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“Mistborn: The Final Empire” by Brandon Sanderson

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One of the things that’s impressed me most about Brandon Sanderson since I started reading his work is his ability to tell so many different kinds of stories. While it takes place in a high-fantasy setting, The Final Empire is fundamentally a heist story. The main character, Vin, has been recruited into a crew of thieves seeking to raid the treasury of their nation’s Lord Ruler. The crew’s leader, Kelsier, has an even bigger plan: to use the heist as a way of destabilizing the brutal Lord Ruler’s government so that it can be overthrown.

Sanderson is well-known for his creation of “hard” magic systems with well-defined rules that are generally understood by both the characters and the reader. One common criticism of such systems is that they don’t leave a lot of room for mystery—in essence, that they take the magic out of magic. Sanderson manages to strike a delicate balance by implying that the characters don’t, in fact, have a full understanding of how the magic of their world works. There may even be entirely separate magic systems existing in parallel. The reader will generally have a good idea of what the magic-using characters can do, but there’s also the possibility for surprises if a character accesses a form of magic that’s mostly unknown (perhaps even to the person using it). As Kelsier says, “There’s always another secret.”

I liked the characters in this book, and particularly the way Sanderson differentiates between them. Ham, Breeze, Clubs, Lestibournes, and so on aren’t different just because they use different aspects of Allomancy. And the interactions between them made them feel like part of a crew that’s worked together for a while and gotten to know each others’ quirks and habits.

As with the Stormlight Archive books, I developed a number of theories as I was reading, and as with the Stormlight books, most of them turned out to be completely wrong. The various twists and revelations were surprising—in some cases, downright shocking—but still felt consistent with the hints we’d been given. The book brings its individual plot to a satisfying resolution, but sets up enough questions and implications to make me want to keep reading the series. Speaking of which, I’m going to put two final theories below.

–SPOILERS AHEAD—

Vin notes that the Lord Ruler speaks of his service to humanity in the present tense, as if it’s an ongoing matter, while most people speak of his defeat of the Deepness as a singular event in the distant past. I think that the Deepness did exist, and the Lord Ruler did defeat it—but he didn’t destroy it. It’s the Sealed Evil In A Can, and he was the lid of the can. My theory is that killing him released the Deepness, and that the rest of the first trilogy will be about Vin, Sazed, et al. trying to destroy it for realsies this time.

I’m also 99% certain there’s a twelfth metal.

“Hearts of Oak” by Eddie Robson

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While Hearts of Oak isn’t Eddie Robson’s first novel, he’s much better known for his work in radio. In addition to creating the BBC Radio show Welcome to Our Village, Please Invade Carefully, he’s written a number of audio plays for the iconic Doctor Who. And indeed, the setting of Hearts of Oak feels like the sort of place the Doctor and his companion might end up in an episode: a unique, offbeat place with an underlying mystery to solve.

Iona is an architect. This is a very busy job, since her city is continually expanding, as well as replacing old buildings with new ones. Given Iona’s stellar reputation, it’s not surprising when a student shows up in her office seeking mentorship. But this student uses words that Iona’s never heard before and yet aren’t gibberish. Some unconscious part of her mind recognizes them, even if she has no conscious idea of their meanings. This, coupled with a mysterious death, makes Iona start to question some aspects of her surroundings. The questions build on each other until Iona uncovers a startling secret.

I liked the characters in this book. Iona’s earnestness as a teacher was endearing, and I enjoyed the partnership between the perpetually-bemused king and his talking cat Clarence. The initial stages of the story, where Iona is gradually becoming aware that things in the city aren’t as they appear to be, had a wonderfully spooky atmosphere. And there are some great, tense action scenes when the main cast have to escape from an antagonist.

Unfortunately, the excellent setup and middle sections of the book are undermined by an unsatisfying ending. While the physical and logistical aspects of the conflict with the antagonist were engaging, the villain itself was one-dimensional. I also felt that the resolution of the final confrontation was disappointing. I wish the last third of the novel had lived up to the promise of the first two-thirds, because there were some great elements there.

“The Memory Theater” by Karin Tidbeck

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I loved Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagannath, so I was thrilled to discover that her new novel, The Memory Theater, features characters and scenarios from a few of those pieces. Dora was raised in the Gardens, a realm where immortal Lords and Ladies attend endless feasts, balls, and games. Thistle is a human child stolen away from his family to be a servant in the Gardens. Augusta is a Lady banished from the Gardens and determined to get back. Their journeys will take them across worlds, and some of them will learn important lessons along the way.

I absolutely love the concept of the titular Memory Theater. I’m a huge fan of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, and the Memory Theater feels like something that could appear in that story. Its members could easily have become ciphers, but Tidbeck gives each of them a compelling personality.

In fact, strong character work is a hallmark of The Memory Theater. The friendship between Dora and Thistle comes across beautifully. Augusta’s alien way of thinking, built up over hundreds of years in the luxurious yet stagnant world of the Gardens, felt right for the character. Even minor players are given interesting histories and vivid emotional lives.

We catch glimpses of other worlds and stories around the edges of the main narrative: a couple of huldra-like beings living in a Scandinavian cave, a refugee from a mystical library, the mysterious traveler whose actions set off the main plot. I would love to see those stories fleshed out more in future works.

“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.

“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.

“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.

“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.