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“Desdemona and the Deep” by C.S.E. Cooney

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C.S.E. Cooney has written a great deal of short fiction, including the World Fantasy Award-winning collection Bone Swans. Desdemona and the Deep is her first work of longer fiction, a standalone novella about a set of three linked worlds. When Desdemona’s father trades away thirty-six miners to goblins, Desdemona is determined to get them back. But to reach the Bone Kingdom where the goblins dwell, she’ll have to pass through the twilight realm of the fey-like Gentry. Both worlds are full of both wonder and peril, and the journey will leave Desdemona forever changed.

There are some wonderful characters in this book. Desdemona herself starts out as a spoiled heiress, but finds a deep well of compassion in herself when she learns just how her father has maintained his wealth. Chaz, her best friend, at first seems very passive, willing to go along with whatever scheme Desdemona’s cooking up at the moment—but appearances can be deceiving. Farklewhit’s just delightful, and the plight of the Gentry Sovereign is truly sad and touching.

The other strength of the story is its worldbuilding. Many fantasy settings have a fairyland or spirit world side-by-side with the world humans know, often with pathways that open only under specific conditions. Desdemona goes a step farther by giving us three linked worlds and takes care to make the two supernatural realms different from each other. The human society is placed in an era not often explored in fantasy; the closest analogue is the 1920s. These details of setting make the tale seem fresh and unique even to a veteran reader of fantasy.

The one major flaw is the pacing. With such a rich world and so many interesting characters, the book is just too short to give everything the attention it deserves. I would have loved to see Desdemona spend more time in each of the Worlds Beneath, to see more of her mother’s crusading for social reform, and to explore the setting more fully. It would be absolutely wonderful to see Cooney write a full-length novel in this world.

“The Copper Promise” by Jen Williams

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The first book in Jen Williams’s Copper Cat trilogy is a fun sword-and-sorcery adventure yarn. Wydrin, better known as the Copper Cat, and her friend Sebastian have been hired to explore the caverns under an ancient ruin. They do find what they’re looking for, but in the process, they unleash an ancient evil that threatens to overrun the world. To defeat it, they’ll have to deal with erratic magic, a trickster god, and a murderous demon-worshipper.

I enjoyed both Wydrin and Sebastian as characters, largely because there’s more to them than meets the eye. Wydrin, like many roguish characters in fantasy, is full of snark and witty banter. But as the story progresses, we also see her deep devotion to her brother and loyalty to Sebastian. Sebastian also seems, at first glance, to fall into a fantasy archetype: the brooding warrior with a tragic secret in his past. The additional depth in his character comes when he’s given a chance to forget about the past that’s gnawing at him, but at the potential cost of his humanity. His response to this shows the reader a lot about him, and brings him to a place where he can finally start moving forward.

The major flaw in the book, for me, was that this depth in the protagonists wasn’t met by similar complexities in the antagonists. Both the ancient evil referenced above and a more human villain who plays an important role in the story are simple forces of destruction and bloodshed. In a story with more than one bad guy, having them be essentially the same in motivation (if very different in power) can get to feel repetitive and boring. The ancient evil’s minions, who have no experience of the world and begin to diverge from their creator’s intentions as they gain that experience, were more interesting than the Big Bad herself. The later part of the plot, in which the heroes must retrieve an ancient weapon and lure the villain from one place to another to set it off, also felt rather formulaic. Overall, this was a quick, fun read, but I don’t know if I’m invested enough to read the sequels.

“Ninth House” by Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo has earned a great deal of acclaim for her Grishaverse YA novels. With Ninth House, she makes her first foray into writing aimed at adults. Galaxy “Alex” Stern has been offered something that seemed out of reach: an education at Yale. This gift doesn’t come for free, of course. Alex is being asked to join Lethe House, a secret society whose job is to police the other secret societies of Yale, making sure that the magic they practice doesn’t get out of hand. Her quest for justice on behalf of a murdered “townie” will end up endangering her tenure at Yale, her life, and maybe even more than that.

Reams of paper, physical or digital, have been written about the advantage attending an elite university provides its graduates in terms of networking. This is particularly true for alumni of fraternities and sororities, and presumably also for members of more clandestine groups like Yale’s Skull and Bones. Bardugo takes this a step further by adding in magic, with each of the societies specializing in a specific type. Magic allows its practitioners to predict the stock market, make themselves appear glamorous and charming, or take the form of a small animal to spy on others. The edge this gives them is used to comment on the edge provided in the real world by more mundane organizations. Privilege—and the lack thereof—is a major theme of the novel. It’s examined from different angles in the present-day narrative, in the flashback sequences to Alex’s past, and in the story of a long-ago murder that Alex gets drawn into.

Speaking of magic, Bardugo does something very interesting with it in Ninth House. Fantasy tends to portray magic users as becoming more powerful with age—an ancient wizard hobbling around with his staff is not someone you want to mess with (hi, Gandalf). But when Alex questions why the societies are letting a bunch of college kids manipulate the fundamental forces of reality, the dean in charge of Lethe gives her a surprising answer. Magic, in this setting, is physically taxing to use. Magical power only increases with age up to a point: once someone’s body starts to decline, so does their ability to use powerful magic. I liked that subversion, and it also provides a good reason for most of the main characters to be fairly young.

Bardugo was born in Jerusalem, and part of Alex’s background draws on an aspect of the Jewish diaspora that I wasn’t aware of before reading this book. Alex speaks Ladino, a language she learned from her grandmother. Ladino is a language that evolved from Spanish but also includes elements of Hebrew, Arabic, French, and Italian. It spread from Spain to many other countries when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Today, most Ladino speakers live in Israel, although it’s spoken to some degree in at least 30 countries. Modern scholars of Ladino take a particular interest in its folk songs, and in Ninth House, we see Alex drawing comfort and even occult protection from her grandmother’s songs.

The ending of Ninth House makes it clear that this is meant to be the first book in a series. While it’s very much a departure from Bardugo’s previous work, it’s a compelling and interesting one, so I’ll look forward to seeing where Alex’s story goes from here.

“The Last Astronaut” by David Wellington

David Wellington, a veteran author of thrillers and monster horror novels, takes a detour into science fiction with his latest book, The Last Astronaut. When an interstellar object passing through the solar system shows unmistakable signs of being piloted by an alien intelligence, a moribund NASA scrambles a mission to make contact with it. Unfortunately, the only experienced astronaut they have available is living in disgrace and self-imposed exile after a catastrophic aborted mission to Mars.

Wellington is a master of maintaining tension. He conveys the sheer strangeness of the alien object very well, and makes the reader feel the crew’s growing sense of unease as they travel through its interior. On top of that, he layers interpersonal conflicts among the crew. They haven’t had as much time to get to know each other as the crew of a spacecraft normally would, and this really starts to take its toll as the mission goes on and the difficulties mount. Mutual distrust between the civilian and military personnel rears its head, as does the team’s skepticism that the main character has what it takes to lead the mission in light of her past.

While The Last Astronaut probably doesn’t quite meet the qualifications of hard sci-fi, Wellington does keep things relatively grounded. Some aspects of the extraterrestrials’ biology are implausible, but Wellington has clearly put some thought into how such organisms might function. Once the basic premise is accepted, the extrapolations from it are fairly reasonable. And as far as I can tell, the technology used by the human characters is plausible.

The book uses a framing device in which the narrative is meant to be the text of an in-world book written about the mission. Interspersed with the text are excerpts from voice recordings made by the crew members. While these didn’t pull me out of the story as I was reading, in retrospect I don’t think the format really added anything to the story. The information conveyed through the excerpts could have simply been presented as the characters’ thoughts, and the overall framing device didn’t feel necessary at all.

Ultimately, The Last Astronaut is a clever, engaging, page-turner of a novel. I’d be interested to see Wellington return to sci-fi in the future.

“The Outside” by Ada Hoffman

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Ada Hoffman’s debut novel The Outside is an intriguing fusion of space opera and cosmic horror. Yasira Shien is an engineer in a distant future where human society is ruled by AI “gods.” When the activation of a reactor she built goes wrong, it doesn’t just blow up; it unleashes a terrifying force from outside of space and time. Yasira’s attempt to set things right puts her on a collision course with both that force and with humanity’s gods.

The far future society portrayed in the novel is an interesting one, with superintelligent AIs having taken on the role of deities and various types of cyborg designated as angels and priests. One small but intriguing worldbuilding detail is that most of the gods are described as female, although they presumably don’t have humanoid forms. The digital assistants prevalent today, such as Alexa and Siri, are also been coded as female, and some commentators have questioned whether this is due to societal perceptions of women as compliant and helpful. Are The Outside’s deific AIs female because they grew from female-coded devices of the setting’s past (our present)? It’s interesting to think of that as a potential root for their personalities.

Another interesting aspect of the worldbuilding relates to the human polities. Most far-future sci-fi presents cultures and operating on a planetary level. While individual characters might identify with a nation (Jean-Luc Picard with France, Susan Ivanova with Russia, etc.), these nations are no longer relevant political entities. Sometimes this can lead to a “planet of hats” scenario, where an alien world is portrayed as having a single monolithic culture. Often it’s part of a hopeful message about humanity putting aside tribalism. The Outside goes a different route. Yasira strongly identifies with her home planet of Jai but also with a particular nation on that planet, called Riayin. Another nation on the same planet is distinguished not just by lines on a map but by naming conventions: its people tend to have names representing positive qualities (Yasira’s girlfriend is named Productivity, for example). Despite being an interstellar civilization, humanity still maintains intraplanetary distinctions between nationalities. This was a refreshing change from the standard sci-fi political model, but I would have liked to know a bit more about how it works in practice.

There are several compelling characters in The Outside, not least of whom is Yasira herself, but Akavi was the one who really drew my attention. He’s completely committed to his mission and commits some fairly brutal actions in support of it. But we also find out that he took in his subordinates Enga and Elu when they were neglected outcasts, giving them a chance that no one else would. His complexity made him a truly interesting antagonist.

The Outside isn’t explicitly described as the first book in a series, but the ending leaves room for a sequel. I hope Hoffman writes one, because I would love to return to this world and see where Yasira’s journey takes her next.

“The Nightjar” by Deborah Hewitt

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Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel The Nightjar tells the story of Alice, a woman in a dead-end job who discovers that she’s an aviarist: a person with a magical talent for seeing the nightjars that act as psychopomps for human souls. Drawn into an alternate London populated by mages of various stripes, she finds herself drawn into the schemes of a mysterious benefactor, a cult leader, and a cabal of anti-magic bigots. The setting is a fascinating one, and I especially love the conceit of the nightjars. Hewitt does a great job of describing the mystical birds and showing how they reflect their charges’ personalities.

Despite that, the plot and characterization were somewhat lacking. Alice in particular felt like she lacked agency. She spent most of the book stumbling from one crisis to the next. While it makes sense that she would be in over her head at first, the novel would have been a lot more satisfying if Hewitt had shown her gradually gaining a measure of control over her surroundings.

A similar problem occurs with one of the side characters, Sasha. Sasha has a strong fear of water, which we see displayed several times in the story. The usual narrative for something like this would be for the character to make progress toward overcoming her fear, but this character arc goes completely unresolved.

I also didn’t buy into the relationship between Alice and Crowley. Crowley’s secretiveness is obviously an intended character trait, and he has good reasons for it, but Hewitt overdid it. After a while, I simply couldn’t understand why Alice continued to trust him.

There is one other major issue I had with the plot, but it involves significant spoilers, so I’ll leave it for the end. Overall, I found The Nightjar disappointing precisely because it had the potential to be so much better. The world it’s set in is interesting, and there were a lot of possibilities for intrigue, action, and great character interactions. There is some of all those things here, but the problems are substantial enough to bog it down.

 

–SPOILERS—

 

Alice’s primary motivation throughout the whole book is to save Jen. Every time she does something unwise, or doesn’t walk away from Crowley when she really should, her rationale is that she has to take these risks for Jen’s sake. While the Crowley thing pushed the boundaries of plausibility for me, I can understand someone doing dumb things out of desperation. But Jen dies in the end anyway! It made the whole thing feel like a “shaggy dog story.” It also didn’t seem to fit with the story tonally. The main character moving heaven and earth to save someone, only to have them die anyway, can work, particularly in a horror story. But while there are some dark moments in The Nightjar, and it’s clear that not all magic is benign, this didn’t feel like the kind of tale that should have such a nihilistic ending.

“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson

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The third book in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive was one of the best books I read in 2019, and at about 1240 pages, certainly the longest. As the conflict between humans and Voidbringers heats up, Dalinar has to grapple with his past while trying to forge a coalition of nations to face the threat.

As usual, Sanderson does an excellent job of balancing character development with cool magic and epic battles. Dalinar and Shallan receive the lion’s share of introspection and character growth in this book. While their stories are very different, they both revolve around the theme of a person choosing who they want to be. And in both cases, their journeys in Oathbringer culminate in awesome displays of power during a climactic battle.

With all the interludes, flashbacks, and chapter epigraphs, not to mention its length, Oathbringer could easily have ended up feeling unfocused. The paralleling of character arcs is one of the tools Sanderson uses to hold it together and make it feel like a coherent story. In addition to Dalinar and Shallan, we see another pair of characters whose arcs share a common theme but are a study in contrast. (For spoilery reasons, I’m going to be vague about the identity of said characters.) Both have to face up to unsavory things they’ve done in the past, and Odium urges both of them to give their pain and remorse to him. “It wasn’t your fault,” he tells them. These two characters end up in very different places as a result of their response, and there’s ample buildup to show the trajectories they’re on.

My record with Stormlight Archives theories has been pretty terrible, and indeed, one of the ideas I came up with way back when I was reading The Way of Kings was very solidly disproven in this book. However, a theory that developed in my mind while I was reading turned out to be 100% correct, and I was very gratified by that.

Brandon Sanderson has announced that the fourth book of the Stormlight Archive, tentatively titled Rhythms of War, will be released in November of this year. I’m eagerly looking forward to it. I hope we learn more about the Radiant orders that haven’t been focused on so far, as well as seeing more people joining the ranks of the existing orders. (In particular, I think it would be great to see Fen become Radiant, though I’m not sure which order would suit her best. Truthwatcher, perhaps, since she tends to be fairly blunt and unafraid to speak her mind?) And more Rysn, Rock, and Lift, please!