Drowned Country, by Emily Tesh

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: Drowned Country is the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.

Thoughts: Silver in the Wood left readers with a change in stewardship within Greenhollow, the mantle passing from Tobias to Henry, with Tobias now a mortal man and free to leave the Wood. Henry hasn’t exactly taken well to his new role, though, isolating himself in his old house, which is now more of a crumbling ruin than the home he once knew, tending to the Wood mostly by forcing plants to grow when and where he wants them, regardless of the plants’ or Wood’s needs. It’s a visit from his mother that shames him (or perhaps just frustrates him) into leaving where the Wood is and going to where the Wood was, in order to help find a young woman who disappeared in the vicinity of a powerful old vampire. It turns out that Henry is more the vampire’s type than the missing woman, so his mother and Tobias mean to use Henry as bait to lure the vampire out, kill him, and rescue his victim.

I’d say that unsurprisingly, things aren’t quite what they seem, but to be honest, the twist was a bit of a surprise for me. I had settled in for a nice story involving the defeat of a vampire, and what I got instead had more to do with faeries. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Whereas Silver in the Wood dealt largely with themes of betrayal and purpose, Drowned Country has strong themes of destructive obsession running through it. Maud’s obsession with returning to Fairyland caused problems in her mundane life, resulted in her essentially steamrolling the people sent to help her, but also positioned her to be consumed by a force that would similarly destroy anything to get what it wanted. Henry’s destructive obsession was himself, his own self-indulgence and inability to think beyond, “I am the lord of the wood and have these powers to do with it as I please.” Neither Maud nor Henry were particularly malevolent; it was more that the destructive aspect of their obsession came about because they focused on themselves, to the exclusion of all else, and couldn’t break free from that pattern of thinking to see that their actions had consequences that rippled beyond them.

That’s not to say that a person should be beholden to everyone else’s expectations, especially when those expectations are unreasonable. But there’s a certain amount of give-and-take that can be expected, and ignoring that has its consequences. Maud worried her parents, drawing strangers into the story so that she could be rescued, and her insistence that she was right while everyone else was wrong nearly got multiple people killed, just in the attempt to keep her safe. Henry’s refusal or inability to look outside himself and see that being the Wild Man of Greenhollow involved more than just sitting there and watching/making grass grow was hurting the denizens of the Wood, hurting Henry himself with his isolation and anger and grief. Obsession doesn’t always have to be destructive, but there comes a point where it can become so, where it becomes selfish and harmful, and I think Tesh did a good job of presenting different situations in which this happens.

For most of the story, the relationship between Henry and Tobias was… strained, to say the least. The two had a falling-out, and for good reason, and Henry wavered between trying to rekindle what had once been between them and then deliberately reminding himself that this wasn’t how things were anymore. I have to admit, I wasn’t too keen on that. It does get resolved more toward the end of the novella, but for much of it, I felt like it was going into, “queer people can’t be happy,” territory. Their relationship had failed, their lives would be bitter and lacking without each other, but for legitimately good reasons, trust had been spoiled and being together wasn’t an option for them anymore. And yes, that absolutely happens in relationships, both straight and queer, but it can be tiring to read so many stories where queer couples go through what seems like an inevitable breakup just to bring some tension to the mix. I do like that it was resolved eventually, but the lead-up to that resolution wasn’t exactly enjoyable to read, and I feel like it didn’t really add much to the story.

As interesting as Drowned Country was, I think I liked it less than Silver in the Wood. Partly because of the relationship issues, as I just mentioned, but also partly because in the end, the resolution felt handed to the characters. “Here, have your happy ending, regardless of the fact that you only worked for it for maybe a week, and also the thing causing friction is just gone now so you never have to worry about it again.” It would have been more interesting to see Henry properly come to grips with his new role in life, to pull himself out of his destructive spiral and actually thrive within it, or at least make his peace with it the way Tobias had. Or to take Tobias up on his offer to switch places, for Tobias to resume his role as the Wild Man since he took to it better than Henry did, and for the two of them to live happily that way. Instead, it was just, “Okay, now neither of you has to do this anymore, isn’t that great?!” It felt like a just clear way to wrap up the story, and I do know that this was intended to be a duology and not continue beyond this point, but it was far from satisfying.

I gave this book 3 stars, but if I were to give half-stars in my ratings, it would be 3.5. It wasn’t a bad story, it was well-written, and it definitely had things to say. But the relationship issues and that abrupt ending rather spoiled a lot of it for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the previous novel. Still a good read, and I think most people who liked Silver in the Wood will also like Drowned Country, but for me, it didn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 18, 2019

Summary: There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

Thoughts: This short-and-sweet novella had only been out for around a month by the time I read it, but I had heard so many positive reviews of it during that time that I’m surprised I managed to stay spoiler-free. All I knew upon starting to read was that it was very well received, and that the cover art was striking. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Tobias, a man living in the woods of Greenhollow, solitary but for his cat. And the dryads. And other forest-dwellers that humans tend to not see. And he is quite happy living alone, until Henry Silver, new owner of nearby Greenhollow Hall, stumbles across Tobias’s cabin in the middle of a rainy night, the chance meeting starting a friendship that quickly runs deep and turns to something more romantic. The relationship between Tobias and Henry is very sweet, and very enjoyable to watch develop over the course of the story, a sort of slow-burn attachment that shows great devotion and affection between the two of them, even if nothing particularly salacious happens.

Silver in the Wood deals heavily with folklore. Henry Silver presents himself as something of a folklorist, collecting and analyzing the history and stories from around Greenhollow, in precisely the way early folklorists did. The fear that the old ways and traditions were dying out, replaced by modern conventions with no room for the old ways, was a fear amongst many who studied folklore when the field was young, and those aspects needed to be collected and catalogued to prevent them from being lost to the ages. But Tobias himself is part of the folklore told in the region, the Wild Man of the wood, connected to stories hundreds of years in the making. Tesh appears to have drawn on some very common folklore elements and asked not only, “What if this was real?” but also, “How does the old fit with the new? How long can the old endure before change comes, and what happens when it does?”

Silver in the Wood may be short but it packs in quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned folklore aspects, of course. There’s the question of duty and devotion, and how much one can sacrifice before they lose too much of themselves. There’s the matter of betrayal, and the different ways it can manifest. There’s a strong undercurrent of change and evolution throughout the piece, from Tobias’s slow acceptance of company where he previously kept to himself, the way stories and places change over time, to Tobias’s eventual replacement by Henry, at least after a fashion. It’s the sort of story that, on the surface, looks like a rural fantasy with supernatural elements and a queer romance, and it is those things, but beneath the surface, it’s quite thought-provoking on a variety of subjects and thought experiments.

Written with a deft hand, Silver in the Wood is an evocative and compelling story reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, filled with hints at what lurks in the shadows beneath the trees. But also with light that shines down through the leaves, dappling the ground and inviting you to stay a while and relax. Like the forest, it is both. And like the forest, I will want to visit it again later, to re-immerse myself in the rich atmosphere that feels at once real and mundane, and also like I momentarily pulled back the veil and saw a glimpse of what lay beyond.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Jade City, by Fonda Lee

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 7, 2017

Summary: Jade is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. It has been mined, traded, stolen, and killed for — and for centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their magical abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now, the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone — even foreigners — wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones — from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets — and of Kekon itself.

Thoughts: Jade City is one of those books that can be difficult to talk about, not because I have nothing to say, but because I enjoyed it so much and it’s so incredibly good that it’s hard to know where to begin? The characters? The action? The family drama, the political intrigue? The mind-blowing world-building?

You can see my problem.

Jade, in this book, isn’t exactly the source of magic so much as it’s a magical amplifier and conduit, used by ruling families of Green Bones to enhance their own rigorously trained magic. Peace is generally kept between families, at least of a sort, since families control their respective territories in Kekon, though clashes certainly do happen. But the rough peace is threatened by massive disruption when a new drug hits that allows untrained and untested foreigners to use jade’s power for themselves, and made worse by the discovery that jade mining has been tampered with and a significant amount of jade cannot be accounted for . Tensions both from within and without might destabilize everything held dear and true on Kekon.

And honestly, I am doing this book a massive disservice by trying to summarize it in a handful of sentences. The story is far more complex than that, with textual flavour that I can’t begin to properly convey.

Here we have a world with magic and motorcycles, mysticism and technology not at odds with each other but existing side by side, since the existence of magic doesn’t necessarily mean the stalling of technological advancements. And honestly, I find that an uncommon approach; many authors stick with one or the other and rarely blend the two. Or if both exist in the same world, it’s usually with a schism between them, where magic-users eschew technology because reasons (and never once addressing the hypocrisy behind wearing loom-woven clothes or living in houses made from brick or wood because those things are technology too and please let’s not forget it when declaring “technology bad”). Secondary worlds with magic and modern amenities are uncommon in genre fiction, so yes, it’s nice to see such a world that incorporates both elements so well.

Honestly, the issue of magic and international political intrigue aside, I think if this entire novel had been about the clan warfare and family dramas of the Kaul and Ayt families, I would have enjoyed it just as much. Everything was so intricate, so complex and emotional and real, and it alone could have been an entire book without losing any of the intrigue. The rest was the icing on the cake for me, but the real story was in the people and their lives. Lee’s writing is spectacular; I think after this introduction, I’m more than willing to read just about anything she writes!

I know I am not doing this book true justice. My from my first reading over a year ago, to my more recent reread so that I could tackle the sequel, the primary impression Jade City left on me was, “ASDFGHJK MOAR!” It’s a dirty beautiful world that Lee has written, filled with fascinating characters and a compelling story, and it’s such a wonderful experience that it sinks into you and doesn’t let go easily, and that sort of effect is very difficult to convey in a review.

In a nutshell, if you’re into richly detailed novels filled with political intrigue that also straddle the genre line between secondary-world fantasy and urban fantasy, then yes, absolutely read Jade City! It’s a novel like no other, and I’m very much looking forward to digging into the sequel.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Heirs of Locksley, by Carrie Vaughn

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2020

Summary: The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley—son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian—only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man’s life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day’s work for the Locksley children…

Thoughts: After reading and enjoying The Ghosts of Sherwood, I knew I was up for another tale of Robin Hood’s children. This novella, just as short and easy to pick up as the previous one, is set around 4 years after The Ghosts of Sherwood. Mary is not yet married, having yet to even lay eyes on the man her parents are considering for her husband. Eleanor still does not speak, showing many signs of what we now would likely deem autism. John stands in his father’s shadow, unsure what to do with his life or what he will become.

And now King John is dead, and his young son Henry ascends to the throne.

Robin decides to send John to swear fealty on his behalf, hoping that the two, being closer in age than the new king is to his advisors, will strike up a friendship, placing John in the position of confidant and unofficial (and maybe someday official) advisor. It’s undoubtedly a political move, not one intended to curry favour and gain power so much as help keep his descendants out of disfavour with the man who will, with luck, sit on the English throne for quite some time. John is rather angry about the political side of this move, but he does do what’s suggested, and he does manage to get in good with King Henry, partly due to participating in a semi-impromptu archery contest (alongside his sister Mary, because Mary is a very good shot), and partly after sneaking his way to Henry that night in order to sneak the young king out to engage in some tree-climbing.

Which isn’t a euphemism. John seems appalled that Henry never had the chance to climb trees, and so seeks to rectify the situation. The fun is cut short, however, when the two stumble across an attempted murder in the night, and take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of who and why.

I enjoyed The Heirs of Locksley as much as I enjoyed The Ghosts of Sherwood. I expected a shift in character focus from Mary to John, though it’s not like Mary was completely out of the picture here. The dangling plot thread of “will she actually marry the man her parents wish for her” got tied up nicely, though I can see how it might annoy some readers. She met him, and while it wasn’t love at first sight, they did agree to marriage pretty quickly, still knowing very little about each other. But honestly, that didn’t bother me; it fit the time period and setting. Mary met him, liked how she felt around him and saw that he treated his horses well, figured she could do a lot worse, and so made the decision. The decision didn’t seem out of character for her, so I have no real problems with it.

I also want to take a moment to talk a little about the vibes between John and Henry, and I swear, if there hadn’t been such an age and experience gap between them, I was wondering if there’d be a sparking romance between them in addition to that new friendship. But no, that wasn’t the case, and I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I was surprised, though, by the very strong implication at the end that John was struggling a little to deal with thoughts that men are far more appealing than women.

But this is where I have to confess a little bit of disappointment. I can’t find any information to suggest that this series will be ongoing, everywhere lists this as book 2 of 2, and that dips its toes into problematic territory. Mary gets a story focusing on her, John gets a story focusing on him, but Eleanor, the neurodiverse one, gets nothing with a focus on her? We get hints that John might be gay, but that’s where it all gets cut off and nothing about that gets dealt with after a “maybe he is,” moment? This concern might be rendered moot if more stories are written, but as it stands for now, with no indication that this series will continue, it’s a disappointing place to leave things. I want more fiction with neurodiverse characters. I want more fiction with queer characters. I get disappointed when I run into things that dangle a carrot but don’t actually follow through.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed that this series will continue, that more stories of the Locksley children will be written. The stories are well written, fun to read even for those who, like me, aren’t super familiar with the Robin Hood story, and it would be a big disappointment to end things here, and for multiple reasons.

As with The Ghosts of Sherwood, The Heirs of Locksley is a low-investment read that has a big reward. It’s short, both of them could easily be read in an afternoon, and they’re well-paced well-written adventures that take the reader back to a time of history and folklore, setting the stage in a way that brings the hypothetical to life. I definitely recommend them as quick reads for fans of speculative historical fiction, even if there’s that caveat of how disappointing it will all be if it ends here, after teasing such potential inclusivity.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn

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

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

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

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.)

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.

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.)

Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

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

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

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

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.)