The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 5, 2016

Summary: There are some tall stories about the caverns beneath the Citadel – about magic and mages and monsters and gods. Wydrin of Crosshaven has heard them all, but she’s spent long enough trawling caverns and taverns with her companion Sir Sebastian to learn that there’s no money to be made in chasing rumours.

But then a crippled nobleman with a dead man’s name offers them a job: exploring the Citadel’s darkest depths. It sounds like just another quest with gold and adventure …if they’re lucky, they might even have a tale of their own to tell once it’s over.

These reckless adventurers will soon learn that sometimes there is truth in rumour. Sometimes a story can save your life.

Review: What do an exiled religious warrior, a sassy woman of dubious moral character, and a deposed nobleman hungry for power all have in common? Oh, just saving the world from certain doom!

That’s the quickest basic pitch I can think of for The Copper Promise, and even then, it falls far short of what’s actually delivered. The novel starts off with Frith, a man of nobel birth whose entire family was slaughtered and who was tortured in an effort to find his family secret vault of riches, approaching a small band of adventurers with a proposition: explore the Citadel, the place where Mages went down imprisoning the last of the gods, in order to find treasure, fame, and oh, probably enough power to ensure that you can take back your family seat from the demon-worshiping tyrant who took it from you.

They accidentally free a dragon.

Who is the last of the gods.

They also free that dragon’s brood of insatiable offspring, who kill as easily as they breathe.

So, how was your Monday?

I’ll say this for nothing: Jen Williams knows how to write a tight combination of interesting characters and good action. I don’t think there was a moment of this book that felt dull, even when the characters were all separated for a while and doing their own thing. They all felt so distinct and so fully realised that even when main story was slowed a touch, I enjoyed reading what everyone was up to in the meantime. Especially Wydrin, but I mean, really, Wydrin is so very entertaining that it’s hard to not enjoy reading the sections from her perspective. She’s quick-witty and fiery and though I called her a “sassy woman of dubious morals” earlier, she does in fact have a pretty strong moral compass. It’s just that her morals are her own, not always constrained by what society (or even her own companions) would always deem appropriate. But you can’t accuse her of only being out for number one, since loyalty is one of her strongest traits, and I love that about her.

One of the themes I appreciated the most through this novel is how words have power. There’s the obvious way, since magic is summoned and controlled by words in this fantasy world, but even aside from that, the everyday words we use for communication have power to them too, and one of the characters states that outright at one point. The words we use to communicate concepts to each other might not be magic, per se, but what we say has effects on the world, altering people’s perceptions, changing how others do things, and if that’s not powerful, then nothing is.

Add to that the fact that Y’Ruen’s army started to understand the world they were interacting with through words, via their connection to Sebastian’s blood. Without going too deep into that story arc or delivering too many spoilers, certain members of the brood army started encountering words, and slowly uncovered their meanings, and in doing so, started to appreciate the concepts those words held and what they meant for others. Words became a source of individuality and independence, helping them forge their own identities in the midst of the hive-mind, and quite frankly, I can’t think of a better allegory for showing how our connection to language is deeply personal and can change the direction of our lives. Williams, in this book, used words to convey the power of words, and I loved it.

The Copper Promise is a tremendously easy book to fall into. If you just want to appreciate the brilliant adventure story that lies on the surface, then that’s fine, and there’s plenty there to entertain. If you want to dig below the surface and get wrapped up in speculation about words and debates about individuality at the cost of group solidarity (as was the case with both the brood army and Sebastian), then that’s more than okay, because there’s plenty there for you too. If you just want a book that will have you grinning over the antics of the characters, then sure, you’re going to find plenty here that will suit your tastes as well. It’s the sort of book that can be appreciated on multiple levels, and by a fairly wide range of people who look for different things in their fantasy novels. I am really excited to read the sequel to The Copper Promise in the future, and I highly recommend this book to those who are looking for a great fast-paced fantasy read!

(Received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.)

Shards and Ashes, edited by Melissa Marr and Kelley Armstrong

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

The Three, by Sarah Lotz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: Four simultaneous plane crashes. Three child survivors. A religious fanatic who insists the three are harbingers of the apocalypse. What if he’s right?

The world is stunned when four commuter planes crash within hours of each other on different continents. Facing global panic, officials are under pressure to find the causes. With terrorist attacks and environmental factors ruled out, there doesn’t appear to be a correlation between the crashes, except that in three of the four air disasters a child survivor is found in the wreckage.

Dubbed ‘The Three’ by the international press, the children all exhibit disturbing behavioural problems, presumably caused by the horror they lived through and the unrelenting press attention. This attention becomes more than just intrusive when a rapture cult led by a charismatic evangelical minister insists that the survivors are three of the four harbingers of the apocalypse. The Three are forced to go into hiding, but as the children’s behaviour becomes increasingly disturbing, even their guardians begin to question their miraculous survival…

Review: I had been looking forward to reading this book for so very long by the time I finally found a copy at the library, and let me say, I’m glad I did. The Three is a very engaging book, a heck of a page-turner, with a mystery that really keeps you going, wanting to unveil the next piece of the puzzle so that the picture becomes complete, little by little.

After 4 disastrous airplane crashes on the same day, with only 3 child survivors, the world starts to pay attention. Doubly so after odd things begin to happen around those children. Strange behaviours, conspiracy theories, whispers about the end of days, the whole shebang. Part of the mystery of this novel is sorting out truth from fiction, to figure out what’s really going on, and rather than present this story in a rather standard format, Lotz instead opts to tell it in a series of interviews and articles, chat logs and book excerpts, so that every view we get is tainted by bias and unreliability and subjectivity. The reader has to sort through what they’re given and see which interpretations make the most sense, much as we have to do whenever anything big hits the news. We’re presented with dozens of different viewpoints, some contradictory, some inflammatory, some with a kernel of truth inside, and we have to figure out what fits from the pieces we’re given.

The format also contributes to the way the book engages with the reader, pushes them just a little further onward. Most of the chapters aren’t very long, so it’s very easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” trap. The location shifts often, with the story spanning the globe as not all of the planes crashed in just one country, nor do all the surviving children live remotely near each other. If you’re not too keen on one particular story arc, not to worry, because Lotz switches you back to another one regularly, keeping things moving and going round. On one hand, this manner of storytelling did compel me to read more, with short snippets and frequent plot advancement. On the other hand, when taken as a whole, the plot does move somewhat slowly regardless, with progress happening in one place and then switching to another so that progress can happen there, and so on. There’s something new every time, from every viewpoint, but I will admit there are times that this sort of circular progression made things feel a bit slow, even if I still enjoyed watching the story unfold.

Lotz also does a fantastic job of commenting on the media circus through The Three, if I may be so blunt. The sensationalism behind the miraculous survival of the three children, the theories that spring up around them, the way people see bad within good and good within bad and spin those things out of proportion… I can’t say it was tastefully done, since in some ways, rampant consumption of any and all info can be rather tasteless, but it was well done, never the less. We get a feeling almost of rubbernecking over Paul’s downward mental spiral and paranoia around Jess, intruding on a private tragedy. We experience Ryu’s anxiety through his chat messages with Chiyoko, whose general disgust with life we also get a strong sense of. The book itself even makes mention of this, as it’s pitched as being a book written by the fictional Elspeth, documenting and compiling what information she can about The Three. There are passages that talk about her own bias regarding the events, sensationalizing the stories and prying into aspects of people’s lives that she has no business with.

I will say that the book dips into some cultural awkwardness now and again, however, which is a mark against it. It’s hard not to wince a little bit at the character of Ryu, a Japanese shut-in, or the doomsday cult that spring up around an American pastor. That isn’t to say that people like those characters don’t exist in the real world, but enough media attention has been made that sometimes it feels like those stereotypes are meant to be representative of an entire culture’s failings.

On the other hand, that may have been part of the point. That doomsday cult, for instance, is of the opinion that the Three are signs of the end times, that they’re three of the four horsemen, and maybe the very fact that respective societies have failed and produced certain types of people is a sign not of the flaws of cultures or people in themselves, but of the flaw of everything. Everything has gone to pot and needs to be wiped out and started over, the cycle beginning anew.

That interpretation doesn’t make things much better, since to be honest, there are so many ways of avoiding the use of those stereotypes to begin with, but it does improve it a little, at least in my mind.

The Three is the kind of novel to get you thinking, and specifically to get you thinking in circles, spiraling back and coming at things again and again as you try to fit together the whole narrative in a cohesive way. It’s a wonderful creative endeavour, and it had me pausing often to consider what was happening, and wondering how I might react in similar circumstances. Even if you never get particularly invested in or attached to many of the characters, they’re still rather interesting characters to follow, and they play their parts in the story well, showing the human element in an international tragedy/mystery. Even though it leaves itself open for a sequel (and indeed there is a sequel, though I have yet to read it), it’s still a complete story in itself, and could serve as a standalone novel; even if there are still unanswered questions at the end, they still come with a sense of story’s closure. If you’re a fan of slow-burn horror or supernatural thrillers, then you’d do well to give Lotz’s The Three a read.

 

Marked, by Sue Tingey

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

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

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

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

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

Demons, not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

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.)