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“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.

“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.

“Edgedancer” by Brandon Sanderson

I enjoyed the character of Lift in Words of Radiance, so I was advised to read the novella Edgedancer before diving into Oathbringer. The story follows Lift as she finds herself once again pursued by a rogue Herald while visiting the city of Yeddaw. But the Herald has another target, and to top it all off, the Everstorm is approaching.

Most of the action of the first two books takes place in Vorin societies. Edgedancer takes us further afield, giving us a glimpse of another society and culture. Sanderson is known for his worldbuilding, and that talent is on full display here, despite the shortness of the work. The people of Yeddaw have distinct foods, architecture, clothing styles, and religious beliefs from the other places we’ve seen on Roshar, adding to the reader’s sense of a large and varied world.

We also get a closer look at the Edgedancer Order of Knights Radiant. Lift further develops her powers here, and we also see more of what it is that makes someone eligible to be an Edgedancer. Just as Kaladin couldn’t give up on Bridge Four, she finds herself unable to just abandon the unknown Radiant Nale’s hunting. Despite her flightiness, her aversion to authority figures, and her propensity to steal any food item that isn’t nailed down, Lift has a good store of both courage and compassion. She’s an easy character to sympathize with and root for, and she’s also a lot of fun to read about.

Since I’m currently about three-quarters of the way through Oathbringer, I can say that the climactic events of Edgedancer are important to one of the plot threads in the later book. So far, the second fledgling Radiant has only been very briefly mentioned, but I hope they show up at some point, since I’d like to see how their character has developed as a result of Edgedancer’s events. The novella is a worthy addition to the Stormlight Archive, and it whetted my appetite for Book 3.

“I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky” by Brian Hodge

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My introduction to Brian Hodge came through two pieces of short fiction: “The Same Deep Waters as You” and “He Sings of Salt and Wormwood.” (The latter can be found in Ellen Datlow’s excellent anthology The Devil and the Deep: Horror Stories of the Sea; I don’t remember where I read the former.) Both pieces impressed me so much that I sought out Hodge’s longer work. His novella I’ll Bring You the Birds from Out of the Sky is a cosmic horror story that also speaks to the power of art.

The vivid imagery of New England settings in the writing of Lovecraft and Stephen King gives their stories a strong sense of place, and Hodge does the same for Appalachia here. His language is particularly evocative when describing the environmental devastation wreaked by coal mining and the poverty left behind as the industry abandoned the region. At first, the discovery of potentially valuable paintings seems like an opportunity to bring some money and public attention to a community that the rest of the country has largely forgotten about. This being a horror story, there turns out to be a sinister power behind these works of art. But was the painter trying to exorcise his demons or to call them up?

That sense of place infuses the paintings that are so important to the story, and not just because the aforementioned sinister power is a localized one. Hodge talks about Conklin (the painter) incorporating natural elements such as leaves and moss into the paintings. These small details—for example, Conklin using moss as a stippling sponge—help the reader to imagine more than just a generic landscape. A tale in which art is so central stands or falls on how well it can make the reader visualize those artworks. Hodge succeeds admirably, and that’s a large part of what makes the book so engaging.

Another strength of the book is the way it deals with the common genre trope of body horror. I gather that Hodge has written some hardcore/extreme horror in the past, but here he eschews gore in favor of a more philosophical look at radical transformation. What’s particularly interesting is the way he juxtaposes this with the transformation that humans have imposed on the landscape. Humanity adapted the land to suit their needs, but the story shows something rooted in the land beginning to adapt humans to its needs. For such a short work, there’s a lot going on here, and it makes me either to try out Hodge’s full novel The Immaculate Void.

“In an Absent Dream” by Seanan McGuire

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Despite their differences in setting and tone, In an Absent Dream could almost be a companion piece to another Seanan McGuire novella (written as Mira Grant), In the Shadow of Spindrift House. Both force their protagonists to make heart-wrenching choices between their biological and found families. The similarity of theme made reading both pieces in quick succession an interesting exercise.

The latest installment in McGuire’s Wayward Children series, In an Absent Dream chronicles young Lundy’s time in the Goblin Market. The Market is centered on the notion of “fair value.” Everything runs on a barter system, and those who try to cheat a transactional partner face magical punishment. Because the concept of “fair value” is so important to the story, it says some interesting things about economics. An authority figure in the Market explains that the price that’s considered “fair value” isn’t the same for everyone—in part, it depends on how much the person had to start with. She uses the example of a vendor demanding a single ribbon in payment both from a person with ten ribbons and from a person with only one. This, she says, is unfair because the proportional cost for one person is so much greater than the other. At first, this seems to make sense, but with a little more thought, it’s easy to see how it could become exploitative. The inhabitants of the Market never show any bias with regard to gender, skin tone, or even species. But in the real world, one could imagine a vendor charging more to members of a disfavored minority. So which way is truly fairer?

McGuire makes an interesting choice in how she describes Lundy’s adventures in the Market. The people in the Market itself are either friendly or indifferent to Lundy. However, the Market seems to exist in a larger world, in which there are some perils. We’re told about Lundy fighting the Wasp Queen, who’s taken up residence in an outlying area. But we don’t see this battle. A later fight with a different adversary similarly takes place off-screen. This is clearly a deliberate choice on McGuire’s part. While Lundy thinks of her trips to the Market as adventures, the parts of them that fall into the traditional definition of that word are pushed to the side of the narrative. The really important things are the development of Lundy’s friendship with Moon, her growing understanding of the Market’s rules, and the various bargains she makes. In keeping with that, physical danger isn’t the greatest menace Lundy faces. This mostly works, although I feel the emotional resonance of Lundy losing a friend in the battle with the Wasp Queen would have been stronger if we’d seen that friend in the immediate narrative as we do with characters like Moon and the Archivist.

In an Absent Dream is another great entry in a stellar series. The next book, Come Tumbling Down, is due out early next year. I get the impression it’s intended to be climactic, and I’m wondering if it’s going to be the last volume in the series. I hope not, but even if the journey ends here, I’ll be happy to have taken it.

“In the Shadow of Spindrift House” by Mira Grant

Mira Grant’s Into the Drowning Deep depicts an expedition beset by murderous aquatic creatures following the general body plan of mermaids. Her new novella In the Shadow of Spindrift House also deals with underwater life-forms that don’t have humanity’s best interests at heart, though its scope and tone is very different. Harlowe Upton-Jones and her friends have been a successful teen detective agency in the mode of the Scooby Gang or Encyclopedia Brown. But they’re growing out of the “teenage” part, and Harlowe wants to give them one last hurrah before they go their separate ways. This takes the form of investigating the mysterious Spindrift House, whose ownership is debated and which has been the site of unexplained disappearances and deaths.

Seanan McGuire uses the Mira Grant pen name to write stories with a somewhat darker tone, but Spindrift House shares one major commonality with some of her best work as McGuire. As in the Wayward Children series, the theme of “found family” plays a major role here. Harlowe and her friends understand each other’s quirks, help each other through difficulties both major and minor, and generally act as siblings to each other. Harlowe has even been adopted into her friend Kevin’s family, with his mother acting as a surrogate parent to her after the death of her parents and abandonment of her grandparents. Some of this closeness comes from their shared experiences solving mysteries—it’s implied that a few of the mysteries had truly supernatural conclusions, so the “these are the only people who believe me about what happened” element that draws children to Eleanor West’s school in Wayward Children is present here too. But some of it comes simply from their willingness to accept each other as they are, treating their differences as something to be accommodated and respected rather than feared or shunned. This adds greater emotional stakes to the central conflict in the book, which forces Harlowe to choose between biological and found family.

Interestingly, Spindrift House uses a similar premise to a novel I read and reviewed back in 2017, Edgar Cantero’s Meddling Kids. In both cases, a group of erstwhile teen detectives confronts a spooky house whose secret turns out to have distinctly Lovecraftian overtones. The tone and prose style of the two books is very different, however. While Meddling Kids’s longer length gives it more time to develop its characters, I preferred Grant’s take on the premise. While someone who loved the esoteric genre mashup in Meddling Kids will probably enjoy the similar mélange in Spindrift House, I suspect that the stylistic difference will predispose readers to strongly preferring one over the other.

As expected for Grant, some of the language in Spindrift House has a lyrical quality. She does an excellent job evoking the ceaseless, unhurried rhythms of the sea. There’s a dreamlike aspect to the writing in some passages that mirrors Harlowe’s actual dream scenes, and the symmetry there serves to show how the barriers are breaking down between Harlowe’s everyday life and something else.

I do have one quibble with the characterization, but because it’s dependent on a major plot event, I’ll discuss it at the very end so readers can avoid spoilers. Overall, In the Shadow of Spindrift House has a lot of depth to it, despite its brevity. While it was initially published as a limited-edition hardcover from Subterranean Press, the publisher has recently made it available as an eBook as well. Hopefully, this wider distribution will make the story available for more people to enjoy, as I think it’s worthy as an addition to readers’ personal collections, as well as for awards such as the Bram Stoker.

 

–Spoilers Ahead—

 

Addison generally struck me as manipulative, selfish, and unworthy of Harlowe’s crush on her. That substantially blunted the emotional impact of her death. The tragedy of its effect on Harlowe and of Harlowe’s forced complicity in it is counteracted by a sense of “Eh, I didn’t like her anyway.” At the same time, she isn’t so unlikeable that her death is cathartic or seen as a just comeuppance (e.g. Joffrey in GOT). The reader doesn’t get to experience either the gut-punch of a tragic death or the catharsis of a deserved one.

“Beneath the Sugar Sky” by Seanan McGuire

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The third book in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, Beneath the Sugar Sky, is in some ways a return to the beginning. The plot kicks off when timey-wimey shenanigans result in the character Sumi having a daughter, Rini—despite Sumi having been murdered in the first book, before ever having conceived a child. But reality is catching up to Rini, and she’s gradually fading away. Unless a group of students from Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children can somehow restore Sumi to life, Rini will disappear forever.

Kade and Christopher, two of the side characters from Every Heart a Doorway, take their place in the spotlight here. McGuire also introduces us to new characters, and with them, new worlds. The dimensions to which the Wayward Children travel have always been almost characters in their own right, and the latest installment gives us more insight into how they work. The terms used to categorize the worlds, such as Logic and Nonsense, aren’t just descriptors. They have real weight, and we see the difficulties a character attuned to a Logical world faces in moving through a Nonsense one. Moreover, some worlds are metaphysically closer to each other than others. Christopher, whose doorway took him to an Underworld, feels almost—but not quite—at home in a different Underworld that the characters pass through in their quest to rescue Sumi.

Belonging is one of the major themes of the Wayward Children series. The children stay at Eleanor West’s school because it’s the one place where their experiences will be affirmed. Sometimes, it’s just as much of a struggle for them to receive validation of the more mundane aspects of their identities. Every Heart a Doorway introduced us to Kade, a transgender boy who was forcibly returned to the “real” world when the all-female society of his otherworld rejected him. Nancy, in the same book, faced widespread incomprehension of her asexuality. Beneath the Sugar Sky gives us Cora, an overweight girl who also happened to be a mermaid in her otherworld. Her fear that others will react negatively to her weight pervades many of her experiences, from cramming into the backseat of a car to traveling through Rini’s Candyland-esque native reality. Seeing her find acceptance among the other Wayward Children was heartwarming.

A fourth installment in the series, In an Absent Dream, is already out, and a fifth, Come Tumbling Down, is scheduled for a January 2020 release. I’m hoping we’ll see more of Cora and Rini in these stories, as well as the more-established characters.

“The Freeze-Frame Revolution” by Peter Watts

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Peter Watts’s novella The Freeze-Frame Revolution tackles a fascinating science fictional premise: a rebellion whose members are only awake for a few days every millennium. Sunday is one of the crewmembers of Eriophora, a starship made from a hollowed-out asteroid and engaged in a mission to construct a series of jump-gates that will allow travel across the Milky Way. The crew spend the vast majority of their time in suspended animation, with different subsets being woken up depending on the skills needed to build any given gate. But it’s been millions of years since they’ve heard anything from the rest of humanity, and some of them are starting to wonder whether continuing with the mission is worth it.

This is a story that’s chock-full of big set-pieces: the Eriophora itself, the all-knowing AI that runs it, the artificial singularities powering the gates, the sheet time-scale of the ship’s journey. It would be easy for the human characters to get lost amidst all this, but Watts keeps the focus squarely on them. Their relationships and emotions are what drive the story forward. In particular, we see Sunday’s loyalties gradually shift as she begins to uncover the scope of certain actions taken by the long-ago mission planners. I also enjoyed the concept of subcultures developing among subsets of the crew who are habitually awakened together. (It reminded me a bit of Sue Burke’s Semiosis, in which each generation consciously chooses a set of traditions for itself.)

All this is not to say that the big set-pieces don’t pull their weight. Some parts of the book are quite grim, but one can’t suppress a sense of wonder at the grandeur of it all. A starship made from a miles-wide asteroid and fueled by a singularity! A millions-of-years-old mission! A galaxy-spanning network of jump-gates! The sheer scale of the project, and the boundless advancement of technology implied by such a project’s feasibility, harkens back to the Golden Age of sci-fi. This makes for quite an interesting juxtaposition with the overall tone of the book and Sunday’s eventual feelings regarding her “job.”

If Freeze-Frame has a flaw, it’s that the inciting event for the titular revolution leaves a loose end. Occasionally, when a jump-gate is completed, something comes through. Not an identifiable ship from Earth, but a strange phenomenon or creature. No two are alike, and while some are indifferent to Eriophora’s presence, others are hostile. An attack on the ship by one such “gremlin” plays a pivotal role in kick-starting the plot, and because of that, I expected there to be some revelation about the nature of these entities. Are they what humanity has evolved into? Are they alien stowaways on humanity’s jump-gate network? Are the jump-gates acting as portals into some alternate dimension inhabited by eldritch abominations? We never find out, and aside from some idle speculation, the characters don’t seem to treat it as a very important question either. But this is a small nitpick in a story that’s compelling overall.

“Elevation” by Stephen King

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The second of the two books Stephen King released in 2018, Elevation is very short, probably novella-length. Like his previous novella, Gwendy’s Button Box, and several of his bestselling novels, it’s set in the Maine town of Castle Rock. One of the residents, Scott Carey, has become the subject of a mysterious phenomenon. As he grapples with its effects on his life, he also becomes aware of the more mundane—but no less damaging—struggles afflicting the lesbian couple next door.

The story of Elevation takes place on a much smaller scale than most of King’s other works. Even when there was a claustrophobic setting (The Shining) or a focus on a single character (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon), King’s books have usually given the sense that the protagonist is caught up in a much larger conflict. But while some larger force may be behind what’s happening to Scott, we never see it directly, and human-scale projects like winning a footrace or running a small business are treated with equal seriousness.

The tone of this book is also much lighter than the rest of King’s oeuvre. While the good guys do win sometimes, there’s an overall impression that evil can never be truly vanquished, just kept at bay for a time. (Which is not to say that efforts to do so are meaningless, of course.) That may be true of Evil as a metaphysical force, but Elevation’s centering of human-scale problems allows for the possibility of a more permanent happy ending. It may not be what Constant Readers expect, but it’s a worthy addition to the lineup.

“The Emperor and the Maula” by Robert Silverberg

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Robert Silverberg has been a major figure in science fiction since the 1950s, having won the Nebula, Locus, and Hugo Awards multiple times. Recently, he published The Emperor and the Maula, a science-fictional take on the story of Scheherazade. Technically, this is a reprint, since an abridged version was printed in the 1990s. The new version of the story is nearly 15,000 words longer. The novella follows Laylah, a human woman seeking to free Earth from an interstellar empire that has made it a vassal state. As a “maula”—a word meaning, roughly, “provincial barbarian”—Laylah is forbidden to set foot on the homeworld of the conquering Ansaar on pain of death. But she goes regardless, hoping to petition the emperor for Earth’s freedom. Like Scheherazade, she forestalls her execution by telling stories.

Silverberg paints a vivid picture of a sprawling empire filled with wonders that Laylah can barely comprehend. But while the Ansaar are very different in culture and appearance from humans, some things are universal truths…like the tendency of bureaucrats to shunt problems off on someone else. Silverberg nicely balances “sensawunda” and relatability.

Another strength of the story is the complexity of the relationship it portrays between Laylah and the Ansaar. She wishes for humanity to be free, but develops a genuine friendship with an Ansaar official. Silverberg also makes some interesting sociopolitical insights. At one point, we’re told that “Aristocrats might shrug at the social codes, so long as their own positions remained secure, but the common folk, fearing a wholesale collapse of the social order that might bring chaos into their own lives, generally preferred that everyone observe the rules of behavior—even where that might be disadvantageous to themselves.” A great deal has been written in political science circles about instances in which citizens vote for policies that run counter to their own self-interest. Silverberg suggests one possible reason for this phenomenon: people may see even a crappy status quo as superior to the uncertainty that would accompany upending that situation.

This is generally an interesting and entertaining story, but I did perceive a couple of flaws. First, Laylah says that humanity had long since given up space exploration at the time the Ansaar came. She speaks of humanity turning inward with approval, and this seemed an odd viewpoint for a heroic protagonist in a science fiction story to espouse. At its core, sci-fi is about exploration, about the ever-expanding final frontier. The idea that humanity would forsake curiosity and exploration, not because of an apocalyptic war or natural disaster, but simply because they didn’t see any value in it, struck me as something to be lamented, not celebrated. I was also confused by the fact that all electrical devices on Earth immediately stopped working when the Ansaar invasion fleet deactivated the orbital solar-power satellites. Do none of these supposedly futuristic devices have batteries? Even my several-years-old laptop can chug along without external power for a couple of hours!