is the centerpiece of the story. 4.5/5.

“The Archronology of Love” by Caroline Yoachim—There are two really fascinating concepts in this story, and Yoachim melds them together well. At the same time, she never loses sight of the human (or alien) heart of the piece. 4/5.

2020 Hugo Award Nominees: Graphic Story

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Two of the series nominated for this year’s Hugo Awards in the Graphic Story category came to an end in 2019. Both are highly acclaimed, with Paper Girls having garnered several previous nominations. One of this year’s entries, Die, is just starting, and in my opinion, it’s the most intriguing of the bunch.

Die, Vol. 1: Solomon creates a TTRPG for his friend Ash’s birthday, and their whole friend group gets together to play it. But what Solomon has created is more than a game: he’s found or built a portal into a fantasy setting, and the consequences of winning or losing are very real. It’s an engaging story with great art, and although I’ve never read the series before, I found myself becoming invested in the characters. However, the cliffhanger at the end of the volume is dependent on a decision made by Isabelle and Chuck, two members of the aforementioned friend group. In Chuck’s case, it was believable that he would make the choice he did, but I didn’t feel the same way about Isabelle’s decision. In her case, it felt rushed and pulled me out of the story a bit. 4/5.

The Wicked + The Divine, Vol. 9: A poignant finale, with solid resolutions for most of the characters. 3.9/5.

Paper Girls, Vol. 6: This is the final volume of the series, and it came to a satisfying close. 3.8/5.

Monstress, Vol. 4: Each of the three previous volumes in this series has been nominated for the Graphic Story Hugo, and it’s won at least once. The tradition continues here, and with good reason. The art is beautiful and the story engaging, although sometimes I feel as if both are a bit too “busy.” 3.75/5.

Mooncakes: I enjoyed this story, and I liked how it focused on many different types of relationships. While Nova’s budding romance with Tam is important to the story, of course, her familial relationship with her grandmothers and her friendship with Tatyana are also shown to give her a lot of strength. The setting is an interesting one, and the spirits reminded me of something out of a Miyazaki film. The art wasn’t as impressive as in some of the other nominees, though. 3.6/5.

LaGuardia: Humans have made contact with a number of intelligent alien species, and there’s movement of both people and goods between Earth and other worlds. But some places are more welcoming to alien immigrants than others. When Future’s alien friend is in danger, she helps him flee from Nigeria to the United States, where they both have to confront anti-alien sentiment. This is a very timely story, and the characters—particularly Citizen—are given a lot of depth. I would have liked to know more about the conflict among the Florals, though, and I didn’t like the art style in this one as much as some of the other nominees. 3.5/5.