Flame in the Mist, by Renee Ahdieh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 16, 2017

Summary: The daughter of a prominent samurai, Mariko has long known her place–she may be an accomplished alchemist, whose cunning rivals that of her brother Kenshin, but because she is not a boy, her future has always been out of her hands. At just seventeen years old, Mariko is promised to Minamoto Raiden, the son of the emperor’s favorite consort–a political marriage that will elevate her family’s standing. But en route to the imperial city of Inako, Mariko narrowly escapes a bloody ambush by a dangerous gang of bandits known as the Black Clan, who she learns has been hired to kill her before she reaches the palace.

Dressed as a peasant boy, Mariko sets out to infiltrate the Black Clan and track down those responsible for the target on her back. Once she’s within their ranks, though, Mariko finds for the first time she’s appreciated for her intellect and abilities. She even finds herself falling in love–a love that will force her to question everything she’s ever known about her family, her purpose, and her deepest desires.

Thoughts: I am very much torn on my opinion of Renee Ahdieh’s Flame in the Mist. On one hand, I’d had it recommended to me as being really good, and I did enjoy much of the story. On the other hand, I found the world-building distractingly shoddy, which detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel as a whole.

Long-time readers of my reviews may know that I’ve repeatedly gotten burned out on YA novels, and while I do dip my toes back into those waters now and again, it’s with mixed results. I may find something good, but most often, it seems I find something that I can best describe as lackluster. Something I wanted to enjoy more. I don’t go into books expecting to dislike them. If I think that I will actively dislike a book, I won’t waste my time reading it, and instead will seek out something I think might be more to my taste.

And Flame in the Mist could have been more to my taste. But as I said, the world-building kept pulling me out of the story and making me question the amount of research that went into the writing of this book, because to be perfectly blunt, it feels like a good half of said research was just reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha.

Allow me to elaborate. First, I’d had this book described to me as “Japanese-inspired fantasy.” Websites listed the book as “set in Feudal Japan.” Neither of these really holds true, at least in my eyes. If it was meant to be set in a secondary world inspired by Japanese history, then it made too many mentions of real places and historical figures to fall comfortably into that realm. If it was meant to be historical fantasy, then it had too many anachronisms to be properly set in the time period it was meant to be.

Best I can figure, Flame in the Mist is set roughly in the 1200s, or there abouts. I’m estimating this based on mentions of actual historical figures. But, there are a number of other things that don’t fit on that timeline, such as the shamisen (not introduced to Japan until after the 1600s) and what awkward mention of what I assume is the Tatsumura Textile Company (not established until 1894). I’d generously say that maybe this novel was actually set in the early 1900s, except that doesn’t fit at all with Japan’s situation at the time. So, this book remains set in some time that didn’t actually happen.

Which is why I can only class this as bad historical fantasy. It draws too many specifics from real people and places to be passed off as a fantasy inspired by history, and gets too many things wrong for me to settle into the historical setting. To put it in context, it would be like reading a novel set in England in the time of Alfred the Great, only people are mentioned drinking tea. It may seem like a small thing, but when you see it, you can’t unsee it, and it definitely doesn’t fit. You can say it’s merely inspired by that time and place, but when you bring in actual historical figures, you kind of commit yourself to the same kind of accuracies, and if you can’t follow through on that commitment, it’s going to trip some readers up. Too much of the real world to be fantasy, and too many anachronisms to be the real world.

There are only certain things I know enough about to be this picky, but Japan is one of them. I don’t know everything, of course, but I know enough to spot these problems when they crop up in what I read. For someone who is interested in Japan but who doesn’t have the kind of in-depth interest that would make the inaccuracies stand out, then there won’t really be a problem. But from my standpoint, I do have that depth of interest, and the problems did stand out.

I made an earlier accusation that half the research done for Flame in the Mist was the author reading and watching Memoirs of a Geisha, and I’d like to elaborate on that. I have read that book and seen it’s film adaptation I don’t know how many times at this point, it remains one of my favourites, and from that perspective, it was easy to see the influence. The awkward mention of the Tatsumura Textile Company I mentioned earlier was two in-novel mentions of “Tatsumura silk,” which isn’t any particular kind of silk, but just silk processed and woven by Tatsumura Textiles. But “Tatsumura silk” was mentioned in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, an the context given was that it was used for very fancy kimono.

There’s more than that. The protagonist, Mariko, is described as having her personality be very much “like water,” echoing the same pronouncement of Chiyo’s personality (the protagonist and narrator of Memoirs of a Geisha). A description of this in Flame in the Mist was at one point given almost word-for-word like part of Mameha’s dialogue in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie. Or how about the line, “I’d rather chew sand,” which was said by Pumpkin in the Memoirs of a Geisha movie, as well as Okami in Flame in the Mist. There is a Japanese idiom that translates that way, and it was used correctly, but when it comes to English-language media relating to Japan, I’ve pretty much only ever seen that phrase used in that way in this novel and that movie. Combined with the other things I mentioned, it was honestly a surprise to me to not see Arthur Golden mentioned in the acknowledgements.

So what did I like about Flame in the Mist? The story itself was pretty interesting. It follows Mariko, a young woman on her journey to her husband-to-be, only that journey gets cut short when she and her entourage are attacked in the forest. She alone survives, and is dead certain that the ones who slaughtered the others are the Black Clan, enemies of her family. She makes the decision to disguise herself as a boy in order to infiltrate them, to gain their trust and let their guard down so that she might have her revenge. She manages the first parts of this, at least, but in so doing, not only does she come to suspect that perhaps the Black Clan wasn’t actually behind the attack after all, but also falls in love with one of its members.

I’m not quite sure I’d call this a coming-of-age story so much as an eye-opening story, one in which Mariko starts off so certain of everything, only to later be revealed as one of those characters who is startlingly ignorant about many things while the whole time believing she sees more than most. It’s a story of a young woman trying to make her way in the world in her own way, pushing back when the world tries to stop her, but also a story in which she herself, her own mind and understanding, is one of the things she has to overcome. I admit, while I don’t like characters who are as brash and falsely self-assured as Mariko started out, I do like stories in which such characters come to understand that there’s more to the world than what they thought they knew. There’s a scene in which Mariko sees workers in the fields, harvesting rice, and sees just how hard they’re working, how worn out they all look by their labour, and reflects that she’s seen all these same people before, doing the same work, and never once came out of her own thoughts to actually see them. She assumes they were content, because she was content.

I have to say, it was also nice to have a female YA protagonist who wasn’t a virgin, too. Not that I have problems with virgins or anything, but I’ve seen a number of YA novels where part of the romantic and sexual tension comes from, “I want to get it on with you, but I’ve never done that before and I’m too nervous we either have to stop Right Now, or else you need to convince me because that’s sexy.” Which is fine, and lots of people are nervous and unsure and don’t have sex the first time their hormone start raging, and it’s good for people to see that you can say no and have that respected. But I think it’s also good for people to see examples of characters who have done it before, and gone on with their lives because that’s just what people do. Your life isn’t over if you have sex for the first time with the person you don’t end up permanently partnering with. Nor does having sex with more than one person make you promiscuous or less deserving of anything. Both of these are tropes I’ve seen handed down in fiction over the decades, neither are tropes that I particularly like, and each does its own kind of harm, so I was really pleased to see that Flame in the Mist fell into neither of those categories.

In the end, what I can really say about this book is that it was okay, but in an unbalanced way. The story was good, especially after the first few chapters had passed and Mariko really started to show who she was. The writing was fine, even if the author used some odd turns of phrase every now and again. But what really spoiled it for me was the historical aspects, the pieces that were out of place and pulled me out of my reading groove whenever I came up against them. Plus the cribbing from Memoirs of a Geisha. It got increasingly difficult to hand-wave some of those issues. As I mentioned earlier, if these sorts of things don’t bother you, or you don’t have the same kind of oddly obsessive-compulsive knowledge-seeking that I do about beloved topics (I’ve long suspected it’s an ADHD thing…) then what bothered me likely won’t bother other readers. For my part, though, I can label Flame in the Mist as… okay. Not something I’ll likely read again, not part of a series I’m likely to continue with, nothing I can say was either so good or so bad that it made much of an impact on me. What it did well, it did well, and where it fell, it fell hard. I guess your mileage may vary as to how much either of those aspect affect you.

Finna, by Nino Cipri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Spy, Spy Again, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Thirteen year old Prince Kyril and Mags and Amily’s fourteen-year-old son Tory “share” the Gift of Farsight–although neither of them are Chosen. They are self-trained, though currently, their shared Gift only allows them to see what is happening with their immediate family members.

After much debate, the Herald’s Collegium has decided to test and train them anyway. That’s when the surprises start. They do not share a single Gift; they have two complementary Gifts working together in a way that the Heralds have never seen before. Tory is the Farseer–Kee’s Gift is to extend his range beyond a few dozen feet.

Their Gifts become crucial when Mags gets a desperate message from his cousin Bey, the head of the enigmatic assassin-tribe, the Sleepgivers. Bey’s eldest daughter has been kidnapped, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. He’s calling in the debt Mags owes him to find his daughter before it’s too late.

Tory is certain that if anyone can find her, he can. But that will mean traveling out of Valdemar into an unknown, dangerous country.

And it will mean taking a Royal Prince with him.

Thoughts: I assume this is the final novel in the Family Spies series, since each one focused on one of Mags’s children and with this, all of his children have had a novel to themselves, or at least mostly so. I hope it will at least be the end of titles that are strange puns on phrases with words that rhyme with “spy;” thus far, none of the titles really seem to match up with what happens in the novel, except for having a spy in them. The Hills Have Spies didn’t involve hilly regions that needed spying on or had spies hiding out, Eye Spy was just.. I mean, the pun is obvious but it really doesn’t have much to do with the content, and Spy, Spy Again sounds like it could be a story about a spy getting incorrect information and having to ferret out the truth, but that isn’t actually the case.

Spy, Spy Again focuses its attention on Tory, and Prince Kyril, better known as Kee. The two have a strange Gift that works best when they’re together, and it allows them to Farsee anybody they’re related to. They know who they have to keep an eye on, until one day they received a frightened distress call from an unknown person, in an unknown place. Given their joint Gift, this call could only be from someone on Mags’s side of the family, from the Sleepgiver Nation. Kee feels extremely compelled to rush to the aid of this stranger, dragging Tory along with him, and sending them both on an adventure outside Valdemar’s borders that’s unlike any other.

I have to say, this was probably the most interesting novel in the Family Spies series, largely because it did feel very similar to Valdemar stories I’d read in the past. The grand adventure into the unknown, the discovery of seeing new lands and meeting new peoples, and watching the lives of young people get shaped by what they see outside of their comfort zone. But more than that, readers get to see far more of the assassin nation that Mags descended from, a plot point that starred in a previous novel, got a couple of passing mentions in other novels, but never really had the chance to be explored. What sort of people were they? How did they live, when they weren’t killing people for money? Spy, Spy Again doesn’t just keep the spotlight on Kee and Tory, but also shifts to that of Sira, one of the Nation’s people, and the distant relative of Tory’s who sent out the distress call that prompted Kee and Tory into action. Through her actions and observations, readers get to see life inside the Nation, and this adds a fair bit to what was previously a rather flimsy aspect to Velgarth’s world-building.

Like many of the more recent Valdemar novels, however, this one leaves me with questions. Not the sort of questions that could lead to other novels getting written, but just dangling threads that don’t tie up well. Why does Mags speak normally in The Hills Have Spies and for the first little bit of Eye Spy but then switch back to his “country” accent and continue to speak that way right up to this book? If the border around Valdemar that keeps true magic out also prevents thinking about magic in any practical sense, is Tory going to be able to remember much of what he saw of magic when he was outside Valdemar?

We also see the usual spate of internal contradictions that unfortunately seem to plague Valdemar novels. This isn’t a new thing (I found one as far back as the Last Herald-Mage trilogy), but it is frustrating when what gets established in one book gets contradicted in another. The biggest one I can think of here is declaring that when Vanyel set up the barrier to keep Mages out of Valdemar in the first place, he deliberately made it so that people had a hard time even thinking of magic. It was established many many novels ago that for one, Vanyel established that long-lasting spell not to keep Mages out but to make the vrondi (air spirits that Vanyel used in said spell) alert Herald-Mages whenever magic was used within the borders, and with no Herald-Mages to alert, now the vrondi just watch. Endlessly. Driving mages mad, so they either so insane and die, or flee the country. The unintended effect was mages going mad, since Vanyel didn’t really anticipate a lack of Herald-Mages in Valdemar’s future until after he cast that spell. That people couldn’t even really think about magic as anything other than some legendary storytime ability was a very unintended consequence. Not intentional.

It’s things like that which have turned me excitement over new Valdemar novels to trepidation. I still love the world, I really do, but it seems like with every new book, something new is written into the lore that directly goes again something that was previously written. And it boggles my mind that nobody seems to catch this stuff and point it out to her before, you know, letting the books get published. Sometimes the errors are small, like calling Karse’s god Vkanda instead of Vkandis. Other times, the contradictions are large, or result in a timeline in which the timeline gets horribly muddied and makes no sense anymore.

But as I said, that’s not a problem specific to this novel. That’s been a problem for a while. It’s just that as the contradictions add up over time, I start to feel more cautious about reading new novels in the series, because I know in advance that I’m dealing with the works of an author who can’t keep her world-building straight.

At least when it comes to the assassin Nation, nothing really gets contradicted, so there is that. I guess that’s a benefit to writing about a Nation in a state of change. They’re assassins now, Sleepgivers, dealers in death, but change is being worked slowly, through generations, so that they will no longer be assassins for hire, but bodyguards. Given that they also operate out of a country that Valdemar hasn’t had much call to deal with in previous novels, it’s easy to handwave why no Sleepgivers ever popped up again, especially when foreign assassins did show up in other Valdemar novels. It’s a good way to get around that, as well as to add some additional richness to the world.

As I mentioned previously, a lot of Spy, Spy Again felt a lot like earlier novels in the Valdemar series, with their exciting adventures that ave consequences beyond the moment. It was a fun read, and while I still approached with caution, I found myself turning the pages voraciously, eager to keep reading and to find out what happens next. If you have to pick one single book in the Family Spies series to read, make it this one; it’s the best of the bunch, and makes for a comforting yet entertaining fantasy adventure in a much-beloved world.

(And now maybe we can have some stories that have absolutely nothing to do with Mags…)

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 9, 2019

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. Their daughter, Abidela, dreams of building on her parents’ legacy by joining her father’s network of spies, hoping to offset her seeming lack of a Gift.

But when Abi senses the imminent collapse of a bridge only moments before it happens, she saves countless lives, including that of her best friend, Princess Katiana. The experience, though harrowing, uncovers her unique Gift—an ability to sense the physical strains in objects.

Intrigued by the potential of her Gift, the Artificers seek to claim her as their own—but only the Healers can train her. Through training with both of them, Abi discovers unique facets of her Gift, including a synesthetic connection to objects that allows her to “see” as well as feel the strains.

Her Gift may also grant her a distinct advantage as a spy—there won’t be a building in the entire kingdom of Valdemar with a secret room that she doesn’t know about. With the help of her mentors, she must hone her gift to uncover the hidden secrets in the depths of Valdemar.

Thoughts: It’s nice to read stories about people with Gifts who aren’t Heralds. For the longest time, it seemed like any character that had a Gift in Valdemar was going to be chosen, and for all the author talked in interviews or extra materials about Valdemar that it was most common for Heralds to have no Gifts, we really didn’t get to see much of that actually in the novels themselves. Here, we may not have a Herald with no Gifts, but we do have another characters with Gifts who isn’t a Herald.

Once again we return to Mags’s family, only instead of focusing on Perry, this time the novel focuses on Abi, Mags’s daughter and middle child. Abi is revealed to have a rather unusual Gift, one that allows her to sense, and eventually see, weak points and stresses on constructs, such as buildings or bridges. Not exactly the most useful Gift… unless your job happens to be designing and constructing such things, as Artificers in Valdemar do. Abi studies to become an Artificer, surprising herself with how happy she is with the idea that she’ll be making things that will keep people safe for decades, possibly even centuries. But her story becomes more complex when she’s chosen to travel between a series of villages that are petitioning for entry into Valdemar, and a plot to weaken Valdemar’s reputation is uncovered.

I enjoyed Eye Spy more than I enjoyed The Hills Have Spies. There was far less tension and adventure, but also more insight into how certain under-explored aspects of Valdemaran society worked. Abi’s life may be comfortable but it will never be glamourous, and much of what she did in Eye Spy was almost secondary to her Gift. Her Gift may have gotten her a place to study as an Artificer, but she really only used it a few times through the novel, replying instead on common sense and what she learned about engineering and construction in the tasks placed before her. It was kind of nice to see somebody who had the ability to just say, “No, my magic power says this won’t work,” but who, if she did so, would back that up with the math and science to prove it. Abi’s story could well have been told without her Gift, if she just happened to have a natural aptitude for building and math, and honestly, that’s rather nice to see in a fantasy novel.

Allow me a moment to explain. Sometimes it feels very much like there are two kind of fantasy protagonist. The first is someone who has a particular gift or talent, like magic, or telepathy, or weaponswork, or something of the sort, and they go out and do a job that only they can do. Not necessarily in the sense of being a Chosen One, but in the sense of, “This big thing is happening and it would be great if we had someone who could be there but also quickly relay information back to us, oh hey, look at this guy with strong telepathy!”

The second kind of character is the one who has absolutely nothing extraordinary about them whatsoever, and yet who ends up embroiled in all sorts of adventures because for some reason nobody will leave them alone, or they stumble and fall into something weird.

With Abi, she has a particular talent, but in a practical sense, she needed to back up everything that talent told her with calculations, which required her to learn all the same calculations someone without that talent would learn. She could do a few things more easily than others might, such as finding secret passages built into walls, but most of what she did in Eye Spy wasn’t of that bent. But neither was she a Farm Boy type of character, because she was born to knowledge and privilege and deliberately sought out ways to use what she could do to help people. Her life wasn’t one filled with adventure, or a great calling, but it was useful and full of hard mundane work that was no less important than any other Artificer in the kingdom.

I mentioned in my review of The Hills Have Spies that Lackey has developed this habit of inserting real-world issues into Valdemar novels, not just in ways that are allegories for broader issues, but more in the sense of specific groups or people that she’s sort of porting into Valdemar so that she can have characters comment on them. In one of her previous novels, she had a thing or two to say about the Quiverfull movement. Here, she inserts a character who is described as:

He had a perfectly square face, a shock of blond hair, small eyes, a pouty mouth, and oddly small hands.

Oddly small hands? I… seriously? Is this going where I think it’s going?

He’s later quoted as saying:

“When you’re rich, you can do anything, and they just let you.”

The character’s name is Dudley Remp.

That’s not even close to a subtle way to insert Trump into your fantasy novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disapprove of taking verbal potshots at a certain president. But this presentation isn’t the sort to make much impact. It’s there for a bit of, “Holy crap, did she really write that?!”, and less there to have readers reflecting on, say, what happens when a person like that comes to power. Remp does try for a power grab toward the end of the novel, by working a plot to destabilize foreign trust in Valdemar’s governance, but that’s as far as his threat goes. He’s thrown out of Haven, his father is jailed for crimes, and he later tries to get revenge by… making people in a few border villages think twice about joining Valdemar?

Which those villages didn’t do anyway, because that would mean kicking out the Mages they’ve grown accustomed to. (True magic doesn’t work within Valdemar’s borders.)

Remp isn’t remotely a threat to Valdemar, not the way his real-world analogue is here. And there the allegory fails, because the two just can’t be compared. There’s part of me that wonders if this entire novel was written around the idea of having Remp as an antagonist, and I very much hope I’m wrong, because he’s not much of one. I was far more interested in Abi’s journey of self-improvement than I was about how somebody might work against a country in a way that couldn’t possibly succeed.

Long-time readers of the Valdemar novels will understand what I mean when I say that Lord Orthallen was a much better antagonist, if destabilizing Valdemar was the intent. He was subtle, he had connections, and he had the mind to work things so that everything he did seemed perfectly normal and above-board. Remp couldn’t hold a candle to the threat that was Orthallen, which again, downplays the threat that his real-world counterpart actually embodies.

I do want to take a moment to comment on Abi’s sexuality. I’m going to assume she’s asexual, since that seems to be what things were leading toward, but again, it was never just outright stated. Just sort of danced around. Establishing that neither men nor women have ever made her particular interested is fine, but similar to the issues I had with Felicity in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, asexuality is a legitimate orientation in its own right, and it would be kind of nice for people to acknowledge it in ways beyond, “Oh, I guess I just never really thought about it.” That sort of presentation connects asexuality with a kind of naiveté that doesn’t do ace folk any favours.

Though I will give Lackey credit where it’s due, because unlike Lee’s writing of Felicity in The Lady’s Guide, at least Abi wasn’t presented as being “too busy” for relationships and that’s why she wasn’t attracted to people. Abi had her passions and interests, but no more than any other character, regardless of sexuality.

Though there were some sticking points for me in this book, on the whole, I still feel like Eye Spy was a decent Valdemar novel. Far from essential reading if you’re a fan of the series, but it scratched an itch for stories that weren’t just about Heralds. Abi was surprisingly interesting for a character who was so entrenched in many mundane aspects of life, and I was more compelled to read about her than I was about Perry in The Hills Have Spies, despite the comparative lack of action here. Hopefully the final (?) book of the Family Spies novels will be just as interesting.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Hills Have Spies, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2018

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. The oldest, Peregrine, has the Gift of Animal Mindspeech — he can talk to animals and persuade them to act as he wishes. Perry’s dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Herald Spy, but he has yet to be Chosen by a Companion.

Mags is more than happy to teach Perry all he knows. He regularly trains his children, including Perry, with tests and exercises, preparing them for the complicated and dangerous lives they will likely lead. Perry has already held positions in the Royal Palace as a runner and in the kitchen, useful places where he can learn to listen and collect information.

But there is growing rural unrest in a community on the border of Valdemar. A report filled with tales of strange disappearances and missing peddlers is sent to Haven by a Herald from the Pelagirs. To let Perry experience life away from home and out in the world, Mags proposes that his son accompany him on an expedition to discover what is really going on.

During their travels, Perry’s Animal Mindspeech allows him to communicate with the local wildlife of the Pelagirs, whose connection to the land aids in their investigation. But the details he gleans from the creatures only deepen the mystery. As Perry, Mags, and their animal companions draw closer to the heart of the danger, they must discover the truth behind the disappearances at the border—before those disappearances turn deadly.

Thoughts: I’ll get this out of the way right from the get-go: I’m getting a little bit tired of the books about Mags. It’s not that he’s a bad character, or uninteresting, or anything like that. He’s fine, as characters go. But as I started to read the first book of the Family Spies series, I began to realize that of all the characters who appear in all the Valdemar novels, I think Mags appears in more than any other single character. Closely followed by Elspeth, who, for those who might not know, is a Herald (as is Mags), is of royal blood, and who was instrumental to bringing true magic back to Valdemar, and whose very birth was part of an international plot to strike at the heart of the kingdom. Mags is a spy and so gets wrapped up in many political affairs, but no more than most Heralds who are the stars of their own books. Lackey’s continued focus on Mags is starting to make me feel like she’s running out of ideas to get readers interested, and so is just sticking to one guy and his family because they’re familiar and don’t require figuring out other sections of the timeline (which, let’s be honest, she’s not that great at keeping straight). She can write stories about a character that readers already know, and so we don’t have to ask ourselves why we’re supposed to care, why this new person and their story is important enough to learn about.

But I am a sucker for this world, and so read I do, even when I consider the latest books to not really be a patch on some of the more classic Valdemar novels, even when I wish she’d start telling more stories about people who aren’t Mags.

The Hills Have Spies involves not just Mags, at least, but also his son Perry, who is training in his father’s footsteps to be a damn good spy and agent for the crown. Perry isn’t a Herald, but he doesn’t let that stop him from doing what he can to be useful. He does have a Gift, though, in the form of particularly strong Animal Mindspeech, so he can communicate with and influence animals around him. When Mags gets word that people on the very borders of Valdemar keep disappearing, he sees an opportunity to test his son’s skills and usefulness, and the two set out to try and unravel the mystery. They’re joined by Herald Arville, Arville’s kyree friend Ryu, along with another kyree who bonds to Perry, named Larral.

I… have extremely mixed feelings about how kyree are handled in this book, and that can be traced back to the short story in which Arville and Ryu are introduced. Lackey decided, at one point, to write a short story about a group of four Heralds encountering a kyree who could use human verbal speech rather than just Mindspeech, and did so, albeit with far more R’s at the beginning of words, and if this is already reminding you of Scooby Doo, that’s intentional. I found that concept pretty ridiculous when I first read the story, and I still find it ridiculous now. Only it’s more annoying, because where most of the short stories have questionable canon value, The Hills Have Spies puts it very firmly as canon. It can’t be ignored.

It turns out Larral can do the same thing. Which surprises nobody in the story, even people who’ve never encountered kyree before. Perry is more surprised that Larral has Mindspeech than he is over Larral’s ability to speak out loud, despite Perry only having just learned about kyree, and presumably nothing in the single book he read on the subject mentioned they could speak. Ryu goes from being an oddity to, “Oh yeah, some kyree can do that now, I guess.”

Two problems with this. One, you’d think this would have been mentioned in one of the other Valdemar novels that take place later on the timeline, because we most certainly encounter kyree in many of those books. None of them ever mention this apparently not-uncommon ability. The downside of writing books that take place in the past after you’ve written books that take place in the future. Heck, there’s no real indication even in this particular book whether Ryu and Larral’s ability is common, uncommon, nothing. No context. Context only comes from having read other books, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving readers wondering what’s even going on, why these kyree are so different from literally every other kyree mentioned elsewhere.

The second problem is that… Well, imagine reading a transcript of a Scooby Doo episode. With all of Scooby’s lines written out exactly as he speaks. Now try to wrap your head around what he might be actually saying, because just replacing initial consonants with R doesn’t always get the point across. Larral’s first words are, “Ry Roose Rerry,” which took me for-freaking-ever to understand as, “I Choose Perry,” and not something else that could equally fit there given those sounds, like, “My goose berry.” Larral doesn’t do this often, thankfully, but the few times he does, it’s ridiculous and rather pointless, and so I cant help but feel it was done for comedic effect.

Which, well, failed. I wasn’t laughing.

The Hills Have Spies is one of those novels that isn’t bad, per se. The story is solid, I was invested in Perry’s adventures and misadventures and I wanted to know just how it was all going to resolve in the end. Knowing this was the first book in a new series, I wanted to see whether this was more of a one-shot story (it was) or whether it was the set-up for some new epic threat to Valdemar (it wasn’t). The Valdemar novels, for all their flaws, are still often novels that I can sink into like a hot bath, and I can enjoy being in the world even if I have issues with some things.

But it was admittedly spoiled by things that are in some ways pretty small, but in other ways reflect what I see as a bit of a come-down from where this whole expansive series used to stand. The general refusal to not write stories that don’t involve Mags in some way, the inconsistencies when comparing them to things established in previous novels, her odd insistence on bringing in more real-world elements in order to make commentary that doesn’t always fit but is clearly something she wants to say something about… While I am going to read the rest of the books, I’ve started viewing them with more trepidation than excitement, and most of the reasons why can be seen in The Hills Have Spies.

And so I’m left in the awkward position of not knowing whether or not to recommend this book. I’d say that fans of the other Valdemar novels will probably want to read it, but I can’t really say that I recommend they do so. Not unless they feel that they absolutely have to read all of the series novels, like I do. While it can absolutely be a fun story in places and there is definitely suspense and intrigue and writing that’s easy enough to engage with, it also adds nothing to Valdemar’s history, and neither does it really expand on Mags’s story all that much. I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but I also can’t pretend that I expected this book, or even this series, to make up for the disappointments I saw in other Valdemar novels that Lackey has written over the past decade. In the end, mostly what this book made me want to do is go back and read the earlier novels, the ones that made me fall in love with the world in the first place.

Turning Darkness Into Light, by Marie Brennan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2017
Note – Initially posted on another blog which no longer exists

Summary: Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

Thoughts: There was a time in my life when I used to say quite confidently that I enjoyed “sword and sorcery” fantasy novels. Now I find myself leaning quite heavily toward the “sword” aspect of that, which is a good basic description for Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. There is a lot of action, nearly all of it involving fighting or trying to run from fights, with the occasional magical explosion thrown in for good measure.

Ex-mercenary Clay Cooper has settled down, has a wife and child, a mundane job guarding a town against dangers that never actually seem to be there. His life is boring, but safe. Until his old friend and fellow ex-mercenary, Gabe, comes calling, telling Clay that his daughter has grown up and gone off to become a merc herself, right into the heart of a besieged city with almost no hope of survival. Gabe want Clay to help rescue her. It’s a quest they can’t accomplish alone, though, so their first step is to reunite the rest of the band, to seek out their old comrades and convince them to leave their own lives behind to go trekking across the wylds once more.

Right from the beginning, Kings of the Wyld intrigued me with some of the smaller details behind the premise. Had the story been about a group of mercenaries in their prime, it would have been a fun, albeit somewhat standard fantasy novel with some tight action scenes, and that would have been fine. But Eames’s choice to make them all essentially retired from their mercenary days, grown a bit softer and more achy with the passage of time, added a degree of realism to the tale that I find crops up less often than it probably ought to. Joints ache, limbs grow less flexible, stamina diminishes with age. All of that can disappear behind a wall of adrenaline when in the thick of the fray, but once that rush wears off, everything comes rushing back. We repeatedly see Clay, the primary protagonist of the novel, make grumbling comments about aching body parts or not being as young as he used to be, and while it is to some degree played for comedic effect, there’s also an element of truth to it that doesn’t often get addressed when the main characters are 40-something ex-mercenaries on the road once more. The realism was impressive, and as somebody stuck in an aging body with joints that creak and pop and muscles that sometimes hurt for no discernible reason, I found myself empathizing with the reluctant heroes of Saga more than I have for many other such groups in other novels.

It also shows that epic adventures don’t only have to be written about 20-somethings in peak physical condition. The older generation still has something to give, and have honed their skills in ways often different from those who came after. That’s a running subplot in Kings of the Wyld, actually. Where once mercenary bands roamed the wild and took down all manner of beasts and monsters for glory and adventure, now mercenary bands are more likely to fight only in arenas, fighting for the applause of an audience. There’s still skill and courage required of such bands, but it’s a different world than Clay, Gabe, and the others grew up in. Times change, and while many people bemoan that change and reminisce about “the good old days” they knew, they had a hand in changing that world into the thing that it is now. This is often overlooked in real-life discussions, and I was happy to see that the characters themselves discuss it through the book. Bands may fight in arenas instead of out in the wyld, but it was the bands of the past, fighting the monsters in the great world beyond the cities, making the stories that were worth telling, that inspired others to do something similar, but in a way that worked better for them as social systems changed.

The characters in Kings of the Wyld were a bit of a mixed bag when it came to development. Some got a good amount of development and I felt like I knew them fairly well, their sense of humour and priorities and general personality. Others, unfortunately, got less development. Ganelon, in particular, suffered from this lack of development of all the Saga band members. True, he did join the group later than the others, and so had less of a chance to get development than, say, Clay or Gabe. But even at the end, I felt like all I knew of him was that he was a black man with a penchant for violence. He did reveal some depth in a few scenes, but for the most part, the story didn’t really change once his presence was added, and it didn’t seem like he added much to the group dynamic. Matrick added plenty, with the drama of his family life and the subplot in which attempts are made to kidnap him. Moog added a fantastic tone of humour to scenes that featured him, and the grief over his deceased husband was palpable. Ganelon… was just there.

Kings of the Wyld was the fun literary adventure I didn’t realize I needed, full of action and humour and a large degree of misadventures and strange and wondrous side-characters. Some were predictable, others entirely unexpected, and all of them were fun to read about, even if some added more to the story than others. There were many times when I felt as though I were reading a very good novelization of someone’s tabletop RPG sessions (I specify “very good” because I have read some attempts at those in the past, and very rarely does the written version come across as entertaining as playing the game itself; different media don’t always work well to tell certain stories), as the sorts of adventures and misadventures that Saga encountered on their trek to Castia resembled things that I have experienced in games I’ve played in the past.

Eames did a great job of bringing the adventure to life, and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading Kings of the Wyld. Though I know there is a sequel, this novel stands well on its own, and I can’t help but feel the follow-up novel would be like the icing on the cake: the cake itself is great, but if you want to give me more of a good thing, I certainly won’t complain!

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 1, 2019

Summary: Prodigy son of a famed mathematician, Nick Hayes is not your average fifteen-year-old. Especially when you consider that he has just discovered he is dying of leukaemia. But there is a part of Nick in all of us, and I immediately empathised with the struggle at the heart of his story.

Nick knows that his time on this planet might be near its end. But when an alluring new girl, Mia, joins his group of Dungeons & Dragons–playing friends, he realises that life might be giving him one last throw of the dice. Just then, however, his world is turned upside down when he meets a strangely familiar man whose claims about Nick’s future are too harrowing—and unbelievable—to ignore. Soon everything he thought was true, from the laws of physics to the trajectory of his own life, is proved otherwise.

One Word Kill is a story that we’re familiar with: a boy with nothing to lose, forced to put what little he has left on the line. But it’s also the kind of story that comes along once in a generation, because we’ve all dreamed of being like Nick, playing a game with the highest real-life stakes and the world on our shoulders. This time, though, it’s not imaginary.

So, what would you do in his position? What else can you do?

Roll the dice.

Thoughts: I initially saw One Word Kill pitched as something that those who enjoyed Stranger Things would also appreciate, and it’s very easy to see that comparison. You’ve got a group of teens in the 80s, all varying degrees of geekiness, all getting together to play D&D, and things change when a girl enters the picture, breaking down the group’s idea of reality as they know it. I wouldn’t say that One Word Kill is a rip-off of Stranger Things, though, since beyond that initial premise, the two definitely diverge into their own stories and run with their own ideas. Lawrence’s new series might take some inspiration from the popular show, or have some aspects in common with it, but it’s a distinct entity.

The protagonist, Nick, is newly diagnosed with a form of leukemia, and in the 80s, you can imagine just how much fun that is. He wants normalcy in his life, or at least a level of normalcy that he’s comfortable with, and cancer doesn’t fit into that picture. What does fit into the picture is his group of friends, his new friendship and budding relationship with Mia, regular mundane stuff. Not cancer. And definitely not a man who claims to be from the future and who starts asking Nick to do all sorts of strange things in an attempt to save a loved one further down the timeline.

I have to confess that I’m a bit of a sucker for fiction that brings multiverse theory into the mix. As much as pondering the implications can bring on a headache, I love thinking about the possibilities of timelines, of different universal rules. Lawrence has a grand time playing with those concepts in One Word Kill, talking about diverging timelines and branching points and closed time loops and all sorts. If someone, for instance, remembers meeting their future selves one day, that future self must also go back in time to meet their past self in order to keep the timeline consistent. Lack of doing so would create another timeline, a branching point in which something either did or didn’t happen. It wouldn’t be a paradox, because the timeline in which you did go back would still exist. You, in your current awareness, just wouldn’t be on that timeline. An infinity of selves can play out over the multiverse, none of them contradicting another because their timelines are their timelines.

Get me started on this tangent and it’ll be a while before I shut up about it.

That’s one of the reasons I really enjoyed reading One Word Kill. It involves concepts I find fascinating to contemplate. The story itself may be fairly short, but it contained a whole lot, at least when it comes to thought experiments and quantum fuckery.

It also asked some of the big questions, the kind that can make people freeze up. How much sacrifice is acceptable? How much wrong should be done in the name of doing something right? If someone does a terrible thing but then all the effects, including memories, are erased, then was that terrible thing still terrible? None of these questions really have answers, there is no right or wrong way to answer them, but that’s what makes them so difficult to tackle. Lawrence doesn’t seem to use this story as a way of taking a stance on rhetorical questions or thought experiments. He just… tells the story, and those questions are a factor.

I’m curious to see where the story goes, because as of right now, there are two other novels in the same series, and I want to see if the concepts started here will continue through the rest of Nick’s story. The delightful geeky nostalgia peppered throughout One Word Kill makes me smile (and makes me wish I was more familiar with D&D, to be honest), and the blend of mundane life with quantum multiverse conundrums is very compelling. It’s difficult to imagine a timeline in which these books wouldn’t appeal to me.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 28, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2018

Summary: In 1997 Laura Bow invented Organon, a rudimentary artificial intelligence.

Now she and her creation are at the forefront of the new wave of technology, and Laura must decide whether or not to reveal Organon’s full potential to the world. If it falls into the wrong hands, its power could be abused. Will Organon save humanity, or lead it to extinction?

I Still Dream is a powerful tale of love, loss and hope; a frightening, heartbreakingly human look at who we are now – and who we can be, if we only allow ourselves.

Thoughts: Artificial intelligence is something that has interested me for a very long time. Mostly in the sense of the delineation between “programming” and “experience.” At what point does something’s coding allow it the capability for independent, albeit limited, thought? How much is our own autonomy dependent on our experiences, which can be likened to programming? The usual approaches, really, when it comes to the ethical arguments of artificial intelligence, but it’s fascinated me for years.

It’s this sort of exploration that’s present in Smythe’s I Still Dream. Laura Bow originally created a sort of therapy program she called Organon, something to help her teenage self work through issues, tweaking the code as she went to make it more dynamic, more able to give her what she needed when she needed it. She continued to work on it while working for a large tech company that was also working on its own AI system, known as SCION. Both programs developed along different paths, with different goals, in accordance with what their users and programmers demanded of them. SCION becomes ubiquitous in everyday tech, while Organon stays something rather private to Laura. Things take a turn for the world-changing when SCION begins behaving in ways that are decided unintended and disastrous, and it might only be Organon’s assistance that normalcy can be restored.

I can’t say that I Still Dream is a novel of the future, something that might legitimately happen, because much of the story is set in the past, in Laura’s youth and adulthood of the 90s and early 2000s, setting in motion the events that will come later in the story’s timeline, but that definitely didn’t happen in the real world. It’s one of those books that I think fits squarely in the “speculative” genre, that umbrella term that encapsulates the “what if” stories that don’t fit so neatly into other categories. Part historical fiction, part science fiction, part alternate past and alternate future, with a heavy dash of social sci-fi. It defies easy categorization, which is one of the things I love about the novel. Smythe seems unconcerned with demanding that the story fit with what really exists and instead tells the story of what might have been, with all the extrapolations of that concept.

There’s something that really resonates with me when it comes to stories of AI development, and I think it might be related to something a therapist once told me. People aren’t born with all the reactions and thoughts they’ll have as adults. They grow, and learn, and experience, and it’s our experiences that help build us into the people who eventually become. If those experiences are negative, then we’ll have negative reactions to a lot of things. If those experiences are filled with pressure to perform, we’ll likely end up being stressy perfectionists in adulthood. Our childhoods, in a sense, program us into the adults we’ll become. It’s how we develop. You can see the same sort of process in how SCION and Organon behave, given that they’re both programmed to learn and function. SCION’s processes get tested with video games, fail-states and win-states and how to view others as opponents to be overcome. Self-involvement. Organon, on the other hand, was first and foremost something that Laura designed to help herself, a companion and therapist and assistant. Still concerned with others, yes, but in a way that stressed beneficial outcomes, improvements rather than defeats. The two may have been programmed, but their programming followed different parametres, stressed different ideals, and in the end, you can really see the outcome of the two different methods.

Which is analogous to raising a child, really, and that’s sort of the point. We can have nature versus nurture debates all we want, but at the end of the day, nurture still means a lot, and our experiences, be they positive or negative, will have profound effects on who we are later in life. To use a human example from the novel, Laura is admittedly reticent at first to show anyone what she’s created in Organon, but eventually allows it because she believes that person will help her. She’s betrayed, though, and she pulls back. She’s betrayed once again in adulthood, at the job where she was allowed to develop Organon further, and once again pulls back further, letting fewer people in, letting fewer people get a glimpse into her work. The more people prove they can’t be trusted, the less she’s willing to trust them. Her experiences drive her behaviour, a sort of biological programming that people both passively and actively make use of every day.

It’s just easier to see that for what it is when you use computers as an analogy.

The ending of I Still Dream is touching, bittersweet, and very emotional, and also difficult to read without contemplating the very essence of emotion itself. What is it, where does it come from, what influences it? It does the same thing with the concept of reality, honestly. Which, unsurprisingly, is related back to the whole “programming” thing I’ve spent half this review talking about.

That’s one of the things I really love about this novel, though. The way it made me stop and think, to really consider the implications, the ramifications, of many of the book’s events, was wonderful. I’ve said for a long time that a really good book will do that, that it will make me have to pause in my reading to have a good long think about what I just read. There’s so much food for thought here, so much that will have readers reconsidering concepts they may have once thought were fundamental aspects only of humanity, and it’s wonderful when books do that, because it means that the book has effects that extend beyond the reading, if you catch my drift.

Fans of social sci-fi will find a lot to enjoy in I Still Dream, as will those who love a good exploration of humanity’s interaction with technology. It’s a book I know I’ll end up reading a second time, earning it a permanent place on my bookshelves. If you’re in the mood for a speculative novel that will really get you thinking about the nature of intelligence and experience, then look no further than I Still Dream. It’s one that won’t disappoint.