Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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Armstrong’s website / Marr’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 19, 2013

Summary: Gripping original stories of dystopian worlds from nine New York Times bestselling authors, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong.

The world is gone, destroyed by human, ecological, or supernatural causes. Survivors dodge chemical warfare and cruel gods; they travel the reaches of space and inhabit underground caverns. Their enemies are disease, corrupt corporations, and one another; their resources are few, and their courage is tested.

Powerful original dystopian tales from nine bestselling authors offer bleak insight, prophetic visions, and precious glimmers of light among the shards and ashes of a ruined world.

Review: In every dystopian novel, there are countless characters who do things that aren’t worthy of a full book, but are no less interesting to read about. Sometimes authors come up with dystopian settings or concepts they’d like to play with but that can’t really be expanded into a full world as is. And quite frankly, I think an anthology of dystopian stories is a great idea. As burned out as I can get on YA dystopian fiction, I admit that part of that burnout is due to the stories often being transparent until they get ridiculously convoluted. Or else being an idea that is interesting in its own right but when stretched out to novel-length, becomes tedious and pondering. Short stories are a great way to get around this, and even people who feel that the genre is on its way out can find a fair bit to enjoy within a book that takes us to multiple different dystopian worlds to explore multiple different ideas.

Of course, as with any anthology, stories can run the gamut between meh and amazing. So it is with this one too, unsurprisingly. But there were still a few memorably stories in here that I feel are worth pointing out.

Veronica Roth’s Hearken takes place in a world where not only is bio-terrorism a sadly common occurrence, but also certain people can hear songs of life and death with the aid of a special implant. Everybody has such a song, from the moment they’re born until they die, as we all have life and death in our existence. These musically-inclined individuals can play and record the song of someone’s life or death, as requested, a sort of musical record of some of the most existential concepts we really have. The story focuses on Darya, her difficult childhood, and her life leading up to her decision as to whether she wants to focus on songs of life or songs of death. It’s an interesting concept that Roth played with here, and as I mentioned earlier, I doubt it’s one that could fill an entire novel, but it certainly made for a decent short story.

Margaret Stohl’s Necklace of Raindrops was one that I have mixed feelings about, if I’m being honest. The story takes place in a world where life is measured by beads on a necklace. The more beads, the longer your life will be. But people “spend” beads for memorable experiences, like skydiving, or trips to interesting places. A person’s life is a balance between being long and being interesting. You can live for a long time if you don’t spend your beads, but the question is whether such an uninteresting life is really worth it. Taken literally, there are so many logical problems with this story that I don’t even know where to begin. Who decided this? How does the bead system work? Do the spent beads go to someone, who redistributes them? Who decides what experience is worth what cost? And so on. But taken symbolically, it’s a lot more interesting. Stohl writes a metaphor come to life, and to hell with the logistical conundrums! While I like knowing the ins and outs of how a dystopian world is supposed to function, sometimes those details get in the way of a good story, and I commend Stohl for experimenting like this.

Carrie Ryan’s Miasma is set in a world filled with sickness and death, and medicine as we know it has failed. To keep contagion from getting out of hand, there are old-fashioned plague doctors wandering the streets, their bird-like masks hiding more than just their faces but some deeper agenda. They bring with them animals that can sniff out disease like prey. The protagonist, Frankie, knows her younger sister is sick but uses tricks to keep her from being taken away, like bathing in scented water to mask the smell of illness. Pleasant smells, after all, are believed to keep away the evil disease-causing miasma, similar to very old European theories on disease. Of all the stories in this anthology, this was the one I most wanted to see more of. More of the world, more of the characters, more of the deeper plot that’s hinted at as the story goes on. A lot of the others were one-shot short stories, but this one feels like there could be so much more to it, and I’d love to read that.

The other stories in the collection were okay, but none of them really made an impression on me the way these three did. There were plenty of big name authors here to catch your attention if you’re a fan of YA novels (Melissa Marr, in addition to co-editing this collection, also wrote a story for it, as did Kelley Armstrong), but I’ve read surprisingly few of those authors myself, so that wasn’t what pulled me in. I was looking for a quick read and some interesting ideas. This book certainly was a quick read, and there were some interesting ideas indeed, but there were also a number of pretty predictable ones. Definitely fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I think I went into this book expecting something else. It wasn’t bad, not at all, but it also wasn’t something that made a particularly deep impression on me, aside from a few of the stories. As I said, if you’re a fan of the authors whose stories are included here, or you’re a fan of YA dystopian stories in general, then this anthology might be right up your alley, and I encourage you to check it out if you’re able to. But if you don’t fall into those categories, I don’t think you’ll find too much here that will appeal to you. So, mostly for YA and YA dystopia fans, I think.

 

Marked, by Sue Tingey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: In a world filled with charlatans, Lucinda “Lucky” de Salle’s psychic ability has always made her an outcast, even as it has also made her a sought-after (if reluctant) investigator of paranormal phenomena. With no remaining family and very few friends, she has only one “person” she can rely on–Kayla, the ghost girl who has been her constant companion since she was born.

When Lucky is called in to investigate a spectral disturbance at the all-girls school she attended as a child, she isn’t surprised. She herself had had a terrifying confrontation with the troubled spirits of two girls who died in the attic room. But when Lucky goes up to the attic, she discovers that the vicious little girls are the least of the problem–a demon has been released into this world, a creature of such malevolence that even the spirits of the two girls are afraid. When the demon demands that Kayla be handed over to him, Lucky realizes that this case will be like no other she has ever experienced.

For one thing, it seems that her chatty, snarky spirit companion is not what she has always seemed to be…

Review: Sue Tingey;s debut novel, Marked, centres around Lucky, a paranormal investigator with psychic powers, and quite frankly, she doesn’t want them. They haven’t done her much good in life, and her abilities have served to alienate her from friends, family, and any potential romantic relationships she may have developed over time. She isolates herself, sticking instead to the company of Kayla, a ghost who has been Lucky’s friend and companion for years. Ghosts, she’s used to.

Demons, not so much.

And demons now seem to want to get very familiar with her.

Sue Tingey’s Marked is one of those books where, just when you think you get a proper handle on where the story is going, it changes direction and you end up in a different place entirely. It’s not out of the question to think, from the early pages and the back-of-the-book description, that this is going to be a book mostly about investigating a haunting, or hauntings, and maybe things escalate when it turns out it’s not just ghosts involved but actual demons. Only then new information comes to light which shifts the tone and sends the plot spiraling in a new direction. This does well to keep the reader engaged, to keep us wondering what plot twist will be just around the next corner.

In my opinion, the book really takes off once Lucky’s heritage is revealed, and the Underlands come into play. I tend to enjoy books that involve “fish out of water” experiences, especially where culture is involved, so seeing Lucky try to navigate a new society and figure out what’s going on around her when social norms are different from what she’s used to was just plain entertaining, at least for me. That being said, though, it did create some awkward moments when Lucky companions, mostly male, kept telling her not to do things, or outright blocking her from doing things, “for her own good.” I understand that they knew the society and world better than she did, but scenes like that always make me cringe a bit, because they echo so many incidents in the real world, where men tell women how to do things “for their own good,” without any thought to what they might want or need. Especially when most of the advice for Lucky was, “Stay quiet and let us do the talking for you.”

In many ways, Marked feels like a typical YA novel written up for adults. Which is no bad thing, really. Plenty of adults enjoy YA. I enjoy YA sometimes. No shame in it. But what I mostly mean is that Marked follows a fairly standard SFF YA novel formula. “Main character is different, discovers something about them that makes them even more different and special, is involved in a love triangle, and is part of a book written in first-person POV.” Props to Tingey, though, since I was at least interested in the love triangle this time around; most of the time, I roll my eyes and wish that trope could die a death. Rarely does it actually add any tension or interest to the story, and it’s been done so many times that it’s pretty much an industry standard, and I’m rather tired of that. If an author has to rely on, “Which guy will the girl pick?” as a way of manufacturing tension, then the rest of the story isn’t actually that interesting. Give me tension cause by the plot, not just the romance.

Which Tingey does, to be fair. And the characters are far more than just pretty faces and their positions within said triangle, which helps. Jaime and Jinx each had their own motivations beyond an interest in Lucky, and vice versa, so I can let this trope pass because it wasn’t the all-consuming issue that a lot of authors make it.

So why isn’t this book rated higher than 3 stars? Honestly, I think I’d give it 3.5 if I have half-star ratings here, as I think it’s somewhere between good and very good. While it definitely has moments of good creativity and some interesting characters, and even threw a curveball or two, it was still pretty formulaic in a lot of ways. I like Lucky’s sass, but I’m not so fond of yet another story being told about a woman who’s super special, most special of all the special people. Stories don’t often get told about mundane people, sure, but this story could have been told in the same way without Lucky also inspiring the loyalty of multiple different factions of supernatural entity, as well as being given a dragon. A freaking dragon.

(Don’t get my wrong. I love that dragon. It’s awesome. But it’s another sign of Lucky’s super specialness, and when combined with everything else, it actually loses some of the special value because damn near everything about her is special and unique. Pyrites becomes part of Lucky’s uniqueness overload.)

Is Marked a bad book? Not at all. It was a fun read, and there’s plenty to enjoy about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was well-paced, written quite well, and full of interesting characters and situations to move the story along. But it did suffer in some areas, and when it did have flaws, they were pretty glaring flaws.

Other people might not have the same problems with it that I did, especially if they’re more fans of the formula than I am. I’m interested in read the sequel at some point, to be sure, because I do want to see where the story leads and how everything plays out. I can overlook a lot of what I didn’t like about the book because other parts have such appeal. I think that says a lot. I’d call it a light read, the kind of thing I’d turn to when I’m in the mood for a book that doesn’t tax me or make me think too deeply about things, something where I just want to get lost in the action and ignore heavier issues. It’s definitely good for that.

So if you’re a fan of YA paranormal novels but fancy something that’s written more for adults, then definitely take a look at Marked.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 1, 2016

Summary: Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s working with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police to get to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than either of them originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Review: It’s an old idea: What if the Allies didn’t win World War II? But rather than have yet another story about how America gets taken over by Nazis and the valiant few resist, Tieryas takes a different approach and instead has America run by the Japanese instead. Geographically, this makes perfect sense. Politically, it would be easier for the Nazi government to leave North America (I assume Canada’s probably involved in this too, though to be honest, I can’t remember if it was mentioned in the story) to the Japanese when they themselves have Europe to contend with. Thus, the United States of Japan were born.

I expected to really enjoy this book. I like things involving Japanese culture, and even though I’ve been burned so many times in the past by inaccurate representation, I keep hoping and going back to Japanese-inspired fiction to see if this time, it gets better. And to be fair, Tieryas didn’t do a bad job in this regard. It helps that most of the Japanese aspects involved fervent nationalism, the sort that could come out of any imperial regime, only with a particular Japanese flavour to it. Portrayal of life in Japan or typical Japanese culture was absent, largely due to the fact that this book did not actually take place in Japan. It took place in the United States, heavily influenced by Japan but not Japan itself. It was actually a rather clever way of getting around most of the issues I typically have with fiction involving Japan, and for that, I have to give Tieryas credit.

But I didn’t end up enjoying the book as much as I expected, and partly due to those expectations, United States of Japan left me feeling more disappointed than anything.  The story is mostly a mystery surrounding the idea that society is threatened by a video game that presents the question: what if the Allies had won World War II? Rather, the Japanese regime is threatened by the idea that anti-Japanese and pro-American sentiments might by stirred up by such an popular underground video game, and they want it hunted down and wiped out, and Captain Ishimura is apparently the man for the job. He tracks and censors video games for a living, so who better to judge what should be censored in this forbidden game? Together with a ruthless secret agent, he works to uncover the dark truth behind the video game and its disturbing origins.

So what was it that I didn’t like about this book? So far everything I’ve mentioned sounds positive, even interesting. Partly, it was the characters themselves. While they felt distinct, distinguishable from each other in many ways, they also felt rather flat and largely lifeless, as though they were playing roles rather than being themselves through the whole story. I felt no connection to either of them, no particular interest in what they were doing or thinking. Not being able to connect enough to characters to find interest in their actions, which drive the entire story, can really spoil a book for readers.

Now, I’m aware that this was a personal experience and that many people probably won’t have the same reaction when reading United States of Japan. It might have been a disconnect between myself and the writing style, which I found a bit lifeless, or it might have been that the characters themselves just didn’t hold any particular appeal to me and wouldn’t have done so even if they were written by somebody else whose writing I typically enjoy. That happens sometimes, and it’s nobody’s fault so much as it’s just an accident of circumstance. I’m not blaming Tieryas for writing dull characters or for not having the writing chops to make his story interesting. On the whole, the concept behind the novel was a fascinating one, and one that was definitely worth exploring. It just didn’t connect with me.

I did, admittedly, find the level of technology in the book more than a little unbelievable. I know that was part of the point, to play on some stereotypical images of superior Japanese technology and turn them into an in-universe reality, but there’s only so far I can suspend my disbelief. I could probably accept advanced video game technology that rivals that of today’s tech, even though this novel takes place in the 1980s. It takes a bit of mind-twisting, but it’s not entirely outside the realm of possibility. The giant mechs that are used for military purposes, though? They’re visually impressive, and they’re a classic of Japanese sci-fi, but they’re utterly unrealistic, and their presence in the story was actually a low point rather than a high point with lots of action.

Combine that with a lack of interest in the characters (leading to a lack of interest in plot progression, and in the end, no matter how good Tieryas’s ideas or writing were, I just didn’t feel engaged, or compelled to continue with any other books in the series. Shame, because Tieryas clearly has some creativity at play here, and the ability to think beyond the typical when it comes to thought experiments, but overall, I think I can safely say that this just wasn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Closer to the Heart, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 6, 2015

Summary: Herald Mags, Valdemar’s first official Herald Spy, is well on his way to establishing a coterie of young informants, not only on the streets of Haven, but in the kitchens and Great Halls of the highborn and wealthy as well.

The newly appointed King’s Own Herald, Amily, although still unsure of her own capability in that office, is doing fine work to support the efforts of Mags, her betrothed. She has even found a way to build an army of informants herself, a group of highly trained but impoverished young noblewomen groomed to serve the highborn ladies who live at Court, to be called “The Queens’s Handmaidens.”

And King Kyril has come up with the grand plan of turning Mags and Amily’s wedding into a low-key diplomatic event that will simultaneously entertain everyone on the Hill and allow him to negotiate behind the scenes with all the attending ambassadors―something which had not been possible at his son Prince Sedric’s wedding.

What could possibly go wrong?

The answer, of course, is “everything.”

For all is not well in the neighboring Kingdom of Menmellith. The new king is a child, and a pretender to the throne has raised a rebel army. And this army is―purportedly―being supplied with arms by Valdemar. The Menmellith Regency Council threatens war. With the help of a ragtag band of their unlikely associates, Mags and Amily will have to determine the real culprit, amass the evidence to convince the Council, and prevent a war nobody wants―

―and, somewhere along the way, get married.

Review: Stories about Mags seem to be Mercedes Lackey’s current passion when it comes to Valdemar, as there are currently two series involving this character in a central role. I don’t think any other character of hers can claim an equal amount of time in the spotlight, and previously, starting a new series in the Valdemar timeline, even if familiar characters were involved, typically switched to a new primary character or characters. I think the only other character who could come close to claiming that would be  The Herald Spy series in general offers a bit of a break from that tradition.

Which is fine enough, since Mags finds himself tangled up in numerous kingdom-changing issues. But for my part, I find Mags one of the least interesting Heralds to read about. Much of what he does seems small in comparison to things done by other characters in other novels. Vanyel was the most powerful and last Herald-Mage for a long time in Valdemar. Elspeth was central in bringing magic back to Valdemar. Even Karal, who mostly got caught up in events bigger than himself, was instrumental in saving the world from the backlash of a historical magical apocalypse. Mags? I think so far his biggest claim to fame is all in the title of the series: he’s a spy. He works in secret to uncover events and does his job in stopping enemies to the Crown.

Maybe this is what Lackey meant all those years ago when she said she’d someday write stories about a more typical Herald, one less involved with giant world-changing things.

Closer to the Heart is told from both Mags’s and Amily’s viewpoints. Amily, being King’s Own, is heavily involved with court intrigue, whereas Mags does his part to don disguises and ferret out wrongdoing in other parts of Haven. When word reaches them that a rebel force in a neighbouring kingdom is acquiring and stockpiling Valdemaran weapons somehow, it’s up to them to uncover the truth behind the plot. And that involves confronting some painful memories for Mags, as the mystery takes him back to the heart of mining country, where he was once enslaved.

That’s the meat of the plot. There are definitely side plots, as are typical in Valdemar stories, and mostly they consist of the little ways that Amily and Mags seek to make initiatives that can improve lives for people. Mags has his group of messengers that report anything odd to him, and makes connections with a neuroatypical man who has the uncanny ability to make anything. Amily gets involved in a program to train overlooked and underappreciated women as handmaidens, so that they’re offered opportunity for advancement and are also well-placed to be eyes-and-ears for additional wrongdoings amongst the nobility. Little steps toward social improvement, which are great, though I can only assume that at least whatever Amily set up with her handmaiden project doesn’t pan out in the long-run, because this is something that’s never mentioned in any form during books that take place further along on the Valdemar timeline.

All of this sounds like an interesting story with plenty of social commentary and the notion of small ideas that, with proper support, can change lives for the better. And on its own, this would be a pretty good book. Nothing amazing, but still enjoyable, the kind of book that makes for good comfort reading.

But this is the second book in the series that feels like a one-shot rather than a piece of something larger. In the first book, Amily and Mags foil a Romeo-and-Juliet-esque plot that could have resulted in noble families warring or else being utterly destroyed. In this book, they foil a plot that might have seen Valdemar and Menmellith go to war over someone’s dislike of a political situation. And that’s it. Unlike the first series starring Mags, where each book generally told a contained story and yet contained hints of a larger overarching story to come, the Herald Spy series has so far just been a couple of self-contained stories with no connection to each other beyond characters and linear sequence. There’s nothing to tie them together. There’s no hint that Amily and Mags are part of anything larger than any other Herald, which begs the question of why are we reading about them? Yes, Heralds do wonderful things and, for many readers, have an element of wish fulfillment (I’m sure most Valdemar fans have contemplated being Heralds at some point), but there’s nothing here that’s made me go, “Ah, yes, this is why we’re reading about these two instead of, say, Jakyr or Lena or even Dia.” Who are all doing their own important things too.

I’ll be honest; while I enjoyed this book as I was reading it, and felt the usual comfort I get from diving back into Valdemar, a mere two weeks after finishing it, I couldn’t remember what happened. I had no touchpoint. I couldn’t think of what happened in Closer to Home and remind myself that the story established there continued on. And that’s its biggest downfall. Closer to the Heart is adrift, with no plot connections to tie it to anything else that’s happened previously. It doesn’t feel like part of an actual series. On its own, taken as a one-shot that happens after the Collegium Chronicles, it would be a pretty good and enjoyable story, because you don’t expect it to tie into anything else. But in context, knowing that it’s part of a series, it comes across poorly, with no central plot arc to bring it all together, and I’m left mostly with the impression that Mags’s story would probably have been best ended after the final book in the Collegium Chronicles.

I hate to have such a mixed opinion of a Valdemar novel. They’ve brought me so much comfort and enjoyment through my life, and even now I’ll still reread trilogies I’ve already read a dozen times over, because I enjoy them that much. I like many of the themes the books address, like social justice, optimism, the ideal that those who have authority over us are held to higher standards. Those things will always appeal to me, even in my darkest times, because they give me hope that great things can arise from the darkness and then thrive. But I’m starting to feel burned out on Valdemar, because the past few books have offered me very little in that regard. The elements are still there, but it feels more superficial, like there isn’t really a story that needs to be told anymore. I’m not going to say it’s just a cash-grab, because maybe the sequel to this book will surprise me by being a masterful showpiece of how disparate story elements can come together if you’re patient, but even so, a multi-book slow burn is a lot to ask of readers, and the books about Mags have held none of the excitement I came to expect from the Valdemar novels over the years. Not since Foundation, anyway.

You can argue that this series is all about personal growth, but really, other characters in other series manage personal growth just fine, and they do so while being part of a larger story. Also, you don’t see much personal growth from them. You see social development and the implementation of ideas more than you see any development in either Mags or Amily’s characters.

In the end, I’m of the opinion that Closer to the Heart is okay, but don’t expect much from it. It’s got a message of hope to it, and it’s interesting to see Mags confront the idea that a mining community can be anything but what he experienced of it, but it’s a story best appreciated for its surface elements and not for what you may hope lies underneath. And also best taken out of context and respected for being the one-shot it really is, rather than part of a series.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, by J K Rowling, Jack Thorne, and John Tiffany

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 31, 2016

Summary: It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Review: I’m a big fan of the Harry Potter series. The books have their problems, there’s no denying that, but overall I find them a good set of stories that age along with the kids they’re intended for, have some good humour, and are just fun to read. It’s a universe I enjoy jumping back into every now and again, for the comfort and nostalgia that the books bring.

That being said, I opened The Cursed Child with some amount of trepidation. The story was pretty much over at the end of the original seventh book, plus this was all in screenplay format, and everything I’d heard said it was merely so-so.

And at the end? I rather agree with that sentiment.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is less the story of Harry Potter and more the story of one of his kids, Albus. Coupled with the cutest damn Malfoy to ever exist, Scorpius. After being sorted into Slytherin because of reasons that aren’t exactly adequately explained (seriously, most of the character traits that sound Slytherin-eqsue largely came about as reactions because he was sorted into Slytherin), Albus feels like he doesn’t really have a place within his family, nor does his father understand him. He has a strongly biased view of his father, similar in many ways to how Draco Malfoy’s bitterness toward Harry demonstrated through the core series. After overhearing a conversation between Harry and the ailing Amos Diggory, Albus decides that he can do something that Harry himself was never able to do: save Cedric. He thus drags Scorpius along on a time-traveling adventure to save Cedric from Voldemort.

And if that sounds like any number of fanfics out there, you won’t be far off the mark.

Be warned: from here on out there are going to be a crapton of spoilers for this story, because I have a lot to say about it and many things won’t make sense unless I talk in detail about the plot. If you don’t want spoilers, then don’t highlight the invisible paragraphs. I also assume you’re familiar enough with how to rest of the series went, so if you’re not, then spoiler warnings for that too.

The whole thing is a quick read, thanks to the fact that all you’re reading is dialogue and stage directions, which is nice because it means you’re not actually sticking around too long within any given section that may or may not actually make sense. Albus and Scorpius decide that the best way to prevent Cedric’s death is to make sure that he doesn’t make it to the final task in the Triwizard Tournament, thus never encountering Voldemort in the first place. Solid plan. So they decide to use the world’s last Time-Turner to go back in time, and steal his wand in the first event, evidently ignoring the idea that this may result in him being roasted to death by a dragon anyway.

Accomplishing this sends them rocketing forward into a different timeline. One in which Ron and Hermione never married because they went to the Yule Ball with each other and realised after one dance apparently that it wouldn’t work out (ignoring every bit of jealousy Ron displayed prior to that event, and Hermione’s feelings to boot), Hermione turns into a clone of Snape in terms of personality (openly calling Albus an idiot in class, for instance, and this personality shift is never explained but I think we’re supposed to assume it’s because she’s secretly bitter about Ron marrying someone else, I guess…), and other minor changes to the timeline. Plus Cedric still died, so Albus and Scorpius take a trip back in time once more and try to head Cedric off at the second task instead.

And here’s where the plot starts to fall apart in a huge way. They decide to humiliate Cedric in that task, which evidently doesn’t sit well with him, because humiliation made Cedric decide to be a Death Eater. And to kill Neville. Who consequently never killed Nagini, and thus Harry couldn’t eliminate all the Horcruxes, and Voldemort survived and took over.

But here’s the thing: that sounds utterly unlike Cedric. We see little of him in the fourth book, but what we see doesn’t make me think that people laughing at him would make him go Dark. Also, this timeline’s existence relies on the notion that absolutely nobody but Neville could kill Nagini (this is Scorpius’s explanation for why Voldemort took over, which goes counter to something he says later about prophecy and destiny being mutable and able to be thwarted; you can chalk that up to it being his realization, but that means he was likely wrong about Neville being that sole key figure in Voldemort’s downfall, so then we’re back to the question of why that timeline happened in that way to begin with). Snape lives and is helping Hermione and Ron subvert Voldemort and his Dark government, which also makes no sense because a) Hermione and Ron have no reason to trust him that we can see (the reason they knew he was secretly working for Dumbledore all along is because of Snape giving his memories to Harry just before he died), and b) if we assume everything else played out the same except for Neville’s absence and inability to kill Nagini, then by the time that happened, Snape was already dead, killed by Voldemort to get the Elder Wand.

…Maybe Trelawney’s prophecy was secretly about Neville all along…

Then we get to the second half of the play, which involves — I kid you not — Voldemort’s daughter having manipulated this all along in order to fulfill a prophecy to bring back her father. This involves her going back in time in order to convince Voldemort to not attempt to kill the Potters, thus never causing the backlash that semi-killed him and created the protection around Harry, and thus preventing the creation of the only person that could apparently kill him in the future.

An interesting idea, but similar to the issue with Neville, it also assumes that nobody but Harry could ever have killed Voldemort. That nobody else could ever have discovered the secret of his Horcrux collection and worked out a way to destroy them. I’m sure it’s supposed to be playing on the idea that one person really can make a world of difference, but it comes off more like saying only that person can make a difference. Prophecies are flexible, but things are only ever supposed to work out one exact way.

And it may seem nitpicky to say, but this scene breaks with book canon, because everyone who traveled back in time to thwart the thwarting saw the Potters exit their house.

Their house that was established to essentially be invisible to anyone who didn’t expressly know where it was, as divulged by a Secret Keeper.

This bit makes more sense if all you’ve ever known of the story was what the movies told you, because that didn’t get brought up in the movies at all. But in the books, it was a huge plot point that the Potters knew they were targets, and so a powerful spell was cast on their home to make it secret. Peter Pettigrew knew that secret, and told it to Voldemort, which is how he knew where to go that fateful night. You could argue that because the spell wasn’t in effect when Harry found it during the book’s timeline, then it didn’t matter if anyone else knew about it when he told them, but at that point in the past, it was under a spell. It wouldn’t be a very safe sort of secret if people who already knew about it kept knowing. Then Voldemort could have just tortured their mailman for information. Nobody should have been able to see them leave the house at that point.

And yet…

The whole thing with Delphini being Voldemort’s daughter was just painful, to be honest. It’s hard to imagine Voldemort condescending to even do that, but according to the timeline Delphini admits to, she was born shortly before the Battle of Hogwarts, which means that her mother (Bellatrix Lestrange) was heavily pregnant through many scenes she appeared in and yet nobody noticed. She also fought in that battle soon after giving birth, because apparently women bounce back from that like it’s nothing.

This is part of my biggest problem with the story in The Cursed Child. Not only does it make some truly impressive leaps of logic when it comes to the rippling effects of small changes to the timeline, but it also outright ignores established canon. It’s not the first story to do this. It certainly won’t be the last. But it’s extremely frustrating every time it happens, because I can never shake the feeling that if it’s a plot hole I can spot, the creator should have been able to spot it with greater accuracy.

Maybe it’s just easier to assume that this whole this canonizes multiple universes, and that bookverse and movieverse are both just canon on different timelines. That doesn’t erase my other issues, and it does call into question issues of canon within the movies themselves, but it at least can explain away this one problem.

As for characterization, well, some characters were fairly on point. Others? Not by a long shot. Ron gets turned entirely into the comic relief guy in the primary timeline; running the joke shop would be one thing, but figuring that a snack in the Hogwarts kitchens takes priority over finding his missing nephew? Cedric, when encountered in the maze during a time travel event, talks like a knight from a bad fantasy novel. When we see Snape in the Dark world timeline, he acts like he’s really Sirius pretending to be Snape. I already mentioned Hermione’s random personality switch; she acts like she’s really Snape not even attempting to pretend to be Hermione. Harry and normal!Hermione were pretty decent and recognizable, but I think the book’s biggest saving grace was that most of it surrounds characters who didn’t already have established personalities to begin with, so nothing about them really seems out of place.

For my part, I loved Scorpius. The word adorkable fits him perfectly. I enjoyed seeing more development of Draco, not just as an antagonistic counterpart to Harry but as a loving father and a grieving husband who made some monumental mistakes in the past but not without reason, and not without redemption. Albus may have been a bit of an emo teenager, but I could relate to him to a degree, that sense of feeling out of place around the people who are supposed to give you stability, feeling lost and alone and like only one person in the world actually gets you. I loved seeing the conflict between him and Harry, the rifts that come between people even in good families. I liked the idea that people can still love and support you even when you don’t always get along. So even while some characters were mere caricatures of the people I’d come to expect, there was still enough in other characters to make dealing with them a treat.

Then there’s the Trolley Lady. I just… good gods, the Trolley Lady. That scene was one long “WTF did I just read?” moment.

In the end, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a story that was fun so long as you don’t think too hard about it. It had some plot holes you could drop a piano through, but it also had some good moments, and some lovable characters to discover. It’s worth reading for curiosity’s sake, but I wouldn’t take it too seriously, nor expect much of it, because it fails to deliver. I feel a bit saddened by the fact that I’m essentially saying you won’t be that disappointed if your expectations are low, but that really does sum up how I felt about this whole screenplay. It was okay, but not great, and not a patch on the core series.

Black Fairy Tale, by Otsuichi

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Author’s Wikipedia page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 10, 2016

Summary: A raven who has learned to speak from watching movies befriends a young girl whose eyes were ruined in a freak accident. He brings her eyeballs he steals from other people, and when she puts them in her eye sockets, she sees memories from their original owners. Desperate to make the girl happy, the raven brings her more and more eyeballs. This is also the story of a young girl, Nami, who has lost her memories and cannot seem to live up to the expectations of those around her. The stories intertwine in a haunting, dreamy, horrific narrative evoking the raw and universal need for love.

Thoughts: This is a very strange book, one that’s easy for me to talk about but difficult for me to feel like I’m reviewing properly. It starts off rather slow, picks up in intrigue, throws in a whole load of body horror, slows right down again, and then kind of ambles along with the rest of the supernatural mystery that makes up the majority of the book, tying it all together near the end. As far as YA novels go, I can’t say I’ve ever read anything else like it, and even now I’m not entirely sure what I think about it.

It starts off with a fairy tale about a raven, who learns to talk and develops a friendship with a little blind girl who doesn’t realise that her conversation partner isn’t human. The raven begins stealing eyes for her, and wearing those eyes gives the girl glimpses into the lives of the people they were stolen from. Only she begins to have nightmares of a terrifying black monster who attacks and kills people, the last memory stored in the stolen eyes.

Then we cut to Nami, who loses an eye in a terrible accident, and along with the eye loses her memory. She gets a transplanted replacement, which starts to show her memories from its previous owner when it gets visual triggers, and Nami begins to unravel not only the life of her new eye’s donor, but also the circumstances surrounding his death. Her lack of memories and change in personality causes heartbreaking friction with her family and friends, and she decides to leave home and travel to the donor’s hometown, to solve the mystery behind his demise.

Eventually we get a third perspective, cut in between Nami’s chapters, where we follow Shun Miki and his strange and terrible power to prevent death. It’s very specific, and rather stomach-churning. He can inflict wounds on creatures and the wounds will neither get infected nor cause death, no matter what he does. He starts out, as any young psychopath does, on insects, moving to animals, and eventually trying his abilities on humans. This is where the body horror begins, and if you’re squeamish, I urge you to be cautious with this book because you will be reading about people grafted to each other, flayed alive (and kept alive, because none of the wounds inflicted cause harm) and their innards played with and repositioned, and similar. I found these chapters particularly difficult to read, since body horror is, evidently, one of my squicks.

As the story progresses, it becomes clear that Shun Miki’s activities were discovered by the young man whose eye is now in Nami’s possession, but the mystery is in his true identity, and the story is mostly Nami trying to uncover that and bring closure to a very weird set of events. This is partly why the story moves so slowly. Nami speaks to a lot of people around town, thinks she finds the right info, only to run into obstacles, rinse and repeat. Standard mystery fare, in that regard. Not much action or tension really occurs until near the end (and when it does, be prepared again for more body horror), leaving Nami’s chapters feeling slow and Miki’s feeling weirdly uninteresting, largely because he’s so lacking in emotion to begin with. His manipulations of the human body leave him more curiously detached than anything else, and so in addition to the uncomfortable material presented in his sections of the story, most of the driving force is in seeing into the mind of someone who’s extremely mentally ill. Nami’s sections are by far the most interesting, I’d say.

Otsuichi has a knack for disturbing material, there’s no denying that. As slow as the story can be sometimes, there’s a bit of trainwreck appeal to it all, because you want to keep reading and see the gory details laid bare before you. The biggest drawback that I’ve seen to his writing so far (assuming the translator has done a decent job with translation, that is, since I don’t have the skill to read the original version) is in the way the story is so distanced from the reader. We always see the action, but are never a part of it. The story’s good, the writing’s good, but I’ve found that I haven’t really been able to sink into the book the way I can others; it seems like I’m always just in the helicopter, circling overhead and watching it all happen rather than really riding on the shoulders of the characters themselves.

While the raven story at the beginning may seem weird and a bit of a non-sequitor, it does tie back in eventually, which made me happy since at first it seemed like it was a very weird and inappropriate introduction. But it serves to drive home a big theme that runs through all 3 different stories: doing the wrong things for the right reasons. Or at least, what you believe are the right reasons. The raven attacks and disfigures people because he wants to make the little girl happy. Nami runs away from home and leaves behind the scraps of her life in an attempt to solve a murder mystery. Miki assaults and manipulates people’s bodies to his own curiosity, but also to save and prolong their lives, and he does what he can to keep his victims comfortable. Everyone makes mistakes, everyone does horrible things in the belief that they’re doing the right thing for someone.

So, did I like this book? Yes and no. It was written well, the story was compelling, and I think it would make a great horror movie, but the distanced feel throughout, combined with the discomfort I got from the sheer amount of body horror, made it too uncomfortable to really say that I enjoyed it. It was interesting, and definitely an uncommon offering on the YA bookshelves, but I don’t think I’d read it again, and I can’t say that it will appeal to a wide audience. Learning to tell the difference between something bad and something that I didn’t like (and similarly, the difference between something that’s good and something that I did like) is tough, but I think in the end I can say that yes, this was a good book, but no, I didn’t really like it. But your mileage may vary; it body horror doesn’t get to you the same way it gets to me, you might well find Black Fairy Tale to be a classic of YA J-horror novels. It has the potential, for certain.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sea of Shadows, by Kelley Armstrong

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 8, 2014

Summary: Twin sisters Moria and Ashyn were marked at birth to become the Keeper and the Seeker of Edgewood, beginning with their sixteenth birthday. Trained in fighting and in the secret rites of the spirits, they lead an annual trip into the Forest of the Dead. There, the veil between the living world and the beyond is thinnest, and the girls pay respect to the spirits who have passed.

But this year, their trip goes dreadfully wrong.

Review: Kelley Armstrong has made waves with her previous books, both for adult and YA audiences. Sea of Shadows is the beginning of a YA fantasy series that will probably appeal to many, but from where I stand it had a few problems that made it seem (and I feel bad saying this) like an attempt by a writer early in their career, to make something big by combining aspects of popular fields into a not-quite-cohesive whole.

For the most part, the story itself is quite interesting, with a pair of independent female protagonists, Ashyn and Moria, who both complement each other (as twins) and are still able to stand on their own, their personalities distinct. Their combined job is to keep and calm the evil twisted spirits that live in the nearby Forest of the Dead. But naturally, fate throws a wrench into the works and evil escapes, slaughters their village, and the twins set off on their respective journeys to get help and to find the few survivors that escaped the carnage. Along the way they meet new people with their own agendas, creatures of myth and legend, and a more sinister plot than they could have guessed.

The tone was unexpectedly dark, with more blood and death than I normally see in a YA fantasy, which was impressive. The more dialogue-heavy parts are balanced fairly well by the many action scenes. The romantic subplots were fairly predictable: one sister gravitates to a strong and quiet warrior with a shady past, the other gravitates to an outlaw with a heart of slightly tarnished gold. Not the most original, but I’ll grant you that at least the characters were developed more than it sounds in the brief description I’m giving. The romance may have been a bit contrived, but it wasn’t central to the plot, and the characters were built beyond the mere concept of “love interest.” My previous experience with Armstrong’s YA offerings hold true here: the characters she writes are flawed and largely realistic, the dialogue is more than decent, and the narrative is smooth with plenty of clear imagery.

My biggest problem with this book is that it tries, and fails, to integrate aspects of Japan into a setting that’s mostly based on traditional European fantasy. Sometimes this works, such as a quick and simple line about Ashyn and Moria’s diet being rice-based and that they eat with chopsticks. That sort of thing gives me little hints about the world and sheds light on the culture without having large infodumps. But some attempts are less effective, such as the attempt to blend European and Japanese names to the point where we get Tyrus Tatsu and Gavril Kitsune. Clan names serving as surnames, mostly, which is another glimpse into wider worldbuilding, except that it there doesn’t seem to be any reason for the smooshing of two different and distinct language types like this. Even a simple one-liner like, “Clan names are based on an ancient language that is no longer spoken but that we still retain some knowledge of.” That wouldn’t be great, but it would be better than what’s actually there, which leaves many of the names feeling mismatched and out of place.

Then there are the Katakana mountains, which is the most baffling random use of Japanese in this book. I’m torn between two thoughts on this one: either the author found a random Japanese word she thought people would recognize and named a fictional mountain range after it just because, or else the mountain range coincidentally resembles a set of written characters used to express foreign words. Things like this were what made it feel like any little dribbles of Japanese language or culture that were added to the story were there largely to capitalize on the still-ongoing Japanese craze in North America, thanks in no small part to the proliferation of anime and manga. It detracted much more than it added.

Still, the book wasn’t bad, and the story that Armstrong is setting up definitely has merit. There’s a deeper plot at work than what was initially presented, and my attention was caught enough to want to see it through to the end, in spite of the problems I have with the book. It’s my hope that Armstrong will eventually reveal a reason for her bizarre use of Japanese, if indeed there is a legitimate reason for it; if not, I admit that it makes it hard for me to take the book seriously or give much credit to the author’s ability to blend multiple elements into a smooth story. But the smooth narrative style alone could have me coming back for future installments, so despite reservations, I’m probably still willing to give the sequel a try.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2016

Summary: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Review: Sleeping Giants is a book that seems to be getting a load of very positive reviews, especially considering that this is apparently the author’s debut novel. It’s a shame, then, that I won’t be another voice chiming in with that positivity. This is a time when my voice is going to go a bit counter to others, because I really just didn’t enjoy Sleeping Giants that much.

I’m going to start out on a positive note and say that I can’t deny the premise of the novel is a really interesting one. The hand of what looks like a giant statue is discovered purely by accident as a young girl falls into the hole that reveals it. With that starts something that spans decades, following the discovery of the rest of the statue’s pieces, putting them together, and learning just what it’s all for in the first place. It comes across as something very much inspired by mech anime, and for those who are fans of such, then I can see that Sleeping Giants would be very appealing. And really, even for people such as myself, for whom mech-heavy anime holds very little appeal, the story and the slow reveals were decently interesting, and I was curious about how it would come together in the end. The statue appears to be older than any human civilization that could have built it, is made to be controlled by people with different physiology than humans possess, and that’s even before you bring the fun ramifications of international politics into the mix, since the statue’s pieces were scattered all across the planet, requiring often-illegal trips into foreign territory to recover them.

But premise and story alone aren’t always enough to carry a novel. As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment, and this was one of those times for me. The story is unveiled not through typical narration but through a collection of reports with a couple of journal entries thrown in along the way. The reports are mostly interviews and briefings with the team members working on the statue, and the occasional politician. So nearly every single piece of this book is told, essentially, through dialogue. Which, on one hand, may set it up to be a fantastic audiobook experience, but I don’t think it worked very well as a written one. The dialogue felt clunky at times, more like how people write rather than how people speak, and rarely did it feel like I was actually reading what people said so much as I was reading a cleaned-up version transcribed by someone who got creative with editing. There were no “um”s and “er”s, no idiosyncrasies of real speech, except when reading the interviews with a character who stutters. So even the representation of speech was inconsistent.

(The stutter issue is one that comes up a lot in books, I find, where authors attempt to convey speech disorders through text only when it’s a chronic issue, and rarely doing the same thing when non-stuttering characters fumble words. It has the unfortunate effect of presenting things as normal vs abnormal, notable only in how it divides a character with a speech disorder from other characters who don’t, and I’ve noticed such portrayals talked about as sore spots with people who have trouble communicating verbally. Something to consider, I guess.)

It was, to be fair, a bold and unconventional way to convey the story. Breaking away from standards and expectations, and I do have to give Neuvel credit for taking an unusual approach and experimenting with presentation, but it really just didn’t work for me. The style felt too weird for me to properly get at a lot of the substance.

Add to that the fact that it was a slow-moving story to begin with, with a sense of time that’s hard to pin down because it spans years and the only way you can tell is because characters literally mention that it’s been so many months since something previously mentioned (none of the reports were dated), and you’ve got a novel that I think can appeal to a particular type of person, but not every type. Even the action sequences felt ponderous and unclear, because I knew I was only reading transcriptions of dialogue spoken during events and not really seeing the events themselves. You have to infer a lot, you never really get clear images of people or places, and it feels very sterile.

And for its part, that does work in context. To expect great emotion and detail with such a format would be like expecting to know a child’s feelings on school by reading their report card. It’s just unrealistic to expect the same kind of immersion and understanding; the format really just doesn’t allow for it. The journal entries written by characters do, but those are few and far between, and mostly only show up in the first half of the book, when the plot really hasn’t picked up pace yet.

So between the slow story and my disconnect with the style, I didn’t really end up enjoying Sleeping Giants. It dealt with some interesting concepts, and there’s enough left unsaid to provide plenty of material for future novels in the series, but that wasn’t enough to get me past the problems I had. Those who have an easier time looking past stylistic issues may well get more out of the book than I did, and as I mentioned earlier, I can see it having a great appeal to those who love stories and shows about giant robots. It has a fair bit going for it in terms of creativity, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

We Are Monsters, by Brian Kirk

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Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: The Apocalypse has come to the Sugar Hill mental asylum.

He’s the hospital’s newest, and most notorious, patient—a paranoid schizophrenic who sees humanity’s dark side.

Luckily he’s in good hands. Dr. Eli Alpert has a talent for healing tortured souls. And his protégé is working on a cure for schizophrenia, a drug that returns patients to their former selves. But unforeseen side effects are starting to emerge. Forcing prior traumas to the surface. Setting inner demons free.

Monsters have been unleashed inside the Sugar Hill mental asylum. They don’t have fangs or claws. They look just like you or me.

Thoughts: Mental health is a touchy subject, and it’s easy to make missteps that can be insulting to those who have experienced mental illness or spread false information to those who take things at face value. It’s easy to say that oh, nobody would take stuff from this book seriously, since it involved experimental medicine that results in schizophrenics manipulating the perception of reality for other people, forcing them to experience a sort of externally-influenced schizophrenia themselves, so clearly it’s fantasy and clearly liberties have been taken. Doesn’t stop people from making their judgments, though. But really, We Are Monsters doesn’t run into too many of those issues, presenting different sides of mental illness in ways that are easy to understand and also easy to conclude that a lot of it differs from individual to individual. It was good to see some stereotypes avoided, and for manifestations to occur in ways that lie outside standard textbook examples.

It’s this element that made me enjoy the book despite it’s somewhat odd-at-times execution. The idea was strong, if a bit meandering; it takes a while for things to build, leaving most of the novel to be devoted to character-building. Good if you like character studies, but not so great if you approach this horror novel looking for thrills and chills early on. But back to my original point; the decent treatment of mental illness. Some people with mental illness are violent, others confused. Some accept help, some try to hide the fact that there’s anything wrong. Some people deny that there’s anything wrong while simultaneously recognizing their own symptoms in other people. It’s a variable thing, highly individual, and not every treatment approach will work for every patient. So in that regard, it was pretty good. The fact that one of the characters was a schizophrenic serial killer did not for a second leave me with the impression that the author thinks every person with schizophrenia is a serial killer waiting to happen.

That being said, there were some issues that did bother me. One is the idea that healing can really only begin when you forgive your abuser and recognize that their abuse was born of their own mental illness. It was interesting to use “contagious mental illness” as an analogy to the abuse cycle, and it’s one that I can’t deny has some validity on the surface, but no, I disagree with that conclusion that particular character reached. There were a couple of moments when it seemed like there were hints of “mental illness is a get-out-of-jail-free card” in the story. I disagreed with the blanket application of mental illness as a defense mechanism; it was said at one point that a character’s schizophrenia was a possible defense against a traumatic childhood; a permanent break from reality because reality was so horrific. There are mental illnesses that manifest due to trauma, schizophrenia isn’t one of them.

The idea that “we’re all ill” is probably the most problematic theme, though, but mostly if you take it out of context. Every character in the book was ill. Dealing with chemical imbalances, unresolved grief, all of them attempting to cope in poor ways that don’t actually do much to help a person cope. My problem was that was a personal one, one that came from experience of my own mental illness being downplayed by people who said similar things. “We’re all ill, we all have problems, we’re all weird.” These things are usually said to try and build a bridge between someone who suffers and someone who wants to help, but what it often ends up doing is making the sufferer feel more alone. We’re all ill, but I’m the only one coping with it so badly. We all have problems, but mine are the ones affecting my life so publicly.

It was, in fairness, something that was said most often during a period where reality was affected by someone who had trouble understanding reality, so I won’t hold that against the book too much, but it was something that got under my skin a bit.

The real gem in this book is the way it raises questions. What’s it like to not understand reality? How much of reality is actually undeniably real? What’s the best way to treat mental illness? Why do religious archetypes persist in hallucinations and delusions? Where do we draw the line between sane and insane? Why are some little voices n our minds considered normal and healthy and yet others are considered unhealthy? Lines don’t get drawn very often, and there’s a lot of room for interpretation and reflection as the story goes on, and if you’re interested in mental health on a layman’s level, then We Are Monsters could certainly get you thinking about things in ways that might surprise you.

Characterization, sadly, was fairly weak in a lot of areas. The protagonists got a fair bit of development, plenty of chapters to themselves to show backstory and some degree of growth, but the side characters, especially ones that acted against what protagonists wanted, were bordering on caricatures, with little to them but a stereotype. Devon, the orderly at Sugar Hill, was your typical “I use unnecessary force on psych patients” guy, threatening to kill them because he doesn’t like them. Bearman, chairman of the board for the hospital, was impatient and didn’t actually care about the medicine because he wanted results no matter how unethical they were. If you weren’t a good guy, you were a cardboard bad guy. Being a minor character is no excuse to be without nuance.

We Are Monsters had some ups and downs, a bit inconsistently, but it was a decent read. Short chapters made it very easy to say, “Just one more chapter” to; I’d rarely have to read more than 10 pages before another chapter ended, so it felt like the book just sped by! Not spectacular, but still decent, and it has some definitely creepy and disturbing imagery that will appeal to fans of the horror genre. I wouldn’t run out to grab copies from the shelf, but it’s still worth a read if you get the chance.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Hanged Man, by P N Elrod

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 19, 2015

Summary: On a freezing Christmas Eve in 1879, a forensic psychic reader is summoned from her Baker Street lodgings to the scene of a questionable death. Alexandrina Victoria Pendlebury (named after her godmother, the current Queen of England) is adamant that the death in question is a magically compromised murder and not a suicide, as the police had assumed, after the shocking revelation contained by the body in question, Alex must put her personal loss aside to uncover the deeper issues at stake, before more bodies turn up.

Turning to some choice allies–the handsome, prescient Lieutenant Brooks, the brilliant, enigmatic Lord Desmond, and her rapscallion cousin James–Alex will have to marshal all of her magical and mental acumen to save Queen and Country from a shadowy threat. Our singular heroine is caught up in this rousing gaslamp adventure of cloaked assassins, meddlesome family, and dark magic.

Thoughts: Given that the steampunk craze is still going strong, it’s sometimes surprising to come across a speculative novel set in Victorian England and to not have it be a steampunk novel. Instead, The Hanged Man is a historical urban fantasy with a touch of alternate history thrown in for good measure. There’s mystery afoot, and Alex Pendlebury is right at the centre. Alex is a Reader, someone with a psychic gift who works for a branch of law enforcement to aid in solving murders (0r any crime where death is involved, really). When she’s summoned to investigate the scene of what initially appears to be a suicide but actually turns out to be a murder, she finds herself in the thick of a much larger set of suspicious circumstances. Mysterious assailants attacking Her Majesty’s Psychic Service members with unusual guns, a secret society, and on top of it all, having to deal with her family being at odds with her and her choices in life.

Alex is a pretty interesting character, who is definitely suited to the subtle societal effects of the alternative history that Elrod introduces here. You look at a lot of fiction that takes place in Victorian England, especially with female protagonists, and everyone’s in a gorgeous fancy dress and the women are demure and submissive, except where the plot requires them to be a social aberration and to buck those trends. Which often comes across as social commentary rather than social backdrop. Here, Elrod twisted history just enough that Queen Victoria (who here goes more often by her first name of Alexandrina rather than Victoria) changed laws so that she could marry whomever she chose instead of someone of noble lineage. That changed law led to a bit of a cascade, where women gained voting rights earlier than our history presents, and women wearing trousers as fashion statements or just because they’re comfortable or easier to move in is becoming increasingly common. The Hanged Man takes many of the small hallmarks we associate with gender equality movements and moves them up a notch, so that the book can have a period feel without having as many period constraints.

But that doesn’t mean Alex’s England is a modern bastion of social justice as we know it. There are drops of racism dotted here and there, fitting with an England that still believes itself to be the centre of the world and seat of an empire. Ditto sexism; although women have more rights and freedoms than is typical, it doesn’t stop people from thinking that women are the fairer or weaker sex and that they shouldn’t be part of certain things. As Alex points out in one instance, the fact that women have the right to vote doesn’t make them equal to men in social standing. Readers looking for a presentation of major leaps in equality won’t find it here. What they will find is a well-done compromise and a well-presented society that acts as you’d expect given the timeline. So I have to give great praise to Elrod for being able to walk that fine line, to tweak things here and there to make allowances without going so far overboard that it feels unrealistic. Subtle, and very well done.

The plot has a relentless pace that doesn’t let up for a moment, and normally when I say that I mean it as a positive thing. But here, I just felt worn out by the end. It was relentless, but it wasn’t steady, and I think that was my biggest issue with it. A major event would happen, and then characters wouldn’t even really have time to process what happened before something else jumped out of the shadows at them. And so on, and so on. Oh crap my father’s dead, oh crap someone’s shooting at us, oh crap they’re shooting again, oh crap my boss is giving me incomprehensible orders, oh crap I’m drowning. And through the majority of the book, all you can really tell about the events is that they’re somehow connected to a secret society. Probably. There’s no real indication of how until you’re very far through the book, which means that it’s very hard to play that mental game where you try to take the clues offered and come up with possible explanations of your own. You’re given a lot of events and little context. It left me feeling quite lost through much of the story, like I was witnessing disparate events and only knowing they tie together because the book tells me so. Alex is sure, but she doesn’t give much reason for why she’s sure except for certainty that her family is only involved in small and largely inconsequential ways.

Then you consider that the entire book takes place over about a 48 hour period, and yeah, by the end I felt worn out, and I was missing dropped hints because I’d just become so used to not bothering to put pieces together. I’m told that many mystery novels read like this, however, so if you are a fan of such books, then this may not be a problem for you the way it was for me. If, however, you like to play that game of putting together theories and seeing which one pans out, then you may find yourself struggling to do that with The Hanged Man.

I do want to take a moment to discuss the attempt at romance in here, too. I’m fond of saying that I prefer my romance to be a side dish rather than the main course, and that’s certainly what this novel presents. But that side dish was extraordinarily bland. Admittedly, you really only see the beginnings of it all — more spark than flame, really — and given the book’s short timeframe, I’m glad that Elrod didn’t decide to heavyhand it and try to throw in some instant powerful attraction that results in the characters hooking up almost immediately. It’s more of a crush than love, and that’s definitely fitting for the circumstances. But Alex’s romantic interest, a man we only know by his surname of Brook, is… Well, he is. That’s most of what I can say about him. He gets almost no development as the story goes on, we find out very little about him other than that he used to be in the military and that a solid clonk to the head awakened latent psychic gifts. But that’s about all. He’s present for much of the book, helping Alex with her investigations, but there are characters who show up far less who have more established and unique personalities. It got to the point where I had to remind myself that other people have interacted with Brook and that he’s actually done things, because I was starting to suspect that he was a ghost and was being deliberately vague about everything to do with him in order to hide that fact. (See, I do love playing the theory game!) And because I found the character to be so utterly devoid of personality, I really couldn’t get into any of the romantic aspects, small as they were.

And I found that very odd for a character who’s there almost as often as the protagonist herself.

Despite the problems I had with the book, it still was pretty enjoyable, and I enjoy the way Elrod can manage the fine and subtle aspects of tweaking history. There are definitely some interesting characters in the book that I want to know more about (two of whom don’t really become interesting until near the end of the book, so I won’t leave spoilers here), and I’m hoping more is revealed about them in future installments of the series. It’s a shaky beginning, but not so shaky that I don’t want to find out more, and I can see potential for it to grow into a good “comfort read” series. Worth checking out if you enjoy books set in Victorian times and non-stop mysteries.

(Received for review from the publisher.)