An Import of Intrigue, by Marshall Ryan Maresca

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

Summary: The neighborhood of the Little East is a collision of cultures, languages, and traditions, hidden away in the city of Maradaine. A set of streets to be avoided or ignored. When a foreign dignitary is murdered, solving the crime falls to the most unpopular inspectors in the Maradaine Constabulary: exposed fraud Satrine Rainey, and Uncircled mage Minox Welling.

With a murder scene deliberately constructed to point blame toward the rival groups resident in this exotic section of Maradaine, Rainey is forced to confront her former life, while Welling’s ignorance of his own power threatens to consume him. And the conflicts erupting in the Little East will spark a citywide war unless the Constabulary solves the case quickly.

Review: It’s multicultural mayhem in the second of Maresca’s Maradaine Constabulary novels! Inspectors Rainey and Welling are called to the scene of a murder, which is par for the course as these things go. But that murder took place in a part of the city where many foreign cultures intermingle, where they don’t always get along, and where the law tends to overlook and ignore in favour of dealing with their own people. With culture clash at the forefront, Rainey having to confront her past, and Welling’s magic getting wildly out of control, it’s a race against time to see whether the murder will be solved and the perpetrator brought to justice, or a massively dangerous situation will get too out of hand to contain.

I kind of love reading about the adventures and misadventures of Rainey and Welling. They’re such a wonderful duo, loyal to their cause and to each other as partners-in-solving-crime, but that loyalty doesn’t go so far as to blind them to each others’ faults. Nor does it spill over into romance, the way so many novels do. Satrine Rainey is married, and though that’s a more complicated situation than the previous novel revealed (and what it revealed was complicated enough), she stays loyal to him. Minox Welling doesn’t seem to have an interest in Rainey, either. They have a great friendship and work-partnership, and I think part of my appreciation for that comes from comparison, seeing how most authors would have hooked up the leading male and leading female characters because that’s just what you do. Only here it isn’t, and I love seeing that.

It was particularly interesting to see the various cultures in the Little East, each with their own ways of doing things, customs, idiosyncrasies. And more than that, they weren’t just thinly-veiled versions of cultures that exist in our world today. There were a few echoes of inspiration, or at least I thought I saw some in naming conventions and the way some words sounded, but for the most part Maresca steered clear of the stereotypes that often make their way into fantasy novels that present multiple different cultures.

Again, this is something that’s best appreciated in comparison to other novels on the market. I’ve lost count of just how many secondary worlds take place surrounding characters based on Western and European ideals, running into cultures that sound like transplanted Middle Eastern or East Asian groups. It’s almost standard fare. And it’s this comparison that makes Maresca’s novels so appealing to me. On the surface, they’re fun fantasy adventures that feel a lot like comfort fiction. But dig a bit into it and you see how Maresca works to make his novels stand apart, to do things a little bit differently even when on the whole they feel very comfortably familiar. You’ve got complex familial hierarchies and mourning rituals and legal matters and all of it requires more thought behind the scenes than tends to be on the page, and from both a reader’s and writer’s standpoint, I can appreciate the work that Maresca put into making sure that individuality was there.

But even aside from dipping below the surface and liking the novel for what it isn’t, I also like it for what it is. It’s a fun romp through a fantasy city, a murder mystery with depth, and enough intrigue (as the title suggests) to keep me turning pages to see what comes next. Is Welling’s magic going to get out of hand and hurt someone? Is he going to dip further into the madness that might let him see the connections in the case? Is Rainey going to manage to avoid an assassin from her past? Are any of the Fuergans or Imachans or Lyranans ever going to cooperate without being forced to? Who even is the murderer, let alone why did they murder? There’s a lot going on, intertwining stories, and everything coming to a head at the same moment, so there’s a load of fantastic tension and momentum to keep everything moving forward at a smooth and tantalizing pace.

Though I’m going to admit, there was plenty of uncomfortable language in An Import of Intrigue. Racist epithets being hurled around, sexism, you name it. Which isn’t surprising, given the setting, and it makes perfect sense as to why it would be there. It fits. It’s part of the story being told, the way people talk. Nor do I think that it’s a reflection of the author’s attitudes to women or… Well, I can’t say people of colour, really, because the slurs used are in reference to cultures that only exist within the Maradaine novels. Nobody in this world is grey-skinned and gets called a tyzo, for instance; that’s just something that isn’t applicable. I suppose what bothers me about it isn’t so much that it exists in books so much as it existing in books is a reflection of the worlds created, which are influenced by the world we live in. We still live in a world where sexist and racist terms get used so thoughtlessly, so casually, and my discomfort isn’t with the issue being in An Import of Intrigue or any other Maradaine novel so much as it’s with what it signifies.

That being said, the colloquialisms do add flavour, and it’s very easy to get a solid feel for what Maradaine is like by the way people speak. You feel like you’re reading about a real place, complex and ugly and full of all the sights, sounds, and smells you’d find in such a place.

I normally would say that I dislike cliffhanger endings (and I do), but somehow the ending of this book didn’t bother me in the slightest. I suppose it was less of a cliffhanger and more of a strong hint at what’s to come, peeling back the layers to show what’s been in the shadows, and what could develop in future novels. It was a well-done teaser, almost like the season finale of a show you know will continue into another season, and it left me hungry for more.

When all is said and done, I really enjoyed An Import of Intrigue, not just for the interesting presentation of other cultures and the examination of Welling’s magical troubles and Rainey’s extremely fascinating past, but for the adventure I got to go on with the characters. I closed the book wanting to immediately grab another one, only there isn’t another one yet. You know a book has really grabbed you when that’s your reaction. They’re fun novels, interesting stories, great characters, and I think any fan of fantasy adventures will enjoy reading them as much as I do.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood

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

Summary: In 1851, within the grand glass arches of London’s Crystal Palace, Albie Mirralls meets his cousin Lizzie for the first–and, as it turns out, last–time. His cousin is from a backward rural village, and Albie expects she will be a simple country girl, but instead he is struck by her inner beauty and by her lovely singing voice, which is beautiful beyond all reckoning. When next he hears of her, many years later, it is to hear news of her death at the hands of her husband, the village shoemaker.

Unable to countenance the rumors that surround his younger cousin’s murder–apparently, her husband thought she had been replaced by one of the “fair folk” and so burned her alive–Albie becomes obsessed with bringing his young cousin’s murderer to justice. With his father’s blessing, as well as that of his young wife, Albie heads to the village of Halfoak to investigate his cousin’s murder. When he arrives, he finds a community in the grip of superstition, nearly every member of which believes Lizzie’s husband acted with the best of intentions and in the service of the village.

There, Albie begins to look into Lizzie’s death and to search for her murderous husband, who has disappeared. But in a village where the rationalism and rule of science of the Industrial Revolution seem to have found little purchase, the answers to the question of what happened to Lizzie and why prove elusive. And the more he learns, the less sure he is that there aren’t mysterious powers at work.

Review: A murder mystery set in mid-1800s England where signs point to faerie involvement? Sign me right up! The premise behind Alison Littlewood’s The Hidden People caught my attention and played to multiple pet interests of mine, and so I was very eager to sit down and read my way through what I felt certain would be a fascinating trip into the past where the lines between the mundane and the supernatural were blurred.

Albie is a man who, upon learning of his cousin’s death at the hands of her husband, takes it upon himself to see justice done. He goes to Lizzie’s home of Halfoak to attend the funeral, only to find increasingly strange talk from the locals about how the Lizzie that was killed was not the real Lizzie at all, but was in fact a changeling. After the sudden and unexpected arrival of Albie’s own wife, who does not seem herself at all, Albie’s life turns on its head as he searches for the truth of what happened to his cousin, and what may well have happened to his wife.

The Hidden People is a “did it or did it not happen” kind of mystery, one that might frustrate readers who expect a clear progression of the story in which pieces of slowly revealed and the puzzle becomes more clear. The protagonist flips his opinion back and forth a dozen times through the narrative, first being sure that Lizzie was fully human, then doubting it, then doubting his doubt, then wondering if faeries may be involved after all, and so on. If you expect a story in which the pieces fit neatly together as Albie slowly figures out that mystical forces are present, then you’ll be disappointed. What this book offers is a look into a man who cannot fathom certain things happening for certain reasons, who doubts constantly and is unsure of anything, and who is dealing with an increasingly stressful situation in his life. In short, it’s magnificently realistic, for it’s a rare person who can find evidence of the supernatural and not at least consider that it may be a factor in things. Albie reacts as most people would to events and information, as sometimes it looks as though something supernatural may be at work, and at other times it looks as though everything can be traced back to superstition and willful ignorance. Until the end, it’s very hard to tell just what happened to Lizzie, and what is happening to Albie and Helena.

Though in mentioning it, even at the end of the book, some things are still ambiguous. Albie certain thinks he’s gotten to the bottom of things, and for the most part the mystery surrounding Lizzie’s murder has been solved, but some events could be interpreted either way. Was Albie’s behaviour rational given that he suffered a loss, or was it wild and irrational and influenced by powers beyond the mundane? Was Helena influenced by changeling motivations of by her husband’s inexplicable attachment to a cousin he only met once? If there were no faeries, what caused some of the more bizarre things that Albie experienced? It’s easy to interpret the ending one way, to say, “Oh yes, it was this all along,” but there are so many coincidences that matched local superstition that you’re left wondering how much was truly mundane and how much was supernatural.

Littlewood weaves a great story here, with plenty of questions and atmosphere to keep readers turning the pages, hungry to see what happens next. There’s so much wonderful local flavour, too, with people in Halfoak speaking in that particular Yorkshire dialect (which I myself only heard for the first time about a month ago, so it thrilled me to see it in text and to know, “I know exactly what that sounds like!”) and bringing in colloquialisms and the clash of cultures that inevitably exists between big city folk and those from further into the countryside. Seeing the story from Albie’s viewpoint, which ranged from calm and rational to frantic and chaotic depending on what he had just discovered, was wonderful, since many of the dual-nature aspects of the story take place within Albie himself, an inner reflection of the outer world. The tone of the narrative was such that you can fall into it easily, reading it not as yet another first-person viewpoint with dozens of observations that people don’t actually tend to make for themselves, but as the memoirs of a troubled man, something that truly feels as though it could have been written by him years after the fact. It’s hard to say specifically what separates the two; something in the tone of the writing or the way Albie speaks or the way it all sounds very much like diary entries from the time period. But this is a problem I’ve pointed out in the past with first-person narratives, how it’s meant to draw the reader further into the story by placing them immediately within the head of the protagonist, but for me it often fails because said protagonist always thinks in ways that people just don’t on a day-to-day basis. Littlewood’s presentation of Albie was such that it felt like I was reading his confessions, something he deliberately endeavoured to tell, rather than that I was just along for the ride.

My only regret with this book is that the ending did turn out to be so mundane. Yes, I did mention previously that it was somewhat ambiguous and not all questions really were answered, and I felt like it was left that way deliberately rather than as some authorial oversight, but it’s so easy to look only at the surface of the story and conclude that there was nothing supernatural going on whatsoever. And I was hoping, from the back-of-the-book premise, that it was going to be more of a supernatural murder mystery than just a murder mystery that probably only has the supernatural connected to it because of local superstition. You can blame that disappointment on me as a reader, since the book offered me no promises of anything, but the presentation leads you to think that way, and then it doesn’t happen.

On the flip side, though, I think that gives The Hidden People a wider appeal, since those who enjoy historical fiction and mysteries but who don’t read much SFF can appreciate this book with or without its ambiguities. It’s not just SFF fans that this book will appeal to, and really, I like encountering novels that transcend genre.

But regardless of that one piece of criticism, overall, I really enjoyed the journey into the past that came with The Hidden People. The story was compelling, the characters interesting and complex, and it was an evocative novel that’s going to have a solid place of my bookshelves from now on. Definitely recommended for those who are looking for something beyond typical urban fantasy fare, for those who enjoy historical fiction, and also, for those like me who have a soft spot for genre-breaking fiction that leaves you hungry for more.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Graveyard Apartment, by Koike Mariko

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Author’s Goodreads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 11, 2016

Summary: Originally published in Japan in 1986, Koike’s novel is the suspenseful tale of a young family that believes it has found the perfect home to grow into, only to realize that the apartment’s idyllic setting harbors the specter of evil and that longer they stay, the more trapped they become.

This tale of a young married couple who harbor a dark secret is packed with dread and terror, as they and their daughter move into a brand new apartment building built next to a graveyard. As strange and terrifying occurrences begin to pile up, people in the building start to move out one by one, until the young family is left alone with someone… or something… lurking in the basement. The psychological horror builds moment after moment, scene after scene, culminating with a conclusion that will make you think twice before ever going into a basement again.

Review: Don’t read this book alone at night.

Let me repeat that. Don’t read this book alone at night!

That’s what I did. I kind of regret it, especially with the ending being what it is.

This dark and atmospheric novel isn’t my first dive into Japanese horror, though it’s definitely one of the better J-horror novels I’ve read over the years. The Graveyard Apartment, translated into English by Deborah Boliver Boehm, tells the story of a small family moving to a new apartment they’ve just purchased in Tokyo, an apartment that sold for a low price because of its location next to a graveyard. It’s not an ideal place to raise their young daughter, but the price was right, and it’s convenient enough for work and school, so Teppei and Misao are fine enough with living there. That is, until strange events start occurring, and their daughter Tamao gets mysteriously injured in the basement, and everyone in the building begins moving away…

Koike’s writing brings Japan to life, and Boehm’s translation adds those little explanatory touches to some concepts that those in the West might not be so familiar with. Happily, those bits are few, and only when necessary, letting the reader absorb the culture and atmosphere contextually, which I vastly prefer compared to when translators feel the need to either hold my hand and explain absolutely everything, or else don’t bother to add appropriate notes at all. This combo allowed me to take a mental visit to the spookier side of Japan, and the little idiosyncracies of Japanese life, without leaving my house.

Even if you can’t necessarily identify with Teppei or Misao, you certainly do feel for them. They’re trying to live a normal life, to give their kid the chance to get a good education, live in a good neighbourhood, not spend more than they can afford, and for all intents and purposes they are an utterly average family. They’re not supernatural thrillseekers, nobody’s secretly a psychic or a medium, but neither are they stuck on denying the paranormal nature of events in the building once they encounter them. Teppei probably has the hardest time with this, denying Misao and Tamao’s feelings over the matter, until he’s forced to confront it, which seems to me like a fairly classic presentation in horror fiction: women encounter the supernatural first and follow their uneasy feelings about it, while men take longer to convince and their eventual acceptance is the tipping point where things start to get serious.

While it may bother some readers that the cause of the haunting was somewhat vague and largely theoretical (probably caused by initial construction disturbing the bones of those buried nearby, but that doesn’t explain everything behind the paranormal events that plagued the apartment building and its residents) or that the ending was so downbeat, personally, I rather liked that some of it was open to interpretation. The characters themselves only had hints about what happened before they arrived, and had to put pieces of the puzzle together on their own; the reader knows as much as the Kano family, and even they, right at the end, aren’t entirely sure of everything. As for the ending, well, at a certain point you start to realise that there are really only two choices for how the story will end: either some too-convenient thing will rescue the lone family trapped in the apartment building, or they don’t get out at all.

I don’t consider that too big a spoiler because the horror genre isn’t typically about feel-good endings. A feel-good ending would have been so contrived and counter to the tone in the rest of the novel, and as you flip through those final few pages, the odds of it happening get slimmer and slimmer until all that’s left is to figure out how it happens, rather than if.

And then there’s the very last page, and if it doesn’t send even a little tingle down your spine, you’re made of sterner (or more cynical) stuff than I.

Horror fans are really in for a treat when they read The Graveyard Apartment, especially if they’re horror fans with a taste for non-Western settings or like expanding their horizons to include other cultures. It has good tension in all the right places, has a fantastically creepy atmosphere, and is overall just a damn good ghost story. Seek it out and prepare to avoid basements for a long time.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 06, 2015

Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.

But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

Review: I was intrigued by the very concept of magic when I first read Flex. The idea that someone’s obsession can be so powerful, so focused, that it can warp the universe, essentially telling reality that no, I believe so strongly that this is how things should happen that indeed it does. That the consequences of rearranging the laws of reality like that is that reality can break down and extradimensional beings can break through and cause untold havoc. I can’t say it appealed to me in the sense of wanting to be a ‘mancer like that, but I can say that, as someone who has struggled with keeping their passions and interests in check so that others don’t get bored/intimidated/weirded out because I’m not being socially appropriate, I can at least say that I can relate a little to what it might be like for someone to have something they cling to that powerfully. And from there I was drawn in.

Last time, we saw Aliyah become the youngest ‘mancer in history. We saw Paul struggle desperately to shield his family from the danger of his ‘mancy, fail to hold his marriage together, defeat and survive any number of deadly issues. This time, in The Flux, we see Aliyah a little bit older, still conflicted about her ‘mancy, trying to make sense of the world that has created her and where she fits in it. Paul, for his part, uncovers a sort of safe haven for ‘mancers, but that safe haven comes at a price, and it’s one that Valentine, at least, doesn’t really want to pay even as Paul argues that it’s best for Aliyah’s sake. The King of New York has his own agenda, one that often intersects with Paul’s desires, and it’s plot twist after plot twist as the story unfolds and everybody suffers along the way.

Everything I liked about Flexis back in The Flux. Valentine is still a kick-ass awesome woman who doesn’t need to be model-thin to be that way, perfectly at home with her kinky sexual expression, a friend to Paul and mentor to Aliyah, and I love her to death because she’s the kind of character SFF needs more of. Paul is still a devoted father who doesn’t do things perfectly and makes frequent mistakes, but he tries to make amends and does what he thinks is best even when it’s a hard call. Aliyah goes through moment of being far too bratty and then far too insightful, but I also admit that’s what happens when you have a troubled kid who has plenty of evidence that the world really is out to get her, who has powers that are hard to control, and when the only person to give her what she wants is a psychopathic pyromancer. I’d be bratty myself, no matter what my age, if all that was heaped on me.

Steinmetz is very good at writing a believable reality that you fall into. Whether it’s through the little name-drops of brands to centre a reader on familiar things in the world, to characters that tug at your heartstrings (who didn’t feel emotion at reading Paul’s attempt to leave Aliyah for her own safety, or at the fate of K-Dash and Quaysean?), it all feels so very real. There’s more to realism than just a high level of detail and clear descriptions, and Steinmetz knows how to bring it all together to create a strong world that readers care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an urban fantasy that I want to share with people as much as the world that has ‘mancers in it.

Speaking of emotion, really, The Flux has it in spades. It’s an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end, mostly thanks to Aliyah’s development. Aliyah starts off with her continuing love/hate relationship for ‘mancy, which turns into disdain for those who can’t do ‘mancy and thus, to her mind, will never understand her and she won’t understand them, to being angry at her father for all the times he needs to be saved. But the real heartache for me was seeing Aliyah’s relationship to Imani, her mother. Aliyah craves her mother’s love and attention in the same way most young children do, but at the same time is truly afraid that if Imani discovers Aliyah is a ‘mancer, Imani will want to kill her. And given some thoughtless comments that Imani or David made in the past, her fear isn’t an overreaction. It’s heartbreaking to see that kind of conflict in anyone, let alone such a young child.

The story in The Flux feels like it’s got a bit of second-book syndrome. It is a complete story in its own right, a good continuation of the events in Flex, but it feels more like an interlude, the necessary setup and establishment for things that need to happen in the third book later. There was plenty of tension, great pacing, the snappy dialogue I love so much, but a lot of it felt like a book in which this character gets introduced, that realization occurs, to prop up a novel to come. This doesn’t make it a bad book — far from it! — but it does make it feel less important than the first novel, by far.

But I’m in love with the world that Steinmetz has created, and the characters within it, and the overarching story in this series so far is pulling me along at breakneck speed and I don’t want to stop. It’s a wonderfully creative take on magic, has a weird and varied cast of characters, and I can’t wait to dive into Fix to continue the story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Saint’s Blood, by Sebastien de Castell

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 7, 2016

Summary: How do you kill a Saint?

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti are about to find out, because someone has figured out a way to do it and they’ve started with a friend.

The Dukes were already looking for ways out of their agreement to put Aline on the throne, but with the Saints turning up dead, rumours are spreading that the Gods themselves oppose her ascension. Now churches are looking to protect themselves by bringing back the military orders of religious soldiers, assassins, and (especially) Inquisitors – a move that could turn the country into a theocracy. The only way Falcio can put a stop to it is by finding the murderer. He has only one clue: a terrifying iron mask which makes the Saints vulnerable by driving them mad. But even if he can find the killer, he’ll still have to face him in battle.

And that may be a duel that no swordsman, no matter how skilled, can hope to win.

Review: Tristia is falling even more into chaos, and the weight of fixing it lies on the shoulders on Falcio and his companions. Aline is so young to rule, and yet she must stand up and be the queen few people want her to be. Falcio himself has terrible flashbacks to his time being tortured, yet can’t leave things alone and is constantly pushing himself past his limits in the attempt to improve his land on the orders of a dead king. Ethalia’s role in the world changes dramatically, much to her consternation and confusion. Kest’s ability to use swords is waning. Brasti is, as ever, Brasti. And as if that all wasn’t enough, now along comes a new threat in the form of monotheistic zealots who feel no pain and are inhumanly strong, seeking to destroy the Saints and to establish a theocracy in Tristia instead.

Myself, I love reading books that involve twists on religion, especially when those twists show what can happen when religion gets out of hand. Bonus points for throwing in the debate over whether deities were there before people prayed to them, or whether people prayed to them so they were created (like a far more metaphysical “chicken or egg” issue). That de Castell does just those things in Saint’s Blood makes me very inclined to like it, and I’d probably do so whether or not I’d enjoyed the first two books in the series beforehand.

As with the previous books, I absolutely adore the dialogue, especially between Falcio, Brasti, and Kest. The way they banter and play off each other is a real treat to read, and it makes me grin a lot. True, some of the jokes get a little old since they’re played so often (in particular, the long-running gag about Brasti not being able to find the right word for what he wants to express), but even that’s not overdone to the point where all the humour is lost. But the interplay between those three characters is superb, and does so much to really drive home the idea that they’re comfortable around each other and have worked together for a long time. They have the banter of friends, of long-time colleagues, and it’s great to read.

De Castell has great skill with writing a complex story that slowly reveals itself piece by piece. As opposed to some books I’ve read, which have an equally complex and multilayered story as Saint’s Blood, the book isn’t spent drowning the reader in unfathomable acts which only make sense once the final reveal has happened. There’s nothing wrong with that method of storytelling per se, and it can make for a great reread so that you can see events unfold with the end knowledge in mind, but I vastly prefer books where I figure things out only a few pages before the characters themselves do. It feels a lot like I’m on the journey with them, invested as much as they are, and they’re trying to puzzle things out in the same way that I am. It keeps me invested in the progression, the story as both a whole and a series of steps, and the way the plot with God’s Needles was uncovered was just wonderful. It takes skill to peel back the layers little by little without revealing too much, and still while having it all make sense.

It’s worth taking time to examine more of Falcio’s character here, because he’s evolved a fair bit from the opening scenes of Traitor’s Blade. He still carries much of his naivete with him, clinging to ideals that aren’t necessarily attainable no matter how hard he tries, and on some level that’s commendable, because it means he’s not willing to easily compromise the things he holds dear. On the other hand, it was very nice to see people try to hammer home that the past isn’t always appropriate to the present, that things need to change going forward instead of returning to what was behind, and that sometimes what you’re holding onto are idealized versions that you’ve built up in your mind, the epitome of everything you want that thing to be instead of a reflection of reality. Falcio’s process of slowly absorbing this lesson was both heartbreaking and gratifying; it meant letting go of some aspects of the past that he loved and held close to himself, but it was also an awakening for him, seeing what could be done with reality instead of uncompromising ideals that nobody can live up to.

That’s a big theme throughout Saint’s Blood, not surprisingly. Learning to let go. Not just with Falcio, but with most of the main cast. Kest had to let go of who he was to find who he had become. Valiana had to let go of her stifling protection and embrace madness in order to overcome it and find her strength. Ethalia had to let go of her assumptions about her Sainthood in order to properly embody it.

The ending was just beautiful, and I was on the edge of my seat while reading it. The old drops away to reveal the new, whatever it’s worth. The future of Tristia isn’t assured, and it’s not pretty, but so much has changed and all anyone can do is try to move forward, even if it means leaving things behind and learning to live with how they’ and the people around them have changed. I could practically hear the triumphant soundtrack as the Greatcoats find their new roles and new purpose as they take down the newly-created god and the Blacksmith. The way de Castell writes it all, from Falcio’s perspective but still not revealing everything that Falcio knows until it would have great dramatic effect, adds a lot to the scene, and it all came together in something that made me want to cheer for the heroes as they fought their greatest battle.

Between that and the exploration of religious zealotry and the lengths to which people will go to achieve their goals (misguided or otherwise), Saint’s Blood remains the fun epic adventure that the previous books in the series were. I’m fairly hooked on Falcio’s adventures and misadventures, I adore the dialogue, and the humour in the book is top notch. This is the kind of series that takes the epic adventures that children want and scales it up for adults, and it’s rewarding and unfailingly entertaining. De Castell is a master of adventure, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll do next!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse, by Otsuichi

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

Summary: Nine year old Satsuki dies after being pushed out of a tree by one of her friends. This is the story she tells of how it happened, and the lengths her friends go to in order to try and cover it up, not wanting to upset anyone. But she is soon missed, and her lost sandal provides a clue. The writing is both lyrical and stark, and the effect veers from horrifying to absurd as the people closest to her simultaneously search for her body, and try to hide it. Days pass and her body starts to decompose, while her ghost calmly narrates, and her panicked friends struggle to keep their secret.

The collection also includes “Yuko”, the story of a young woman who takes a job looking after an elderly couple. Kiyone enjoys her work, but is unnerved because she never meets Yuko, the wife. Yuko’s husband pretends that she is still around, while requesting half of their previous portions of food. He never allows Kiyone to clean the bedroom he shares with Yuko. And when she finally trespasses into their room, it is filled with dolls.

This is a little girl’s account of her life after death, and our unique version of The Lovely Bones. It defies the conventional definition of genres. A ghost story, yes, and YA, too. Dark fantasy with humor. Literary fiction with prepubescent innocence and manga sensibilities. It is many things but a simple story, too. You’ll be fascinated with the unique world of Otsuichi, a very young and prolific author, in his first published work.

Review: I’ve been making extra effort recently to read fiction involving non-Western cultures that’s actually written by people who have spent time living in that culture. It doesn’t guarantee a work free from cultural misunderstandings and stereotypes, but it does allow me a better opportunity to experience works that came from other cultures, written in them rather than about them, if that distinction makes sense. Research came take you a long way, but only do far; there’s a level of experience that one can only get with immersion, and the depth of immersion also depends on whether you approach the culture as an outsider or as someone who was raised within it.

Japan has been a long-time love of mine, so reading things about it and from within it always appeals to me. And over time I’ve learned that fiction from the “about” perspective usually have their problems; ones which I can spot easily, and I haven’t even been there yet. Problems with the language, problems with names, problems with weird assumptions that people often get from having watching a few anime and spent a semester of university there and then never doing more research than that. It’s probably safest for me to dive deeper into books written primarily  by Japanese people when I yearn for fiction, especially SFF, about Japan.

Otsuichi’s Summer, Fireworks, and My Corpse is a republication of 2 short stories. The first one, told from the perspective of young dead Satsuki, seems simple enough at first, but gradually grows in complexity and creepiness. Satsuki tells the story of how her best friend accidentally-on-purpose killed her, and the subsequent attempts to cover up the death so that nobody discovers what happened. The narrative seems a bit distanced at times, though that does make sense since Satsuki is the passive observer to all the events, incapable of acting upon anything or influencing the story due to her death. She watches as her friend and her friend’s brother go to increasing lengths to hide the body, as the tension heightens and they worry they’ll be caught, and the eventual surprising assistance by an unassuming young woman who is no stranger to hiding dead bodies.

And that final reveal was baffling for a moment, and then utterly chilling. It actually made me stop reading for a moment to consider the ramifications, and to think that Satsuki’s story was actually only a small part of a larger and grander tale. Very disturbing, and that Otsuichi wrote this kind of compelling fiction while still in high school is impressive.

The second story in the book, Yuko, is told mostly from the perspective of Kiyone, a young woman who cooks and cleans for an aged man and his never-seen wife. Kiyone thinks little of this for a while, accepting that the unseen Yuko is very ill, until one day she starts putting pieces of the puzzle together, trespasses in the elderly couple’s rooms, and sees Yuko surrounded by a lot of dolls.

Yuko, who appears to be a doll herself.

Kiyone hears from people in town that the man she works for once had a wife, but the wife passed away years ago.

And yet, we see snippets of him sometimes talking to Yuko. But is he talking to a real woman, a woman so ill she often can’t move and appears lifeless, or a life-size doll that he believes is his dead wife?

The ending is actually a bit ambiguous, and it’s easy to interpret things in one way or the other. I have my own theories on what happened, but things in the story aren’t as clear as they seem to be, and there’s always another layer to the mystery, along with speculation. For all that it was short, it said a lot, both about the lengths to which we will go to delude ourselves, the assumptions we will make about people will illnesses and disabilities, and the danger of knowing too much or too little. It’s a story for reading and then for reading between the lines.

I’d say this was a good introduction to Otsuichi’s work, a nice teaser for what’s to come. It’s low-investment; you can finish both of these stories pretty quickly, and there’s an appeal to a wide age range, since they’re rather YA-oriented but still creepy and nuanced enough to appeal to adults who want to feel a quick tingle down their spine. It’s worth a real if you’re curious about the kind of ghost stories that can come out of Japan, and, if like me, you want to read more books written by people whose native language isn’t English.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Otherbound, by Corinne Duyvis

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: Nolan doesn’t see darkness when he closes his eyes. Instead, he’s transported into the mind of Amara, a girl living in a different world. Nolan’s life in his small Arizona town is full of history tests, family tension, and laundry; his parents think he has epilepsy, judging from his frequent blackouts. Amara’s world is full of magic and danger — she’s a mute servant girl who’s tasked with protecting a renegade princess. Nolan is only an observer in Amara’s world — until he learns to control her. At first, Amara is terrified. Then, she’s furious. But to keep the princess — and themselves — alive, they’ll have to work together and discover the truth behind their connection.

Review: Recommended to me by Sarah of Bookworm Blues as part of the Our Words book club, I expected that this book was going to be a good one. I didn’t expect that I’d get quite so addicted to it, however. The more I read, the more I wanted to keep reading, and I was constantly surprised and impressed by what kept happening on the pages.

Nolan experiences a rare type of seizure. Or at least, that’s what everyone, including his family and doctors, believe. In reality, whenever he closes his eyes, even for just the space of a blink, he sees into Amara’s world instead of the darkness behind his eyelids. To say that it’s a distraction is an understatement; Nolan gets sucked into Amara’s world so easily, and Amara’s life is such a part of his that he often finds himself closing his eyes and zoning out of his world so that he can better focus on hers. Amara, for most of her life, hasn’t even realized that Nolan can see through her eyes, and goes about her days keeping Cilla safe from the curse that plagues her. Cilla’s curse means that if even a drop of her blood is spilled, the world around her rebels and tries to kill her, seeking out that blood with a vengeance. Amara’s presence is necessary because she can heal, and so if accidents happen and blood is shed, Amara will smear Cilla’s blood on herself to distract the curse, allowing her body to be broken until the curse is satisfied, knowing that despite the agony she experiences, she, at least, will be able to put her body back together again.

But when Nolan discovers that his new medication allows him moments of control over Amara’s body, Amara becomes very much aware of Nolan’s presence, and just what that means for her and for Cilla.

Amara’s world at first to just be yet another generic fantasy world, only it quickly reveals itself to be pretty well-built and well-defined. There are multiple different cultures and subcultures portrayed, not just nationalities but social classes. Fine details like not signing or speaking aloud the names of the deceased, lest you attract their spirits and prevent them from resting, were touches that seem small and inconsequential on their own, but they add up to create a world that feels fleshed-out and real. And happily, the worldbuilding wasn’t done in the form of infodumping, but in casual mentions that leave it to the reader to pick up and understand. It may not have been the most  unique fantasy world I’ve ever encountered in books, but it was still complete and comprehensible, and that counts for a lot.

It’s no surprise that Duyvis’s book touches on the realities and implications of disabilities. Nolan’s perceived epilepsy affects how others treat him, for one thing, and it affects the lives of his family. To help pay for treatment that Nolan guiltily knows isn’t working, his mother takes a second job, for instance. Even knowing that he’s not having seizures so much as he’s seeing into another world, Nolan’s life isn’t what you’d call easy. It’s difficult for him to focus. He’s withdrawn, misses much of his schoolwork, has few friends and hobbies. He may not have a rare form of epilepsy, but his ability to view another world when his eyes are closed affects so many aspects of his life that he can’t separate the two.

Cilla’s curse also manifests as a form of disability, as she is hyper-aware of anything around her that could even scratch her skin, with the possibility of drawing blood. As I was reading about the diligence she and Amara used to keep her safe, I was reminded of stories of people with hemophilia, aware that bleeding can be dangerous for them and yet running that risk every moment of every day, especially in a time and place where medicines to treat such a condition weren’t available.

But it isn’t just disability that Otherbound tackles. No, running through the novel are multiple themes of duty and servitude, and the question of how much of a person’s actions are related to their relative social position and how much are because of their genuine thoughts and feelings. There are themes of abuse, with Jorn’s repeated over-the-top punishments of Amara, such as burning her hands to make her feel pain, knowing she wouldn’t be permanently scarred by the act. There are themes of love, obviously, because there are few books that don’t, and seeing the development of the relationships between Amara and Maart, and Amara and Cilla, were just fantastic. There’s the question of whether it’s good or bad to use someone without their permission if it results in saving them; Nolan took over Amara’s body and acted through her in order to save her, and save others, even when she actively didn’t want him around. It’s a complex and multi-layered story, one that surprised me since I’m used to seeing so many YA novels these days make passes at complexity while really only brushing lightly by it.

Otherbound constantly throws new twists at the reader. Just when I thought I understood what was going on, some new piece of information would be uncovered, or somebody would have an epiphany, and the plot would get deeper and more interesting, and I just found myself devouring this book. Once I picked it up, it was hard to put down. Alternating the chapters between Amara’s viewpoint and Nolan’s (which often included more glimpses into Amara’s world, so Nolan’s chapters were still in part Amara’s too) was a good way to convey the whole story, showing how the two worlds and the two people were so connected.

Not to mention I have a weakness for stories that involve two spirits or minds in the same body, and it’s so rare that I find stories that actually incorporate that. Where at first I thought that this was going to be somewhat akin to Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, where the main character is mostly a passive observer until they themselves are changed by the character in their head, Nolan and Amara’s relationship grew more consciously symbiotic as the book progressed, until both of them knew how much they were needed. The driving force of the story still was centered in Amara’s world rather than Nolan’s, but there was some wonderful bleedover, and it was great to see the two stories intersect and combine in ways that I didn’t always predict.

But the ending. Oh god, that ending had me open-mouthed, in tears for a moment, because damn, does Duyvis ever know how to tug at my heartstrings! Much of the second half of the novel focuses on ending Cilla’s curse, and whether or not there’s a way to do it without killing her. I don’t want to give the ending away (though I will say that if you think it ends by Cilla dying, that’s not the whole picture, and there’s so much more to it), but suffice it to say that I was on the edge of my seat as I read through it, wondering whether each moment would be the last, wondering how it would all play out and come together in the end. I haven’t felt that kind of tension in a book, let alone a YA book, for quite some time, and my hat’s off to Duyvis for pulling it off.

Otherbound is a book that isn’t making as many waves as it ought to. I hadn’t even heard of it before seeing it mentioned on Our Words. It has good representation of disability, good representation of bisexuality, good representation of so much that it’s amazing to me that it slipped under my radar. I enjoyed it so much. There were some plot threads that I felt could have been expanded upon (or thrown in without much reason or purpose), but aside from that, really, it was a phenomenal book, and I think fans of YA fantasy and urban fantasy will eat this up just as much as I did. This leaves my hands highly recommended, and I look forward to seeing more of what Duyvis will do in the future.

Stories of the Raksura: Volume 1, by Martha Wells

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 2, 2014

Summary: In “The Falling World,” Jade, sister queen of the Indigo Cloud Court, has traveled with Chime and Balm to another Raksuran court. When she fails to return, her consort, Moon, along with Stone and a party of warriors and hunters, must track them down. Finding them turns out to be the easy part; freeing them from an ancient trap hidden in the depths of the Reaches is much more difficult.

“The Tale of Indigo and Cloud” explores the history of the Indigo Cloud Court, long before Moon was born. In the distant past, Indigo stole Cloud from Emerald Twilight. But in doing so, the reigning Queen Cerise and Indigo are now poised for a conflict that could spark war throughout all the courts of the Reaches.

Stories of Moon and the shape changers of Raksura have delighted readers for years. This world is a dangerous place full of strange mysteries, where the future can never be taken for granted and must always be fought for with wits and ingenuity, and often tooth and claw. With two brand-new novellas, Martha Wells shows that the world of the Raksura has many more stories to tell…

Review: It took me a little while to fall in love with the world of the Raksura, but when I finally fell, I fell hard. The main trilogy has become a favourite of mine, one that fills me with comfort and happiness when I read it. Extra stories that take place both before and after? Sign me up!

The book advertises that it’s two novellas, but there are also an additional two short stories thrown in, so you get more bang for your buck, so to speak. The first novella, The Falling World, involves Moon (and others) hunting for Jade and Chime (and others, but admit it, we’re all mostly concerned about those three) after they go missing, and the strange fallen city they discover along the way. There’s something I really like about seeing Moon be protective toward those he cares for, so the way he gets frantic and irritable when trails run cold and mysteries keep leading them onward really appeals to me. Possibly because it’s in tandem with nobody letting him let his possessive tendencies get out of control. The mystery of how the city fell and what happened to the people who lived there was a fascinating one, and I won’t give away anything major in case people have yet to read this collection, but suffice it to say that Wells does a good job dealing out pieces of the mystery little by little, leading readers onward and making us guess pretty much right until the end.

The Tale of Indigo and Cloud was quite possibly my favourite piece in the collection, since it delved into the very origins of the Indigo Cloud court, when Indigo stole Cloud from another court and everybody had to deal with the ensuing political chaos. The whole situation was a great one to read about; the way Cloud manipulated Indigo, the way Indigo tried to proclaim and them deny her feelings for Cloud, the way Argent was more concerned with her pride than justice. It was a great story, full of nuance and with more to it than it seemed in the beginning, and it was fantastic to not only see the origins of the court that’s central to the other books, but also to take a jump to Moon’s time and see everyone’s reactions to uncovering the whole story in the first place.

Also, to see a young Stone who giggles. That image made me grin!

The two included short stories were both heartbreaking to read. The first involved Moon’s childhood, after he had lost his family and while living with a group of groundlings, the struggle of trying to fit in with them even when he’s so different, and the jealousy that eventually causes him to leave. Knowing that was only the first of many similar situations was what made this such a sad story, though. Out of context, it was just a story of children overreacting and not understanding the subtleties of emotion and relationships. In context, you know it’s just the first note in a long song for Moon.

The second piece of broken-heart came in the last short story, which dealt with Chime’s transformation from mentor to warrior, and his difficult adjustment to a life lost and an unfamiliar and unwanted gain. In the main trilogy you see Chime’s bitterness over what happened to him, and his attempts to leave behind what he lost, but only here do you get to see it happen, to see that pain when it’s new and fresh, and to see him struggle with an unfamiliar body and a new way of living. In many ways, it mirrors sudden disability, and the adjustment period. You lose familiar aspects of yourself, have to find a new sense of self in new circumstances, people don’t know how to treat you and some react with hostility, and even if you have a community of support, everything’s so new to you that it’s difficult to see it because you’re in mourning for something you may not be able to get back. It’s the early stages of grief, and even though there are probably hundreds who would love to suddenly gain the power of flight the way Chime did, it can’t be denied that he lost much of how he once defined himself in the process.

Stories of the Raksura: volume 1 is an excellent set of stories that are perfect for fans of the main series who can’t stop asking about what happened off the page. The collection gives you more: more stories, more insight, more entertainment, with Wells’s signature flare and a wonderful cast of characters that I’ve come to know and love. I can’t wait to dive into the second collection in the future!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: Imogen and her sister Marin escape their cruel mother to attend a prestigious artists’ retreat, but soon learn that living in a fairy tale requires sacrifices, whether it be art or love in this haunting debut novel from “a remarkable young writer” (Neil Gaiman).

What would you sacrifice for everything you ever dreamed of?

Imogen has grown up reading fairy tales about mothers who die and make way for cruel stepmothers. As a child, she used to lie in bed wishing that her life would become one of these tragic fairy tales because she couldn’t imagine how a stepmother could be worse than her mother now. As adults, Imogen and her sister Marin are accepted to an elite post-grad arts program—Imogen as a writer and Marin as a dancer. Soon enough, though, they realize that there’s more to the school than meets the eye. Imogen might be living in the fairy tale she’s dreamed about as a child, but it’s one that will pit her against Marin if she decides to escape her past to find her heart’s desire.

Review: Being an artist is residence is something I’ve dreamed of for years. It’s still a goal of mine, to be good enough that someone’s willing to provide me space and exposure so that I can focus on my art for a time, even if that means paying a hefty chunk of change. It’s something that pushes me to improve my art, that goal down the road that keeps me moving forward. I’ve had a fascination with them ever since I learned what they were.

So, a dark urban fantasy set in an artist residence? Sign me the hell up!

I want to take a quick moment to state, before the review really begins, that whoever in marketing decided that this should have a whole load of YA blogger outreach, well, didn’t really understand the book. This isn’t a YA novel. It lacks all the hallmarks of a YA novel. That isn’t to say that people who read a lot of YA won’t enjoy this, but teens aren’t the intended audience for this, and it’s pretty clear early on. I’d maybe class it as new adult, if I had to categorize it as something other than “a damn good urban fantasy novel” to begin with.

Now that’s aside, on to the meat of the review.

Imogen and Marin are sisters with a dark past. Abused by their mother, who saw Marin as potential for her own glory and Imogen as nothing compared to her sister, they both drown themselves in their art; writing and ballet, respectively. So when both of them win a residency spot at the highly-regarded Melete, a place that will pair them with a mentor and give them time and assistance to advance their chosen arts, it seems like something of a dream come true.

Only the dreams turn to nightmares as Melete’s true nature is revealed, peeling back the layers and stripping people bare and forcing them to confront the ultimate artist’s question: What would you sacrifice to achieve your dreams?

Be prepared to confront some disturbing darkness while reading Roses and Rot. It’s the kind of book that will strike chords with those who have experienced parental abuse or neglect, especially that driven by a parent who thinks their child’s success is nothing more than a reflection of the parent. Marin and Imogen’s mother treated them very differently, pushing Marin to succeed at ballet by constant negative reinforcement, threats, and insults, while treating Imogen as though she were less than dirt, only a hindrance to her talented sister, going so far as to burn Imogen’s hands when she’s discovered writing stories. The sisters experience a constant layer of dread in their lives, even after becoming adults and moving away from home, the knowledge that their mother will always try to contact them, try to worm her way back in, try to put them down and make their achievements all about her. I didn’t experience a family situation that bad, thankfully, but my own childhood was rough enough, and I know well that underfeeling of anxiety about every email, every phone call. Howard portrayed all that extremely well, and I felt that tension throughout the novel, even to the sort-of-resolution at the end.

The twist on fairy tales is beautifully done in Roses and Rot, and I couldn’t find fault with the setup at all. It was actually quite intriguing, and it left me wondering, at numerous points, what I would do were I in such a situation. Would I accept 10 years of imprisonment in another realm, essentially letting fairies feed from me, for the prize of success, of a guaranteed career that would last and would let me achieve all I worked for. The whole story was a tale of sacrifice, of potential, and or wondering what might be. It was great to see it all unfold, and to have so many thoughts provoked in me. What would you give up for success? How much is security worth? How much can you love someone or something, to exchange it for something else? These are hard questions to ask, ones that have no answer outside the individual, and Howard stressed them constantly through the book without letting the reader feel like they were being beaten over the head with an unanswerable moral judgment.

There’s so much I want to say about this book that, unfortunately, would result in my spoiling a beautiful and well-told story. What’s happening at Melete doesn’t stay a secret for long, and yet at every turn there was a new surprise, something unexpected, something to make my heart lurch. I shed tears more than once, while reading this. There’s some sections that will be triggering for some, particularly relating to child abuse, anxiety, and suicide. The content is dark and profound, beautiful and raw and full of emotion. It’s not an easy read. There’s love, betrayal, beauty, death, resolution, and sacrifice. It’s hopeful and sad at the same time, and the weight of Imogen’s decision can be felt increasingly as the story progresses.

In a nutshell, this book wrecked me. Wrung me out and left me a brand new shape, because it touched on so many personal fears and experiences and dreams; there’s no way I could have read this and been left untouched. It’s one of those rare books that inspired me in ways that few other books have accomplished, rekindling embers and making me believe that yes, there is hope for my dreams, and this book shows it. It will appeal to the artist, it will appeal to those who love dark fantasy, and it will appeal to those looking for something a bit different in their reading. This isn’t your average fairy tale. The fairies here have teeth, will cheerfully hurt you, and you’ll turn the page and let them do it again because you know that the further you go, the more you read, the better it will be in the end.

(Received from the publisher for review.)