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Monthly Archives: January 2021

“Bone White” by Ronald Malfi

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Ronald Malfi’s novel Bone White follows Paul Gallo as he travels to Alaska in search of his missing twin brother. Faced with brutal weather and inhospitable locals, Paul perseveres. But the snow and darkness may be hiding something even more dangerous, and not every local superstition is just a story.

Malfi does a masterful job of creating an unsettling, oppressive atmosphere. The cold, isolation, and quiet of the wilderness really come through. One of the strongest scenes in the book involves Paul following a man he saw peering through his window into the woods at night. The scene has a dreamlike feel that I really appreciated. The more action-oriented scenes are well-constructed too, leading to a good balance overall.

While there certainly are supernatural phenomena present in the story, human interactions are at the heart of it. Although Paul and his brother have sometimes had a difficult relationship, Paul’s love for him shines through. Malfi made me believe that Paul would go through everything he does over the course of the story for his brother. He also gives us a good sense of an insular community that resists infiltration by outsiders—and might have more reason for doing so than most. I really enjoyed this novel and look forward to checking out more of Malfi’s work.

“An Enchantment of Ravens” by Margaret Rogerson

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While I will happily read fantasy or sci-fi novels with strong romance arcs, I very rarely read romantic fantasy or paranormal romance, so Margaret Rogerson’s An Enchantment of Ravens was a bit of a departure for me. Rogerson’s debut novel tells the story of Isobel, a painter in the town of Whimsy, which borders on the realm of Faerie. The Fair Folk in this setting are incapable of making arts and crafts themselves, so those produced by humans are hugely valuable. Isobel is in great demand among the Fair Folk for her skills as a painter, but when one of her paintings accidentally offends a faerie lord, she finds herself dragged into their realm and caught up in their politics. When she and one of the Fair Folk fall in love, that love might save them both…or doom them.

If Rogerson ever gets tired of being a novelist, she could certainly embark on a career as a nature writer, because the descriptions in this book are evocative. The faerie world of Enchantment has four courts, one for each of the seasons, and the main characters spend time in three of the four. Because of the vivid way Rogerson describes them, each of these courts truly feels different. And while they’re mostly lush and beautiful, Rogerson also excels at describing their darker aspects. When Isobel and Rook face a monster that’s an amalgamation of corpses, the descriptions of its putrid flesh and grasping bones add to the terror of the scene.

Any story centering on the Fair Folk is going to stand or fall on how it portrays them, and Rogerson succeeds here, too. There’s a contradiction at the heart of most depictions of the Fair Folk: they’re capricious but also bound by rigid rules, such as being unable to touch iron. Rogerson captures that very well in her novel. Many of the fey Isobel meets are mercurial, but the setting’s whole economy runs on the absolute inability of the Fair Folk to produce any artisanal work for themselves. Rogerson also returns to an old-school portrayal of the Fair Folk as being fundamentally inhuman beneath their glamours. Obviously, readers will disagree on which interpretations of classical fantasy beings they prefer, but Rogerson hit all the right notes for me.

There are a couple of missteps, primarily in how the titular enchantment is treated. Since it’s an enchantment with multiple “levels,” one would expect those steps to gradually escalate over the course of the story, reaching their greatest extremity at the final confrontation with the antagonist. Instead, it goes from zero to sixty partway through the story and doesn’t play much of a role after that. On the whole, though, this was a thoroughly enjoyable book. I was actually disappointed to see that it’s a standalone! I was hoping to read more about this world and these characters, and I’d be happy if Rogerson chooses to return to them someday.

“Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales,” edited by Ellen Datlow

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As someone who loves both birds and horror fiction, Ellen Datlow’s anthology Black Feathers: Dark Avian Tales is one I just had to read.

Because they feed on carrion, crows are often associated with war and death. In some cultures, they’ve also been considered psychopomps that guide newly dead souls to the underworld. So it’s not surprising that many of the stories in this book feature crows and their relatives. Priya Sharma’s “The Crow Palace” is a chilling tale of family secrets centered around a huge bird feeder-like structure frequented by crows. Seanan McGuire’s “The Mathematical Inevitability of Corvids” uses an old nursery rhyme to tell a story of an outcast young woman. Fans of her Wayward Children series will recognize her talent for writing about children and teens who don’t quite fit in with those around them. Livia Llewellyn’s “The Acid Test” presents a being that has some characteristics of a crow, though as is typical for Llewellyn’s fiction, it’s actually something quite a bit weirder.

Some of my favorite stories, though, focus on birds that don’t have quite as sinister a reputation. Joyce Carol Oates’s “Great Blue Heron” is a powerful story of a grieving widow who develops an emotional bond with the titular bird. Stephen Graham Jones perfectly captures the narrative voice of a teenager in “Pigeon from Hell” and turns what should be the most unthreatening bird on the planet into an ominous omen. A.C. Wise’s “The Secret of Flight” is another tale featuring passerines—starlings, in this case. It uses false forms, a storytelling style I love, to document the eerie disappearances and accidents surrounding a play. In Pat Cadigan’s “A Little Bird Told Me,” a parrot is the star. This is a particularly creative story, putting one type of bird into a narrative role usually reserved for another type.Black Feathers is one of Datlow’s lesser-known anthologies, and it deserves a wider audience. The stories here pack a punch, and some linger in the imagination long after being read.

“Piranesi” by Susanna Clarke

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In 2006, Susanna Clarke’s debut novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell took the fantasy community by storm. It won the Hugo, World Fantasy, Locus, and Mythopoeic Awards and spent eleven weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List. While she has also published a collection of short stories, fans have been waiting since then for a new novel. In 2020, they got one. Piranesi is a very different book from JS&MN but shares the traits of being a wildly imaginative story with a detailed mythology undergirding its setting.

The narrator goes by the name Piranesi, though he tells the reader early on that he doesn’t believe this to be his real name. He lives in a building so huge he hasn’t been able to map its limits. The rooms are filled with statues depicting subjects both mundane and fantastical. As far as Piranesi knows, only one other living person resides in the building, though there are also several skeletons. He keeps a journal of his efforts to map the building, his meetings with the other resident, and his propitiation of the skeletons with offerings of food and drink. But who is Piranesi, really? How did he come to inhabit this space, and what is its nature?

In JS&MN, Norrell really felt like a stuffy academic. Clarke’s command of narrative voice is even more strongly on display here, where the whole story is being told from Piranesi’s point of view. While there’s a lot Piranesi doesn’t know about his situation, he approaches everything with the mind of a scientist. He documents the layout of the chambers he’s explored and eagerly engages with his sole companion’s attempts to uncover a “great and secret knowledge.” But he’s also guided by a definite moral sense: he shows respect for the dead former inhabitants of the building and has a strong aversion to violence against other people, even under circumstances where most of us would find it acceptable. In Piranesi, Clarke has created an instantly likeable main character.

She also creates an intriguing setting. The building Piranesi lives in is labyrinthine, and most of the rooms are built on a grand scale. But for as large as Piranesi’s “house” is, he can’t recall ever having been outside it (except perhaps into a few enclosed courtyards that are mentioned). This makes the setting feel both expansive and claustrophobic. The descriptions of the statues are vivid and enhance the eerie atmosphere of Piranesi’s surroundings. Many fans of JS&MN hoped that Susanna Clarke’s next novel would be a sequel. Piranesi isn’t that, but it’s an engrossing story in its own right. It’s definitely one of the best books of 2020.