The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.

There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.

But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.

And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

Thoughts: Despite being thoroughly of British descent, I had to admit that most of what I know of the Robin Hood story comes from the animated Disney adaptation where everyone was an anthropomorphic animal. I have picked up enough along the way, though, to get the gist of the legend and to not feel lost upon picking up this novella.

In The Ghosts of Sherwood, Robin and Marian have settled into a life that looks less like rebellious outlaws and more like everyday domesticity, if everyday domesticity involved being nobility in 12th century England. The story centres around their eldest daughter, Mary, old enough to be considered of marriageable age even if her parents aren’t fully sure they want to hand her over to somebody else just yet. Mary is prone to taking trips into the wood for some alone time, at on one such trip, accompanied by her younger brother and sister, the trip are kidnapped by a band of men seeking vengeance against Robin Hood. Will Robin Hood and his men reach the children on time, or is it up to the kids to see to their own salvation?

It always interests me to see the stories of those who live in the shadows of legends, especially those who don’t let the pressure of that legend overtake who they themselves are. It can’t be easy, having an outlaw hero for a father. Mary, though, seems to find the thought of running a household more daunting than living in her father’s shadow. She isn’t the sort of character who’s all, “Being female is a horrible thing; I’d much rather be running wild and doing archery!” which was good to read because such characters are frankly uninteresting to me. Give me someone who will work with what they have in order to live their best life, even if it isn’t their ideal, rather than somebody who will rant and rail against the system and nothing else. Mary seemed to me to be far more of the former than the latter, as she knew her skills, knew some of what life held for her, and even if she didn’t quite know what she wanted, knew enough of what she didn’t know to hold off on making decisions either way. She was sensible, and I loved that.

I loved the way Mary tried to bluff her way away from the kidnappers. I love the way she was given an impossible task and succeeded at it, against all odds, even when she knew that the bargain would not be honoured. I love the way, again, she used what she had to best advantage, even when what she had was out of her hands and instead of the hands of her sister. I could read more stories about Mary, I really could.

The Ghosts of Sherwood was a quick short story that I may not have too much to say about in the end, except that I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Heirs of Locksley. The characters was memorable, the concept of “what happens next” was interesting, and the balance struck between providing an interesting glimpse into the lives of the heroes of children while also not trying to set them up to all be heroes themselves was well struck. This is the first work of Vaughn’s I’ve read, and I have to say it was a pretty good introduction. If you’re a fan of the Robin Hood story, or — as I am — a fan of the whole “what about the people who live in a hero’s shadow?” idea, then this low-investment story will yield high rewards.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Updraft, by Fran Wilde

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: Welcome to a world of wind and bone, songs and silence, betrayal and courage.

Kirit Densira cannot wait to pass her wingtest and begin flying as a trader by her mother’s side, being in service to her beloved home tower and exploring the skies beyond. When Kirit inadvertently breaks Tower Law, the city’s secretive governing body, the Singers, demand that she become one of them instead. In an attempt to save her family from greater censure, Kirit must give up her dreams to throw herself into the dangerous training at the Spire, the tallest, most forbidding tower, deep at the heart of the City.

As she grows in knowledge and power, she starts to uncover the depths of Spire secrets. Kirit begins to doubt her world and its unassailable Laws, setting in motion a chain of events that will lead to a haunting choice, and may well change the city forever-if it isn’t destroyed outright.

Thoughts: I initially read this book some years ago, but didn’t get around to reviewing it then. I can’t even remember way. It wasn’t because I didn’t enjoy it; far from it, I thought Updraft was as good then as I did upon rereading it this time. I thought it was high time I refreshed my memory of the book and finally wrote the review that has been so long in coming.

Kirit lives in a world high above the cloud, an expansive city made from towers of living bone. People fly between towers using wings of bone and silk, or send messenger birds, or build bridges made from the sinew of invisible monsters known as skymouths. Kirit is of an age to pass her wingtest, which would give her license to fly as far from her home tower as she needs to, at which point she expects that she will apprentice with her mother and learn the trade of, well, a trader. However, she inadvertently breaks Laws that hold her society together, revealing that she has some uncommon abilities at her disposal, and catching the attention of the Spire, where the city’s Singers live. Singers maintain laws, they maintain ritual, they maintain tradition, and they keep the city safe from skymouths, among other things. Kirit must decide whether to give in to the Spire’s demands for her, or to play along for a while and potentially uncover some of the biggest secrets her home city has been hiding for generations.

Updraft is told entirely from Kirit’s perspective, with no perspective shifts or third-person moments to provide the reader with more information than Kirit herself has. What she discovers, we discover, and it makes the story’s pacing and tension solid throughout. Her journey from “character who thinks she knows more than others give her credit for” to “character who learns she had no idea about half of what was going on behind the scenes” was an interesting one to follow. Honestly, I’m usually not that fond of the, “I know more than you think” characters, because I feel like they often exist mostly to demonstrate how little they actually know, but in this case, it was done well enough and with an interesting enough world that a lot of my complaints about the archetype are overshadowed by just how into Kirit’s journey I found myself.

It still intrigues me to think that the world Kirit grew up in is basically null and voice below the cloudline. The bone towers that her people live in rise high, and below the clouds lies danger and death, so who would go there? The bone towers feels so novel, especially since the bone is still living, still growing, that I can’t help but be curious about where they come from. What a massive creature the world itself must be, to have such bones. I know there’s a sequel to Updraft, though I haven’t yet read it, and I hope that a little more information is given there. Though if it isn’t, I won’t be too disappointed, since not every mystery is one for characters to solve. People live in bone towers. That’s what we need to know, so that’s what we’re going to be told. Where the bone comes from might not be essential to the story.

Doesn’t stop me from being curious, though.

I also really enjoyed the complicated friendship between Kirit and Nat. I more than half expected them to develop a romantic relationship before the end of the novel, at least the beginnings of one, but I was pleasantly surprised to see this wasn’t the case. I’m not against romance, but I am fairly worn out on the “this guy and this girl are of similar age and aren’t related by blood so they’ll probably get together,” routine. Even if that changes later on in their story, there wasn’t anything between them that made me think here that they would become romantically involved, and I’m glad it wasn’t forced. As complex and fraught as their friendship was, it was good to see it as a friendship, nothing else, and I really want to see more books that keep such characters as friends instead of making them go down the romance route.

Wilde’s creativity and skill really shine in Updraft. You’ve got an interesting setting, a character whose natural curiosity and stubbornness push her onward even when others tell her to fall back, and a city just brimming with secrets. It all comes together to make for such a compelling story that’s unlike any other I’ve read in recent years. Updraft is one of those novels that really stands on its own two feet, not as a standalone novel but as something that is very much itself, doesn’t feel like it’s piggybacking of the popularity of some other story or style before it. There are mysteries all over the place, from the mystery of what happened to Kirit and Nat’s fathers, to why the skymouths are acting strangely at times, to what the Spire’s interest in Kirit is, to why the Spire keeps so many secrets from the city’s ordinary citizens. It’s fascinating and complex, and it’s a world I really want to explore more of.

Updraft has been out for a good few years now, and if you haven’t read it yet, it’s one that I heartily recommend. With its focus on adventure and discovery, you’ll feel like you’re riding high on the winds alongside Kirit, twisting and tumbling when the winds blow sour, and soaring when they blow true. It’s a great read, one that will keep you turning the pages, and I’m even more excited to track down the sequel than I was before. Give this one a read if you’re a fan of unique fantasy settings and strong-willed female protagonists; I doubt you’ll find yourself disappointed in the end.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

June 2020 in Retrospect

This past month sure has been a month, hasn’t it? I know I haven’t talked much about it on the blog, but… June has been a bit of a hellish month for me. I’ve been experiencing chronic pain for years, but due to my lousy experiences with medical professionals, I’ve largely just been dealing with it as best I could on my own. But nearly a month ago now, I hit the point where I just can’t do that anymore.

My pain has gotten worse, and I still don’t know why it’s even happening, let alone why it’s now worse than it used to be. It’s affecting my ability to sleep, so lately I’ve just been grabbing a few hours here and there as best I can, on the crappy too-short couch at night (I toss too much to make it worth attempting to sleep in bed with my partner, and not being on any particular sleep schedule doesn’t help that), and in bed during the day, when my partner is busy or at work. Brain fog is making it hard to do anything. I have ongoing muscle weakness that makes it difficult to walk or stand some days. I am, to put it mildly, a fucking mess right now. I’m waiting for an appointment with a rheumatologist, and I’m just hoping that when I see one, I get some answers and a treatment plan and can get bits of my life back.

This is the point where I do the awkward uncomfortable thing and plug the fact that I have a Ko-Fi account, and I’m trying to save up enough to get a new computer chair that won’t make my back and hip pain even worse and isn’t falling apart, so if you have a few spare bucks and like what I do here and want to help out, let’s just say I’m not going to refuse, and I’m going to be ridiculously appreciative.

Also let’s just say that I hope you all had a better June than I did!

But enough of that. Let’s take a look at the few things I managed to accomplish here this past month!

Reviews

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma
Or What You Will, by Jo Walton
Of Dragons, Feasts and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard
Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

I didn’t realize that nearly all of the titles I reviewed this month began with the letter O…

I wrote a fun post about all the delightful books I was able to get for my birthday, and I wrote I less fun post about the utter shitstorm of harassment reports rocking the SFF book community, and how, combined with a similar shitstorm in the video game community, I’m starting to wonder if any hobby is actually safe, or worth the risk to be involved in.

I also finished the video series telling the story of the PS1 classic RPG, Chrono Cross (sequel to Chrono Trigger), if anyone’s interested in learning what happens in the game but doesn’t have the 40+ hours to sink into playing it right now.

Upcoming in July

Honestly, at this point, I’m kind of just working on coping and doing the best I can. I want to get out the usual 4-5 reviews, but I can’t guarantee anything, so let’s just say that content is upcoming, and the future will determine what exactly that content even is.

Stay safe and happy, my friends, as best you can, and I hope the future looks brighter for us all.

Silver Phoenix, by Cindy Pon

Buy from Amazon.com, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 17, 2009

Summary: No one wanted Ai Ling. And deep down she is relieved—despite the dishonor she has brought upon her family—to be unbetrothed and free, not some stranger’s subservient bride banished to the inner quarters.

But now, something is after her. Something terrifying—a force she cannot comprehend. And as pieces of the puzzle start to fit together, Ai Ling begins to understand that her journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams isn’t only a quest to find her beloved father but a venture with stakes larger than she could have imagined.

Bravery, intelligence, the will to fight and fight hard . . . she will need all of these things. Just as she will need the new and mysterious power growing within her. She will also need help.

It is Chen Yong who finds her partly submerged and barely breathing at the edge of a deep lake. There is something of unspeakable evil trying to drag her under. On a quest of his own, Chen Yong offers that help . . . and perhaps more.

Thoughts: This is a book I meant to read years ago, and one that I believe first came to my attention when complaints started circulating about the change to the cover art for the paperback release, switching from a bright and vibrant image with an obviously Chinese woman front and centre, to a very uninspired image of a woman of unknown ethnicity, wearing clothes of undefinable style and origin, and with half her face hidden in the shadows. I know the adage is to not judge a book by its cover, but cover art is often one of the first things a person sees, it’s meant to attract attention and draw a potential reader in, and for my part, had I not seen the original cover art first, I would have utterly overlooked Silver Phoenix because nothing about the new cover said anything to me beyond, “probably a YA romance maybe?”

Cover art aside, though, how is the novel itself?

Silver Phoenix is written from the perspective of Ai Ling, a young woman from the kingdom of Xia, whose father leaves for a journey to the Palace of Fragrant Dreams and then doesn’t return when he is meant to. Already feeling herself a burden to her family, and worrying that being married off to an old lecherous man is in the future, Ai Ling sets off on a journey to bring her father back, leaving him to escape her prior fate and to carve herself a new one. The problem is that demons and monsters seem to be following her wherever she goes, putting her and her eventual travel companions at great risk, though she can’t fathom why she would be targeted so. Some greater force is at play, and Ai Ling needs to get to the bottom of it and find her father before something truly terrible happens.

Ai Ling is very much one of those characters who could be described as “not like other girls.” She can read in a time and place where most women can’t. She’s willful and proud, not accepting the place that society tells her she ought to want, especially in matters of marriage. Her parents were a love match, and she’d like the same for herself. And while I know the “not like other girls” stereotype is often a disliked one (I’m not that fond of it a lot of the time either), Ai Ling is much easier to read than many of the characters I’ve encountered in the past who fit the same trope. Quite possibly because a number of those characters seem to be very brash and in-your-face about how different they are, and Ai Ling doesn’t do that. She’s just very much herself, and that’s enough. She never states herself to not be like other girls as though it’s automatically a positive thing to be different than your peers (for one thing, that does quite a disservice to anyone who does like more traditionally feminine things and enjoys being female within society’s gender role; the “not like other girls” trope usually declares traditional femininity to be bad and something to break away from in order to be worthy of greatness, or just worthy in general. So while Ai Ling definitely hit a number of points on a checklist, it wasn’t in an obnoxious way, and I can appreciate that.

Reading Silver Phoenix felt very much like reading an expanded legend. Ai Ling’s journey to find and rescue her father started out with simple, if lofty, goals, and over time involved all sorts of otherworldly encounters, starting with sightings and attacks by demons and at one point, actually entering another realm entirely, passing through the homes of many non-human people, encountering deities and wondrous animals and food beyond human experience. It felt like an epic tale that hit all the right spots to be a modern legend in its own right, pulling from many aspects of mythology and folklore and tradition while also being its own unique thing. Ai Ling’s changes so much on her journey, with each new encounter bringing her information that calls into questions what she knew of the world, her family, and herself. At the end, she is a changed person, having walked through fire to save her loved ones and the veil being lifted from her eyes.

The book is generally very well paced, though there were a few things that seemed to start and then end without any real resolution. The main thing that springs to mind is after the death of Li Rong, when Ai Ling vows to revive him even though doing so is dark and dangerous. She starts gathering what she needs, she remembers her task every now and again, and things around her change in response to her goal, but never in a way that really causes consequence, and she abandons the plan before ever really getting further into it than she started. So what might have been an interesting subplot in which Ai Ling’s luck and aid could have abandoned her at a crucial moment or Li Rong could have come back terribly and forced a confrontation between Ai Ling and Chen Yong, it just… goes nowhere. Which left me wondering why those pieces were still part of the story.

Now, the book does have a sequel which I haven’t read yet, so it may well be that it was all setup for something that happens later on. But within the context of Silver Phoenix on its own, that subplot felt like something that was initially planned to go further and got cut, but the cutting wasn’t complete. It was odd.

Still, the story was a true delight to read, and I was entertained right from the get go. It scratched an itch for something new in my reading, at least new-to-me, that gave me something different than many of the other options on my shelves right now. It was what I needed right when I needed it, an epic journey of loyalty and discovery that I was glad to be able to read. If you’re a fan of YA fantasy, especially of fantasy with deep inspirations beyond “vaguely medieval European,” then Silver Phoenix is a novel you shouldn’t miss.

No More Heroes

It has been a rough fucking week for the SFF book community.

Twitter has been an absolute dumpster fire these past few days. Accusations of sexual misconduct against author Myke Cole, which prompted him to do nothing more than to repost an apology he made in 2018 for similar allegations, not even bothering to make a fresh apology for fresh accusations. Author Sam Sykes also getting accused of sexual misconduct. The discovery that both Mercedes Lackey and Larry Dixon have said some incredibly transphobic things. Mark Lawrence, the guy instrumental in starting the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off that has helped so many self-published authors find a larger audience, encouraging fans to harass an author who criticized the portrayal of sexual assault in fiction. And that’s just what I’ve seen this past week!

To say nothing of the news of other authors doing similar things to people. I don’t know any of those authors well enough to speak on the subjects, but… sweet holy fuck, I am just so blown away. And exhausted.

Mostly exhausted.

I’m not stranger to discovering that people I once admired have some terrible things, but to be completely honest, there’s only so much of that a person can take before they start to wonder if there’s a point in even liking anything anymore. It sounds hyperbolic, but it’s legitimately how I feel. I can’t tell who is safe to like, who is safe to associate with, who won’t betray me and others down the line when the inevitable revelation comes out that they’ve been little shits the entire time, but were just able to hide it or pressure people into silence for longer than others. I’m seeing the dirty side of so many people whose work I’ve admired and promoted in the past, people whose work has inspired me to want to create wonderful things of my own, and every time it happens, I feel increasingly like there is no safe space to be creative, to try, to enjoy things, because chances are you’re surrounded by people who are privately mocking you for being queer, sexualizing you for being a woman, and ignoring you for not being white.

Rarely on the surface. Not until the shield slips and somebody sees just a little too much and then all the pieces fall into place. The odd comments. The things you overlooked, handwaved as just being “that person being a little weird.” The stories come out, again and again, and you start to think to yourself, “Is anywhere actually safe? Can I even enjoy this hobby without fear that I’m enabling someone else’s bigoted power trip?”

People make mistakes. People learn. But the thing of it is, a lot of these people have had plenty of opportunities to learn, have associated with people who have openly talked about problems in the industry, problems they’ve faced with representation or fair treatment, people who would likely cheerfully give further education to those asking in good faith… and it seems, again, like all of these opportunities have been overlooked, ignored, and the perpetrators of injustice stand there begging for people to give them a second chance, swearing they’ll do better, they’ll try harder, they’ll be stronger allies next time.

You had your chance. You had lots of chances. You have so many opportunities to not do the things you did, to understand why those things were wrong… and you did them anyway.

Why should you be given another chance? Why should people trust you to do better next time when you had so many chances to do better last time, and just didn’t.

Some people do change and improve. I’d love to be able to say that the current batch of accusations, of truth being outed, will lead to a safer and more understanding community.

But the horrible reality is that all it’s done is highlight just how safe it never was, to convince people that it’s not worth it to put their safety on the line, and to crowd out people who might have thrived, were it not for abusers and the risks they pose.

youkillhope

It’s at the point where I’m just hoping that somebody makes a list of safe authors, because right now, I can’t fucking tell who’s safe. People I once thought were safe, were decent, were maybe even friends, aren’t. Weren’t.

And I can’t, in good conscience, keep supporting them.

Arguments always get made for separating the art from the artist. And to a degree, I agree with that sentiment. But only insofar as it means that, say, an author who writes about a rapist isn’t necessarily condoning rape, anymore than an author who writes about a thief is condoning stealing. Authors don’t necessarily share the mindsets of their characters. Hell, just look to Orson Scott Card for a great example of that one. Speaker for the Dead‘s moral lesson was that you can’t judge one culture by another culture’s standards, because everyone has different ways and reasons for doing what they do, and we have to understand that before we pass any judgment. Great lesson. Card, on the other hand, has long worn his homophobia on his sleeve, calling gay people degenerates, pedophiles, the victims of pedophiles. Apparently his own story failed to make much impact on him, since I don’t see a whole lot of, “Don’t judge, because you don’t necessarily understand the truth of the matter,” going on here.

But I can’t stretch that mentality to continuing to read and review and enjoy an author’s books when I know that author has done terrible things, because every book I buy is a royalty payment, or one step closer to a royalty payment. Every review is publicity. It doesn’t matter how much I enjoy a story when I know that the mind who wrote that story is also a mind that thinks harassing or abusing is justified.

I don’t know who’s safe anymore. And every one of you that has been named in this post, every single fucking one of you, has contributed to that.

As I said, I’m no stranger to this sort of disappointment in people. When I first wanted to get into making videos on YouTube, I was heavily inspired by JonTron. Then came the news that he was a racist douchnozzle. I was later inspired by the work of ProJared, who legitimately seemed like a feminist ally, one of the good ones. Until word spread that he cheated on his wife, lied about their open-relationship status, and eventually claimed that it wasn’t cheating because the husband of the woman he cheated with was okay with it. (No comment on the accusations that he exchanged sexual messages with minors, because when last I checked, a lot of that stuff turned out to be without evidence. Also no comment on his ex-wife’s role in the subsequent divorce, because everyone may have flaws but that still doesn’t excuse what Jared did.)  The gaming community has been rocked by racist and sexist scandal after racist and sexist scandal these past few weeks too. Enough disappointments have come from people whose work I was inspired by that I am already afraid for other creators I enjoy, because with the way all this shit is going, they’ll all turn out to be abusers and bigots too. This sort of thing can only happen so many times before you start to doubt yourself, doubt your own judgment and taste, and you wonder if there’s even any point to continuing with the things you love, because, as I’ve repeatedly stated, nowhere feels safe.

Not the places you go. Not the people you associate with.

I can’t blame people for thinking that the only way to keep themselves safe is to back away from everything and to not bother anymore. Time and again, that’s what communities are demonstrating. That’s the message that the marginalized get, over and over and fucking over again.

There are no more heroes.

You can’t trust anybody.

This is the world you have fostered.

Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard

Buy from Amazon.com, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2020

Summary: Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.

But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.

It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….

Thoughts: While I have, admittedly, only read the first book of the Dominion of the Fallen series, of which this is a spin-off/side-story, I can say that familiarity with the series isn’t mandatory for reading and appreciating Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. I can say this quite certainly because honestly, it’s been long enough since I read The House of Shattered Wings that I don’t actually remember much of the story, only pieces of the setting (in fairness, I read that book only a few months after I moved to an entirely new province and things were weird for me back then, and I really ought to reread it and then start on the rest of the series). So if you’re holding off on this novella because you haven’t read the trilogy yet, then there are a few spoilers in it, but overall you’re not going to feel lost and adrift with the characters and their predicaments.

Thuan, dragon prince and husband to Asmodeus, returns to his draconic home for the Lunar New Year, something that doesn’t exactly thrill him but, you know, family obligations. It’s more than awkward family stuff that will keep me busy during that visit, though, as very quickly a murder is uncovered, one that might well relate to a plot to destabilize the dynasty, and it’s up to him (as well as Asmodeus, to a degree) to navigate the uncertain waters to make sure the death is avenged and the plot uncovered and stopped, before something else horrible happens.

After reading this novella, I am absolutely fascinated by the world that de Bodard has crafted. Not only do we have Vietnamese dragons and fallen angels, but crabs who are also people, and the complicated cultures and politics that you might imagine would surround everyone. It’s a rich and deep world, and while Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders really only dips a toe into that world, it’s enough of a taste to leave me hungry for more. Which, frankly, is a fantastic thing, since not only does it give fans of the trilogy another story to enjoy, but it gives newcomers a good impression of what they might get if they choose to dive further in and pick up the other books (again, so long as they don’t mind a couple of story spoilers).

I couldn’t help but love the rather twisted darkness of Asmodeus. He’s the sort of character I have a weird weakness for in my reading, with the appreciate for and ability to give pain, while at the same time also being capable of affection. He and Thuan might not exactly have the perfect relationship, since their personalities and priorities at times clash, but the two of them are an interesting duo to read about, partly because I like Asmodeus so much, and partly because of the conflicts, because they try to work with and around each other rather than directly against, if the situation calls for it. I want to see more of them, I want to see their relationship from the beginning, I want to see how they grew and changed with each other.

When you combine this with how interesting I found the world-building and the cultural and political aspects of the story, it’s easy to see why the Dominion of the Fallen books might have just gotten a boost in priority on my To Read list.

I’d say that the murder myself itself, disconnected from the setting, was interesting enough on its own (the usual whodunnit, and why, sort of mystery), but it’s difficult to actually do that, to remove the murder from its surrounding narrative. Without the threat of a political coup, there’d be no motivation for the murder, and no imperative for Thuan to investigate and uncover the heart of the matter. De Bodard didn’t just write a murder mystery story set in an interesting world, but had everything connect together, just as things do in reality. Murder always has motives. By its very nature, it has to. And you can’t just remove those motives from the culture in which they arose. Everything is connected, in that sense, and this was no different. I’ve seen stories in which authors have tried to do just that, to write a fun little side-story set in their fantasy worlds, only to make the connections vague and tenuous, coming across as something akin to a play rather than a snapshot of reality. It’s something performed by actors in front of a painted backdrop, set against a world rather than set in it, and de Bodard happily did not fall into this trap.

In short, if you enjoyed the Dominion of the Fallen novels, you’ll be well pleased to step back into the rich and complex world of dragons and fallen angels once more with Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. And if you haven’t yet read the novels, this is a good way of finding out if the setting and characters would hold any interest for you, a low-investment peak into something larger and more engrossing. It’s got wide appeal, especially to those who want to see more variety of culture and character in their SFF, and I, for one, recommend giving it a read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Belated Birthday Book Haul!

I know my birthday was technically over a week ago, but I’ve been messed up for a variety of reasons and forgot to post the fantastic book haul that I was able to get my grubby bibliophile hands on!

Written in RedMurder of CrowsVision in Silver
Marked In FleshEtched in BoneLake Silence

Now yes, I have read every single one of these books before, but they were all library books I borrowed while I was on PEI, and since I enjoyed them so much, and really want copies of my own. Similar to Bishop’s Black Jewels novels, these are comfort reads for me (one of these days I’ll probably go into details as to why, because knowing me, you’d think that novels about predators and gender essentialism and a whole load of traumatic events would not be my cup of tea, but… it’s complicated.)

Also I didn’t order a copy of Wild Country, the 2nd spin-off novel, because I got a copy for review a while ago, and while it was okay, it was the one with the lowest priority on my wishlist. I can wait a while to complete the collection, so long as I have the books I enjoy more.

But more than that, I was gifted with some surprise book money from two good friends, so the book haul got to grow even larger!

Silver PhoenixThe Darkest Part of the ForestColdest Girl in Coldtown

I’ve started reading Silver Phoenix and I’m really enjoying it, so that’s off to a good start!

I am so happy to be buried in books right now. :3 I spent so many years not getting books as gifts, not because people thought I didn’t read (seriously, have you even met me?) but because most people around me knew I reviewed and knew I got review copies and either didn’t know what to get me that I might not already have, or just judged it “not worth it” to buy me more books because I already had books, what did I need more for?

The answer to that is, of course, that there are always books that I want. Some I have as ebooks that I’d love physical copies of. Some I’ve read because I got them from the library and would love to read them again, at my leisure. Many books I would love are ones I don’t get as review copies, so I don’t have them, haven’t read them, and want to read them. Book are always a good gift! XD

Oh, and also anything to do with this guy:

velvet

I have an absolute crush on Adam Lambert, his music makes me happy, and so his latest CD was also part of the birthday haul.

Turning 36 may have happened during the year of the apocalypse, but I can’t say that the little things in life don’t still bring me some joy.

Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2020

Summary: He has been too many things to count. He has been a dragon with a boy on his back. He has been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. He has been dream and dreamer. He has been a god.

But “he” is in fact nothing more than a spark of idea, a character in the mind of Sylvia Harrison, 73, award-winning author of thirty novels over forty years. He has played a part in most of those novels, and in the recesses of her mind, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.

But Sylvia won’t live forever, any more than any human does. And he’s trapped inside her cave of bone, her hollow of skull. When she dies, so will he.

Now Sylvia is starting a new novel, a fantasy for adult readers, set in Thalia, the Florence-resembling imaginary city that was the setting for a successful YA trilogy she published decades before. Of course he’s got a part in it. But he also has a notion. He thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of mortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.

Thoughts: Sometimes I think I know what I’m in for when it comes to Jo Walton novels. Other times, I get something that leaves me reeling, not so much exceeding my expectations as being something I didn’t quite expect in the first place. I expected a straightforward if thought-provoking novel about, well, exactly what it says in the summary. However odd that concept might be. What I got, however, was a story that merged 2 separate stories, breaking the fourth wall, a bit of non-linear narrative. It asked questions about the very nature of creativity and reality, gave no concrete answers, and left me wondering if the whole thing was a semi-fictional confession of Walton’s, because this book uses lines from some of Walton’s previous novels with the heavy implication that they’re lines from Sylvia’s novels, or possibly that the story itself is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that it’s self-aware enough to know it’s a story written by the same author who wrote those lines to begin with.

See what I mean when I said that I didn’t quite get what I expected here?

The story is narrated to us by a voice inside Sylvia’s head, a sort of muse, a spirit of creativity, only those words don’t quite seem to encompass the whole of what that character is. He’s had multiple different roles in Sylvia’s works, an aspect of himself put into characters so that he experiences what they experience, live what those characters live in Sylvia’s stories. At the same time, he’s a distinct enough presence that Sylvia converses with him her aloud and him responding in her mind, since that’s where he lives. It reminded me of some aspects of Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, only with a far more personal feel to it. When he starts to suspect that Sylvia is dying, he comes to the realization that he too will die, living in her head as he does, and seeks to find a way to bring Sylvia into her own created world, a place where death and life only come if people will it to, so that they might both survive.

And that’s meant quite literally, not in the sense of an author and their characters living on so long as people still read the words they wrote and the stories they live in. Sylvia will be drawn into her fantasy world of Illyria, where she is already known somewhat as a representation of the goddess Hekate. Illyria itself is already a world primed for that sort of crossover, since it is based a good deal on real-world places and literature, with stories of people traveling between worlds every now and then. So is the case with Tish and Dolly, two people from the 19th century who find themselves teleported into Illyria, and who must learn to navigate the strange mix of new and old in order to thrive, in addition to playing an integral role in what the gods themselves have planned for Illyria.

The gods, of course, being Sylvia and the narrator of the novel, the spirit in her mind.

While all this goes on, Sylvia must continue to live her life in the real world, going for walks around Florence, eating good food, dealing with plumbers, writing the latest and last story of Illyria. For much of the novel she has no idea what the spirit in her mind is planning, because he is the narrator to us, the reader, and not she. And as readers who are repeatedly addressed, we too become part of the story, albeit a more passive part than others.

Though a section near the end made me wonder if everything was going to go full Neverending Story and demand that the reader themselves give the narrator a new name so he could keep on living…

I love that Walton grabs hold of an idea that most creative types have talked about, the idea of characters being in our minds and talking back to us or demanding that they do what they want and not what we want, and just runs with it! Writer friends, how many times have you experienced a character needing to do something for the sake of the story, only to have them go, “Nah, I’ma do this instead,” only to leave you going, “Well that’s not what I planned for,” in their wake? It’s a long-standing joke at this point, and in this novel, it’s delightfully literal, a character that can be many characters, distinct from the author in whose mind they live, doing what they will regardless of author intent. I love how relatable this concept is, and how it’s used here.

Or What You Will is a brilliant multi-layered story that I suspect will provoke something very similar to Among Others. Every time I reread Among Others, some new detail pops out at me, something I missed before and am not sure how I missed it, and sometimes I think the different mood or situation I’m in affects what I see in novels. What I missed before because it wasn’t that important to my mentality at the time suddenly jumps out upon rereading, a piece that was always there but now I’m better primed to see it, or perhaps it just means more at certain times and that’s why I see it more clearly. Or What You Will is so full of questions and thought experiments and rich details that I think the same thing will happen, that new details will jump out during rereadings, adding new perspectives to the story, or just meaning something different on a purely personal level. Similar to Ficino’s augury when he looks out from behind Sylvia’s eyes, counting cars and birds and divining meaning from the mundane, looking for answers in something that doesn’t really offer answers but instead offers imagery that can be interpreted, the spark that ignites and helps guide us down a path. Nothing is new, nothing has any meaning that it didn’t have before, but at certain times, with certain ways of thinking, things can be more meaningful to a person.

If you’re a fan of Walton’s prior novels, especially things like Among Others, My Real Children, or the Thessaly trilogy, then you’ll feel right at home reading Or What You Will. Many of the hallmarks I’ve come to expect of Walton’s writing are here, the passion for certain subjects, the difficult real-life experiences like strained relationships with partners or parents, and while I’m sure a lot of the Shakespearean and Florentine references escape me (or else mean less to me than I’m sure they do to others), the novel is no less enjoyable for my ignorance, and it brought me a step closer to something, somewhere, that I may never get the chance to experience. It’s a trip to multiple worlds, real and imagined, past and present, painful and beautiful. It’s not a novel that I think will appeal to everyone, or even most people, but those who enjoy a unique novel that makes you contemplate reality and creativity and consequences will find a true gem here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 15, 2019

Summary: Burning with resentment and intrigue, this fantastical family drama invites readers to dig up the secrets of the Belman family, and wonder whether myths and legends are real enough to answer for a history of sin.

Uprooted from Bath by his father’s failures, Gideon Belman finds himself stranded on Ormeshadow farm, an ancient place of chalk and ash and shadow. The land crests the Orme, a buried, sleeping dragon that dreams resentment, jealousy, estrangement, death. Or so the folklore says. Growing up in a house that hates him, Gideon finds his only comforts in the land. Gideon will live or die by the Orme, as all his family has.

Thoughts: Ormeshadow is one of those difficult novellas to categorize. I think “historical fantasy” fits best, by virtue of a scene at the end of the story, but those who go in expecting a stronger SFF thread in the narrative will be rather disappointed, I think, and give up before they reach that scene that confirms this story to be something other than simply historical fiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with historical fiction, not remotely, but I think when readers see something published by Tor.com, they may have certain expectations, and those expectations may not be met by revealing during the last few pages that oh yes, this legend that we don’t see hints of being anything other than a legend is actually true and massively effects things right at the end.

Ormeshadow follows the life of Gideon, who starts as a young boy moving with his parents to their family farm, currently being run by his uncle and his family. Gideon’s folks are moving there due to personal scandal in the city, and his father is claiming his half of the inherited Ormeshadow farm. Which sounds quaint enough, until you consider that Gideon’s uncle always resented Gideon’s father for the greater leniency he was granted as a child, Gideon’s cousins seem to hate and abuse him right from the start, and Gideon’s mother starts an affair with his uncle, something of an open secret that causes so much friction between the two families. Gideon’s father passes down local legends that the Orme is actually the body of a sleeping dragon, one that guards its treasure and bides its time before it will eventually awaken, and father and son both bond over these stories for a large part of Gideon’s life before, well, his father commits suicide.

If you haven’t gathered already, Ormeshadow is a story that is heavy with pain and suffering, the mundane sort of pain of everyday cruelty and favouritism that wears a person down and can destroy whatever they try to build of themselves. Try as he might, Gideon can only ever seem to please his father, and even that comfort is taken from him after a while. As he grows up on the farm, he falls further and further away from the man he wanted to be as a child, seeing opportunities slip from him and be stolen from him, and his despair and resignation are palpable throughout the text. Ormeshadow is the kind of story that can hurt your heart, because nearly every ounce of its pain is entirely relatable, not something we can easily distance ourselves from by seeing it in  secondary world or a wholly unreal situation. Gideon’s pain is the pain your next door neighbour might all too likely have lived. It’s the sort of pain you might have lived.

Where the fantasy elements comes in is, as I said, right at the end, where it’s revealed that the folklore of dragons that Gideon’s father shared with him throughout his life actually turns out to be real, and the sleeping dragon awakens to Gideon’s pain, rises up, and literally burns everything away. The mother that cheated on her husband, the uncle who abused his sons and nephew, the neighbours who wouldn’t stand up when they saw the abuse, all of them set alight by a dragon who slept knowing the taste of betrayal, and awoke to taste it just as keenly coming from another source. Gideon inherits more than just his father’s share of the farm (which is now burned anyway), but also the treasure that the dragon guarded on the land. As an adult, Gideon can now use his vast resources to buy his way into the life he dreamed of as a child, but at a massive cost. Not just the cost in lives lost to the dragon’s fire, but the cost of all of pain he endured leading up to that moment.

And he isn’t sure it’s worth the price.

Ormeshadow isn’t a simple story of patience winning out in the end, of abuse being punished. It’s a story that shows just how much even when those outcomes happen, the scars don’t disappear, don’t fade, and may not ever fade. Gideon can get what he wanted in life in the end, but also not, because what he wanted did not include a youth of abuse and loss, of pain and no refuge. You don’t just get to put aside those things once you can reach your once-put-aside dreams, because you are still the person you were the day before that miracle, still the person who lived through everything that made you put aside those dreams, and no miracles can change that. Ormeshadow doesn’t feel like a story of triumph, and endurance, so much as a story of survival, wrapped in clothes that might once have looked fine on a fairy tale but the lustre has long since faded, tattered. Our own childhoods have probably been littered with stories of downtrodden children who just endured long enough and eventually got their rewards for their tenacity and bravery, but fairy tales gloss over the trauma that comes with those sorts of stories. Ormeshadow most definitely does not.

This is a novella that is both difficult to read and yet so compelling that I kept turning the pages and forgetting that I was still waiting for something fantastical to happen. I had expectations, but while reading, I just didn’t care anymore. I was invested in Gideon, in his life and story, and I wanted him to be happy at the end, to have retribution for the wrongs done to him, but that wasn’t the story I got, and it feels all the more relevant for it, more poignant. Ormeshadow is far from a comfortable read, but it is a worthwhile one.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

May 2020 in Retrospect

Hey friends, how are you all doing? Are you staying safe? Are you anxious about things opening back up? I most most of my readers live in places where the coronavirus pandemic is still raging and yet businesses are expected to open up again and employees return to work, and that seems like a deeply anxiety-causing problem.

My partner has returned to doing on-campus work. Any lab-oriented class is done on campus where the pure didactic stuff is still taught via online classes, in an effort to keep contact to a minimum. This brings with it its own problems, like having to be on campus to lead labs and then get home in half an hour to teach the afternoon’s classes, which would likely be far less of a problem if we owned a car.

But we manage, even if it’s difficult.

Anyway, on to the usual monthly recap of what was done on the blog!

Reviews

The Hills Have Spies, by Mercedes Lackey
Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey
Spy, Spy Again, by Mercedes Lackey
Finna, by Nino Cipri
Flame in the Mist, by Renee Ahdieh

As you can see, I finally caught up with all the Valdemar novels by starting and finishing the Family Spies trilogy, so I can check that off my list. Combine that with another YA novel and a novella, and that makes 5 titles reviewed this past month. Not my best by a long shot, but also on par for what I expect to do from here on, since I’m balancing reviewing with other projects.

I also wrote a less bookish post about a case in 2015 where a woman tried to sue all gay people, and the fantastically bullshit way she went about it. I feel like if people want to get to know me and how I think and what I stand for, that post is probably a good place to start.

Upcoming in June

Honestly, I don’t have any particular plans for June. Keep reading and reviewing, basically. Likely I’ll end up thinking of other things to write about in the meantime, but I don’t have anything particular in mind, and I’m not going to attempt to force myself to become a content mill. There are 3 reviews I know I’m going to write, 2 more books that I plan to read and likely will end up being able to review next month, but if I only end up posting 4 reviews, that’s fine too. A book a week is nothing to sneeze at, really.

I hope everyone’s June is better than everyone’s May. Whether you had a lousy May or a good May, I wish that the coming month will keep improving for you all.