Christina Vasilevski

Toronto Writer/Editor for Content Strategy and User Experience.

Book Review: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. JemisinTitle: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms
Author: N.K. Jemisin
Publisher: Orbit
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

Yeine Darre is the daughter of a barbarian chieftain of the Darre people in the backwater continent of the High North. But she’s also the daughter of the sole child of Dekarta Arameri, the de facto ruler of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. The Arameri family, from which her mother hailed, has ruled the world for over 2000 years, since the God War resulted in the death of Enefa, the Betrayer, and the triumph of Itempas, the Skyfather, over Nahadoth, the Nightlord.

Of course, that rule has been helped immeasurably by the fact that Itempas gave them control over the remaining gods and godlings he vanquished. It was unprecedented when Yeine’s mother, Kinneth, abdicated such power in favour of eloping with her father. Now, mere months after Kinneth’s death, Yeine has been summoned by Dekarta to the capital of Sky and been declared an heir to the throne. In a world where men and women control gods, Yeine learns that nothing – including herself – is what it seems.

I’ve been in a bit of a reading funk lately. Perhaps it’s the winter weather. Perhaps it’s been all the slush reading – which I love doing even if it takes up a lot of headspace. I don’t know. But after I finished The Troop last month, I just couldn’t stick with a book. I’d heard great things about The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson, but didn’t read anything beyond the first 20 pages. Then, motivated by a recent piece on NPR by Amal el-Mohtar, I tried reading The Corn King and the Spring Queen by Naomi Mitchison, but I got only about 10% in before the weird pacing issues and sexual politics got to me.

So when I picked up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms a few days ago after it had been sitting on my shelf for over a year, it was a thunderbolt. Beautiful prose? Check. Interesting changes in point of view and non-chronological structure? Check. Lots of political machinations and Rubiks-cube-level plotting? Check. Goddamned amazing worldbuilding? Check, check, check. Transcendant, moving climax? Check. (And oh yeah – some pretty steamy love scenes. Although I don’t normally talk about that in my reviews, consider this book a definite check.)

I leafed through the first pages a few days ago to see whether it was speaking to me or not. But I didn’t start officially reading it until yesterday – and I finished it in less than 12 hours.

Let that sink in for a minute. After not having the mental focus to read anything longer than a short story in over a month, I read all 400+ pages in a single day. That’s how good this book is.

I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time, ever since I first heard about Jemisin through the Writing Excuses podcast. I was really interested in hearing about how she wanted to question fantasy tropes that reinforce a white male ideal, and this book succeeds in spades. From the critiques about colonialism, race, and power, to the true story behind this world’s religion, almost everything in this book forces readers to re-examine their expectations about fantasy worlds and protagonists. And aside from the concrete, intricate worldbuilding, the prose is absolutely lovely. It’s mythic and propulsive and the same time – quite the mean feat, since the prose of so many other fantasy books with the same ideas often take a turn towards the turgid.

Gods, I can’t praise this book well enough. It’s just – go, go read it. Don’t wait over a year like I did.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

The Troop by Nick Cutter

Title: The Troop
Author: Nick Cutter
Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Format: Print
Rating: 3 out of 5

Note: I was given an advanced review copy of this book by the publisher.

Imagine the savage survivalism of Lord of the Flies merged with the creeping bio-engineered dread of The Stand. Mix in the five personality archetypes of The Breakfast Club (albeit a boys-only version) and you get Nick Cutter’s (aka Craig Davidson’s) new horror novel The Troop – with all of the positives and negatives that implies.

Scoutmaster Tim Rigg has taken his 5-member Boy Scout troop on a 3-day camping trip to Falstaff Island, a small island off the coast of PEI. There’s the jock, Kent Jenks, son of the local police chief; the wild child, Ephraim Elliott; the sensible everyman, Max Kirkwood; the creepy loner, Shelley Longpre; and finally the nerd, Newt Thornton, last in the pecking order. Scoutmaster Tim, who is the town doctor back home, has high hopes for 3 days of hiking, learning, and otherwise hearty outdoor activity.

But there’s another person coming to the island. A man who carries inside him a genetically-engineered horror the likes of which the world is unprepared for. And he’s hungry – so very hungry.

So, let’s get the literary clone-work out of the way. Like many people, I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school, and absolutely hated it. My opinion as a teenager was that the whole descending-into-savagery thing would probably have been completely avoided if there were at least one female in the whole group. Growing up and learning about what occupies the minds of teenaged boys, I have to amend that opinion somewhat – but my absolute dislike of that book has not lessened. (And if you’re wondering, I couldn’t stand Catcher in the Rye that much either.)

At first, I was nervous that The Troop would travel down that same everyone-turns-into-animals-because-Man-is-the-real-monster path. This was especially worrisome in the first half of the book, since the author tries so hard to establish the meanness and social hierarchy of the boys. With the exception of Newt, the requisite fat nerd, the rest of them are cardboard cutouts: Kent is a bully, Ephraim is supposedly angry (I say “supposedly” because although we’re told an awful lot about how angry he is and how he always starts fights, he doesn’t actually act violently until he’s pushed), Max is friendly and average but resolute, and Shelley is your standard-issue sociopath-in-training.

However, once the true menace of the book is revealed, the characters display more psychological depth than I expected. There are some predictable turns here (especially regarding Shelley), but the addition of Tim, who believes he can help the sick man who’s wandered into their midst, adds a new dimension to the story. In Doctor/Scoutmaster Tim, not only do we see a man blinded by his own confidence in his abilities, but we also see the boys’ reaction to that blindness – and the lack of trust in the adult world that results.

Now that’s interesting.

Less interesting, but still helpful, are the interstitial pieces of text showing how the bio-engineered parasite came to be, and the political and cultural aftermath of the outbreak. They provide context and help the novel’s pacing, but I think they strip the real threat (a genetically-modified tapeworm meant to promote weight loss but secretly developed as a biological weapon) of some of its mystique. They do contribute to the novel’s ambiguous ending, however.

Other than that, the book contains some unusual and truly repulsive body horror. I have a pretty strong stomach, so when I say that, I mean it. I found it particularly hard to handle the scene where Ephraim cuts himself in order to remove the parasite from his body.

Overall, I thought this book was okay, but I wish more time had been spent on character development, especially in the rather creaky opening.

Up next: The Summer Prince by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Book Review: Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan

This is it – my 40th book review of the year! When I pledged to do 40 book reviews a year ago, I had no idea what I was setting myself up for. Now, with this final entry, we can all bask in the satisfaction of someone actually finishing what they start. But anyways, onwards to the review itself!

Cracklescape by Margo LanaganTitle: Cracklescape
Author: Margo Lanagan
Publisher: Twelfth Planet Press
Format: eBook
Rating: 3 out of 5

Cracklescape is a collection of four short stories by Margo Lanagan. They are not interrelated – even the word “cracklescape” makes no appearance within the collection – but they do share similar themes. Here’s a short summary of each story in turn.

The Duchess Dresser: Tanner, a young man living in a flat with several other tenants, has a ghost haunting his dresser. One particular drawer, locked tight, twitches and jerks ominously in its drawer tracking, and he’s reluctant to open it or fix the darned thing by calling a locksmith. Eventually, the scale of the haunting grows and he experiences a truly unusual form of inhabitation/possession by a ghost while being sick with the flu. Ultimately, the ghostly presence departs his life as quickly as it entered it.

The Isles of the Sun: Elric is a carefree boy like so many children are – he runs along the beach and plays pretend with his friends. But deep down, he realizes he wants something more. He fears the way that people get old and let the heaviness of talking and eating and watching TV weigh them to the ground. Why can’t he be like the spirits he sees flitting about in the sunbeams, who can make people feel happy and – even better – fly? He ultimately realizes he can be like those spirits, and convinces all of the other children in his neighbourhood to join him. His mother Jenny, sensing something different about her son, attempts to stop him, but is too late – and who would believe her story anyway that the sun-cast shadows of the birds heading out to sea look strangely like children?

Bajazzle: Women frustrate Don – or at least, his long-time (and now annoyingly svelte) partner, Su, does. Not to mention the Sheelas – those bratty, loud-mouthed girls who board trains en masse in black clothing and sequins, moaning and twirling and flaunting their bodies. However, Don meets a new and delectable woman at a beach party, only to have his encounter with her become far more incredible and gruesome than he expected.

Significant Dust: Vanessa is running away. Her fellow coworkers and backpackers at the roadside restaurant she works at don’t know this – and she doesn’t want them to know, either. All she wants is to forget that sunlit day in Perth when she went to the beach with her sister – the beach that only one of them was able to walk away from. Now running (physically, figuratively, however you want to put it) is the only method that Vanessa has to cope with the guilt of seeing her sister falling, falling, against the sand, able to talk and call for help, but not able to move…

Of these four stories, “The Isles of the Sun” and “Significant Dust” were the ones I found most affecting. The people within all four stories feel real and well drawn-out, but the characters of those two in particular were the most sympathetic. In contrast, Tanner from “The Duchess Drawer” and Don from “Bajazzle” both seem entitled and aggravating, especially in the context of how they perceive women – my preferred interpretation of both stories is that this entitlement lies at the root of the haunting phenomena that both men encounter. Do they emerge from those encounters changed for the better, though? It’s hard to say.

This leads to both the best and the worst aspects of this collection. All four stories show exceptional skill and craft in characterization and tone. They also mesh well because they deal with events that are haunting (both literally and figuratively) and ineffable. A strain of melancholy runs throughout all of them – Vanessa’s guilt over inadvertently causing her sister to become a quadripeligic; Tanner’s  shock upon experiencing a female body from the inside, aching all over from bobby pins and corsets; Jenny’s disbelief over the loss of her son; and Don’s revulsion over the ramshackle state of a beachside cabin.

However, this melancholy belies a larger problem: the endings of these stories often don’t have a point, and the background settings are sketched in so subtly that I have a hard time connecting them to the larger phenomena that Lanagan intends.

In particular, “Significant Dust” is supposed to (somehow) tie into an alleged alien abduction that happened in the late 80s in Australia –  or at least it should, given the epigraph she includes that gives the story its name. The ghost that haunts Tanner’s dresser in “The Duchess Dresser” manifests suddenly when he’s outside of the house, interacts with another tenant, and then suddenly walks out the door. Why is this? The woman who seduces Don in “Bajazzle” turns into a hideous demon-thing, and when he escapes her clutches, she reappears in the distance, looks at him, and then disappears again. What exactly is this sort of ending supposed to prove?

Part of my dissatisfaction with these endings lies in the fact that I’ve been reading slush for Electric Velocipede for nearly two months now. Through working with EV, I’ve read my fair share of stories that employ vague, ambiguous, or poetic endings in a misguided attempt to sound profound or literary. Those kinds of endings don’t work – or if they do, they have to be handled with considerable skill. Margo Lanagan does have skill, but the endings of the stories in Cracklescape remind me of all of the other stories I’ve read in which the author uses ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake.

 

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: Ironskin by Tina Connolly

Title: Ironskin
Author: Tina Connolly
Publisher:  Tor
Format: Print
Rating: 4 out of 5

Note: this review contains spoilers.

Jane Eliot is a veteran of The Great War against the fey. The five years since the end of the war have not been kind to her, however, as the lingering scar on her cheek – as well as the iron mask she wears to cover it – signal to all that she has been cursed  by fey magic.

After failing to hold down a string of teaching jobs, Jane has only one option left: to become a governess. In particular, she’s found a delicately-worded listing asking for assistance with a “special” child – one born during the Great War. Jane has pieced together the signs and realizes that the child, like she, is fey-cursed. She takes the job because she’s convinced that she can help this child overcome the same problems she has had to face.

Of course, life in her new home at Silver Birch Manor is more difficult than she imagined. For one thing, Dorie’s fey abilities are both unique and frightening. For another, Dorie’s father, Edward Rochart, is a distant, forbidding man, and the moors outside his house hold many secrets. How exactly does Silver Birch Manor get its inexhaustible supply of fey technology when it is so scarce everywhere else? Why do Rochart and his servant Martha constantly go into the forest bordering the manor? And why does Rochart host so many other women at his house, only to release them back into the outside world looking as beautiful as the fey themselves?

As Jane encounters these and other mysteries, she realizes that there may be a way to shed the fey curse that has ruined her face – although, as always, things aren’t quite what they seem.

So, before I go any further here, let me state a few things up front. Yes, this story is a retelling of Jane Eyre. Yes, it involves fairies. Yes, it also involves steampunk. If you have a problem with these things, stop reading now – because goddammit, this book is fun. Go find a mouldering library to sit in and grumble about literary purity for all I care, because you won’t be missed.

There. Now that we’ve got the Sacred Arbiters of English Literature off our backs, let’s get back to business.

Ironskin is a fun book. It plays with the plot of Jane Eyre, but takes it in new directions, reinventing some aspects of Jane’s background from whole cloth. For example, gone are her miserable extended family and her subsequent education at Lowood. Instead, Helen, the saintly classmate from the original book, is now Jane’s sister and has been radically re-imagined as a woman desperately trying to come to terms with her own cowardice in the face of Jane’s iron resolve.

However, certain story beats remain the same. The mysterious forest on the edge of Rochart’s property, as well as the its inhabitant, are a direct analogue for the attic originally found in Jane Eyre. Although I deduced the true nature of the forest early on in the novel, this was no doubt intentional on Connolly’s part.

I’ve mentioned Tina Connolly elsewhere on my blog. Having read a few of her stories, and having listened to all of the episodes in her Toasted Cake podcast, it was remarkable to realize how entrenched her voice has become in my head. When I was reading Ironskin, I could tell that it was her writing it, and it was her voice delivering the descriptions and dialogue in my mind.

The book’s biggest strength is its world-building. Five years ago, British society depended on fey technology, but the Great War’s onset spurred Britain to restart the Industrial Revolution. In this story, the fey are incorporeal, immortal beings who can inhabit the bodies of dead humans. Of course, doing so gives them human frailties; the only way to kill a fey for good is by jabbing some sharpened iron into the vein of a fey-ridden corpse.

On top of all that, dwarves exist (though they’re called dwarvven here) and have closed themselves off from both fey and human interaction. Although they are master craftsmen, they also love stories and poetry, the more outsized and romantic the better – they were even important cultural figures in Queen Maud’s court back in the day. Jane uses this fact to her advantage when she bribes a half-dwarvven character with a copy of The Pirate Who Loved Queen Maud in exchange for some finely-wrought iron. And, of course, as the author mentions in her recent “My Favourite Bit” post on Mary Robinette Kowal’s blog, Shakespeare’s plays have been reimagined so that A Midsummer Night’s Dream is now A Midsummer Night’s Tragedy.

As I said in my review of Seraphina, it’s the inventive details like this that make me love fantasy books so much.

However, despite these delights, the ending is rushed. Jane’s eventual discovery of Rochart’s true profession (he employs magic to make women beautiful using fey-infused masks of clay) dovetails with her revelation that her disfigured face allows her to manipulate magic herself. The Fey Queen then emerges to reveal her true plans: the masks that Rochart has been making are the perfect conduit to allow the fey to take control of living bodies, and not just the dead. As Rochart’s masks have now been fused onto several members of Britain’s ruling class, this spells disaster.

The final events of this book – the revelation about the Fey Queen, the true importance of Rochart’s masks, Jane’s attempt to claim a mask for her own, and a mad dash to London and back – are all crammed into the last 60 pages. Compared to the slow, atmospheric buildup of the book’s opening, I felt its climax – which includes an extremely gory scene I’ll let you discover on your own – should have been a chapter or two longer.

This is convenient for Connolly, though, as it leaves the closing passages open enough to accommodate the sequel that will be coming out next fall. First The Hum and the Shiver, then Seraphina, and now this – it seems I’m unconsciously committing to all sorts of series which will continue in 2013.

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

 

Book Review: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman

Title: Seraphina
Author: Rachel Hartman
Publisher: Random House
Format: Print
Rating: 5 out of 5

One of the chief things I measure in a novel is how it affects me when I read it. Do the book’s events wend their way into my dreams? Am I compelled to keep reading? How concerned am I with the characters? Are there any scenes I can return to and re-read, savouring the prose on my tongue or goggling about at the audacity of the images that the author presents?

In other words, does the book that I’m reading make me feel delight?

Seraphina did. This book was part of the bag of free books I got at the World Fantasy Convention. However, I didn’t look at it closely until after WFC was over and my fiance and I were evaluating our respective hauls. Rarely am I held fast and astonished by a book’s very first passage, but then I came across Seraphina‘s opening lines:

I remember being born.

In fact, I remember a time before that. There was no light, but there was music: joints creaking, blood rushing, the  heart’s staccato lullaby, a rich symphony of indigestion. Sound enfolded me, and I was safe.

Then my world split open, and I was thrust into a cold and silent brightness. I tried to fill the emptiness with my screams, but the space was too vast. I raged, but there was no going back.

I remember nothing more; I was a baby, however peculiar. Blood and panic meant little to me. I do not recall the horrified midwife, my father weeping, or the priest’s benediction for my mother’s soul.

Humans and dragons have been coexisting in uneasy peace for decades. Dragons, imagined here as keenly rational, analytical beings – think Vulcans with scales – have the ability to alter their forms to look like humans.

Such dragons, called saarantrai, live alongside humans and have carved out a respectable niche as teachers and academics. The heart of this coexistence lies in the court of Goredd, the kingdom that brokered the human/dragon peace treaty – the court that Seraphina Domberg, a talented young musician, now finds herself in.

However, merely weeks before the 40th anniversary of the treaty, Prince Rufus, the son of Queen Lavonda, has been murdered in a manner that looks suspiciously draconic. With tensions rising between the upholders of the treaty and anti-dragon zealots, Seraphina finds herself in the middle and teams up with Prince Lucian, the queen’s grandson, to uncover the truth behind Rufus’ murder.

Seraphina is caught in the middle in more ways than one. Not only is she a musician in a court composed of both humans and saarantrai, but she holds a secret that could lead to her death if it were found out: she’s half-human, half-dragon. Now that she’s joined Lucian’s investigation, she must find a way to preserve the peace and avoid the attention that her prodigious musical talent attracts.

I’m drawn to fantasy and science fiction because these genres examine interesting ideas in ways that others choose not to. In its own way, Seraphina tackles how racism affects people by taking it to literal extremes and imagining the external pressures faced by someone who is only half human. However, science fiction and fantasy also describe things that other genres can’t, like the internal pressures that Seraphina faces.

In particular, she experiences crippling migraines and strange visions, and the only way she can manage them is to spend time alone every day to meditate. Her meditation takes an extremely peculiar form, though, in that she visits a garden in her mind and talks to the people who live there – the people she sees in her visions, although she has no idea what is so significant about them. One of her vision-people lives in an orchard and litters orange peels along the ground. Another is locked inside a cottage. A third gazes up at a sky full of stars.

These people and these environments are all inside Seraphina’s head.

Think about this for a minute. How many mush-mouthed “important” literary works out there are willing to be as inventive as this? Would an author like Jonathan Franzen ever attempt to portray the mental state of one of his characters in such a literal fashion? More importantly, would they use such concrete imagery – orchards, observatories, ponds, walled gardens – to describe that state? Would they even consider the idea of the mind as a physical space, capable of being walked around in?

This is why fantasy and science fiction are important. This is what I look for when I talk about delight.

Hartman’s descriptions of the world her characters live in, and her unique depiction of dragons, are fascinating. Her world feels lived-in and filled with detail around the edges, like the fact that dragons bleed silver blood, and thus exhibit white bruises white when they get hurt. I also loved how hyper-aware Seraphina is of the draconic mindset, which is focused on patterns and angles and logic. Whenever she’s in conversation with a dragon, she automatically adjusts her speech so that it becomes more factual and less focused on intonation to convey meaning.

This highlights one of her greatest traits:  her intelligence. She’s not only smart, but she’s determined, too, and uses her unique knowledge of  dragonkind to become an important political player by the end of the novel. While she is prickly and unfriendly, this part of her personality springs naturally from her overwhelming need to hide her parentage.

However, this note leads me to my very few complaints about the novel. While she is considered prickly and often second-guesses herself, this is one of Seraphina’s only flaws. Otherwise, she’s a gifted musician who is brave and observant, and she even turns out to have psychic powers. (Hint: it turns out those people in her head are there for a reason.) In other words, she’s very close to being a Mary-Sue character.

In addition to that, Seraphina’s burgeoning relationship with Prince Lucian is telegraphed far too easily early on in the plot, and I despaired at the presence of the Obligatory Romance in this otherwise fine novel. Although Hartman sidesteps this by having Lucian choose to stay betrothed to his royal cousin, the potential for a romantic triangle is set squarely in place for the sequels. I wish that the relationship between Lucian and Seraphina stayed platonic instead. However, I will eagerly read the sequels in the hope that this development is replaced with something more satisfactory before the end.

Up next: The Universe Within, by Neil Turok.

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

World Fantasy Convention, and an Announcement

The 2012 World Fantasy Convention starts today! I have been waiting for this day for months. I don’t know if I can describe to you the relief and trepidation I feel this morning now that there’s the prospect of meeting some of my favourite authors in person. Then there’s the temptation of the dealers’ room, filled with books, books, books, and readings and panels to attend.

This will be my first con ever, so I have no idea what to expect, but I can imagine that by the end, I will be satisfied and exhausted. Whenever I go to events like this, I consciously turn on my “be social” light switch; I’m sure I’ll have no trouble meeting people, but I bet that at the end my switch will be burnt out and I’ll need a few days to recharge.

Aww, who are we kidding – I’ll probably squee like a fangirl the whole time.

Anyways, on to my announcement: last weekend, I was accepted as a slush reader for Electric Velocipede magazine! I’ve been reading slush for a few days now, and the experience has been exciting and enlightening – I get to get my story fix, and have some input on what stories I think others will enjoy reading. Even better, I can now go to WFC today with a small shred of publishing credibility on my side.

My only concern is that they’re hosting the damn thing in Richmond Hill, instead of in the downtown core proper. I don’t know how to drive (yet) which means that I still rely on using public transit – getting to Richmond Hill via the local network of trains and buses will be a… protracted process, to put it gently.

Anyways, there’s no time to lose – first, I need to read some slush, then I need to get started on NaNoWriMo, and then, I need to head out to meet the fantasy fiction pantheon. Wish me luck!

NaNoWriMo: Taking the Plunge – Again!

Image from Morguefile.

Well, it’s officially late October, and you know what that means: a frantic ramp-up to NaNoWriMo. Well, perhaps not frantic, but it’s definitely a more informed mess of activity than it was in 2011. Last year was my first time writing for NaNoWrimo, and I think I learned a lot from the experience. Unfortunately, the story I started then remains unfinished, but I have a good idea of what its problems are.

Unfortunately, I have no idea how to end it, and so it’s been helplessly stewing and fermenting in my head for a year, awaiting some key insight that will make it reach critical mass and become complete. Ah, one can wish, right?

Anyway, with one successful NaNo under my belt (that is, I reached the wordcount goal even if I didn’t technically finish the story), I feel better about how to approach it this time around. Last year I was writing by the seat of my pants. This year, I have a much clearer idea of what I want to write about, and have even started doing some supporting research about the time period it’s set in, as well as other important elements of the setting.

Does this mean that I’ve abandoned my pantsing ways and become a full-on outliner? Not by a long shot. It just means that last year I blundered through the forest without anything to clear the way – this year, in contrast, I have a machete ready.

The only kink in my plans is that the World Fantasy Convention is happening from Nov 1st to 4th. I can pretty well guarantee that I won’t keep up the writing pace during those 4 days – the question is how long it will take me to get back on track from the 5th onwards.

Anyway, long story short: I’ve committed to NaNoWriMo again, and I’m excited about it! What about you, O faithful readers?

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