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“The Language of Thorns” by Leigh Bardugo

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Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse books catapulted her to the top of various bestseller lists. With the collection The Language of Thorns, she deepens the setting by presenting folktales from Novyi Zem, Ravka, Kerch, and Fjerda.

The concept of this book is wonderful. Rather than just giving us additional short stories from the Grishaverse, Bardugo has chosen to present stories that people living in the Grishaverse would tell. Storytelling is a universal human constant, so giving a fictional culture their own folklore and mythology is a great way to make them feel more real.

The execution easily lives up to the promise of the concept. While the term “fairy tales” often conjures up the image of stories for children, the stories presented here are far from simplistic. While some of them do have morals, those morals reflect the complexity of an adult’s world. Characters in the first tale, “Ayama and the Thorn Wood,” repeatedly exhort each other to “speak truth.” Despite their inclusion of spells and monsters, these stories speak truth about the messy, wondrous, and sometimes terrifying world we live in.

Another notable aspect of The Language of Thorns is the absolutely gorgeous illustrations. Illustrator Sara Kipin creates stunning images in shades of red and blue to accompany each story. The full illustrations appear at the end of each story, with individual elements expanding across the margins of each page to lead up to them. The illustrations for “The Soldier Prince” were especially intricate and impressive. I highly recommend reading a physical copy of this book to get the full effect of the illustrations.

C.S. Lewis famously said, “When I was a child, I read fairy tales in secret. Now that I am a man, I read them openly.” The Language of Thorns is a book of fairy tales that any adult can pick up and be assured of engaging stories paired with beautiful art.

“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.

“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark

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Thank you to NetGalley and the publisher for providing an eARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Note: The author’s middle name includes two diacritical marks. I typed up this review in Word, which has special characters for both of them, but I have no idea if they will survive transferring this into WordPress.

A Master of Djinn is the first full-length novel in P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Djinn series, which starts with “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” and continues through “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” and “The Haunting of Tram Car 015.” These stories are set in a version of early twentieth century Egypt in which the barrier between the world of mortals and that of magical beings has been pierced, allowing magic to return to our world. For Egypt, this meant the return of the djinn. And while the djinn can be troublesome and outright dangerous, they did help the Egyptians expel European colonial powers, allowing their country to become an independent major power. A Master of Djinn begins with the mass murder of a group attempting to uncover the secrets of the man who brought about this great change, a mystic known only as al-Jahiz. Shortly thereafter, an individual wielding great magical power appears and claims to be al-Jahiz returned. It falls to the Egyptian Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities to deal with the fallout of these events.

As expected from his previous work, Clark brings the steampunk Cairo setting to vivid, bustling life. He renders the sights, sounds, and smells of the city with great clarity. But the heart of the story is the city’s population: humans from all over Africa and the Middle East (and a few from further afield), plus djinn. Cairo hasn’t always had an easy time adjusting to being a cosmopolitan metropolis, and the book’s antagonist takes advantage of those tensions.

Speaking of which, the presentation of the antagonist is another thing Master of Djinn does well. They’re smart, using the pre-existing divisions among Cairo’s citizens to turn their enemies against each other. We also see them using deception and obfuscation to keep their foes disoriented. So many stories only have the heroes winning because the villains seemed to leave their brains at home. In Master of Djinn, Fatma’s victory truly feels earned.

There are some very nice smaller details, too. Throughout the book, Fatma thinks of her mother’s sayings that might be pertinent to the situation. The first time she directly encounters the man who claims to be al-Jahiz, she quotes one of them. I liked this trait of hers and the payoff of having her state one of the maxims out loud after having repeatedly thought of them. There are a couple of phrases that are used so often they get repetitive, such as saying that a character’s eyes “rounded” in surprise, but this is a tiny quibble. Overall, this was a really fun read, and I hope it won’t be the last novel Clark writes in this setting.

“To Rouse Leviathan” by Matt Cardin

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While Vastarien co-editor Matt Cardin has written two books of nonfiction, To Rouse Leviathan is his first fiction collection, and it includes all the stories he’d published as of its release in 2019. The stories in this volume are complex and dense, inviting comparisons to Thomas Ligotti’s work.

Reviewers have described Cardin’s work as “philosophical horror” or “ontological horror,” and these are both fitting descriptions. The horror in these stories doesn’t come from monsters or serial killers but from the characters’ realizations that reality is fundamentally different from what they thought it was. While tales like “The God of Foulness” do include entities that wouldn’t be out of place in a Lovecraft story, it isn’t simply the existence of vast, unknowable beings that causes Cardin’s characters to “go mad from the revelation.” Instead, the source of the horror is the structure of the universe itself—or rather, the intimation that structure and order themselves are only temporary things.

One interesting aspect of Cardin’s fiction is the degree to which it’s rooted in the Abrahamic faith tradition. Cosmic horror tends to treat the benevolent deities of various religions as nothing more than comforting illusions. In the world of Leviathan, some of the major Biblical figures are clearly real—Satan even makes an appearance in “The Devil and One Lump.” (The Father of Lies enjoying terrible instant coffee is a pretty amusing moment.) The version of God presented here isn’t omnipotent, though. He’s ultimately just as vulnerable to the inevitable decay of existence as any of His creations. In a way, that might be even scarier than the nonexistence of the divine. Nietzche’s famous proclamation that “God is dead” at least has some weight or grandeur to it that “God is just a regular schmuck like everyone else” lacks.

Many of Cardin’s stories reference esoteric philosophical concepts or quote from philosophical and theological texts. Even when the central metaphor of a story is relatively simple—a play in “The Basement Theater” or a corporate organizational structure in “The Stars Shine Without Me”—the language and sentence structure are elaborate. This, along with the similarity in theme of all the stories, can make the collection feel a bit repetitive if it’s read all at once (as opposed to interspersing the stories with other books). That said, most of the stories were interesting and unsettling. I’m looking forward to seeing what Cardin writes in the future, especially if he chooses to branch out a bit in style and tone.

“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.

“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.