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Monthly Archives: February 2021

“In the Labyrinth of Drakes” by Marie Brennan

I greatly enjoyed the first three books in Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series, so I was excited to start In the Labyrinth of Drakes. In this installment of the series, Isabella heads to the country of Akhia as co-leader of a project trying to breed desert drakes. The project has both industrial and military applications, so some powerful people are invested in seeing it succeed. Unfortunately, other powerful people are equally invested in seeing it fail, so Isabella once again ends up embroiled in danger and intrigue.

My favorite character in the previous book was Suhail, so I was happy to see him reappear here. Since most of the book takes place in his home country, we get to learn a lot more about his personal history, family, and culture. It was good to spend more time with Tom Wilker as well, and while I was disappointed to not see more of Natalie, it made sense for the story that she wouldn’t play much of a role.

Of course, the real stars of the book are the dragons. Once again, Brennan makes them feel like real creatures. Not only do the desert drakes of Akhia have a distinctive physiology, but also a particular hunting strategy, adaptations to survive the harsh environment, courtship behaviors, and so forth. For all their wonder and mystery (and danger!), they fit into an ecological niche just like more mundane animals do. Because of this, the reader gets the sense that they’re an organic part of the setting. Of course, this includes their interactions with humans, and the series-long plotline about the ancient Draconean civilization and their reverence for dragons gets a significant development. As much as I’m looking forward to the next book in the series, I’m also sad that it’s the last.

“The Kind Folk” by Ramsey Campbell

British horror author Ramsey Campbell has been widely lauded as one of the genre’s most prominent writers. He’s received the Living Legend Award from the International Horror Guild, the Grand Master Award from the World Horror Convention, the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers Association, the Stoker Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the British Fantasy Award. As one might expect from such a talented and prolific author, his stories and novels encompass a wide range of styles and subjects. In The Kind Folk, Campbell puts his own unique spin on the fairy lore of the British Isles.

The novel’s main character is Luke, a successful comedian. As the story opens, he’s just received a piece of shocking news: the couple who raised him, Maurice and Freda, aren’t his biological parents. While the three of them still love each other, there’s a fair amount of awkwardness as they question if this does (or should) affect their relationship. There are also practical concerns: medical history (particularly since Luke’s wife Sophie is pregnant) and potential legal liability on the part of the hospital. But there’s a stranger undercurrent beneath all this, as Luke finds himself observing and observed by mysterious figures. He also finds himself re-examining childhood memories of the times he spent with his uncle Terrence and cryptic remarks Terrence has made in the present day.

Even when Campbell isn’t writing strictly in the psychological horror mode, he often delves into the inner lives of his characters. The Kind Folk is no exception. The identity crisis brought on by Luke’s discovery is just as much a focus of the book as the potential existence of supernatural beings. Campbell powerfully describes the feeling of being unmoored, of trying to navigate a life whose components have suddenly shifted. Luke’s relationship with Sophie and his devotion to their unborn child are his anchors, and the tensest moments in the book come when he fears that he might even lose those.

For a book that deals with (quite literal) fairy tales, it should be no surprise that such stories crop up in the narrative. Some of these are presented as stories Terrence told Luke when he was a little boy; others are bits of local folklore that Luke discovers as he travels around England searching for clues or holding performances. I’ve mentioned my love of stories-within-stories before in my reviews, and I found that aspect of The Kind Folk delightful. The stories are both beautiful and eerie, and add a great deal to the atmosphere of the book.

I do have one quibble with the book, and that’s its pacing. Luke spends a great deal of time driving to different places around England, either because he has gigs there or because they’re locations that seem to be tied to his personal mystery. Even the ones about mundane gigs do contribute to the plot, since he often has unplanned encounters during them. However, there’s too long a stretch where the incidents are of a similar intensity, without building or escalating. That makes them feel repetitive, although it’s mitigated somewhat by Campbell’s mastery of creepy imagery. Overall, this was an enjoyable book, and as someone who’s always loved stories about the fae, I’m glad I read it.

“The Worm and His Kings” by Hailey Piper

Hailey Piper’s novella The Worm and His Kings manages to pack quite a lot into its 126 pages. It’s a cosmic horror tale that depicts a complex interpersonal relationship and includes trenchant social commentary.

The story follows Monique, a homeless trans woman in NYC. Her partner Donna has disappeared, and Monique is determined to find her. It gradually becomes clear that Donna didn’t just disappear; she was kidnapped. As for who kidnapped her and why…those answers are a lot stranger than Monique could have suspected.

In the course of her investigations, Monique discovers that Donna is far from the first homeless woman to disappear recently. These disappearances haven’t made the news or prompted a large-scale investigation because of who the victims are. 2020 became something of a moment of reckoning regarding the way in which marginalized people, and particularly Black people, are often treated as criminals by law enforcement. The Worm and His Kings shows the other side of that ugly coin: the disinterest of law enforcement in seeking justice for marginalized people who are not only innocent of criminal activity, but actually victims of it.

Another strength of the novella is the way Donna and Monique’s relationship is written. I was impressed by how well Piper developed it in such a short time. Monique’s love for Donna and determination to protect her felt believable. Their relationship also felt very real: not an idealized fairy-tale romance, but a partnership between two flawed human beings trying to navigate a world that doesn’t always understand or care about them.

Ultimately, the story adopts a more cosmic scale, spanning large swathes of space and time. Piper handles this expansive work as well as she does the interpersonal narrative. Her descriptions are evocative enough to provoke a sense of awe in the reader. The universe is a big place, home to some strange things, and while our own relative smallness may be scary, there’s some wonder to that as well. Piper does a great job of capturing this tension between fear and wonder.

The one weakness of the novella is the pacing at the beginning. I love horror stories with a gradually building sense of dread, and I enjoy mysteries where the reader’s trying to piece things together alongside the characters. The truth about whether or not a rumored monster in the NYC subway tunnels is real or not is revealed very early in the story, which felt anticlimactic. Some of this could just be length constraints imposed on Piper either by her own desire to keep this novella-length or by the requirements of her publisher. Much of her previous work is fairly short as well. With her strength for characterization and themes, I’d love to see her tackle a full-length novel.

“Elatsoe” by Darcie Little Badger

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Darcie Little Badger’s debut novel, Elatsoe, has garnered a great deal of praise. It’s been named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR, Publishers Weekly, and Tor.com. TIME even included it on their list of the 100 best fantasy books of all time. Like Little Badger herself, the heroine is of Lipan Apache heritage. When her cousin dies under suspicious circumstances, she’s determined to discover the truth. Luckily, she doesn’t have to do it alone: in addition to the support of her family and best friend, she can raise the ghosts of animals for protection or companionship.

The setting of the story is one in which many different types of magic exist. Little Badger does a great job of introducing these elements in an organic way. She makes the reader aware of them as they become relevant to the story, and explains them to the degree that’s needed for the reader to understand what’s going on. This avoids the dreaded infodump but also does something that I think is even more important in a fantasy novel: it cultivates a sense of mystery and wonder about the magic. We know enough to have a good idea of what the protagonists (and villains) can or can’t do, but we don’t know everything. Little Badger creates the sense that everything we’re seeing is part of a larger world, with other stories going on around the main one. While the story being told here comes to a satisfying conclusion, I hope Little Badger returns to this world. My only complaint about the magic was that I wished her best friend Jay’s own magical talents had played a larger role in the plot.

History is a strong theme of Elatsoe. The technique of raising animal ghosts was developed by Elatsoe’s six-times-great-grandmother, referred to in the story as Six-Great. But while her magical talent was formidable, it isn’t the most important thing about her. She was also a woman of great courage and integrity, and even so many generations later, she’s still an inspiration to her descendants. Elatsoe draws strength from her as she confronts dangerous situations. Beyond that, Elatsoe’s ability to raise ghosts gives her a personal connection to the history of her home. And of course, the history of the Lipan Apache people is discussed as well.

Each chapter is headed by Rovina Cai’s illustrations. These are beautifully done and tell a story of their own. I read this as an ebook, but the illustrations made me wish I’d picked up a physical copy.