RSS Feed

Tag Archives: novel

“Borne” by Jeff VanderMeer

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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.

“The Wicked King” by Holly Black

Posted on

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

Posted on

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

Posted on

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.

“Deeplight” by Frances Hardinge

Posted on

A famous childrens’ book author (I want to say it was A.A. Milne, but I can’t find the quote now to verify that) said that you can’t write down to children. That is, a book intended for young readers may have a simpler plot structure or be less explicit in discussing certain themes, but it shouldn’t be condescending. Kids and young adults may not have as much experience of the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re stupid or oblivious. Frances Hardinge has taken this advice to heart in her latest young adult novel, Deeplight.

This is most obvious in the way Hardinge portrays the relationship between the main character, Hark, and his best friend Jelt. They both grew up as orphans and quite literally relied on one another to survive. Those experiences have forged a bond as close as any blood relation. But at the same time, their relationship is toxic. Jelt repeatedly pressures Hark into taking on jobs that he’s not comfortable with on account of their danger, guilt-trips him whenever he objects to one of Jelt’s plans, and becomes resentful if Hark obtains something he lacks. It takes Hark most of the book to consciously acknowledge this. When he does, it’s cathartic but also sad, because it means losing a friendship that truly was meaningful to him. The complexity of this central relationship is something I hadn’t expected to encounter in a YA novel.

All of this is presented against the background of a fascinating, original setting. Hark’s home is a sprawling island chain called the Myriad. Its people once placated a collection of distinctly Lovecraftian gods who dwelled in an abyssal ocean level known as the Undersea. Thirty years before the start of the book, those gods turned on each other, literally tearing each other to pieces. The inhabitants of the Myriad have largely adjusted to the new, god-less world, but the developments of the novel threaten to turn their lives upside down again. Most of the action takes place on Hark’s home island of Lady’s Crave and the nearby Nest, but it’s clear that there’s a lot more out there, and I hope we get to see more of the Myriad in future books.

The characterization of Selphin is another strength of Deeplight. The teenaged daughter of a renowned smuggler, she gets entangled in Hark and Jelt’s latest adventure. She’s also deaf, the result of burst eardrums from an underwater accident. There are a number of people in the Myriad with a similar condition, and they’ve developed a form of sign language. I loved the way Hardinge shows Selphin’s emotions through her sign language. At one point, her signs are described as “angry stabs of motion;” at another, we’re told that she “threw up her hands, then hit the heels of her palms against her forehead in frustration.” It’s also nice to see that while Selphin’s disability obviously has a large impact on her life, it isn’t her only defining characteristic. She’s clever, brave, stubborn, and fiercely loyal, and all these traits are just as important as her deafness.

I don’t read YA often and had never heard of Hardinge before receiving a copy of Deeplight through NetGalley as part of the Hugo Awards voters’ packet. I enjoyed it enough that I’m looking forward to seeking out more of Hardinge’s work.

“Shorefall” by Robert Jackson Bennett

Posted on

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Foundryside was one of my favorite books of last year, so the sequel became my first reading priority as soon as it became available. Three years after the previous book, the upstart Foundryside Limited is thriving, and Sancia has established a happy relationship with Berenice. But Clef is still silent, and the plot to restore Crasedes Magnus is near fruition.

The stakes are even higher than they were in the first book, and Bennett provides a number of spectacular setpieces for the action. There are quite a few take-your-breath-away moments here, for both the characters and the readers. Bennett never forgets the importance of the characters’ personalities and relationships, though. The growing love between Sancia and Berenice is genuinely heartwarming. And despite Orso’s general irascibility, it gradually becomes clear just how proud he is of Berenice’s accomplishments as a scriver. If anything, I was even more invested in the characters than I was while reading Foundryside. There were moments that made me smile, moments that made me laugh, and one or two that almost brought me to tears.

My only criticism had to do with one of the side characters. While her goals are generally aligned with those of the main characters, she has a different outlook on some things, which made her an interesting addition to the cast. While she does play a role in the story, Bennett didn’t do as much with her as he could have.

To the best of my knowledge, a release date and title haven’t yet been given for the final book in the trilogy. When it comes out, I’ll be just as eager to read it as I was to read Shorefall.

“Inland” by Tea Obreht

Posted on

I loved Tea Obreht’s debut novel, The Tiger’s Wife, so I was eager to read her new offering. Inland is set in the American West in the late 1800s, and one of its two main plot threads concerns a little-known piece of history: the attempt to use camels as pack animals for the US Army. The fictional main character Lurie joins up with the Camel Corps after being caught stealing from one of the camel drivers, a real historical figure known as Hi Jolly (because no one in the 1800s can be bothered to pronounce Hadji Ali). Lurie has two secrets: he’s a wanted outlaw, and he’s haunted by the ghost of his foster brother.

The other story thread concerns a woman living in the tiny town of Amargo, Arizona. As the book opens, Nora is waiting for her husband to return to their homestead with much-needed water. Her youngest son insists he’s seen a strange beast on her property, and a feckless relative of her husband claims to have seen the ghost of a “lost man.”

I’ve quoted William Faulkner’s line about how the past isn’t dead and isn’t even really past in a couple of other reviews because it’s a common theme in literature. Lurie and Nora are both haunted by their pasts, and in at least one case, that haunting is literal. In the hands of a lesser author, that premise could easily become trite, but Obreht makes you feel for the characters and infuses the idea with real meaning. Similarly, she reinvigorates the conventional trope of “a boy and his dog” by making the dog a camel. The way she turns stories we’ve all seen before on their heads is one of the greatest strengths of the book. It doesn’t hurt that the camel-drivers have some truly hair-raising adventures along the way.

The section of the book set in Amargo is also compelling. We see first-hand how hard life there is, but we can also understand why people like Nora are unwilling to let it be swallowed up by the larger and more successful town of Ash River. Tobey is an endearing character, and a revelation late in the book about the depth of Nora’s husband’s love for her is genuinely moving. None of the main characters are without flaws—sometimes serious ones—yet we can’t help wanting them to succeed.

The one major flaw in the novel is that it takes so long for the two story threads to join up. Reading Inland feels a bit like reading two different books with similar themes at the same time, rather than reading a single coherent narrative. But those narratives are engaging enough that I still enjoyed the book, and I’m looking forward to whatever Obreht does next.

“The Gameshouse” by Claire North

Posted on

When I first picked up Claire North’s The Gameshouse, I was curious as to why it appeared as “The Gameshouse #1-3” on Goodreads. As it turns out, the three sections of The Gameshouse were published as separate novellas in 2015. Each one follows a different protagonist as they compete in games where the pieces are other people, the boards are cities and nations, and the prizes to be won—or lost—can be power, memories, or even life itself.

In the first two segments, North creates an evocative sense of place and time. She captures the intrigues of the nobles of Renaissance Venice and the lives of ordinary people in pre-WWII Thailand. Bringing these places and people to life illustrates one of the central conflicts of the book, between those players who see the uninitiated as mere pieces on a board, and those who recognize them of having their own goals, hopes, fears, and lives. The reader is of course meant to side with those taking the former view, and that’s easy to do when North brings her settings and minor characters so vividly to life.

The third section takes us into a much larger conflict, and the character we follow travels all around the world. Although our glimpses of the individual places he visits are necessarily much shorter, North still imbues them with a sense of reality and dignity. Several threads that were set up in the earlier parts of the story are resolved here, but as in the best stories, there’s also a sense that there’s more to come.

The Gameshouse is an unconventional narrative, but I was drawn into its world and invested in the characters. Each time, I wanted the unlikely hero to win. I’m hoping to see more from North in the future.