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“The Witch Elm” by Tana French

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Tana French burst onto the literary scene in 2007, when her debut novel, In the Woods, won the Edgar, Anthony, Macavity, and Barry Awards. Her Dublin Murder Squad series currently stands at six entries. The Witch Elm (or The Wych Elm, depending on which edition you have) is a separate story but is similar in tone and style.

Toby’s life is going well until he’s attacked by a pair of burglars. He retreats to his uncle Hugo’s house both to aid in his own recovery and to look after Hugo, who has a terminal illness. He finds some measure of peace there, but his life is once again upended when a human skeleton is discovered in the hollow trunk of a huge tree in the backyard. The case ties back to the summers Toby and his cousins spent at Hugo’s house during their teenage years, and he finds himself having to reevaluate many formative experiences.

One of the aspects of the story I liked the best was French’s twist on the classic unreliable narrator. Toby suffers a head injury at the hands of his assailants, and this leaves him with some memory loss. He is, of course, one of the suspects in the murder of the tree skeleton, and while he doesn’t think he did it, the gaps in his memory mean he can’t be absolutely sure. I’ve read a lot of mysteries where I had no idea whether a given suspect had committed the crime, but I’ve never read one where one of the primary suspects has no idea whether he committed the crime! This was really refreshing.

I also loved the dialogue throughout most of the story. There are a lot of characters in this story: Toby, his friends Shaun and Declan, Detective Rafferty, Hugo, and Toby’s cousins Susanna and Leon. The distinctive voices French gives each of them go a long way toward helping the reader keep them all straight in one’s head.

I loved the first three-quarters of this book, but unfortunately, I had some problems with the last part. The dialogue for a couple of characters becomes a lot less realistic, with long expository paragraphs that took me out of the story. Another character made a pivotal choice that didn’t feel to me like it made sense. This was still an enjoyable book, but if French had stuck the landing, it could have been truly great.

“The Overneath” by Peter S. Beagle

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Peter S. Beagle is best known for his novel The Last Unicorn, but he’s also written a great deal of short fiction. His 2017 collection The Overneath made me fall in love with Beagle’s short-form work.

Two of the stories in this collection feature Schmendrick the Magician. “The Green-Eyed Boy” is an origin story that tells how he became apprenticed to the wizard Nikos. “Schmendrick Alone” takes place shortly after he’s set out on his own. Both stories provide more insight into Schmendrick and should be welcomed by fans of The Last Unicorn.

Speaking of unicorns, Beagle has written several stories that deal with different cultural takes on this classical symbol of innocence and goodness. “Olfert Dapper’s Day” presents the quintessential unicorn—the single-horned white horse that only allows itself to be touched by pure-hearted maidens. The story asks deep questions about the nature of innocence and redemption. In particular, it raises the idea that the unicorn’s judgement of a person’s worth may not match up with the judgment of other people. Some of the same questions are on display in “The Story of Kao Yu.” The unicorn in this story is a chi-lin (the spelling used by Beagle; Wikipedia renders it as qirin). Kao Yu is a magistrate, famed for both his wisdom and his integrity. The chi-lin occasionally appears in his courtroom, rendering its own judgments. When Kao Yu finds himself conflicted about a particular case, he worries that it may also bring him into conflict with the chi-lin. Finally, in “My Son Heydari and the Karkadann,” Beagle gives us a very different take on the unicorn. Inspired by the Persian legendary beast, Beagle’s karkadann is regarded by the human characters as a dangerous predator that can be soothed only by the song of a particular bird.

The creativity of this collection isn’t limited to the stories with a connection to Beagle’s previous work. One of my favorite stories was “The Very Nasty Aquarium,” which merges a folkloric supernatural being from the Caribbean with pirate lore. “The Way It Works Out and All” is a wonderful tribute to Avram Davidson, and “The Queen Who Could Not Walk” is a poignant tale of forgiveness. “Trinity County, CA: You’ll Want to Come Again and We’ll Be Glad to See You!” is probably the most imaginative dragon story I’ve ever read. There’s a lot to love in this collection, and while fans of The Last Unicorn will probably get the most out of it, it belongs on the bookshelf of every fantasy fan.

“Vesper Flights” by Helen MacDonald

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I loved Helen MacDonald’s memoir about grief and falconry, H is for Hawk. Her insightful writing about nature and human emotion really hooked me. That same insight is on full display in her new collection of essays, Vesper Flights.

One of my favorite essays was “High-Rise,” in which MacDonald visits the Empire State Building to watch the migrating birds that pass by it. The top of a skyscraper doesn’t seem like a place you’d go for bird-watching, but some are high enough that they reach the air routes birds use to migrate. Finding interesting organisms in unexpected places is a theme that recurs throughout the book, from flying ants along the roadside on a trip back from the grocery store to halophilic bacteria living in Chile’s Atacama Desert (the most arid place on Earth).

MacDonald is also deeply interested in history, and particularly in the way our relationship to various aspects of the natural world has changed over time. It’s not news that cultures invest certain plants and animals with symbolic significance, but MacDonald presents examples that are less obvious than, say, the bald eagle. In “Field Guides,” she discusses how the imagery and descriptions in field guides have changed over the years. One guide from 1889, for example, described birds in terms of humanlike character attributes. Bluebirds had “a model temper” (this one is particularly amusing given the iconic “mad bluebird” picture!) while catbirds supposedly embodied “lazy self-indulgence.” The first essay in the book, “Nests,” talks about how the practice of egg-collecting became politicized in postwar England. Native birds were viewed as symbols of the country, and stealing their eggs (even if the species wasn’t endangered) was seen as unpatriotic. Another essay, “Birds, Tabled,” presents an ethical debate over the keeping of trapped wild (non-endangered) birds. This is illegal in Britain, and while there may be legitimate concerns about the welfare of wild birds in captivity, it can’t be ignored that the keeping of wild birds has historically been a pastime of working-class Britons and of disadvantaged minorities such as Romani and Irish Travellers.

In her nature writing, MacDonald doesn’t shy away from thorny questions about “who has the right to define what a creature is, who has the right to interact with it, and how.” Nor is she afraid to bare her own feelings. Her frank discussion of her emotional state as a young adult working at a falcon-breeding facility in “Dispatches from the Valleys” was poignant. The deep humanity in her writing makes Vesper Flights a wonderful collection.

“Orconomics” by J. Zachary Pike

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The story told in Orconomics might seem familiar at first: a down-and-out hero finds himself thrust together with a group of equally rag-tag adventurers. They all have secrets and most of them don’t get along very well. If the dangers of their quest don’t kill them, they might kill each other. But if they can survive, they have a chance to redeem all their past mistakes and perhaps even become legendary. But this isn’t an ordinary fantasy novel. As its subtitle indicates, it’s a biting satire, not only of RPG tropes but also of real-life society (and particularly our economy).

Pike does a wonderful job of hitting different emotional beats as the story progresses. The laugh-out-loud moments aren’t unexpected for a satire. But there are also a couple of tearjerker scenes, a dramatic reveal, and scenes that make you want to stand up and cheer for the characters.

The satirical aspect of the book is also well-handled. It can be difficult to tell a story that has a message without letting the point you’re trying to make overwhelm plot, characterization, and suspension of disbelief. In Orconomics, the message doesn’t detract from the story. On the contrary, it’s an essential part of the story. The injustices of the society the main characters live in propel the plot, and Pike does the work of creating characters the reader will care about, so that we’ll feel the unfairness of what they’re subjected to and want them to succeed in changing things.

Orconomics won the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off in 2018, and it’s easy to see why. It’s the first book in a trilogy, and I bought the second book as soon as I finished Orconomics.

“Rogue Protocol” by Martha Wells

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The sarcastic, perpetually exasperated title character of Martha Wells’s Murderbot series is back in the novella Rogue Protocol.  This time, their investigation of GrayCris’s various unethical dealings takes them to an abandoned terraforming station that’s more than what it appears to be.

The general form of the plot will be familiar to readers of the previous installment, Artificial Condition. Murderbot would much rather conduct their investigation on their own, but they find themselves saddled with a bunch of humans who they need to protect while simultaneously concealing their nature as a truly free-willed SecUnit. Over the course of the story, they find themselves becoming attached to these humans, as well as to a less-sophisticated AI.

While Murderbot’s attempts to uncover the machinations of GrayCris are certainly interesting, this is primarily a character-driven story. Murderbot’s trademark misanthropy and snark are on full display here, with a number of lines that provoked a chuckle from me. On a more serious note, I appreciated the continuing exploration of questions about personhood and sapience. One moment in particular really tugged at the heartstrings.

That said, this did feel a bit slighter than the previous entries in the series. Some readers have voiced the criticism that the first few Murderbot stories are more like arcs of a single plot than complete books. This isn’t entirely off-base. All Systems Red felt like a complete story to me, but Artificial Condition and Rogue Protocol do read as if they were meant to be part of a larger story. This is more likely to be the fault of the publisher than of Wells, though, and I did find the story entertaining regardless.

“The Messenger” by Mayra Montero

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Mayra Montero’s novel The Messenger begins with a real historical event. In June 1920, a bomb went off in the theater where famous tenor Enrico Caruso was performing. Caruso fled the theater and proceeded to disappear for several days. The Messenger imagines what might have happened to the singer during that time. At 218 pages, this is a short book, but it explores questions about life and death, fate and free will, love, family, and the mingling and conflict of cultures.

Aida Petrirena Cheng works with her mother as a seamstress. When a dazed Caruso stumbles into the kitchen of the hotel where she’s delivering some of the clothes she and her mother have mended, she senses that he’s connected to a prophecy about her future made by her godfather, an African Babalawo (mystic). A question hovers over the rest of the narrative: How much of what’s happening has been preordained?

Cuba’s population is comprised of several ethnic groups, and many Cubans are multiracial. This diverse cultural heritage is represented by the Cuban characters in The Messenger. Aida has African, Hispanic, and Chinese heritage. This doesn’t always make life easy for her: some people sneeringly refer to her as “Chinita” because of the facial features she inherited from her Chinese father. But she’s also able to draw on the support of both the Afro-Cuban and Chinese-Cuban communities when she becomes entangled with Caruso. The syncretic nature of Cuban culture is also demonstrated with respect to folk magic and spiritual beliefs. Aida and her mother believe in the mystical power of both the babalawo and a Chinese man who holds a similar role in his community. Neither is truly better or worse than the other, just different, and the characters don’t see any mutual exclusivity in their truths.

Montero grew up in Cuba, and The Messenger was originally published in Spanish. I’m hoping more of her work is translated in the future, as her unique voice is one I’d like to hear more from.

“The Winged Histories” by Sofia Samatar

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Sofia Samatar’s novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories are somewhat unconventional in that they’re set in the same world but not direct sequels or prequels to each other. Sisters Tavis and Siski, along with their cousin Andasya, are scions of a noble family in the Empire of Olondria. Olondria absorbed their home province of Kestenya long ago, and it’s still seen as something of a backwater. Some of the Kestenyi long for independence, and the three relatives get caught up in their machinations, violent and otherwise.

The Olondrian novels not technically being a series isn’t the only way in which they’re unconventional, at least not with respect to The Winged Histories. This is a book about a revolution, and yet we see very little of that revolution directly. The few battle scenes we see are fights between small squads, and they aren’t even part of the revolution. When the rebels attack the capital city, our POV character spends most of the time locked in her room, gleaning information from what she can see looking out her window and what her guard’s willing to tell her. Samatar considers the reasons for the war and the aftermath of it to be more important than the war itself. While I enjoyed this because it’s so different from the standard narrative, some readers may find it unsatisfying.

Of course, The Winged Histories isn’t just a war story; it’s a fantasy novel. Here, too, Samatar’s authorial priorities are different from what one might expect. Legends of gods and magic and mythical creatures pop up throughout the story, but it’s not until the very end that anything which couldn’t plausibly exist in the real world shows itself. Samatar is more concerned with the human dynamics of the situation that with the magic itself. Again, this is something that worked for me but might not for other readers. When the revelation at the end comes, it’s poignant specifically because of all the buildup that’s happened. It forces the reader to re-evaluate and reinterpret the events and dialogue that have come before. And the physical aspects of the magic aren’t as important as what the magic means for the characters’ relationship to each other, to the rest of their family, and to their homeland.

In terms of craft, The Winged Histories is absolutely beautiful. The language is dense and poetic. This isn’t a book you can breeze through, at least not without missing a lot. It took me as long to read as a book 200 pages longer, because I was savoring the language and tying together threads from previous sections of the narrative. Samatar goes through a lot of work to make the setting feel real, particularly through the use of small details. Overall, this was an engrossing read. I have Samatar’s short story collection Tender on my bookshelf, and I’m interested to see how her writing style plays out in a shorter format.

“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.