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Category Archives: Reviews

“Stranger Things Happen” by Kelly Link

Kelly Link’s offbeat stories have won her a number of both genre and literary fiction awards, including the O. Henry Prize, the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, and inclusion in Best American Short Stories. I loved her collection Get in Trouble, so I was very happy to find a copy of her earlier collection Stranger Things Happen at a (pre-Covid) convention.

Doubling and transformation are themes that recur throughout the stories in this book, and sometimes it’s unclear which one is happening. The metaphysical boundaries between characters in Link’s stories are often blurred, such that the reader isn’t sure whether they’re duplicates of each other or if one is metamorphosing into the other. This confusion between characters is perhaps most overt in “Louise’s Ghost,” where it’s made explicit by giving the two main characters the same name. “The Girl Detective” features several sets of twelve women, which may or may not be the same set of twelve women. In “Most of My Friends Are Two-Thirds Water,” Jak finds himself beset by an increasing number of identical blond women.

Having previously read Get in Trouble made this aspect of Stranger Things Happen particularly interesting. The fluidity of identity that’s on display in STH also turns up in several stories from GIT, from the body-doubles in “Valley of the Girls” to the duplicate houses in “Two Houses.” This is clearly a theme that’s interested Link for a long time. It’s amplified in STH, which gives some of the stories an atmosphere like walking through a Hall of Mirrors.

 Fairy tales and mythology also figure predominantly in STH. “Travels with the Snow Queen,” of course, draws on Hans Christian Andersen’s story of the Snow Queen. “The Girl Detective” explicitly references the story of the twelve dancing princesses, while “Flying Lessons” derives some of its major characters and events from Greek mythology. Link seamlessly melds these ancient tales with modern settings—and in some cases, as in “The Girl Detective,” with modern story tropes as well. This introduces yet another form of split identities, with many characters embodying a legendary figure under the surface of their modern lives.

The breadth of awards she’s won shows Link’s command of both realistic and fantastical story elements. In Stranger Things Happen, Link demonstrates that she excels not only at telling different kinds of stories, but at blending apparently disparate elements to create stories that inhabit a liminal, dreamlike space.

“If It Bleeds” by Stephen King

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Stephen King’s previous novella collections, Four Past Midnight and Different Seasons, have yielded some particularly strong stories, like “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” and “The Sun Dog.” His latest book, If It Bleeds, also gives us four pieces of fiction that are longer than short stories but shorter than novels.

“Mr. Harrigan’s Phone” reads like a classic ghost story. The main character, Craig, finds that he’s able to communicate with his employer and mentor after the latter’s death using the iPhone Craig gave him as a gift. I’ve always appreciated ghost stories that place their hauntings in modern settings, sometimes even using technology as a medium. It gives the stories an extra jolt of creepiness because they feel more like something that could really happen. King captures that really well, and also does a good job of developing the relationship between the two protagonists.

“The Life of Chuck” was the weakest story in the book, in my opinion. It starts out with an interesting concept: the characters start seeing advertisements thanking someone named Chuck for “a great 39 years.” They have no idea who Chuck is, what he did to make those 39 years so great, or who’s running the ads. But the story is told in three parts, and the connections between the parts are tenuous at best. Each one could have been a great story on its own if further developed, or the story as a whole could have been great if the parts were woven together more cleanly. As it is, it just felt disjointed.

“If It Bleeds” features Holly Gibney, who first appeared in the Bill Hodges Trilogy and returned in The Outsider. I know Constant Readers have differing opinions on her. While I haven’t read the Bill Hodges books, I enjoyed The Outsider quite a bit, and I liked this story too. It should be noted that it’s pretty much a direct sequel to The Outsider, so readers who haven’t read that book may not get as much enjoyment out of “If It Bleeds.”

“Rat” is another take on a classic horror-story theme, in this case, a deal with a malign entity. It isn’t a particularly deep story, but it was fun to read.

I’ve long been a fan of King’s shorter fiction, and I was pleased to see that he delivered once again.

“Borne” by Jeff VanderMeer

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Although I first encountered Jeff VanderMeer through the excellent anthologies he co-edits with his wife Ann, he’s better known for his fiction. His Southern Reach Trilogy and Ambergris novels are both beloved by fans of weird fiction. Borne is the first in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic city where people scavenge for biotechnological creations that have escaped into the wild while trying to evade a giant flying bear. No, that was not a typo, there really is a giant flying bear. His name is Mord.

The story kicks off when Rachel discovers Borne on a scavenging run. At first, he appears to be some kind of plant, but it quickly becomes clear that he’s far more than that. Rachel’s partner Wick is immediately suspicious of him, but Rachel refuses to let him dissect Borne. Over time, her bond with Borne evolves from that of owner and pet to that of parent and child.

Borne’s appearance is profoundly alien, as is his perception of the world. VanderMeer does a great job of portraying the difficulties Rachel has in communicating with him, while also dropping tantalizing hints about Borne’s nature and past. Borne’s transition from being a MacGuffin to a full-fledged character is handled very well.

VanderMeer also presents vivid imagery of a world where biotechnology has run amok, with many cool concepts for the different organisms created by Wick and the mysterious Company. From the quirky (alcoholic minnows) to the eerie (fox-like creatures that can flicker in and out of visibility) to the terrifying (Mord), the unnamed city where the story takes place is populated by a gamut of critters that aren’t your typical fantasy or sci-fi monsters. That gives Borne a really fresh feel.

There are two other books set in the same universe, though my understanding is that they aren’t precisely sequels. Both of them—Dead Astronauts and The Strange Bird—reference entities that we see or hear about briefly in Borne. The world VanderMeer has created is intriguing enough that I intend to pick these up and see what further stories he has to tell.

“The Empire of Gold” by S.A. Chakraborty

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The final volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy substantially ups the stakes for the main characters. Nahri and Ali are stuck in the human world without their djinn magic, and it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Ali’s marid-granted powers come at a cost. Meanwhile, Dara is becoming ever more conflicted and disillusioned with his sworn ruler Manizeh.

With the stakes being so much higher, it’s no surprise that the conflicts are bigger. There are some truly jaw-dropping action sequences and a few stunning plot twists. But Chakraborty doesn’t lose sight of the importance of character. There are quieter moments that show the characters coming to terms with these revelations, and the denouement features one scene that made the room get rather dusty.

In addition to resolving the arcs of the main characters, a couple of new players are introduced. At first, I was skeptical of the idea of bringing in new plot-relevant characters so late in the story, but Chakraborty did a great job developing them. I especially enjoyed Fiza, to the point where part of me was hoping she’d end up with Ali.

One of the Daevabad Trilogy’s major themes has always been the difficulty of resolving longstanding conflicts. The Daevas and the other djinn tribes have been fighting for so long that neither side’s hands are clean anymore, and both sides have some legitimate grievances. The narrative in Empire of Gold makes no bones about the fact that this situation can’t be resolved easily or quickly. It will take work and require both sides to listen and make compromises. And since most of the action is of course being driven by the main characters, this will require them to make some changes as well. The culmination of Nahri, Ali, and Dara each gradually learning to address the traits that have held them back occurs here, and sets the stage for a hopeful ending to the trilogy. In addition to providing a satisfying conclusion, it makes The Empire of Gold a book that, despite its fantastical setting, speaks to our present moment in the real world.

I’ve enjoyed the fun and moving ride that the Daevabad Trilogy has been. Chakraborty has said that her next book will likely be a more grounded historical fiction novel, but I hope she returns to the world of Daevabad someday.

“Universal Harvester” by John Darnielle

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John Darnielle was already an accomplished author before writing Universal Harvester: his first novel, Wolf in White Van, was a finalist for the National Book Award. His new book has earned plaudits from Kazuo Ishiguro, Joe Hill, and Oprah’s magazine. The main character, Jeremy, works at a Blockbuster-type video store when customers begin reporting odd problems with their tapes. Strange and ominous footage has been spliced into the middle of various movies. As Jeremy investigates this mystery, his life intertwines with many others, both directly and indirectly.

Universal Harvester was marketed as a horror novel, but I’m not sure this is the right designation. While the spliced-in footage definitely has sinister overtones, the book is less about scaring the reader and more about examining the psyches of the main characters. If this is horror, it’s psychological horror. Most of the action is fairly sedate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not meaningful. The characters have a great deal of depth, and their relationships are carefully portrayed. One gets a sense of Jeremy, his father, his colleagues, and eventually the filmmaker as real people with real lives. However, readers expecting fights against axe-wielding murderers or races against time to prevent the summoning of ancient evils may feel as though they’ve been bait-and-switched. For those who are fans of psychological horror, quiet horror, and stories that stick a toe just barely over the line into horror, Universal Harvester is well worth reading.

“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.