Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Westlake Soul by Rio YouersTitle: Westlake Soul
Author: Rio Youers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Note: This review contains ruminations about Life, the Universe, and Everything.

Before I read a book, I tend to have an idea of what it’s about, because I like spoilers. Every so often, though, I’ll read a book “blind”. In many cases, these stories are the most satisfying, because they’re so unexpected.

Westlake Soul is one such example.

Westlake Soul has the most powerful mind on the planet. He can leave his body and let his consciousness travel across the world, understand what other people are thinking, and even communicate telepathically with animals.

You know the cliché that humans use only 10% of their brains, the tip of the iceberg? Westlake figures that somehow, he’s managed to access the other 90% – to “flip the iceberg” – and access the unconscious realms of understanding that float below the surface.

He is, essentially, a superhero.

The thing is, all superheroes have weaknesses. Westlake’s is his body. He was a surfer until two years ago when he encountered a wave too big to handle off the coast of Tofino, British Columbia, and nearly drowned. Deprived of oxygen for almost 10 minutes, the sections of his brain died off one by one. Although he was rescued, his body – and to all observers, his mind as well – lies in a vegetative state.

Superheroes also have nemeses. Westlake’s is Dr. Quietus, a grim embodiment of death that chases him throughout the ruins of his shattered mind. For two years, while his body has lain in a hospital bed, his consciousness has fought and held Dr. Quietus at bay.

However, bad things are brewing in the wider world: his family has finally reconciled itself to the fact that he may never recover. Now Westlake is in a desperate race to break beyond the confines of his body and prove to them that although he may be down, he’s not out.

Westlake Soul tackles a lot of the Big Important Questions we ask ourselves. Do souls exist? Can we truly know what is best for people trapped within their own bodies – people who may still feel pain and hunger and wonder, but who can’t move or communicate? What would life be like if we broke down the walls of rationality and “flipped” our own respective icebergs?

Most importantly, if broken, can those walls be mended?

In a weird way, this book is an amalgam of several others I’ve read and enjoyed. Westlake is a man with a beautiful soul, full of compassion and dignity, which reminds me of the main character Paama from Redemption in Indigo, one of my favourite reads from 2012.

Beyond that, some of the philosophical concepts that Westlake’s mind explores – the universal wave function, infinite universes and infinite probabilities – remind me of Neil Turok’s The Universe Within. In a sense, this book is what I was hoping The Universe Within would be more like – a book that examines the kind of cosmic internal potential we all have.

Most importantly, it reminds me of one of the best books I’ve read in the last 3 years: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, by Anne Fadiman. That book is too amazing and heartbreaking to talk about in this post, but by the end of it Lia Lee, the focus of that book, had also entered a persistent vegetative state.

It took me a long time to form this mental connection between both books. Out of curiosity, I Googled Lia Lee to see what had happened to her, and found that she died just four months ago.

She lay in a seizure-induced coma for 26 years. Westlake hung on for only two before his family lost hope – but Lia’s never did.

Do you think that, like Westlake, she was on the inside looking out all that time, aware of her family’s hopes and frustrations? If so, I don’t know if I would consider it a blessing or a curse.

Several books have delighted me this year with the joy of their images or the audacity of their characters. This book was the only one that made me want to cry. It’s beautiful and sad at the same time. In particular, the closing chapters where Westlake makes his one last effort to defy his fate, and the book’s deliciously ambiguous last line, are masterful. It even made me think of the final scene of Inception, where the top is left spinning. Whether Westlake’s final attempt to break his confines succeeds is left unsaid. But somehow, I’m happier not knowing.

Up next: The Empress of Mars by Kage Baker

Book Review: The High Road by Terry Fallis

The High RoadTitle: The High Road
Author: Terry Fallis
Publisher: McLelland and Stewart
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of speculative fiction, as my past reviews clearly show – books about space zombies, ghosts, Russian mythological figures, and more. However, The High Road is speculative fiction of an entirely different sort.

It’s about an honest politician!

I mentioned Terry Fallis once on this blog a few years back when I bought his copy of The Best Laid Plans. The High Road is the sequel to TBLP and it picks up soon after where the first one left off.

Note: this review contains spoilers. Also, it will make more sense if you’re familiar with Canadian politics.

Mere months ago, maverick engineering professor Angus McLintock pulled off a stunning upset victory in the riding of Cumberland-Prescott, long a Conservative Party stronghold. However, election time has come upon Canada again due to a non-confidence vote from the House of Commons and Angus, now a Liberal MP, has decided to throw his hat into the ring once more.

This time, though, the guns are out for Angus, as long-time Conservative Party spin manager Emerson “Flamethrower” Fox has decided to turn the riding Tory blue yet again. Known for pioneering negative campaigning in Canadian politics, Fox will do anything to win. Angus himself has sworn to take the high road and avoid doing any mudslinging, but Daniel Addison, his trusty campaign manager, and Muriel Parkinson, a canny political veteran, have a few tricks up their own sleeves.

There are some books that it takes me nearly a week to get through. There are some books that take me several weeks to get through (cough cough, The Terror, cough cough). Then, there was The High Road.

I read it in less than a day.

This was both because I needed a break from the sci-fi and fantasy stories that make up my typical literary diet, and because the book is fun and compelling, yet easy to read. THR proved to be a wonderful palate-cleanser. There are several things to like about this book.

For example, Daniel Addison, our narrator, is clever enough to be likeable, yet neutral enough to offset the sheer charisma that author Terry Fallis imbues Angus McLintock with. As with its predecessor, this book showcases Fallis’s deep knowledge of Canadian politics – and also, perhaps, much of his frustration with it.

As befitting the sequel to The Best Laid Plans, there are plenty of funny movements, although they tend to be more of the slapstick rather than the intellectual variety. Put it this way: the opening pages feature a naked man accidentally locking himself out of his house during sub-zero temperatures. THR also gets substantial mileage out of the unruliness (and food-sticking-to-it-ness) of Angus’s beard.

However, this doesn’t mean that it’s without flaws. The book’s biggest problem is that it has to live up to the legacy of its predecessor without completely repeating the plot.

The whole purpose of The Best Laid Plans was to chronicle Angus McLintock’s unlikely yet integrity-filled campaign. Since making another long-shot campaign the sole focus of the sequel wouldn’t add anything new to the situation, Fallis understandably chooses to extend the book past the election – I’ll give you two guesses as to who wins. However, to heighten the drama, the plot demands that the election be a close call anyway.

In some ways, Fallis’s machinations to raise the stakes of the campaign work, but in other ways they fail. In particular, the nasty, knock-down-drag-em-out fight that readers anticipate between Angus and Emerson Fox turns out to be a non-starter. Whatever negative campaigning there is is drawn in broad strokes. Granted, this is a comedy, so that’s expected, but Emerson turned out to be a surprisingly toothless character.

Anyways. As I mentioned before, the book doesn’t stop with Angus’s campaign. Immediately after the election (literally hours after the votes have been tallied), an important commuter bridge collapses in downtown Ottawa. Angus, with his background in engineering, is hand-picked by the Prime-Minister-elect to investigate the causes of the collapse.

Angus being Angus, he takes his job seriously and ends up butting heads with several other politicians over the importance of infrastructure reform. Thus, the last major portion of the book manages to mix serious political commentary – the fact of Canada’s degrading infrastructure – with hijinks.

Ultimately, Angus’s crusade leads to increased infrastructure funding – see what I said about this being speculative fiction? – so at least the novel ends on a high note. It’s just that the book walks a fine line between wildly differing tones, especially at the end.

Up next: Westlake Soul by Rio Youers

Book Review: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John Scalzi

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop, by John ScalziTitle: You’re Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing
Author: John Scalzi
Publisher: Subterranean Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 4 out of 5

I read a lot of books about writing in 2012. Take a look for yourselves in the archives. Although the authors I read occupy different niches within the industry, they wrote mainly about the same thing: craft. They wrote about language, narrative, and the writing life. In Anne Lamott’s case, she even waxed rhapsodic about how to Being A Writer  is a Noble Calling.

Screw that. John Scalzi just wants to get paid.

Well, there’s more to him than that, but he definitely doesn’t want to be a Starving Artist.

In a display of how ever-pragmatic Scalzi isYou’re Not Fooling Anyone consists solely of his blog posts about writing, repackaged into book form. What’s refreshing about his posts, and what distinguishes them from the other books about writing that I’ve read this year, is that he doesn’t shy away from talking about money. In fact, he devotes multiple posts to talking about finances, and one post in particular to a breakdown of where his writing income comes from – even going so far as to state outright his average yearly incone.

This leads to another refreshing thing about Scalzi – he’s doesn’t hide the fact that he makes the majority of his money from corporate writing gigs. This is something that’s probably true of most fiction writers/novelists, but rarely have I seen one state so openly that the money they make from the publishing industry is the cherry on the sundae, rather than the sundae itself.

It’s also nice to hear some snark about author advances, and to hear him take a publisher, Night Shade Books, to task about its perspective on those advances. Interestingly, a few years ago Night Shade Books was placed on probation by SFWA a few years back for not meeting its financial obligations to its authors, although it’s now off probation. It’s hard not to wonder how this publisher’s contemptuous attitude towards authors in Scalzi’s post is related to its later financial troubles.

Unfortunately, since these are blog posts, they’re also quite topical, which means that they date themselves quickly. The publishing wisdom that held true six or seven years ago when Scalzi first wrote these posts doesn’t necessarily hold true now. I bet a new edition of this book with more current posts would have a lot more to say about ebooks and Amazon, for example. But this is a problem inherent to blog posts in general; it does nothing to diminish Scalzi’s skill as a writer.

So, in short: if you like snark, you’ll like this book. If you like up-front discussions of the financial aspect of being a freelance writer, you’ll like this book. But if you do like this book, you owe it to yourself to check out Whatever to see the new stuff that Scalzi has brewed up.

Up next: The High Road by Terry Fallis

Book Review: The Universe Within by Neil Turok

Title: The Universe Within: From Quantum to Cosmos
Author: Neil Turok
Publisher: House of Anansi
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

I have a hard time understanding the universe.

Not in the figurative “why don’t things work the way I want them to” sense, but in the literal “why do things even exist” sense. I try to imagine what could have been before the Big Bang, or what could possibly occur after the Big Crunch, but all I see is a vast, incomprehensible nothingness that terrifies me.

It amazes me that there are men out there like Neil Turok, head of the Perimeter Institute, who can devote their time and effort to understanding these issues without going mad.

The Universe Within is the print version of this year’s CBC Massey Lectures. The lectures focus on a different theme with a different speaker each year, and in 2012, the CBC chose Neil Turok to talk about the development of quantum physics. I listened to the first lecture on the radio one night before going to bed, and found Turok’s description of Michael Faraday‘s insights about electromagetism so fascinating that I had to buy this book.

Unfortunately, much of the book’s subject matter after this point was beyond my level of understanding. This is not to slight Turok’s attempts to write about quantum physics; in many ways he’s a good communicator, and able to provide unusual real-world examples to explain complex concepts within theoretical physics. However, this subject is so abstract to a layperson like me that a lot of the time I was scratching my head.

The academic denseness is leavened by Turok’s discussion of other topics, though, like his childhood, his family’s attempts to resist apartheid, and his current efforts to improve science education across Africa. These topics, even more than his understanding of quarks and the Higgs Boson and what-have-you, have caused him to gain my respect.

One final note: although the title is The Universe Within and the cover shows a stylized drawing of a brain, this book doesn’t talk about how biological systems could interface with quantum ones. It does talk about the vast potential that quantum computers have to change our lives, but the cover gave me the idea that there would be some discourse within about  the link between quantum activity and human biological activity. Although this is a misinterpretation on my part, let it be known that a book or chapter discussing this topic would be absolutely awesome.

Up next: Ironskin, by Tina Connolly

Book Review: Every House is Haunted, by Ian Rogers

Title: Every House is Haunted
Author: Ian Rogers
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Full disclosure: I’m friends with the author through Goodreads and Facebook, and am familiar with some of ChiZine’s staff;  although I have tried to remain neutral in this review, these circumstances have probably informed my opinion of this book.

Every House is Haunted is a collection of 22 short stories by Ian Rogers. Loosely arranged around the theme of homes – as both places and ideals – each story rubs up against the threshold between the real and the unreal. Although most of these stories are horror stories, they traffic more in the subtle dread of the soul than in gore.

The tales are broken up into five groups that refer to different parts of a house: “The Vestibule,” “The Library,” “The Attic,” “The Den,” and “The Cellar.” Those words alone should give the attentive reader a clue about what to expect, as they aren’t typically associated with modern-day housing. Instead, they make us think of houses that are old, or dark and decrepit – of places where dust and stale air linger.

Every House is Haunted has a few stand-out stories, such as the opener, “Aces,” about a teenage witch and her older brother, and how they each come to terms (or not) with her abilities. Other highlights include:

  • “Inheritor,” a mirror version of “Aces” that deals with a much more sinister brother-sister pairing;
  • “Cabin D,” about a man planning to destroy a haunted cabin as his heroic last act;
  • “The Nanny,” about a psychic investigator helping two murdered children enter the afterlife; and
  • “The Tattletail,” a winsome little story about a boy who wants to have a pet demon.

Other stories, like “The Currents” and “Leaves Brown,” are more subdued and could even fit comfortably within the traditional confines of Canadian Literature. “Leaves Brown” in particular is interesting because it’s the second of two stories in this collection (the first one being “Autumnology”) to talk about the impermanence of autumn compared to the other three seasons:

“You can travel to places in the world where it feels like summer all the time…or spring…or winter. But there isn’t any place on the planet where it’s always fall. That’s what makes it special. Fall is meant to be enjoyed in small doses. If the seasons were a four-course meal, then fall would be the dessert.”

Part of me wonders whether this passage should be taken as the book’s manifesto: things fade – especially things like sanity, the sanctity of life, and your ability to protect those you care about. Your choice to take those things for granted only puts you in peril.

Some of Rogers’ stories also contain well-realized characters, like the protagonist’s annoyingly hapless neighbour in “Charlotte’s Frequency” and Soelle, the main character in “Aces.” More often though, the characters remain ciphers and it is the situation itself that contains the story’s meat.

However, one of the main problems with this collection is that many of the story endings are either neutral towards, or in conflict with, the main plots. Sometimes, the tonal shift can be jarring, as at the end of “The Dark and the Young.” At other times, like in the story “The House on Ashley Avenue,” the ending is downright unsatisfactory; it’s open-ended and refuses to answer the questions introduced during the rising action and the climax. Perhaps this open-endedness is an attempt to make the stories sound more literary, but I prefer for these things to be more definitive.

Overall, though, I liked this collection, and was delighted to meet Ian in person at the World Fantasy Convention. I look forward to reading his other recent release, SuperNOIRtural Tales.

Up next: Seraphina, by Rachel Hartman

Book Review: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Title: The Hum and the Shiver
Author: Alex Bledsoe
Publisher: Tor Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: eBook

Warning: this review contains spoilers.

The Tufa are a community of people who have lived in what is now east Tennessee for hundreds of years – they were there before the arrival of Europeans to North America, yet they aren’t Native American. No one knows quite what they are, actually, but the Tufa keep to themselves, and do what they do best: play music. Their music is more than just music, though. They use it to encourage the crops to grow. They use it to heal from injury. They also use it travel the skies along the night wind.

Bronwyn Hyatt is a prodigal Tufa daughter who has returned home to Cloud County, Tennessee, from Iraq after becoming a war hero. Bronwyn was a wild child growing up and joined the army to escape the pressures of home, like her good-for-nothing ex and the obligations of being the First Daughter of a Tufa family. However, now that she’s returned, those problems seem more pressing than ever – especially since signs and omens have been showing up marking her mother for death.

Now Bronwyn must heal from her war wounds and regain her lost musical skill in time to inherit her mother’s music before she dies.

One of the best things about The Hum and the Shiver is the care with which the Tufa people have been created. Bledsoe has found some particularly ingenious uses for the Tufa’s magic – for that’s really what their music is, at  heart. For example, to discourage reporters from hounding Bronwyn, her family bakes a batch of brownies and distributes them among the press scrum. The brownies, being somehow magically enhanced by Tufa music, fill the reporters with shame and empathy, and encourage them to disperse.

One reporter escapes the shame-by-brownie route, however, and his story forms a compelling sublplot to Bronwyn’s. Don Swayback is a has-been journalist whose apathy has caused him to slowly descend the corporate ladder. He also happens to be part Tufa, and his employer sees this fact as the perfect gambit to secure an exclusive interview with Bronwyn upon her return to Cloud County. Now Don has been given an ultimatum: interview Bronwyn, or find a new job. In his attempts to enter the Tufa community and gain Bronwyn’s family’s trust, he learns more about his previously buried heritage. It’s during a key exchange with an outsider (who provides a convenient infodump) that he learns the truth about what the Tufa really are.

Fairies.

Honest to God.

The Tufa (a corrupted pronunciation of tuatha) were a splinter group of fairies who travelled across the ocean and settled in Cloud County hundreds of years ago. Their music is a manifestation of their power, which, aside from making shame-brownies, also allows them to grow wings and travel along the wind. One of the best scenes of the book is when Don and Bronwyn both do this, albeit separately, and regain crucial lost parts of their identities.

Fairy-flight aside, though, things are not perfect. This being eastern Tennessee, highlighting the insularity of the Tufa community requires the insertion of some casual racism into the mix. In this case, it comes from Bob Pafford, the local state trooper.

This particular highway patroller and Bronwyn’s ex-boyfriend, Dwayne, are the closest things this book has to antagonists, and while they fulfill those thankless roles well enough, they’re a bit too one-dimensional to work. Pafford is a despot lording over his little fiefdom of the back roads, while Dwayne is your typical redneck/sociopath. Ultimately, both are disposed of in one fell swoop in an event that seems a little too pat.

This points to one of the biggest problems I had with the book: the way it handles the deaths of the major characters. As it turns out, the signs and omens of death surrounding Bronwyn’s family pertain not to her mother, but to her older brother, Kell.

However, not only does Kell’s death happen off-screen (so to speak), but he actually doesn’t die at first – Bronwyn has a chance to hear he’s injured and see him at the hospital, whereupon he tells her that he feels perfectly fine. It’s only after she leaves the hospital to confront his attacker  – I’ll give you two guesses as to who – that he dies of sudden internal bleeding. While this gives Bledsoe a chance to insert some lovely lyrics of Tufa mourning into the mix, it also feels like a huge cop-out.

Despite this, the entire concept of fairy magic and music in the southern US seems mighty interesting. This is the first book in an entire series about the Tufa – the next one, titled Wisp of a Thing, will be released in 2013.

I’m going to keep my eye out for the rest and see how Bledsoe juggles the other narrative balls he’s thrown into the air, like the rest of Bronwyn’s family, the Methodist preacher who’s fallen in love with her, and even a very special painting in a local library. There’s a lot of ornamentation around the edge of The Hum and the Shiver, and it will be interesting to see how Bledsoe fills everything else in.

Up next: The Shadow Scholar by Dave Tomar

Book Review: Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain

Title: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking
Author: Susan Cain
Publisher: Crown Publishers
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

It probably won’t surprise you to know that I’m an introvert. Hell, I work in editing and content management, and I write lots of book reviews online. My life is focused around technology and words – it would be a surprise if I weren’t an introvert!

However, I can become social and extroverted when the need arises, like when I attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention or WCDR breakfasts. The only problem is that exciting as these types of events are, I need a period to recharge afterwards.

One of the best aspects of Susan Cain’s Quiet is that it pays ample attention to this phenomenon, and the social and personal needs of introverts in general. I get overwhelmed in crowds when I don’t have a specific reason for being there, or don’t know a lot of people in attendance. Either that, or when I am in a crowd I’m comfortable with, I enjoy myself there and feel really tired afterwards at home. My idea of a well-spent weekend is to clean the house and write on this blog, or to generally get my life in order. Susan Cain, being an introvert herself and having done extensive research on how introverts process social situations and react to risk, gets that.

Cain brings together a fascinating collection of studies and anecdotes (many of them retellings of her own personal experiences) to analyze how introverts differ from extroverts. For example, the two types process dopamine differently, with extroverts exhibiting a greater response to it. As a result, they are often more likely to do riskier things in search of greater rewards, while introverts are more likely to analyze the results of their actions and avoid risky activities.

Likewise, introverts react more strongly to new stimuli than extroverts do. (Note: although this sounds like it contradicts the information in the previous paragraph, remember that dopamine is part of the brain’s reward system. There are several other types of stimuli besides rewards.)  Despite being counterintuitive, this discovery makes sense: reacting strongly to new stimuli requires vigilance. If you’re vigilant, you’re wary, which means that you’re probably going to be subdued in situations that expose you to lots of new stimuli, like, say, meeting a whole bunch of new people at once.

Ultimately, Cain uses this research to argue that the skills of introverts, which have been consistently undervalued, are extremely valuable to society. In fact, she brings up How to Win Friends and Influence People, another book I reviewed this year, as an example of the vaunting of extroverts that she says has been damaging to our culture. Instead of always focusing on who is the most confident, why don’t we focus on those who can produce the best ideas? Instead of valuing group work in classes, why don’t we value independence and intense focus?

Considering I preferred to work by myself in school, it’s a question I’ve thought about more than once, though never fully articulated.

Before I get into introverts-are-special-little-flowers-who-are-totally-misunderstood territory, though, I also want to highlight that Quiet is not perfect. In her quest to show how valuable introversion is, Cain invokes the idea of “introvert cultures” and “extrovert cultures” and then proceeds to uphold a host of massive culture-based stereotypes: “Western” society, especially American society, is an extrovert culture, but “Asian” society is an introvert culture.

What’s bad is that she devotes only one chapter to exploring this thesis in detail. What’s worse is that she treats “Asian” culture as a single monolithic idea. In addition, introversion and extroversion are only discussed in relation to Asia, North America, and Europe; all other parts of the world are mentioned only in passing, at best. Even more frustrating, she says that people often unconsciously associate fair hair and blue eyes with introversion, conveniently forgetting the fact that those physical traits just don’t show up in a massive majority of the world’s population.

All that aside, in many other ways the book’s information makes sense. Many times throughout, I felt a sense of identification with Cain’s descriptions of introvert life, and felt that she was able to discuss a variety of pressures I’ve felt about living within my society but was unable to explain, In other words, her book felt incredibly validating. Some people might find that self-indulgent, perhaps, but I think that in this case, I can live with it.

Up next: The Hum and the Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

Book Review: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Title: Who Fears Death
Author: Nnedi Okorafor
Publisher: DAW
Rating: 2 out of 5
Format: Print

Who Fears Death is the story of Onyesonwu, a girl growing up in Africa – Sudan is implied – after an unnamed apocalyptic event. Onyesonwu is not just any girl, though – she is an Ewu, a child born of rape between an Okeke (black) mother and a Nuru (white) man. Her pale skin and freckles act as an indicator of her outsider status, and she and her mother are pariahs within their desert community of Jwahir.

As far back as anyone can remember, the Okeke have always been poor and bound to serve the Nuru. So it says in the Great Book, which claims that the Okekes’ pride and greed caused the world’s original collapse, and that the Nurus are the ones tasked with reversing this grave error. This devotion to the Great Book has turned deadly, though, as a series of coordinated attacks by Nuru people (led by one powerful Nuru sorceror in particular) have led to entire Okeke villages being slaughtered, and to the systematic rape of Okeke women.

As Onyesonwu grows up, she realizes that she has special powers – another trademark of being Ewu – including shapeshifting and communing with supernatural spirits. Eventually, she realizes that it is her destiny to end the war that the Nuru people are waging on the Okeke. Also, in the ultimate example of the political becoming the personal, she learns that the Nuru man who raped her mother is none other than the sorcerer leading the Nurus’ campaign of genocide.

Part of why I dislike the book is that being an outsider is one of Onyesonwu’s few defining character traits. In Jwahir, Ewu children like her are outcasts, and the elders of the city refuse to teach her about magic because she is a woman. In addition, in an attempt to become accepted by within her community, she undergoes a ritual clitoridectomy only to find out later that the knives used to cut her flesh were bespelled so that she and other women would be unable to enjoy sexual pleasure outside of marriage.

So, she’s hated because of her dubious parentage, she’s kept in ignorance because of her gender, and she’s prevented from exercising her sexual agency. This is a trifecta of things guaranteed to piss off a Women’s Studies major like me – but the fact that it’s there is just a tad too on-the-nose. As I read the book, I kept on thinking I get it, Onyesonwu is an embodiment of epistemic privilege. Can you stop now and finish with the righteous outrage, please?.

The thing that’s really confusing about her enforced ignorance is that her tutors know she’s the central figure in a great prophecy to change the world. Why refuse to teach her, then, if so much depends on her mastery of magic? What’s more, it turns out that the prophecy is well-known, although most others think that the central figure it refers to is a Nuru man, not an Ewu woman. Why exactly her tutors know the truth when few others do – and then refuse to act on this knowledge – is a huge plot hole that’s never fully explained.

On top of that, the pacing in this novel is incredibly off. Onyesonwu journeys across the desert with a small group of friends to fulfill her destiny and stop her father’s genocide. However, the journey itself doesn’t start until nearly halfway through the book, and its salient feature is the sexual frustration her friends feel. Conveniently, Onyesonwu has the ability to grow back her cut-off flesh because she’s a shapeshifter. Even more conveniently, her failed attempt to heal a severely deformed woman (somehow?) imbues her with the knowledge to restore the cut-off flesh of her friends. Because obviously, the most important problem to solve in the midst of genocidal ruin is making sure your companions don’t get bitchy because they can’t have sex.

As the book’s fractious friendships, arguments, convenient revelations (Oh, so it turns out that Onyesonwu’s mother was also a sorceress? You don’t say!), and shifting sexual liaisons continued, the final page kept drawing closer and closer, and I had no idea how there would be enough room for a satisfying showdown between father and daughter.

Short version: There isn’t.

Long version: She meets with her father and attacks him, but doesn’t manage to kill him. She then manipulates her body in such a way that the resulting magic kills all of the men and impregnates all of the women in the surrounding environs. She then finds the master copy of the Great Book whose teachings are the source of the Nurus’ hatred for the Okekes, and magically rewrites it to prevent that hatred from ever forming. She then gets stoned to death by the remaining Nuru populace for her trouble.

If there was ever a literary embodiment of “nasty, brutish, and short”, the ending of Who Fears Death is it.

Throughout, I never felt a sense of wonder or awe when I read this book. I fail to think of a single sentence, image, or paragraph that stopped me cold with its eloquence, or sent shivers up my spine with its beauty. This, perhaps more than anything else, is the single most damning thing I can say in this review.

I really wanted to like Who Fears Death. For one, it’s written by a woman of colour featuring a female protagonist who is also of colour. I’m aware of the ways in which speculative fiction has marginalized non-white, non-male voices, so I’ve been making an effort to counteract that in my reading choices. Besides that, it tackles a variety of topics that our society either doesn’t talk about or tries hard to avoid discussing, including female genital cutting, genocide, and rape as a weapon of war.

Ultimately, though, I have to admit that I didn’t enjoy Who Fears Death, and read it mainly because I wanted to be a Good Feminist and assuage some of my White Liberal Guilt by reading about something depressing but politically important. Depressing as the subject matter was, I still hoped for at least a little bit of grace, but never found it.

Up next: Quiet: The Power of Introverts, by Susan Cain

Book Review: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Tor
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: eBook

Russian folklore is not an aspect of Western/European mythology you come across much in modern fantasy – the only other example I can think of is a side story in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman – so it’s nice to see Baba Yaga and Koschei the Deathless getting their due.

Deathless is a modern retelling of the myth of Koschei the Deathless and Marya Morevna set during the turmoils of Russia during the first half of the 20th century. The opening chapter enchanted me with its fairy-tale-like repetition, and the writing style throughout reminded me of Silently and Very Fast, another work of Valente’s that I’ve enjoyed.

This is mere no fairy-tale, though, as it recasts Koschei – typically an antagonist in Russian folklore – into a flawed hero fighting a futile war against death itself. Marya Morevna, originally his beautiful young conquest, becomes his bride, and eventually a general in the battle against Viy, the Tsar of Death.

Wise readers will note that the crux of this war takes place at the beginning of World War II before and during the siege of Leningrad, and even wiser readers than I may speculate that the entire story could stand as a metaphor for the ideological changes that Russia underwent both before and after the war. However, as I am not an authority on Russian politics, I will have to settle for Baba Yaga and house imps reciting socialist political theory instead.

One of the book’s key themes is the idea of control or rulership – specifically, can a mortal woman like Marya gain the upper hand as the wife of Koschei, who is immortal? Ultimately, she can and does by adopting his methods and becoming as casually cruel as he – but such growth takes a long time to occur in the novel, and until then she remains frustratingly passive. I get the sense that this is deliberate on Valente’s part though; in one pivotal scene, Marya attempts to seduce another man using food the way Koschei seduced her, and the man in question doesn’t submit as easily to her overtures as she did to Koschei’s. Sometimes, you just have to be quiet and let a starving man eat.

Marya’s passivity is more than made up for by the other female characters in Deathless. I loved Baba Yaga and Madame Lebedeva, a magician who forms part of Marya’s coterie upon her entry into Kochei’s realm. Both women are intelligent and calculating, and understand how to wield power properly. Lebedeva in particular is a delight because she combines her magical skill with theatricality and refinement, yet manages to do so without becoming the insufferable sort of Mean Girl we expect of a beautiful woman who places great import on her appearance. Read the scene of Lebedeva and Marya in a magical cafe where Lebedeva holds court while very ostentatiously not eating the meal she has ordered, and you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a master storyteller.

Other images in Deathless are similarly vivid. Great attention is paid to colour and form, especially where Lebedeva is concerned. But beyond that there is the silver gleam that symbolizes the land of Death, and the deep red of garnets and pickled beets, and the gold and black of butter and caviar slathered upon fresh bread. Like Marya, Deathless casts its readers into a world of unexpected depth and luxury.

Up next: Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Book Review: The Alchemy of Stone by Ekaterina Sedia

Title: The Alchemy of Stone
Author: Ekaterina Sedia
Publisher: Prime Books
Rating: 3 out of 5
Format: Print

For someone who claims to enjoy science fiction, I have read surprisingly few full-length sci-fi books this year. First there was the retro superhero novel. Then there was the space opera. And now we come to another esteemed subgenre within sci-fi: Steampunk.

The Alchemy of Stone has few of the traditional trappings of steampunk – no goggles, no airships, no overwhelming sense of can-do Victorian optimism – but it does have an automaton. Mattie, to be precise: An emancipated automaton who was given independence by her creator, Loharri, after learning the skills of alchemy. This is unusual in that Loharri, as a Mechanic, is politically and spiritually opposed to the work done by the Alchemist’s guild, of which Mattie is now part. The Mechanics and the Alchemists have recently been at odds over the direction that their city’s growth should take (think of the Industrial Revolution), and this dispute has come to a head with dangerous results: Civil war is inevitable.

Mattie doesn’t care for political machinations, though, as she’s been requested to tackle an extremely unusual assignment – the gargoyles, the supernatural founders and protectors of the city, want her to use her alchemical skills to somehow transmogrify their stone bodies to flesh. This is no easy task, and she relies on an unusual network of outcasts to arrive at a solution: The soul of the now-deceased alchemist formerly given this assignment, the soul-smoker who houses that soul within his own flesh, and a refugee alchemist who uses the power of blood to weave her spells.

Out of context, all of these elements – automatons, magic, gargoyles, souls, revolution, etc – sound like an unusual mixture. Unfortunately, they also fail to cohere within the book itself. The most interesting narrative choice is which points of view are used in the story; most of it is told from Mattie’s perspective, but a series of smaller portions set in italics are told from the perspective of the gargoyles themselves, and they speak in first person plural to convey their thoughts as a collective. The gargoyle passages are quite lyrical. However, they feel removed from the main political friction that drives the rest of the narrative forward.

One major problem is that this political friction doesn’t have a sense of urgency. Half-hearted mentions are given to refugees taking jobs from city-dwellers and of people being sent off to nearby mines to die as slave labour, but this never feels fully rooted in the history of the setting. It’s telling that I keep on calling the location of the story itself “the city” instead of a definite name. According to the copy on the back cover, the city’s name is “Ayona” – but I had to rely on the book cover to know that, as I can’t recall the name “Ayona” being mentioned anywhere in the text itself. That should be a warning sign when reading any sort of speculative fiction.

This lack of historical context within the book is odd because in other respects the worldbuilding of The Alchemy of Stone is excellent. In particular, I loved the idea of a “soul-smoker” – the book’s equivalent of what we would call a sin-eater. These are people who go to houses haunted by ghosts, and then lure the ghosts down with a wad of burning opium; when the ghost is tempted down from the rafters by the smoke, the soul-smoker inhales the smoke, ghost and all, through a pipe. The ghost then inhabits the soul-smoker’s body, and can communicate mentally with its new host. Given the abundance of souls within the soul-smoker’s body, living people treat the soul-smoker as a pariah out of fear that prolonged close contact with him or her will cause their own souls to vacate their bodies and join the other souls congregated inside the smoker. As Mattie technically doesn’t have a soul, she has no fear of him, and their relationship provides mutual comfort and support. I would enjoy a book devoted to just the two of them talking together.

It’s Mattie’s relationships with other people in the book that I have more of a problem with. In particular, she falls in love with a secondary character in the novel, a rough and uncouth man she barely knows. This sudden realization of love makes little sense considering their limited contact. Secondly, on at least one occasion when they meet, he attempts to physically assault her and is prevented from doing so only by the sudden intervention of the gargoyles. Finally, their relationship culminates in what has got to be one of the oddest sex scenes I’ve ever read – maybe I’m a prude, or not particularly progressive, but it was weird to read about a human and an automaton consummating a relationship, especially when the latter party doesn’t have… ahem… all of the “parts” required.

This is nothing compared to the troubled relationship Mattie has to her creator, Loharri, however. Although he emancipated her, he refuses to relinquish the final hold he has on her: The small piece of metal used to wind up the cogs and gears in her chest that is – quite literally – the key to her heart.

It turns out that not only does he prevent her from attaining true freedom by keeping the one key that keeps her gears in working order, but he also 1) builds a mechanism in her brain that causes her to undergo system failure if she thinks about consulting him but does not do so, and 2) uses her to spy on her Alchemist colleagues without her knowledge. Their relationship is an unhealthy one in every sense of the word.

There are few other things I could mention about why this book troubles me so, but I’ve gone on long enough. If this is the case, why am I still giving the book 3 stars out of 5? I’m willing to give it a pass because of the quality of the prose and because of its worldbuilding. In other words, it’s got great skin – it just needs a better set of bones.

Up next: Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente