Starlings, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

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.)

Rosemary’s Baby, by Ira Levin

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

Summary: Rosemary Woodhouse and her struggling actor husband Guy move into the Bramford, an old New York City apartment building with an ominous reputation and mostly elderly residents. Neighbors Roman and Minnie Castevet soon come nosing around to welcome the Woodhouses to the building, and despite Rosemary’s reservations about their eccentricity and the weird noises that she keeps hearing, her husband takes a shine to them.

Shortly after Guy lands a plum Broadway role, Rosemary becomes pregnant—and the Castevets start taking a special interest in her welfare. As the sickened Rosemary becomes increasingly isolated, she begins to suspect that the Castevets’ circle is not what it seems…

Review: After watching the movie for the first time, I was thrilled to realise that my local library had a copy of the novel. I hadn’t even known it was a novel until randomly seeing it on the shelves. And since I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I decided to see if I would enjoy the novel in the same way.

What I can say honestly is that without going into any other detail, if you enjoyed the movie, you’ll enjoy the book. It reads the very same way. It has the same content, barring the book’s few additional scenes when compared to the movie. Whether this was because Levin also wrote for the stage and thus knew what would adapt well between the novel and an acted adaptation, I couldn’t say. But if you’ve seen the movie, it’s nearly impossible to not hear the actors’ voices when you read character dialogue, and the dialogue itself was practically word-for-word between the movie and the novel.

On the plus side, that worked to make the movie one of the most faithful adaptations I have ever seen, and in a world filled with lousy movie adaptations, that’s saying something.

But enough about the movie. Let’s talk more about the book.

Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse move into the Bramford, intending to live quite happily with the hopes of Guy getting more acting work and Rosemary being a stay-at-home mother. As you do when it’s the 60s. After meeting their rather eccentric neighbours, the Castevets, Guy’s acting career seems to take off while Rosemary, newly-pregnant and increasingly ill from it, develops strong suspicions that something is wrong with just about every part of her life, and somehow, it all traces back to the Castevets and their interest in her baby.

It’s hardly a spoiler at this point to say that their interest stems from the fact that Rosemary is pregnant not with Guy’s child, but with Satan’s. The Castevets and their friends are Satanists, and their involvement is part of a literally diabolical plot to bring about the Antichrist. Guy made a deal to give his wife to the Satanic coven for a night to accomplish this, not because he’s a long-time Satanist, but because he’s promised success in his career if he agrees. The typical devil’s pact, really.

Did Rosemary have a say in this? Not at all. In fact, she was partly drugged when her rape occurred, and it was only partly because she didn’t like the taste of the dessert she was given that was intended to drug her, and so she threw some away, not getting the full dose of what was meant to know her out and make her forget literally being raped by Satan.

In fact, much of what happens in this book is a testament to why women having agency is extremely important. With the story taking place in the 1960s (and being written then too, so you will often encounter what is considered today to be embarrassingly outdated terminology, especially for minority groups), Rosemary, despite being quite a determined character, is often overridden in her desires and need by the men around her. She is given to the coven by her husband, with no say in the matter — passed around like an object in order to further Guy’s career. She is pushed to changing obstetricians, with the new doctor telling her not to listen to her friends or to read books about pregnancy, only to listen to him, because “every pregnancy is different,” and getting advice elsewhere will just make her panic her pretty little head off. When Rosemary finally breaks and seeks out her original obstetrician in the hope of gaining safety from the coven, that doctor’s response is to lie, tell her he’ll help, and then calling both Rosemary’s husband and her new doctor to come and pick her up. Because a pregnant woman’s fears, even if they are about something most people would find unbelievable, are nothing in the face of getting her back with the men she fears are trying to harm her and her unborn child.

And quite frankly, it’s safe to say that the Antichrist wouldn’t have been born had someone treated Rosemary like a person with thoughts, worth, and agency of her own. I doubt this was Levin’s intention to convey, but really, it’s a message that’s easy to take from the story. Treat women like crap, and the Adversary wins.

Rosemary’s Baby is a book that feels both timeless and dated in different measures. The story may take place in the 60s, and there’s plenty of detail to demonstrate the place and time to really centre the reader in the scene, but it’s also a story that has been told many times before and after, the “what if?” appeal calling to people and making them question what could feasibly happen if the Antichrist really did come into the world. But rather than pull the focus back and have the story be about the huge earth-shaking ramifications of this, Levin zooms in and instead concentrates on the woman who would be a mother to said devil-baby. Who is she? What’s her story? How did it happen to her? What did she think and feel and do?

As for Levin’s writing, it flows quite well, and his strength really seems to be dialogue. The characters really come through in what they say, and Levin doesn’t rely on tonal adjectives to get things across, letting the reader figure it out from the words themselves. It works surprisingly well, though in fairness, I’m saying that after having watched the movie first, so I already had somebody’s interpretation of the lines in my mind as I read. Perhaps it might not be so clear if someone’s is reading this before watching the movie, I really can’t say.

But having the characters show through the dialogue still works quite well for streamlining a story. For instance, in a scene where Rosemary talks with her obstetrician about the pain she’s experiencing, and how she worries about an ectopic pregnancy, she explains to her doctor that she saw the term on a pregnancy book at the drugstore. One simple line of dialogue about where she got the idea encapsulates what could have been an entire scene, but wasn’t, and didn’t need to be. Levin takes away a lot of extraneous elements, boils things down until they can be conveyed concisely, and yet still manages to fit a surprising amount of detail into those short paragraphs.

Which brings to me to something that made me chuckle a bit. I read the 50th anniversary edition, which has an introduction by another author who, admittedly, I have never heard of. I’d like to share a short quote from that introduction, regarding said author’s praise of Levin’s attention to detail.

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This level of detail floors you? Have you tried reading, oh, I don’t know, just about any book ever? Levin’s writing has some wonderful detail in it, yes, little things that make so much of what he writes feel real and alive and so very believable, but the colour of someone’s clothes and the date on the calendar really are not the best examples of this. It’s so much glowing praise given to laughably simplistic detail, and it felt more like the author of the introduction was praising the concept of Levin’s skill rather than any actual skill.

I’m not sure I would class Rosemary’s Baby as horror, per se, since nothing in it was particularly scary, with the exception of the mundane scary stuff like women being treated like objects, or nobody believing you when you tell them there’s a problem. I think it’s better to say that Rosemary’s Baby was more of a supernatural thriller, though the supernatural parts, interestingly, stick close to the background. They’re essential to the story, yes, but most of the story’s tension comes from Rosemary’s thoughts and reactions, trying to figure out what’s going on in her life and coping with the fact that something she longed for is going so badly. The compelling elements come not from curses or dark magic malevolence, but from Rosemary moving through her life, short bursts of the mundane punctuated by suspicion, fading back to mundane.

Is it a good read? Yes, absolutely, and especially if you enjoyed the movie adaptation. Is it a must-read? I don’t think I’d go that far. It’s a bit of a classic at this point, famous in that just about everybody’s heard of it even if they haven’t read or seen the story, but as good as it is, as interesting and enjoyable as I found it, I have to conclude that it’s probably not for everyone. Some of the outdated terminology is bound to make people feel a bit uncomfortable, a lot of the general treatment of Rosemary will do the same (though Rosemary herself is quite a strong woman and I loved watching her fight back when she was pushed too far). This is one of the very few instances where I can say that the movie is as good as the book, and you don’t really miss or gain anything by picking one over the other, so really, if what you’re interested in is the story, pick whichever format appeals to you the most and have at.

Murder of Crows, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 4, 2014

Summary: After winning the trust of the Others residing in the Lakeside Courtyard, Meg Corbyn has had trouble figuring out what it means to live among them. As a human, Meg should be barely tolerated prey, but her abilities as a cassandra sangue make her something more.

The appearance of two addictive drugs has sparked violence between the humans and the Others, resulting in the murder of both species in nearby cities. So when Meg has a dream about blood and black feathers in the snow, Simon Wolfgard—Lakeside’s shape-shifting leader—wonders if their blood prophet dreamed of a past attack or a future threat.

As the urge to speak prophecies strikes Meg more frequently, trouble finds its way inside the Courtyard. Now, the Others and the handful of humans residing there must work together to stop the man bent on reclaiming their blood prophet—and stop the danger that threatens to destroy them all.

Review: Whereas Written in Red felt very much like a set-up book before the real meat of the series gets started, Murder of Crows felt like the true launching point. The introductions and initial world-building has already been taken care of in the previous book, and now the real story can begin.

The book picks up almost immediately after the ending of Written in Red, and introduces new street drugs that are making the rounds. The first, called “feel-good,” does exactly what you’d expect with a name like that. The other, called “gone over wolf,” turns the person feral and violent. On top of that, there are signs that someone (or multiple someones) are luring Crows into places where they will be hurt or killed, a deliberate provocation against the Others. Naturally, the terra indigene don’t want to take this provocation lying down, and doubly so when it looks like the key to both mysteries revolve around Meg, their resident blood prophet.

There are definitely shades of modern real-world political issues coming to play in Murder of Crows. In the book, the group known as Humans First and Last are a, well, humans-first organization, dedicated to pushing the terra indigene out of the land that is technically theirs, and taking it over so that humans can use it for whatever they want. The group wants an end to the limited cooperation between humans and Others, with humans coming out on top, able to go where they want and do what they want, when they want it. Best to sacrifice a few innocents if it results in human freedom, am I right?

It’s easy to see parallels between this and the rise of white supremacist movements today. Rather than seeking cooperation or equality, it’s all about one group coming out on top of the other. The difference is, weirdly, the HFaL movement does have something of a point, albeit in theory if not in practice. Humans are extremely limited in what they can do in this world. Traveling away from designated cities or roads can and will get them killed. They’re allowed a certain degree of industry and commerce, so long as what is produced is of benefit to humans and Others, or at least not harmful. It’s hard to imagine how human civilization progressed to the point of even having running water and electricity under conditions like that, let alone, say, the resources to mass-produce books of fiction for entertainment value, or movies. Both of which exist in the world the books set up. The amount of resources needed for that kind of entertainment goes well beyond not being harmful.

If you get bogged down in minutiae like that, you’re going to run your mind ragged trying to sort it out. It’s best to suspend disbelief a little bit, sometimes.

Now, I’m not saying that these restrictions are entirely wrong and should be lifted, because to be fair, humans are living at the forbearance of the terra indigene. Humans don’t own land but lease it, so the owner has the right to set the rules. The terra indigene place a greater priority on low-impact living than technological progression or human freedom. But this is where the moral quandaries come in. How fair is it to impose such restrictions just because you can?

That’s not a question to be answered here. That’s a question that can be argued to death, with valid points on all sides, and still not have a satisfactory conclusion. A lot of what we know about modern science has come about through practices we now consider utterly horrific and disreputable. Does that mean we should ignore that knowledge? Can we unlearn something and rediscover it in benevolent ways?

But this is what the Humans First and Last group thrive upon. That moral grey area. They would see a situation involving a boy getting drunk and wandering into the wilds and getting killed as grounds to strike back, because how fair is it for someone to be killed because they made an error in judgment? Those rules need to be changed! And in the course of crusading for changed rules, if somebody has to be slipped some “gone over wolf” so that they kill someone in an animalistic frenzy in order to frame the Others and create an argument for why they’re not to be trusted, well, the ends will justify the means.

And if luring a few Crows into danger will make the Others paranoid and seem even more unreasonable, even better.

Amidst all this, blood prophets everywhere, Meg included, are starting to see the same apocalyptic visions when they bleed, even when those visions seem to have no relevance to what they’re supposed to be prophesying about. War seems to be approaching, a war between humans and Others, and the Lakeside Courtyard seems to be at the centre of it all.

Many of the same issues I talked about in the previous book are still present here, such as the matter of self-harm, or the “for your own good” mentality. Similarly, all the things I enjoyed so much about the first book are here too, like a varied cast of characters, and some interesting world-building, however much I may have to suspend my disbelief over the level of technology present in daily life. There’s an aspect to this setting that feels oddly comfortable, like sinking into a warm bath. I think it’s that for all that there’s danger and tension and intrigue aplenty, the mundane aspects of life, at least for Meg, are heartwarmingly simple. She enjoys curling up with a good book, or learning to cook, or watching a movie with friends. It’s the simple joys of life that she appreciates, and there’s something refreshing about reading a character who is that particular kind of naive, child-like without being childish. I know it can be problematic when female characters are infantalized, but dammit, sometimes that mentality is exactly what I need when I want some comfort reading, because it reminds me that sometimes life does hold unexpectedly simple joys if I just remember to stop getting so bogged down in my own complexities.

So ultimately, even if there are still problematic themes in this series, I closed this book feeling compelled to continue with the rest of the novels, to see how the story all plays out in the end. I like the characters, I like the setting, and while I’m not overlooking the touchy subject matter, I am also taking some of it with a contextual grain of salt. Not dismissing it, but working through the issues as they come and trying to see if they’re valid for the setting (however uncomfortable they might be for me) or whether they’re just put there for shock value or some dark edgy tone. But people might still do well to be forewarned that some things in these books are potentially triggering, and nobody should hold it against anyone if what’s contained in these pages isn’t for them.

Written in Red, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 5, 2013

Summary: As a cassandra sangue, or blood prophet, Meg Corbyn can see the future when her skin is cut—a gift that feels more like a curse. Meg’s Controller keeps her enslaved so he can have full access to her visions. But when she escapes, the only safe place Meg can hide is at the Lakeside Courtyard—a business district operated by the Others.

Shape-shifter Simon Wolfgard is reluctant to hire the stranger who inquires about the Human Liaison job. First, he senses she’s keeping a secret, and second, she doesn’t smell like human prey. Yet a stronger instinct propels him to give Meg the job. And when he learns the truth about Meg and that she’s wanted by the government, he’ll have to decide if she’s worth the fight between humans and the Others that will surely follow.

Review: Urban fantasy isn’t typically my go-to when it comes to preferred genres. I like it well enough… some of the time. But I find that a lot of the stories focus more heavily on romance than I tend to enjoy, leaving world-building and characters as secondary features rather than primary driving forces. That’s not to say that such books are bad, but they’re not typically my cup of tea.

Then along comes an author whose work I have enjoyed in the past, writing a series I’ve heard good things about, and my curiosity got the better of me. I had to give Written in Red a fair chance.

And I’m very glad I did.

The series takes place in an alternate world in which humans are not the dominant species, but instead live at the mercy of creates called terra indigene, earth natives, who are also known as the Others. We’d call them vampires and shapeshifters typically, which is typical urban fantasy fare, but it’s presented in such a unique way that although the story takes place in America, it feels enough like a secondary world that it was easy to forget, until place names were mentioned, that oh yes, this actually takes place on an alternate Earth, not some fantasy land or distant planet.

Written in Red tells the story of Meg Corbyn, an escaped blood prophet who has made her way to the city of Lakeside, seeking refuge in the section of the city run by the terra indigene known as the Courtyard. Inside Courtyards, human law does not apply, and as blood prophets are essentially slaves, Meg takes advantage of this to hide and keep her prior captors from finding her. She figures the danger of dealing with the terra indigene offers her a far better shot than returning to a captive life where she body and blood are bought by people who want her to speak prophecy for them, whether she wants to or not.

What surprises everyone is just how well she fits in with the Others in the Courtyard, making them want to protect her as though she were one of them and not a human. As a blood prophet, she had been locked away from the world for so long that her naivete gave her no real bad habits to unlearn when dealing with them, and to a degree that childlike nature of hers could bring anyone’s protective urges to the forefront. So when somebody finally does come hunting for her, she has a large group of very strong very aggressive companions to keep her safe.

If that sounds suspiciously like some aspects of Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels books, you’re not mistaken.

Bishop does seem to have something of a penchant for writing special young women surrounded by aggressive protective men, compounded by the woman acting as a sort of moral compass for other characters for the reader’s benefit. If a character is drawn to this special young woman, they’re a good person. If they dislike her, then they’re a bad guy, in no uncertain terms. It isn’t as though the reader can’t figure this sort of thing out on their own, mind you, but Meg the Moral Compass makes this painfully clear who we should be rooting for over the course of the novel.

Is this inherently a bad thing? No, not really. But of the 2 series I’ve read by Bishop, this character trope shows up in both series, and at that point, it does make me raise an eyebrow. Could we not have something more subtle? Could we not let the reader judge for themselves who to like and dislike without having their good-vs-bad nature spelled out for us on the page? There’s such a lack of nuance here, which is strangely at odds with the other nuances that I’ve gotten used to in other Bishop novels. It’s a weird mix of reading between the lines to see a beautiful and complex world with dozens of possibilities and implications, and bright neon flashing lights saying, “This one’s the bad guy, that one’s the good guy!”

I’m going to give people fair warning before getting into this series, there is a lot of touchy and problematic material to wade through here. I could make lists. In fact, I have. But the biggest ones to be aware of are the “for your own good” mentality of many characters, the borderline glorification of self-harm, and the very awkward subtle framing of North American Indigenous people as literal monsters.

Let’s start at the top with the “for your own good” narrative that runs through this book, and indeed, the rest of the series. When you’re dealing with a group of overprotective people, that’s going to come into play. “You want to go do the thing but I don’t want you to? Well, I’m going to stop you. Physically. Because you might get hurt. It’s for your own good.” It’s not like this protectiveness doesn’t have a reason, and it’s even a very good reason. When a blood prophet’s blood is spilled, she sees prophecy. She either has to communicate that prophecy and forget it but feel ecstatic pleasure, or “swallow the words” and remember the prophecy but feel excruciating pain. A blood prophet only has so much in them to give, and cutting across old prophecy scars can cause a confused jumble of images that will eventually drive a blood prophet mad. The terra indigene of the Courtyard want to keep Meg safe from that future.

Which brings up the issues of “benevolent ownership,” which comes up multiple times in the book. Blood prophets are slaves, property, in order to keep them safe, it’s argued. Better to control their prophecies and their lives than have them uncontrolled and unaware, risking madness and death because their own powers overwhelm them. Written in Red asks how much freedom is worth when it brings uncertainty and danger, and how much safety is worth when it comes at the cost of one’s freedom. But even Meg’s freedom from slavery has its drawbacks, with the terra indigene wanting to keep tabs on her at all times, wanting her to follow their orders so they can keep her safe. It’s not benevolent ownership, per se, but it sure skirts the line, at least in my eyes.

As for glorifying self-harm… Hooboy, this is another tangled mess. As I mentioned, blood prophets cut to see prophecy, and speaking it aloud brings them great pleasure, so there’s an addictive draw to cutting that isn’t so much hinted at as laid bare right on the page for all to read. This is… touchy, to say the lease. Now yes, I have read the rest of the series, and I know this issue gets addressed later on in a much more satisfactory way, but coming at this from the perspective of someone who has only read this book? I can see why people would be averse to this. I can see why it sounds like an absolutely terrible idea to put such a troubling thing in a compelling light. I’m not saying people at risk of self-harm are going to read this and think, “I’m a blood prophet too, so I have an excuse to cut now!” I’m saying that people at risk of self-harm are going to read this and likely feel extremely uncomfortable at the reactions Meg has to cutting.

I say this because I have a history of self-harm, and that’s the reaction I had. It made me deeply uncomfortable, and I felt bad for anyone who started in on this series and was blindsided by the revelations of what blood prophets go through.

Lastly, the issue of Indigenous peoples. Again, I’ll say that I’ve read the rest of the series and know that certain points of this get addressed later on, but again, from the standpoint of someone only reading the first novel, this bears saying. The book takes place in North America, thus we have a North American viewpoint. It’s established that people came over from Europe and wanted to settle in these new lands, only they found terra indigene there who were not happy about the arrangement and fought back, eventually settling on an uneasy truce where small human settlements were allowed in certain areas, provided they followed strict rules and made things useful or interesting to the terra indigene. The Others were there first, they make the rules, and they’re the caretakers of the land that humans are at the mercy of.

Or, to put it more bluntly, “What would have happened if European settlers arrived, only to find that Native Americans were all vampires and shapeshifters?”

Given that North American Indigenous peoples have been portrayed as inhuman in the past, this is… extremely awkward.

It’s not any less awkward to insist that the Others are not stand-ins for Indigenous people because Indigenous people are human, and there were no humans in North America before Europeans came. That just wipes out multiple cultures from history, declares them unimportant to the point where they don’t even have to exist, but what matters more is the history of the white people who crossed the ocean first. Human history in North America starts with them, according to these books. And that’s already enough of a problem in the real world.

Do I think this was intentional? No, not really. But I do think it was an oversight with large implications. As much as the terra indigene are not slavering wild monsters, great care is taken to establish that they are not human and do not behave in typical human ways, that their humanity is a facade to make humans feel more comfortable as part of a great experiment, as it were. But they are not human, and humans, in general, fear and mistrust them.

That being said, I rather think that the Others make a lot of sense and I rather like how they work, socially. Seems like the biggest trick to dealing with them is deferring to their judgment, being polite, and not being arrogant; that so many humans have difficulty with this says a lot more about human nature than it does about Other nature. The Courtyard society was interesting to see, and I liked seeing the interplay between characters, the different dynamics that arose as different groups of shapeshifters did their own things will still existing relatively harmoniously.

For all that there’s a lot of problematic material in Written in Red, I still enjoyed the story. It felt mostly like a set-up book, setting the stage for the greater story still to come, rather than a fully fleshed-out story in its own right, but between that and the fast smooth dialogue and interactions between a wide variety of characters, I was definitely compelled to pick up the second book quickly after finishing the first one. This isn’t a book, or a series, for everyone, but there’s still a lot to enjoy here under the right circumstances.

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Fionn: Defence of Rath Badhma, by Brian O’Sullivan

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Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – February 18, 2014

Summary: Ireland: 192 A.D. A time of strife and treachery. Political ambition and inter-tribal conflict has set the country on edge, testing the strength of long-established alliances.

Following their victory over Clann Baoiscne at the battle of Cnucha, Clann Morna are hungry for power. Meanwhile, a mysterious war party roams the ‘Great Wild’ and a ruthless magician is intent on murder.

In the secluded valley of Glenn Ceo, disgraced druid Bodhmall and her lover Liath Luachra have successfully avoided the bloodshed for many years. Now, the arrival of a pregnant refugee threatens the peace they have created together.

Based on the ancient Fenian Cycle texts, the Fionn mac Cumhaill Series recounts the fascinating and pulse-pounding tale of the birth and adventures of Ireland’s greatest hero, Fionn mac Cumhaill.

Review: I’ve read a couple of different stories now about this legendary hero, whose name goes through a different spelling just about every time (Fionn mac Cumhaill, Finn MacCool, it’s all good…) Every story puts their own twist on the tale, whether going for accurate retelling or modern interpretation, and honestly, this is something that can make a story straddle that fine line between fresh and stale. You can only hear the same story told so many times, however many little differences there might be, before you grow tired of the story. However, it’s the little differences, or sometimes big ones, that can make a retelling worth listening to, to see how it differs from old narratives and to see what it brings to the table.

Fionn tells the beginning of the story, with the birth of the great Irish hero, and the events that surrounded that birth. Mostly the surrounding events, really; aside from being born, the son of Cumhail doesn’t really do anything here. We start off seeing his mother, still pregnant, fleeing from her enemies, making her way to Rath Bladhma, where her ex-husband’s sister lives. Bodhmhall, a druid capable of premonition and sensing the life energies of things, reluctantly takes her in, giving her shelter and limited peace to birth her baby, whose life blazes brightly; Bodhmhall foresees that this baby will be great, but aside from that we don’t really get any indication of destiny or what have you. Yes, a war party and a Tainted One are hunting down Muirne Munchaem and her baby, but there’s only speculation as to why, and the reasons could be political as much as they could be supernatural.

Fionn is one of those historical fantasies where the fantasy aspect rarely comes into play. Bodhmhall’s powers and the presence of the Tainted One are pretty much the limit of fantasy elements, and those are incorporated in such small ways that you could remove them entirely and the story wouldn’t really change. If the reader is unfamiliar with any of the stories of Ireland’s great hero, they might be left wondering what this is really all about. A woman flees her old home for her own reasons, seeks refuge elsewhere, and then a wandering war party attacks the settlement where she took refuge. Fionn could be summed up that way, and really, that does give you the gist of what happens. It feels a bit like the prequel to a much greater story than a part of that story in itself, the sort of thing you really only appreciate when you already know what comes next. Those unfamiliar with the legend might find Fionn a bit hard-going.

Despite that, the book does have a very obvious strength early on: the vivid detail. O’Sullivan heaps great amounts of detail on the reader, just this side of ponderous, but it leaves you feeling like you really know the land and its people when you finish the last page. You can practically smell the livestock of the settlement, feel the chill in the air, expect to hear certain voices from the distance. Even if you’re not captivated by the story itself, you’re taken in by the setting and the way it comes alive.

Plenty of Gaelic names and terms might confound readers, too, but honestly, I’m not holding this against the book or its author. We don’t read fantasy novels to be confronted by the distressingly familiar — we read them, in part, to have our minds stretched a little bit. The words may be a mouthful, but that doesn’t take away from the story. (And happily, when I checked the pronunciation guide on O’Sullivan’s website, I discovered my guesses were often pretty close to how things were intended to sound anyway.)

Fionn: Defence of Rath Bladhma is a relatively short book that takes place over a short span of time, but never the less feels like it carries some weight. The characters are interesting and have decent variation, the tension and action work well to really set the whole scene, and in terms of writing style, O’Sullivan clearly has skill. I definitely wouldn’t mind checking out more of his writing, at any rate. So while this book may not appeal to everyone, especially those who haven’t encountered much in the way of Irish mythology before, it still is a good book, and it’s worth giving a try.

The Invisible Library, by Genevieve Cogman

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 14, 2016

Summary: One thing any Librarian will tell you: the truth is much stranger than fiction…

Irene is a professional spy for the mysterious Library, a shadowy organization that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. Most recently, she and her enigmatic assistant Kai have been sent to an alternative London. Their mission: Retrieve a particularly dangerous book. The problem: By the time they arrive, it’s already been stolen.

London’s underground factions are prepared to fight to the death to find the tome before Irene and Kai do, a problem compounded by the fact that this world is chaos-infested—the laws of nature bent to allow supernatural creatures and unpredictable magic to run rampant. To make matters worse, Kai is hiding something—secrets that could be just as volatile as the chaos-filled world itself.

Now Irene is caught in a puzzling web of deadly danger, conflicting clues, and sinister secret societies. And failure is not an option—because it isn’t just Irene’s reputation at stake, it’s the nature of reality itself…

Review: There’s something I love about books involving books. Maybe it’s the joy of connecting with other bibliophiles, however fictional, and knowing that no matter what else may or may not click between me and the character, we have a shared love of books and that seems to bring a lot of people together. Throw in an appeal to my love of multiverse theory, and hot damn, you have a book with a concept set to keep me amused for hours!

Irene is a Librarian, and the Library is special. Existing outside of time and the regular known multiverse, it houses a nigh-impossible number of books from all those different worlds, from fiction to hundreds of different histories. After returning from a mission to acquire a new book, she expects a bit of a break, only to be handed a new book-retrieval mission along with a new assistant. What at first seems like it should be a relatively easy mission quickly turns into something vastly more complicated, with chaos magic and Fae and Kai’s secret history and oh yes, the fact that an ancient ex-Library and current enemy to the Library seems to want that book for himself.

I find the world that Cogman sets up to be pretty fascinating. Or maybe it’s better to say “worlds.” We spend most of the book following Irene and Kai in an alternate world, old-timey London only with vampires and chaos magic and Fae making moves in high society. The book Irene has been sent to get is stolen, and so she teams up with Vale, a nobleman and detective, who also helps Irene and Kai adapt a bit more to society at the time, albeit in the form of infodumping now and again. There’s a lot of little detail that goes into all this, hints at a larger world beyond that one city, and it’s the subtleties that all come together to make something feel real and large and like you could really be there.

As for the Library itself, well, the idea of a vast repository of books from countless different worlds definitely strikes a chord with me. So too does the idea of the limited immortality that being a Librarian offers; time doesn’t move within the Library, so while one is perusing the stacks, they don’t age. This sounds great, but it has its drawbacks; early on it’s mentioned that Irene’s parents couldn’t raise her within the Library, since she wouldn’t grow from childhood to adulthood there. Irene suffers an injury at one point in the story, and she’s reminded that she has to leave the Library to heal. Without the passage of time, she’d remain injured, her body literally incapable of repairing itself because that repair necessitated change.

There are a lot of mysteries to unravel in The Invisible Library, and I’m actually pretty happy to say that they don’t all get tidied away at the end. We discover some of what’s going on with Kai. We discover more about Alberich and his goals. We discover what’s so special about the book Irene was sent to recover. But it seems like each answered question opens the door to a new room filled with related questions, but not in a way that frustrated me. Sometimes in books, questions get answered in a way that makes me ask, “But how does that make sense in regard to this?” or, “How does that all work when you take that into account?” Questions that make me think that plot threads are being awkwardly and obviously dangled in front of me, trying obviously to make me bite. But here the threads are dangled subtly. I have questions, yes, and I’m curious to see how the rest of the story will play out because there are definitely unresolved issues at play, but at the same time, enough was resolved that if I wanted to, I could just not read the rest of the series and still feel like I’d experienced a complete story within the first book. It’s a rare novel within a series that can pull that off, sinking the hooks in so delicately, and I think it’s worthy of some praise.

The Invisible Library is a great novel for those who love adventure and who love books, and who love seeing things they love meet and create new wonderful things. The pacing is pretty smooth, though it does get a little bogged down in infodumps and recaps now and again. The action is tight, the characters interesting even if they’re note incredibly varied, and the story overall is pretty compelling. It’s a series I will definitely continue with, if for no other reason than to feel a little bit more at home with characters who love books enough to devote a fraction of eternity to them.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

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

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 2, 2016

Summary: In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters–she is the middle child of five–have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile–as fragile perhaps as the old man’s health.

With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father’s cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it–the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house–comes calling.

As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for…

Review: For being such a short book, The Language of Dying is impressively hard to review, especially from an SFF standpoint, since the fantastical elements are rather vague and may in fact not even be real. It reminded me very much of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, in the way that both involve characters coping with impending death, and both also ripped me to emotional shreds.

Her siblings are coming together to be with their father during his last days. The family is broken, breaking further, and all of them have problems of their own to deal with, but they come. And in times of grief, like this one, like times before, the protagonist of the novella finds herself staring out windows, drifting off, waiting for the return of the thing she saw as a child, the dark unicorn-like thing that calls to her.

I mentioned earlier that this novella is short, a hair over 100 pages, and it’s impressive that Pinborough can tell so poignant a story in so little space. Not a word is wasted; you feel the weight of everything as the protagonist struggles with caring for her father, reuniting with her siblings, reflecting on her own traumatic past. Dealing with the guilt of wishing the pain was over for everyone, wishing her father’s life would end so that the healing could begin, while also hating that he’s dying and will soon leave everyone behind. Anyone who has been there for the death of someone or something you’re close to understands this, though we don’t often talk about it, and seeing it addressed so openly was, honestly, a bit of a relief. But it was also part of the gut-punch that The Language of Dying delivers. It forces the reader to confront the unpleasant realities of watching and waiting for someone to die, the internal and external struggles. It’s not an easy read. It isn’t meant to be comforting.

There are elements of fantasy to this book, though they’re extremely downplayed. The story isn’t about a woman who sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. It’s about a woman whose father is dying. And incidentally, also sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. To say this book is primarily fantasy is like saying that this review blog is actually a cat blog because I mentioned a few times that I have cats. It’s an element, but it’s not the primary focus. And it’s not entirely clear if the creature is real or whether it’s the product of combining imagination with grief. It’s left vague, open to some interpretation, and it works well. It means the novella is hard to categorize into a particular genre, but some stories defy those boundaries, breaking out to tell a story that can appeal to different people for different reasons.

The Language of Dying needs to be read. It’s powerful and evocative, it’s brutal and honest, it’s painful and cathartic. It’s so much story in so few words, and it’s the sort of story that stays with you long past the final word. It seeps into you and alters you, and whether you read it for the speculative elements or because you’re looking for literature that deals with death, you should still read it. It’s one of those rare books that’s an experience more than anything else, difficult to properly describe, but I can imagine the knowing nods that pass between people who have read it. For some experiences, no words are really needed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)