Finna, by Nino Cipri

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 25, 2020

Summary: When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store — but not that one — slips through a portal to another dimension, it’s up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company’s bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.

Thoughts: In the early pages of this book, I was reminded somewhat of Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstor, but mostly because both stories start in an IKEA-esque environment, and both involve a sort of twisting of the rules of reality. Beyond that, though, the stories go in very different directions.

When an elderly woman goes missing at this definitely-not-IKEA store, it turns out that it’s due to the funny way wormholes can more easily open up in places where it’s easy to get lost. So Ava and Jules, two people who have recently had a rather messy breakup, are “voluntold” (well, Jules volunteered, and Ava was told she’d be risking losing her job if she refused to go along) to head through the wormhole and recover the missing woman. They’re warned that the world or worlds they may visit could be very similar to their own world… or things could be deeply, powerfully different.

Understandably, the journey is rather tense, with Ava and Jules trying to work together despite obvious personal issues between them. Tension ramps higher, though, when it’s discovered that the missing woman is actually dead, and that the FINNA, the device used by Jules and Ava’s workplace to navigate such interdimensional problems, has identified an “appropriate replacement” from another world that the two of them ought to bring back instead.

Finna is a novella, and there’s part of me that wishes it had been expanded into a full novel. On the other hand, what was written was tightly paced and doesn’t waste time on extraneous details. Ava and Jules could have traveled to a dozen, a hundred worlds and had adventures and misadventures, but to be perfectly honest, doing so likely would have felt like padding unless there was a particular reason for them to dwell in any of those worlds. As it was, they may have only visited a few disturbing alternate realities, but those visits were enough, they made their points, and they contributed to the story, so everything felt essential and nothing felt tacked on for the sake of wordcount. Cipri’s writing is tight, the characters interesting and flawed and compelling, and everything is where it ought to be to deliver maximum impact.

There’s a lot of social commentary packed into Finna‘s pages, and I can’t think of anything that I particularly disagree with. Cipri tackles topics like the awkwardness of people trying to respect a non-binary person’s gender identity and pronouns, the way retail environments can kill your soul, the variety of coping mechanisms people use to get through life, and much of it resonated with me. I’ve worked some soul-sucking jobs in my life, and I’m eager to never do so again if I have any say in the matter, so Jules’s disdain for retail and other such jobs really struck a chord with me. You can put your heart and soul into your job, and sadly, more often than not, that job will just take and not give anything back at the end of the day but just enough of a paycheque to convince you that you don’t have a choice but to do the whole thing all over again tomorrow.

And sometimes, even when it’s terrifying to do so, you have to take matters into your own hands, throw caution to the wind, and do something unexpected, maybe even dangerous, to keep your own sanity in the face of a world that would happily grind you down and leave nothing left.

Toward the end, though, was the real mind-blow moment for me, when Ava and Uzmala Nouresh were talking about Ava’s fear and indecision. Uzmala talks about how she felt the same uncertainty about some things, and them realized that across the infinite worlds out there and the infinite iterations of herself, there were worlds in which she was brave enough to do what needed to be done, and worlds where she was too cowardly. The question she asked herself was: which world do I want this to be?

And I was just… I’m not kidding when I say it was a mind-blow moment. You read all the things about just doing what you’re passionate about and seizing the day, and that success will come when you believe it will, and all that stuff, and you think to yourself that yeah, that’s all well and good, but what about the dozen things that get in the way, or all the ways that things might go wrong, and it’s not as easy as just believing you’ll succeed and wanting it enough. You might work hard and never get anywhere, because you worked hard at the wrong thing at the wrong time, or you didn’t meet the right person to help you along the way, or any number of problems with that philosophy.

And… that doesn’t matter. I mean, it does matter, yes, but that’s not really the point, so to speak. It’s not always about success or failure, two binary points on a spectrum with loads of space in between. The point is, in the infinite worlds and with the infinite versions of me in all those worlds, there are worlds in which I’m tenacious enough to work hard at what I love, and worlds where I’m too afraid of failure to let myself start. There are worlds in which I’m brave enough to try, and worlds in which I’m too cowardly to try.

The question is: which world do I want this to be?

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Turning Darkness Into Light, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 20, 2019

Summary: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, Audrey must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

Thoughts: I put off reading this book for far too long, since I hadn’t had a chance to read Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the book that preceded this one in the series and also capped off the adventures of Lady Trent. I very much loved the first 4 books in the series, with their approach of taking natural science to a fantasy world, and chronicling the journeys of the scientist who defied society in pursuit of her passions. I didn’t know if I wanted to pick up book 6 without having read book 5 first, for reasons that probably seem pretty obvious.

Fortunately, it’s absolutely possible to do so. Turning Darkness Into Light switches perspective from Lady Trent to her granddaughter, Audrey, and her own academic adventures.While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that readers can pick up this book without having read any of the previous novels in the series, it is possible to have not read all of the preceding books and to still enjoy this one.

Though go figure, it seems like enough of the world’s understanding of dragons changed after an event in Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and I had to pick up on those from context clues in Turning Darkness Into Light. It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together, though, and soon enough I was happily turning pages, eager for more of the story to unfold.

Audrey is hired by Lord Gleinleigh to translate the text of what appears to be a large cache of clay tablets from the Draconean culture, and along with a Draconean scholar named Kudshayn and Lord Gleinleigh’s neice Cora, the tablets are revealed to be an epic story telling the beginnings of the Draconean people. Only it’s not quite the story that Kudshayn is familiar with, and to make matters worse, the story turns rather violent over time, echoing fears from a group of people who claim that Draconeans are nothing but mindless beasts who want to burn humanity to the ground. There’s definitely something going on that strikes at the heart of multiple cultures, but the exact nature of that strike remains shadowed and uncertain as the trio work to translate the texts that may well up-end so much that many people hold dear.

I kind of love that in a way, Turning Darkness Into Light is a history of history. It’s styled as a collection of diary entries and articles and notes from people involved in undertaking a massive project with huge cultural implications, detailing their journey and all of the steps they took, their thoughts and feelings, all of the things you’d find in a novel, only with the presentation of a piece of nonfiction. Given that the trio were working on a translation of the tablets with an eye to publication, Turning Darkness Into Light is presented as that very book they eventually published. It’s a similar style to the original Memoirs of Lady Trent novels, fiction presented as nonfiction within a fictional world, and I could gorge myself silly on books with this style and never get tired of it. The anthropologist in me wants more SFF novels done in this style.

All of the characters in this book were compelling, even the ones that were clearly people I wouldn’t want anything to do with in real life. Lord Gleinleigh and Aaron Mornett’s motivations may have been unclear through much of the novel, but it was nevertheless interesting when they made an appearance, adding little bits of information here and there that added to their characters and their roles within the story. Audrey’s hot-headedness and desire to live up to her family’s reputation was something I could very much empathize with; you could feel her passion for her work and her urge to prove herself with every page. Kudshayn was a glimpse into a culture that I’m not familiar with and yet want to become more familiar with. And Cora… Well, Cora was the one I could relate to the most. The one that didn’t fit in, the one that had trouble understanding motivations and social cues and would much rather have been doing her own thing without interruption. She’s definitely a character on the neurodiverse spectrum

Brennan does such a good job at setting the stage for mysteries steeped in archaeology and natural science, taking the fantastical into the realm of underappreciated scientific procedure, the combination of boredom and excitement that permeates investigation and the hope of discovery. This is the sort of book, the sort of series, that you turn to when you love both fantasy and ethnographies, when you want an uncommon approach to the exploration of the reality behind the fantasy. I’m very much a fan of Brennan’s writing, and her highly-detailed world-building, and I highly recommend Turning Darkness Into Light for those who enjoyed the Lady Trent novels or those who are anthropologists and archaeologists at heart. This series has the wings to soar above the rest.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 28, 2020

Summary: From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

Thoughts: I’ve been a fan of Chorn’s writing style since reading Seraphina’s Lament in 2019. She has a brilliant evocative style that drew me in, turning emotions into landscapes in a way that felt downright poetic. That same style is evident in Of Honey and Wildfires, though I found that this one had a much stronger focus on the narrative than Seraphina’s Lament. It might be because her first novel dealt with events happening on a massive scale, changing how the very world worked, whereas here, the story has a narrower focus. One small area, a few primary characters. It’s a different scope, but Chorn deals with it just as well.

Of Honey and Wildfires is a fantasy Western, at its heart, taking heavy inspiration from the American West during the 1800s. The setting is Shine Territory, a place where shine is pulled from the world and is infused into everything. Shine is like magic, only with a physical form. Add some shine to food and it will taste better. Use it to make ammunition for guns. Give undiluted shine to a person and grant them temporary psychic powers, but also make them terribly addicted. Shine production and distribution is controlled by Shine Company, and is a blessing and a curse for pretty much everyone involved with it. Life gets better with it, but at the cost of the lives of those who mine it or pulls it up from wells.

Your basic capitalist scheme that values profits over people, basically.

While I don’t think that Chorn intended to write a book about worker exploitation specifically, that element is definitely present in the text, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore. One of the protagonists, Arlen, is the son of the head of Shine Company, sent out to Shine Territory to further company interests, sees firsthand how brutal lives of the company’s workers can be. Children in the mines, company propaganda about how kids working is a good thing because they help take care of their families, the benefits given to the people who agree to become addicts for the company’s sake… It’s not a pretty world, and the company byline clashes with the brutal reality of the situation, and early on the weight of the situation comes crashing down around Arlen’s head. He recognizes that his life has been immensely privileged, living off the benefits of an exploitative system, and the real meaning of that hits home when he sees the people who are being exploited for his comfort.

Arlen’s viewpoint isn’t the only one followed in the novel. There’s also Cassandra, daughter of an outlaw who works to shut down Shine Company, sent to live with extended family to keep her safe. Cassandra’s childhood isn’t an easy one, being markedly different from the people in Shine Territory, and also having a known outlaw for a father, but she’s a fascinating character, strong and stubborn and devoted to the things and people dear to her.

Cassandra’s one of those characters to whom things happen, whereas Arlen is one who has greater impact on the events he takes part in. True, Arlen still gets dragged along for rides now and again, but his is definitely the more action-oriented viewpoint, whereas much of Cassandra’s story involves the simple telling of a complicated life. Her narrative is compelling, to be sure, since she occupies a rather unique place in the world, but in many ways, hers is a more passive role. She could have been removed from the story as very little would have changed, since most of the main story elements were in the hands of Arlen and Chris, Cassandra’s father. The narrative would be poorer for her absence, since her tone and style are quite different from Arlen’s, but if her chapters were removed, most of what readers would lack would be context. Cassandra’s chapters are the emotional connection in many ways.

Now, I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this, to be honest. In one way, Cassandra’s character dips into some problematic territory. Her relationship with her best friend Ianthe ends somewhat tragically (this is foreshadowed heavily early on, so it’s not a massive spoiler to say so, I figure), which adds her to a large list of “queer characters who lose their lover in a tragic fashion.” Combined with her more passive role in the story, especially when compared to Arlen, it’s easy to categorize her as “a woman who isn’t really necessary to anything.”

But as accurate as those criticisms may be, they also do a disservice to Cassandra’s character. She may have a more passive role in the tale, but her parts of the story are still interesting. With her, you get context. You get to see how many people in Shine Territory live, what their lives are like, what their concerns are. I love reading this sort of thing. One of my earliest complaints with learning history in school was that we always got taught the big events, the major players in how things changed, but we never got anything about how the general populace lived out their lives. Wars occurred to determine who sat on a throne, but for your average labourer, their lives went on as they always did, and I wanted to know about those lives. That is, in essence, Cassandra’s viewpoint. She gives that everyday context that provides the counterpoint to Arlen’s experiences, and yes, I know that “woman who exists to further a man’s story” is also a damaging trope, but I don’t think Cassandra quite falls into that one, since she can absolutely carry her own story.

It just happens that her own story had less action and less impact to Shine Territory in the end. But it was no less interesting than Arlen’s, and I think it’s a testament to Chorn’s skill with writing that she can create a character who has less impact but is nevertheless just as compelling to read about.

I don’t know if there’ll be any more to Cassandra and Arlen’s connected story. Of Honey and Wildfires could be a standalone novel and work perfectly, a short glimpse into a fascinating aspect of a fantasy world that isn’t any more than it needs to be. At the same time, the world and characters are interesting enough that I absolutely want to see more, to see what has changed now that this book has ended and Shine Territory isn’t what it was in the beginning. It feels like there could easily be more stories set in the world, and I’m down for reading them. If the true tale is only beginning, I want to be there at the end. But I could still be satisfied with this one novel, if that’s all there needs to be. I do enjoy books that can stand on their own merits without needing to be half finished or give cliffhanger endings to keep me interested, and Of Honey and Wildfires definitely checks that box.

If you enjoyed Chorn’s other work, then you’ll similarly love this one. It’s an engaging story in an uncommon fantasy setting, and it’s written with the same beautiful and evocative style that I’ve grown accustomed to with Chorn. This is a novel that deserves a place on your bookshelves, with plenty to say and a compelling way of saying it. Do yourself a favour and dip your toes into this Western-inspired shine-soaked world that is sure to make an impression.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: Quick-witted, ambitious Ji Lin is stuck as an apprentice dressmaker, moonlighting as a dancehall girl to help pay off her mother’s Mahjong debts. But when one of her dance partners accidentally leaves behind a gruesome souvenir, Ji Lin may finally get the adventure she has been longing for.

Eleven-year-old houseboy Ren is also on a mission, racing to fulfill his former master’s dying wish: that Ren find the man’s finger, lost years ago in an accident, and bury it with his body. Ren has 49 days to do so, or his master’s soul will wander the earth forever.

As the days tick relentlessly by, a series of unexplained deaths racks the district, along with whispers of men who turn into tigers. Ji Lin and Ren’s increasingly dangerous paths crisscross through lush plantations, hospital storage rooms, and ghostly dreamscapes.

Yangsze Choo’s The Night Tiger pulls us into a world of servants and masters, age-old superstition and modern idealism, sibling rivalry and forbidden love. But anchoring this dazzling, propulsive novel is the intimate coming-of-age of a child and a young woman, each searching for their place in a society that would rather they stay invisible.

Thoughts: Yangsze Choo’s books are ones that are delightfully hard to classify. The Ghost Bride was a sort of historical supernatural mystery/romance. The Night Tiger, Choo’s most recent standalone novel set in 1930s Malaysia (then known as Malaya) is something similar, though the supernatural elements are considerably toned down compared to The Ghost Bride. That’s not to say that there aren’t any such elements to the story, and indeed they play a large part in the story’s narrative, but they’re woven into the story in such a way that it would be easy to overlook them, to dismiss them as historically and locally accurate superstitions that influence characters but are not real and tangible things.

The story begins with Ren, a houseboy to a recently-deceased doctor who has charged Ren with finding his missing finger and returning it to his grave no more than 49 days after his death, so that his soul can rest easy. Ren, loyal to his former employer, does so by going to the house of William Acton, another doctor, and one who is connected to the missing finger.

Ren’s sections (which sometimes are written from Acton’s viewpoint as well) as interspersed with first-person chapter from the perspective of Ji Lin, a young woman apprenticed to a dressmaker but who also works part time at a dance hall in order to make enough money to pay off her mother’s gambling debts. Dance halls were not always socially acceptable places to go or work, so Ji Lin does this on the sly. Things go as normally as they can for her until one day a Ji Lin finds herself in possession of a very odd object lost by a dance hall patron: a preserved severed finger. Together with her stepbrother, Shin, the two try to discover and return the finger to its former owner.

Naturally, this ties back into Ren’s sections of the book, and even though all the characters have their own equally complex backstories and personal motivations, they all seem to be working together toward a common goal, even if they don’t always share the same thoughts on what that goal is. Both Ren and Ji Lin want to return that finger to its former, erm, body, though Ren has a much clearer idea of who that is.

The supernatural elements I mentioned mostly focus in 2 areas. The first ties back to the idea of 5 Confucian virtues, and it’s mentioned repeatedly, from both Ren and Ji Lin’s viewpoints, that they both are named after virtues and have siblings that are similarly named after virtues, but that there are only 2 of them, rather than a complete set of 5. Ji Lin and Shin are 2, Ren and his deceased brother Yi are another 2, and there’s a running plot about discovering the 5th virtue, Li. Ji Lin finds herself occasionally slipping into a sort of afterlife while she sleeps, where she talks to Yi, who admits, over time, that from his position there he can influence some things in the living/waking world, and that the missing 5th virtue from their set is… flawed, on some level greater than the rest of them, and is doing things to spin their harmony off balance.

The 2nd supernatural element is, at least to me, the most fascinating piece of the book’s mystery, because it never gets resolved conclusively. Ren’s former employer, Dr. MacFarlane, officially died of malaria, and it was the high fevers that supposedly caused the delirium at the end of his life. He went on long walks at night, came back dirty and disheveled, talking about how far he went and what animals he killed. Then would come news that such an animal had been killed by a tiger, roughly the same distance away that MacFarlane claimed he roamed. There are superstitions mentioned about weretigers, people who straddle that line between human and beast, and there’s a lot of leading information that suggests MacFarlane really was a weretiger, that he did change his skin at night and roam around as a tiger. The reports of tiger attacks in the area stopped after MacFarlane died. What else could he have been?

Except that we really don’t get any conclusive, “Aha!” moment as to whether or not this is true. It could have been coincidence that the tiger attacks stopped after MacFarlane’s death. He may have walked so far in his fevered state and somehow seem things that his mind told him later were personal experiences, the way reality twists sometimes when fevers rage. When people are discovered dead and with signs that they were mauled by a tiger, I started to wonder if MacFarlane’s spirit was responsible for those deaths, but the book does give a much more mundane explanation for them.

Of course, the book also gives a mundane explanation for MacFarlane’s claims, too. There’s nothing conclusive to say that he wasn’t capable of the things he claimed, but also nothing conclusive to say that he was. It’s part of the connection between the main characters, and given that it’s the book’s title, it’s easy to see how it’s all relevant, but it’s an element that could go one way or the other. And frankly, I like that. I’m a firm believer that while the supernatural should have rules, it shouldn’t always be easily explainable. There should always be some ambiguity, because it’s ambiguous in real life. Is it real, or is it superstition and interpretation?

I won’t go into any detail about the identity of the 5th virtue, because that will ruin a good deal of the mystery for many people, but suffice it to say that I figured out who it was shortly after one particular character was set firmly as a candidate for being the Li of the set. If you approach this story as a historical mystery, it’s a fair bet that the first suspect/candidate isn’t going to be the right one in the end, so I don’t consider it much of a spoiler to say that it isn’t Acton. But with the hint of Chinese names in mind, the correct identity occurred to me pretty soon after that reveal. That being said, I know that a lot of people reading this book won’t have my background to give them that extra clue, so the 5th virtue’s true identity will likely stay safely hidden until near the very end of the book, when the pieces really start to fall into place. Choo is utterly brilliant at weaving together a complex mystery in that way, and I loved being strung along as the story went.

I do want to take a moment to talk about the romantic elements of the story, because it is a complicated one that I think will turn many people off. Reading The Night Tiger came hot on the heels of me reading a piece online about the trope of romance between stepsiblings or adopted siblings, and the pervading belief that it’s okay because they’re not “real siblings.” And how that does a vast disservice to many types of families that are doing their best to actually be families despite cultural opposition. Now, I’m not saying that the author was taking a stand and stating that such families aren’t real families, but I can absolutely understand why this content would be a deal-breaker for some people.

As it was… Ji Lin’s mother and Shin’s father married each other when their kids were both in their teens. They didn’t grow up with each other, and the family dynamic for them was different. It’s also made clear (albeit much later on in the book) that Shin had an interest in Ji Lin practically from the beginning, so it wasn’t as though he saw her as his sister/stepsister first and came to develop a romantic attraction to her after that. Ji Lin saw their relationship as complicated, trying to be family and yet also denying that they were family at different turns, and suffering a crisis of self and conscience when she realized she was becoming attracted to Shin. I thought that it was a pretty good presentation of the issue, presenting it neither as inherently right or wrong, but a personal thing that depended very much on circumstance and dynamic and that neither one of them should just rush into no matter how much they might want to. I didn’t have a problem with this particular presentation, though, as I said, I can see why some people might.

(That being said, I want to state that just because I didn’t have a problem with the relationship in this one particular novel doesn’t mean that I don’t have a problem with stepsibling or adopted sibling romances in other novels. I have seen a fair number of, “It’s okay because we’re not really siblings” romances where the two have grown up side by side for most of their lives, where there’s no more than a token, “Maybe we shouldn’t do this,” argument, and then nothing more because apparently romance is supposed to trump everything. I am very much not okay with that, or the mentality behind it.)

The Night Tiger was a fantastic piece of historical fiction, with a strong mystery element strung through with folklore and the supernatural and an uncommon cultural flavour tied to the location and history. It’s a rare gem in speculative fiction, something that crosses genre boundaries and declares itself to be unique, original, and highly compelling, even to those who don’t usually read much speculative fiction. It has vast appeal, and it’s always a treat to find such a book. I loved it even more than I loved The Ghost Bride, and that’s saying something. If you enjoyed Yangsze Choo’s previous novel, or you enjoy historical mysteries, or you just want to know what the hype is all about, then absolutely pick up The Night Tiger when you get a chance. It’s an experience you won’t want to miss out on.

The Rage of Dragons, by Evan Winter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 12, 2019

Summary: The Omehi people have been fighting an unwinnable war for almost two hundred years. The lucky ones are born gifted. One in every two thousand women has the power to call down dragons. One in every hundred men is able to magically transform himself into a bigger, stronger, faster killing machine.

Everyone else is fodder, destined to fight and die in the endless war.

Young, gift-less Tau knows all this, but he has a plan of escape. He’s going to get himself injured, get out early, and settle down to marriage, children, and land. Only, he doesn’t get the chance.

Those closest to him are brutally murdered, and his grief swiftly turns to anger. Fixated on revenge, Tau dedicates himself to an unthinkable path. He’ll become the greatest swordsman to ever live, a man willing to die a hundred thousand times for the chance to kill the three who betrayed him.

The Rage of Dragons launches a stunning and powerful debut epic fantasy series that readers are already calling “the best fantasy book in years.”

Thoughts: There’s a very good reason for a lot of the hype that surrounded this book at launch. The Rage of Dragons is the sort of book that pulls you in very quickly, and leaves a strong impression after you finish the final page. It’s the kind of epic fantasy that feels comfortable to fans of that particular genre, while also displaying an impressive amount of originality to make it stand out. There are demons, there are dragons, there is military drama, there are all the hallmarks of an epic fantasy classic, and yet it is also so unlike many epic fantasy novels I’ve read, in no small part because it is not set in a land broadly inspired by medieval Europe, and neither are its people. Instead we get something inspired by South Africa, which is far less common and worth paying attention to for its representation and creativity

It is, in short, very well worth the hype.

The Rage of Dragons is, first and foremost, a story of a man driven by the desire for revenge. Tau is from one of the lower castes of the Omehi people, limited in his ability to advance in life, but powerfully motivated to go as far as he can after the death of his father reroutes Tau’s plans for his life. Now he is driven to become the best fighter he can be, not to fight in his people’s unending war against the hedeni, but to get to a place where he can kill those who played a part in his father’s death. But, as in any good story, Tau’s journey is far from easy, and far from straightforward, and time and again Tau finds himself running into walls that block his goals or turn him aside to a new aim.

Put that way, the story might seem unfocused, but that’s far from the case. In many cases, Tau stays focused on his goal of revenge even after uncovering details that things are not always as they seem, that things are more complicated than he wants to believe in order to keep his goal in sight. Frankly, it was interesting to see a character bent on revenge to the point of blindness, to the point of damaging himself and refusing to be turned aside even when logically he should have been. Emotion rarely obeys logic, and Tau’s singular drive did not respond to anything until it became impossible to ignore.

It’s difficult to talk about The Rage of Dragons without mentioning the Omehi caste system, which, as caste systems do, affect so many aspects of every character’s life. Tau is Common, which isn’t the lowest caste but it’s also far from the highest, and as such, his life is very limited. He can (and did) gain some military training and status, but even that would only take him so far. So, a caste system with a limited degree of meritocracy, just enough to give people hope that life might improve but not so much that they will ever improve to the degree of a higher caste. People from the Noble caste, thanks to selective breeding, are taller and stronger than Lessers, giving them physical as well as social advantages. For Tau, options in life are: become an Ihashe (a low-level soldier) through physical prowess, become front-line fodder in the war, or become a Drudge (essentially a slave).

It’s not surprising that Tau throws himself into becoming not only an Ihashe, but the strongest one he can be, training literally night and day to hone his martial abilities and make himself ready for the day when he challenges his father’s killers to the death.

There are plenty of characters in plenty of books who end up being the best of the best, the exceptions to all the rules, and so that’s why the story is about them. But more often than not, that skill is a natural talent, albeit enhanced by training. In many other books, a character like Tau would find himself suddenly presented with training that brings out hidden martial talent that existed within him all along, and that exceptional nature would be what saves him and propels him forward. Here, it’s just the opposite. Compared to the others he trains with, Tau is, at first, weaker and smaller than all of them, and to rise to their level, he has to put in extra hours of training to improve. But being as good as the others isn’t enough, and he knows it, so he puts in more hours, forgoing sleep, forgoing friendships, in the pursuit of power.

He ends up being able to dual-wield swords, and admittedly cool trick that I’ve seen before, but again, it usually gets presented as some natural talent. Tau finds he can wield two swords at once due to a lucky accident, and due to his dominant hand being injured during the early days of his training, forcing him to fight with his weaker hand and so in essence becoming ambidextrous. Nor is his progress unmarked by any detriments: Tau loses sleep, gets injured, fights demons and starts to see them everywhere even when they aren’t there. His drive has drawbacks, tangible ones, and to be honest, it was good to see on the page. Sometimes stories are remarkable for what they don’t do rather than what they do do, and this is one such case. It would have been easy to have Tau be naturally talented and to rise with effort, yes, but also without sacrifice. It was fantastic to not the see author fall into that trap, to give Tau more obstacles to overcome and actual difficulty overcoming them. It made him, however exceptional he turned out to be, very relatable, very real.

It’s worth mentioning the hedeni in this review, because I often feel awkward when an entire race of people are presented as “savages” and “the enemy.” Especially when we see almost nothing from the viewpoint of any of those people, and the vast majority from the people who invaded the hedeni’s lands and seek to eliminate them. While it becomes clearer toward the end of the book that the hedeni have a strong culture of their own and are not the slavering horde that the Omehi believe them to be, much of the book is written from the perspective that they are pretty much there to be an obstacle to the Omehi being secure in land that, frankly, they invaded and caused massive damage to. This is a perfect example of not just history being written by the victor, but of culture being defined largely by an “us vs them” mentality, with little to balance the perspective. It was reminiscent of old presentations of North America’s Indigenous people, seen as nothing but an uncivilized obstacle to European power and comfort, and while I don’t delude myself into thinking this mentality has only ever been part of White history, it still was uncomfortable to read.

I can understand it from a storytelling perspective. The Rage of Dragons was about Tau’s revenge, his loss, and not about culture clashes and erasure, though it did take on a little bit of that toward the book’s climax. But while I do understand the decision from the standpoint of a storyteller, I won’t pretend it didn’t make for some very awkward overtones at times.

Still, I cannot express properly just how much I enjoyed reading The Rage of Dragons. The world is so complete, so developed, that even though we really only see a very small part of it, it feels larger, it feels connected to what lies beyond the small section of land in which the book is set. Characters had their own unique voices, varied personalities, and even when I didn’t particularly like some of them, I was invested in what happened to them. Winter, has a wonderful talent for telling engrossing stories and for keeping readers hanging on every page, every word, with action and intrigue aplenty. I was truly impressed with this debut novel, and I’m very excited to see the story continue in later books, and to keep an eye on other things that the author may write in the future. I highly recommend The Rage of Dragons to those who love epic fantasy but who also crave something more unique in their reading.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

How Long ’til Black Future Month?, by N K Jemisin

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 27, 2018

Summary: N. K. Jemisin is one of the most powerful and acclaimed authors of our time. In the first collection of her evocative short fiction, which includes never-before-seen stories, Jemisin equally challenges and delights readers with thought-provoking narratives of destruction, rebirth, and redemption.

Spirits haunt the flooded streets of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In a parallel universe, a utopian society watches our world, trying to learn from our mistakes. A black mother in the Jim Crow South must save her daughter from a fey offering impossible promises. And in the Hugo award-nominated short story “The City Born Great,” a young street kid fights to give birth to an old metropolis’s soul.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I absolutely adore Jemisin’s work. She writes the most amazing stories that grab you and don’t let you go, pulling you along and making you hungry to see more layers of the world unfold before you. When people say she is a master of the craft, they’re not exaggerating.

But most of my experience with her work has been long fiction rather than short. It was with great curiosity and pleasure, then, that I eagerly tucked into How Long ’til Black Future Month?

Usually I rate anthologies and collections as less than 5 stars, because inevitably something won’t be quite to my taste, and that’s just part of the process. But seriously, there wasn’t a single story in here that I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t make me feel something, or in some cases, prompted discussion with people who hadn’t even read the story yet! (Seriously, in Red Dirt Witch, a story about a mother protecting her child from making bad deals with a fey, and also discovering that sometimes you have to make way for the people who can build a better future than you can, there was a line about how fey don’t go to Alabama much because of all the iron oxide in the soil. That prompted some research about the red soil on Prince Edward Island — also high in iron oxide — which led to a discussion with my partner about how the fey are linked to artistic creativity and how both of us feeling artistic drained and dead while living on PEI was hypothetically related to the way fey creatures couldn’t be there for long.)

That’s probably an average Saturday night conversation for us, honestly…

L’Alchimista was a fantastic story that left the reader in no doubt of the similarities between cooking and chemistry (and thus, alchemy), and I was left with a burning desire to know more about the future adventures of the characters, because the door was left wide open in that regard. Cloud Dragon Skies seemed like an exploration of science versus spirituality, and the relative “correctness” of either and both at the same time; it’s all about interpretation, and I kind of loved that. Non-Zero Probabilities looked at a world where superstition and belief, luck and ritual, all had tangible effects on the world, and I love reading that kind of story in general.

Valedictorian was one of those stories that left me with some conflicted feelings at the end. There was a lot about it that hit close to home for me. Academia was basically what I lived for for a while, and I was often near the top of my class… until depression hit in late junior high and early high school and I just stopped giving a damn. Pushing to be the best was, for a while, all I had for myself. I didn’t fit in, I didn’t really have many friends, and good grades were the only way I could convince myself and others that I was worthwhile. It wasn’t until later on in life that I began to really understand how some people would rather have seen me put less effort into school and more effort into almost anything else, because that would have made me more normal, made me fit in more with my peers. Not because I would have found something else to be passionate about, but because I would have been just a bit less of a freak that didn’t belong. Zinhle’s realization that when push came to shove, nobody would fight for her to stay, nobody would recognize her potential and her uses and all the things she could become, and they would just let her be taken away because that was just how things were done… It felt very familiar. I didn’t grow up in a dystopian world where the bottom 10% of achievers (plus the top achiever) were taken away by outside forces, no, but there was still much about this story that hit hard for me, and I suspect probably hit hard for a lot of people who, at some point in their lives, defined themselves by the good grades they got.

And then there was The Narcomancer, which was actually the very first thing I had ever read that Jemisin had written. It was years ago, I think it was on tor.com at the time, and it was before I knew anything else about the author. I thought Jemisin was a man, because unless an author had an obviously female name, I just kind of assumed they were male at the time. (The ploy of writing under one’s initials only is apparently pretty effective after all!) But this was my introduction to her work, and once I’d finished reading it, I had to sit and let it all sink in for a time, let the story and the hints of a larger world wash over me, and when the storm cleared, I knew I wanted more. I heard about a novel she’d written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms (reviewed here, but be warned, this is a very old review…), and I knew right then that I had to read it. The Narcomancer was the story that got me hooked to begin with, and it was wonderful to read it again after all these years and to remember the feelings that came along with the first reading.

If you’re a fan of Jemisin’s work, you need to read this short story collection. If you’re not a fan of her work yet, you probably will be after reading this. She constructs her stories and worlds on levels that I can only hope to aspire to as a writer, and that I appreciate immensely as a reader. Some of her stories remind me of Jo Walton’s short stories, as a matter of fact: they both seem very capable of turning idle thought experiments into brilliant pieces of fiction that entice and engage the reader, and How Long ’til Black Future Month? is a shining example of Jemisin’s skill with the written word. You’re doing yourself a great disservice if you choose to pass this one by.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2018

Summary: In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Review: When I first heard this novella described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, only with two women, and also with a heaping spoonful of Vietnamese mythology, I was sold. Over the past while, I’ve learned that I really enjoy fairy tale retellings, and long-time friends likely already know that I love positive LGBTQA+ representation in media, so I was on board with what de Bodard had to offer here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace tells the story of Yên, who is given by her village to the dragon Vu Côn, as payment for Vu Côn’s healing magics. She expects to be killed, but instead of given the task of educating Vu Côn’s children, Thông and Liên. Which doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, and definitely a lot worse than her expected demise, but living gives Yên time and opportunity to reflect on her feelings for Vu Côn. Feeling which the dragon reciprocates. But disaster looms, and everything threatens to fall apart when secrets are dragged into the light and things are revealed to not be all they seem.

I love the world in this story, inasmuch as anyone can love a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The reader is plopped down in the middle of it and expected to pick up things along the way, which honestly, is the best way of doing things. No, “Long ago, the Vanishers broke the world,” here. It makes for a bit of confusion in the early pages, but it’s a quick adjustment. Yên’s world is one of rot and destruction, of fear and ruin and scarcity, where gene-twisting diseases run rampant and danger lurks beyond the city limits. And the characters are all very much products of their world, shaped by the way life and society had to adapt and move and survive once the old ways were gone.

I’ll say here that one of the things that appealed to me about the world in which In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place is the way it doesn’t just feel like a world of thin metaphor for current problems in North America. I’ve read about enough post-apocalyptic worlds over the years to become familiar with common tropes, the general feel of how many writers envision the world after a cataclysm. And this is nothing like most of those worlds. Perhaps it’s because of the Vietnamese cast and cultural influences, which, rather than feeling superficially exotic, come across as breath of fresh air when compared to so many stale cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic worlds encountered elsewhere.

So much of this novella centres on healing and choice. Paraphrasing one of the characters, there’s always a choice. The choices might not be great ones, but there’s always a choice. And with choice comes the need to accept consequences, regardless of intent. Thông and Liên attempt to heal a very sick man without Vu Côn’s knowledge, believing they’ll have success and will have brought a bit of life back to someone and maybe found a new way to heal others… and it goes very badly. Their intentions were good, but the result was bad, and they had to live with and atone for the consequences of their choices. Vu Côn was forced to confront the consequences of her choice to make use of Yên’s scholarship to tutor her children, and her inaction in noting Yên’s illness and attempting to heal her. Yên made mistakes, and learned from them, and let that learning change her, and sometimes things worked out and sometimes they didn’t, but she always had her ideas of what should happen and tried her best to make those ideas a reality.

I loved that about Yên, really: she was determined and headstrong and wanted what she wanted, and she wasn’t about to let circumstance stop her from trying. In that was she was a great counterpart to the more reserved Vu Côn. Interestingly, it was headstrong Yên who was more concerned with traditional duty, and cool Vu Côn who was more of a transgressor, doing things because she felt they needed to be done rather than “the way things were done,” so to speak.

I mentioned healing being a central theme, and in this, I don’t just mean the obvious illnesses that Vu Côn heals (or attempts to heal), though that is part of it. Primarily I think of Thông and Yên. Thông must come to grips with a side of themself that they fear and hate, a side which is also feared and hated by others. There’s good reason for that fear, and a loss of self-control could prove deadly. In reading Thông, I felt they were a character with a deep soul wound, one caused by their nature warring with what they wanted to be. In Yên’s case, she was living with her heart in two different worlds, a self-divided, and in the end that proved to be a very literal thing indeed. They both had deep conflicts that needed to be resolved in order to fully heal.

And this healing doesn’t come about by the end of the novella. It’s not some neat pat ending where every single problems is nicely resolved. Trauma doesn’t go away so easily, and I like that the ending wasn’t some saccharine “happily ever after.” It was about as happy as it could be, all things considered, but it was made very clear that the journey isn’t over for these characters, that they still have work to do and healing to accomplish, but that they’ve started on that path.

There’s so much to enjoy about In the Vanishers’ Palace. Marginalized representation across multiple areas, brilliant writing, characters I loved reading about and sitting on the shoulders of. If you haven’t read any of Aliette de Bodard’s writing before, I consider this a wonderful introduction to her work, an excellent taste of the creativity and skill she brings to the table.

(Received in exchange for review.)

The Nature of a Pirate, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 6, 2016

Summary: The third novel in the Stormwrack series, following a young woman’s odyssey into a fantastical age-of-sail world
Marine videographer and biologist Sophie Hansa has spent the past few months putting her knowledge of science to use on the strange world of Stormwrack, solving seemingly impossible cases where no solution had been found before.

When a series of ships within the Fleet of Nations, the main governing body that rules a loose alliance of island nation states, are sunk by magical sabotage, Sophie is called on to find out why. While surveying the damage of the most recent wreck, she discovers a strange-looking creature—a fright, a wooden oddity born from a banished spell—causing chaos within the ship. The question is who would put this creature aboard and why?

The quest for answers finds Sophie magically bound to an abolitionist from Sylvanner, her father’s homeland. Now Sophie and the crew of the Nightjar must discover what makes this man so unique while outrunning magical assassins and villainous pirates, and stopping the people responsible for the attacks on the Fleet before they strike again.

Review: I’ve said before that I have yet to read anything by Dellamonica that I dislike. Her latest novel, The Nature of a Pirate, fits firmly into my expectations, and I think is the best of the series so far. It doesn’t quite have the magic that the first book held for me, the wondrous discovery of a new world, but the story really comes to a head, and this was a real page-turner and such an amazing read for me.

Sophie Hansa is firmly set on dragging Stormwrack into the age of curiosity, introducing greater scientific procedures into the world, at least in regard to forensics and crime-solving. She studies samples of animals and plants, trying to figure out this world that is slowly unfolding before her. Culture and politics, however, are still a lost art to her, and she makes plenty of missteps along her journey, but it’s the science of things she’s primarily interested in, the biology and forensics. So when she’s thrown into the middle of a mystery involving ships that bleed, forbidden magical constructs, and the possibility of it all leading to war, she goes to the task like any mildly obsessive and headstrong person would.

And I love reading Sophie for those traits. She’s in that excellent position to allow the reader a bit of ignorance and explanation, because Sophie herself isn’t familiar with Stormwrack in the way that those who have grown up there are. Cultural missteps are bound to happen. Lack of historical or legal context. That sort of thing. Sophie being from this world, called Erstwhile, has a distinctly modern approach to things, and that works well to ground the reader, making it easier to ride on Sophie’s shoulder as she encounters new things and sees them similarly to how we ourselves would, in all their baffling glory. And her penchant for brutal honesty, calling things how she sees them, is great to read.

I have great respect for the level of detail that Dellamonica put into this novel — the whole series, really, but here it just seemed so overwhelming to keep track of, from a writer’s perspective. Writing a secondary world is always a complicated affair when you’re trying to make it stand out from the crowd, and Dellamonica definitely succeeds in that regard. But it’s more than just an Age-of-Sail world. There are multiple nations, all with their cultural idiosyncrasies that are expressed and considered in the text. Not only that, but Sophie’s efforts to bring modern science into Stormwrack when Stormwrack doesn’t have facilities and technology that we consider modern means improvising, researching early breakthroughs in certain fields and recreating old methods and refining them along the way. Some of my favourite parts of the novel involve Sophie and Bram trying to figure Stormwrack out, and devise experiments and modifications to see how things work and what can be done. It’s creative, it’s impressive, and it speaks to a whole load of behind-the-scenes work that all comes together to create a breathtakingly detailed and realistic story.

Every time I write a review for these books, I find the story very difficult to describe. Not because it’s loose and all over the place. The writing’s tight, the direction clear, and it’s a thrill ride to be on with the characters. No, it’s hard to describe because there’s so much of it. Sophie’s project to introduce fingerprint records to Stormwrack. The frights that are destroying ships. Sophie’s ongoing issues with her birth father. The mystery behind a slave she suddenly owns. So many plot threads intertwine and play off each other, some important, some less so, some seeming unimportant until they zoom to the forefront halfway through the novel. Another point in Dellamonica’s favour; for all that the story has a lot of elements to juggle, not once does it get overwhelming of confusing, beyond the confusion you’re supposed to feel because characters themselves haven’t figured out exactly what’s going on either.

Stormwrack is a world I could constantly — if you’ll excuse the pun — dive into and never be bored reading about. I love the characters, from Sophie’s headstrong intelligence to Garland’s reserved politeness to Verena’s desire to prove herself. They’re whole people, able to stand on their own and tell their own stories. I love the cultures built in the flooded world. I love the little linguistic quirks that get thrown in, pieces of a puzzle to solve. Dellamonica is a fantastically skilled writer, at the top of her game, and I can’t imagine her coming down from those heights any time soon. Do yourself a favour and pick up this series soon if you haven’t already. It’s absolutely worth the time you’ll spend reading it.

 

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Invisible Planets, translated by Ken Liu

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

Summary: Award-winning translator and author Ken Liu presents a collection of short speculative fiction from China. Some stories have won awards; some have been included in various ‘Year’s Best’ anthologies; some have been well reviewed by critics and readers; and some are simply Ken’s personal favorites. Many of the authors collected here (with the obvious exception of Liu Cixin) belong to the younger generation of ‘rising stars’.

In addition, three essays at the end of the book explore Chinese science fiction. Liu Cixin’s essay, The Worst of All Possible Universes and The Best of All Possible Earths, gives a historical overview of SF in China and situates his own rise to prominence as the premier Chinese author within that context. Chen Qiufan’s The Torn Generation gives the view of a younger generation of authors trying to come to terms with the tumultuous transformations around them. Finally, Xia Jia, who holds the first Ph.D. issued for the study of Chinese SF, asks What Makes Chinese Science Fiction Chinese?.

Review: I want to start this review by saying that I am absolutely thrilled to be able to get my hands on sci-fi like this. More and more I become aware that my own view of the world is a very limited one, narrow and specific, and the chance to broaden my horizons and be able to read great stories by people who have experienced life entirely differently than I did is something I appreciate a lot. The more I read things like this, the more I become aware of, if nothing else, the myriad ways growing up in the culture I did has influenced me; I wouldn’t be the same person had I grown up in another country, another culture, another time. And though it’s a selfish way to begin this review, I think it bears saying. Invisible Planets takes Western readers outside a comfort zone they may not have even realized they were in, dropping them into the middle of futures imagined by people whose lives were shaped in different ways than our own.

Invisible Planets contains stories and essays from a variety of Chinese SFF writers, and all of them are good (despite one being the kind of story that I couldn’t quite wrap my head fully around, I could still at least recognise the quality of it). Though even by the end of it I wouldn’t be able to answer the question of what makes Chinese sci-fi Chinese, I can at least say that the stories in Invisible Planets had a feel to them that I very rarely encounter in Western-based sci-fi, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it and say, “This. This is what Chinese sci-fi reads like.” But even if I can’t properly identify it, I still enjoy it, enjoy the cultural and perspective shift that comes with reading something so firmly rooted in a culture I didn’t experience and absorb; Invisible Planets has a lot of that.

It’s at this point that I wish I was better equipped to dissect the stories and their origins more deeply. I feel like there’s a lot that could be said — and indeed should be said about the collection I just devoured, but I’m no authority on it, and I think half the things I might say might be influenced not only by my experience with reading the stories but also with my own cultural blindspots when trying to interpret another culture. Translator Ken Liu pointed out a few times through his notes in the book that it would be so easy to interpret some stories in certain ways that play to North American ideas of what China is, was, and might be like, but that’s not always a good idea. In one of the essays at the end of the book, author Liu Cixin comments that a North American author once tried to clarify some differences between Chinese sci-fi and the sci-fi we’re more familiar with here in Canada and America, but missed some points and fell short of the mark.

That said, though, my experience with this book, as someone who is admittedly ignorant of much of Chinese history and culture, is probably closer to what most readers will experience than those with more familiar backgrounds. Most readers of this anthology aren’t going to be able to pick out a dozen and one subtle cultural aspects that influence and make up the inspiration behind the stories told here. They’re just going to appreciate them for the stories they are. And there’s not necessarily anything inherently wrong with that, so long as readers at least go in with an open mind and don’t expect to find stories exactly like the ones an American would write, nor something so outside our sphere of experience that we can’t understand it.

As with any anthology, some stories stand out to me more than others, the ones that made their mark a little deeper and that I’ll probably go back and read again in the future. Chen Qiufan’s The Year of the Rat is the story of young men attempting to combat mutant rats who have gotten out of control, and in the end is a story about genocide and uncertainty. Ma Boyong’s The City of Silence is one of the most chilling possible futures I’ve ever read about; when the State controls everything, including what you can and can’t say, where do people turn to express their humanity, and how far does either side go in pursuit of their goals? Liu Cixin’s The Circle is similar to one of the scenes from The Three-Body Problem that has always stuck in my mind, the creation of a human computer, moving from simple binary commands to more complex reactionary coding, in order to compute the digits of pi. And Hao Jingfang’s Folding Beijing was a true gem in this collection, in which economic castes are separated from each other by time, and one man will go to great lengths to assure his daughter a decent place in the world.

Folding Beijing was one that struck me very deeply. There are pieces, in each section of the city that Lao Dao visits, where people talk about how much money they make. Throwaway lines, worked into dialogue naturally, but they make a good point. While visiting Second Space, Lao Dao talks to someone who makes about 100,000 yuan a month. Lao Dao thinks to himself that in Third Space, where he lives, he makes a standard 10,000 yuan a month. While in First Space, a woman offers him 100,000 yuan, and comments offhand that she earns that in about a week. It reminded me so much of a previous job I had, working contract for a section of a credit card company where my clients all possessed the 2nd most prestigious card the company offered, and sometimes when things didn’t go their way, they’d complain of being treated like second-class citizens and how it was outrageous that they were being charged so much. These people, just in order to have the card, had to earn as much in a month as I would make in an entire year at that job, and I was earning almost 50% above minimum wage at the time. So Folding Beijing flashed me back to that time, talking with people who thought little about spending as much on 2 nights at a hotel as I would spend on an entire month’s rent, and it really was like we were from completely separate worlds that never would really touch. I felt that connection to Lao Dao, because in such a situation, what can you really say, when someone says that something utterly beyond you is no big deal for them?

Invisible Planets is absolutely a sci-fi anthology that I recommend, and to pretty much everyone who reads SFF. The perspective shift is refreshing, the stories top-notch, and the essays enlightening. Ken Liu has done a fantastic job in translating them for English-speaking audiences, and the whole experience has made me hungry for more. Go and pick this book up as soon as you’re able; I guarantee you won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Fix, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 06, 2016

Summary: “America’s long sent its best SMASH agents overseas to deal with the European crisis. As of today, they decided dismantling your operation was more important than containing the Bastogne Broach. Now you’re dealing with the real professionals.”

Paul Tsabo: Bureaucromancer. Political activist. Loving father. His efforts to decriminalize magic have made him the government’s #1 enemy – and his fugitive existence has robbed his daughter of a normal life.

Aliyah Tsabo-Dawson: Videogamemancer. Gifted unearthly powers by a terrorist’s magic. Raised by a family of magicians, she’s the world’s loneliest teenager – because her powers might kill anyone she befriends.

The Unimancers: Brain-burned zombies. Former ‘mancers, tortured into becoming agents of the government’s anti-‘mancer squad. An unstoppable hive-mind.

When Paul accidentally opens up the first unsealed dimensional broach on American soil, the Unimancers lead his family in a cat-and-mouse pursuit all the way to the demon-haunted ruins of Europe – where Aliyah is slowly corrupted by the siren call of the Unimancers…

Review: When you read the books in this series back to back, you end up torn apart by the end, after the rollercoaster ride of emotions and tension and revelation. It took me a while, after finishing Fix, to pick myself up and put myself back together. The story is tight, the surprises keep coming, heartstrings keep getting tugged…

Dammit, Steinmetz, how do you keep doing this?!

Fix takes places years after the events in The Flux. Aliyah is now 13, and together with Paul, Imani, Valentine, and Robert, the group seek to find a place where Aliyah can be herself and be safe. Paul, especially, wants Aliyah to experience life as a typical American teenager, the joys and sadnesses that most people experience, instead of the constant battle against her magical inclinations.

But all doesn’t go according to plan when Aliyah gets carried away and accidentally does ‘mancy in front of her new friends, and the ensuing chaos causes a broach. SMASH and the Unimancers get into the mix, demanding that Paul give up and give himself over to them. Paul refuses, of course, because who would want their personality tortured away in order to become part of a vicious magic-hating hive mind? But when Aliyah finds herself bound to the Unimancers, the whole world flips on its head, and nothing — absolutely nothing — is what anybody thought it was.

Some books in a series, even final books, you can go into without having read the previous entries. This isn’t the case with Fix. Even if somebody explained the backstory to you, there’s so much you’d miss out on by skipping right to the end, so many subtleties and other assorted pieces that aren’t essential to understanding the story as a whole, but that add so much. You’d miss out entirely on the impact of the Valentine/Robert romantic subplot. You’d miss the terror of Paul’s decline, since you wouldn’t see just how he started out in the first place. Definitely a case where I’d say the ‘Mancer series is much more than the sum of its parts, and Fix is a glorious ending to the trilogy that’s open-ended enough to leave the possibility for more stories while still capping off the main storyline.

I wondered, at some parts, how many people would read Fix and cry out that it’s horrible because Steinmetz dared to even mention certain things. (“There’s a lesbian here; stop shoehorning gay people into my fiction!” “A trans character gets mentioned; ugh, that’s just terrible!” “You mentioned a functioning triad; you’re trying to bring down traditional marriage values!”). Aside from the fact that it’s good sometimes to even have a couple of throwaway lines that imply yes, people do come in all shapes and sizes and behaviours and flavours of being, claiming such things would entirely miss a huge point that gets brought up multiple times throughout Fix: there are multiple ways of doing things, no one way is absolutely right for everybody, and sometimes the best way to heal the world is to adapt to the new things that occur rather than trying to force it back to the old way. I can’t say for sure that Steinmetz was going for that kind of social commentary during the novel’s final scenes, but it’s certainly applicable, and I, for one, appreciate that.

It was interesting, in that regard, to see a different strategy evolve for taking care of broaches. Paul’s way worked initially, to convince the universe to follow the rules that kept it stable before, rules that Paul believed in even without knowing what those specific rules were because he believed in rules and order so very deeply. But that way only worked for him sometimes, and when confronted with a bigger change to the world — the European broach — there was need for a different strategy that involved adaptation rather than reform. That tied in well with the idea that one way of life, one way of thinking, didn’t always work for everyone, such as Aliyah finding her place within the Unimancers even when Paul didn’t like their way of doing things.

Overall, Fix takes a lot of preconceptions and gleefully tears them to shreds, scattering the confetti of old beliefs and daring characters to figure out what to do now. ‘Mancy forces the universe to bend to new rules, and now it’s like the universe is fighting back, not with broaches and the destruction of physical laws, but by taking mundane occurrences and forcing broken characters to adapt. How well do you handle it when your daughter falls in love with another girl? How do you cope when your partner regains emotional stability (and loses their ‘mancy) when you’re still proud of the way you’re so powerfully flawed? What do you do when you can’t protect those you love? Things that can happen to anyone, regardless of magical ability, regardless of time or place, but that can knock you for a loop regardless. Fix is a novel of push-and-pull, give-and-take, figuring out where you fit in the world, or whether you have to carve out your own place. Whether you’re Paul losing control over his life because you keep losing what you had, or whether you’re Aliyah finding out that you fit best in a place those who love you would never want you, or you’re an uncertain Valentine who needs to be needed, the world pushes back at you and sometimes you have to bend and sometimes you have to tell the universe no, this is where you are, and this is where you’re staying. Honestly, for all the heartache I felt while reading Fix, for all the times the subject matter hit extremely close to home in a painful way, it’s a very hopeful novel, because in the end what matters is the ability to adapt and find your place.

So do I recommend this series? Hell yes! To one and all! It’s a powerful story, a take on magic and obsession that crosses boundaries and paints new pictures of a reality that could have been and could yet be. It’s a brilliant piece of urban fantasy, and adventure that stays with you long after the last page has been read and the cover closed, and Steinmetz has done something great here. The characters are beautiful and flawed, the writing tight, the story fast-paced, the whole thing evocative and emotional. And I love it. It’s the kind of urban fantasy that doesn’t come along often, a diamond in the rough, and Fix was the best possible way to end it all.

(Received for review from the publisher.)