Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2020

Summary: Lunar New Year should be a time for familial reunions, ancestor worship, and consumption of an unhealthy amount of candied fruit.

But when dragon prince Thuan brings home his brooding and ruthless husband Asmodeus for the New Year, they find not interminable family gatherings, but a corpse outside their quarters. Asmodeus is thrilled by the murder investigation; Thuan, who gets dragged into the political plotting he’d sworn off when he left, is less enthusiastic.

It’ll take all of Asmodeus’s skill with knives, and all of Thuan’s diplomacy, to navigate this one—as well as the troubled waters of their own relationship….

Thoughts: While I have, admittedly, only read the first book of the Dominion of the Fallen series, of which this is a spin-off/side-story, I can say that familiarity with the series isn’t mandatory for reading and appreciating Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. I can say this quite certainly because honestly, it’s been long enough since I read The House of Shattered Wings that I don’t actually remember much of the story, only pieces of the setting (in fairness, I read that book only a few months after I moved to an entirely new province and things were weird for me back then, and I really ought to reread it and then start on the rest of the series). So if you’re holding off on this novella because you haven’t read the trilogy yet, then there are a few spoilers in it, but overall you’re not going to feel lost and adrift with the characters and their predicaments.

Thuan, dragon prince and husband to Asmodeus, returns to his draconic home for the Lunar New Year, something that doesn’t exactly thrill him but, you know, family obligations. It’s more than awkward family stuff that will keep me busy during that visit, though, as very quickly a murder is uncovered, one that might well relate to a plot to destabilize the dynasty, and it’s up to him (as well as Asmodeus, to a degree) to navigate the uncertain waters to make sure the death is avenged and the plot uncovered and stopped, before something else horrible happens.

After reading this novella, I am absolutely fascinated by the world that de Bodard has crafted. Not only do we have Vietnamese dragons and fallen angels, but crabs who are also people, and the complicated cultures and politics that you might imagine would surround everyone. It’s a rich and deep world, and while Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders really only dips a toe into that world, it’s enough of a taste to leave me hungry for more. Which, frankly, is a fantastic thing, since not only does it give fans of the trilogy another story to enjoy, but it gives newcomers a good impression of what they might get if they choose to dive further in and pick up the other books (again, so long as they don’t mind a couple of story spoilers).

I couldn’t help but love the rather twisted darkness of Asmodeus. He’s the sort of character I have a weird weakness for in my reading, with the appreciate for and ability to give pain, while at the same time also being capable of affection. He and Thuan might not exactly have the perfect relationship, since their personalities and priorities at times clash, but the two of them are an interesting duo to read about, partly because I like Asmodeus so much, and partly because of the conflicts, because they try to work with and around each other rather than directly against, if the situation calls for it. I want to see more of them, I want to see their relationship from the beginning, I want to see how they grew and changed with each other.

When you combine this with how interesting I found the world-building and the cultural and political aspects of the story, it’s easy to see why the Dominion of the Fallen books might have just gotten a boost in priority on my To Read list.

I’d say that the murder myself itself, disconnected from the setting, was interesting enough on its own (the usual whodunnit, and why, sort of mystery), but it’s difficult to actually do that, to remove the murder from its surrounding narrative. Without the threat of a political coup, there’d be no motivation for the murder, and no imperative for Thuan to investigate and uncover the heart of the matter. De Bodard didn’t just write a murder mystery story set in an interesting world, but had everything connect together, just as things do in reality. Murder always has motives. By its very nature, it has to. And you can’t just remove those motives from the culture in which they arose. Everything is connected, in that sense, and this was no different. I’ve seen stories in which authors have tried to do just that, to write a fun little side-story set in their fantasy worlds, only to make the connections vague and tenuous, coming across as something akin to a play rather than a snapshot of reality. It’s something performed by actors in front of a painted backdrop, set against a world rather than set in it, and de Bodard happily did not fall into this trap.

In short, if you enjoyed the Dominion of the Fallen novels, you’ll be well pleased to step back into the rich and complex world of dragons and fallen angels once more with Of Dragons, Feasts, and Murders. And if you haven’t yet read the novels, this is a good way of finding out if the setting and characters would hold any interest for you, a low-investment peak into something larger and more engrossing. It’s got wide appeal, especially to those who want to see more variety of culture and character in their SFF, and I, for one, recommend giving it a read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 15, 2019

Summary: Burning with resentment and intrigue, this fantastical family drama invites readers to dig up the secrets of the Belman family, and wonder whether myths and legends are real enough to answer for a history of sin.

Uprooted from Bath by his father’s failures, Gideon Belman finds himself stranded on Ormeshadow farm, an ancient place of chalk and ash and shadow. The land crests the Orme, a buried, sleeping dragon that dreams resentment, jealousy, estrangement, death. Or so the folklore says. Growing up in a house that hates him, Gideon finds his only comforts in the land. Gideon will live or die by the Orme, as all his family has.

Thoughts: Ormeshadow is one of those difficult novellas to categorize. I think “historical fantasy” fits best, by virtue of a scene at the end of the story, but those who go in expecting a stronger SFF thread in the narrative will be rather disappointed, I think, and give up before they reach that scene that confirms this story to be something other than simply historical fiction. Not that there’s anything wrong with historical fiction, not remotely, but I think when readers see something published by Tor.com, they may have certain expectations, and those expectations may not be met by revealing during the last few pages that oh yes, this legend that we don’t see hints of being anything other than a legend is actually true and massively effects things right at the end.

Ormeshadow follows the life of Gideon, who starts as a young boy moving with his parents to their family farm, currently being run by his uncle and his family. Gideon’s folks are moving there due to personal scandal in the city, and his father is claiming his half of the inherited Ormeshadow farm. Which sounds quaint enough, until you consider that Gideon’s uncle always resented Gideon’s father for the greater leniency he was granted as a child, Gideon’s cousins seem to hate and abuse him right from the start, and Gideon’s mother starts an affair with his uncle, something of an open secret that causes so much friction between the two families. Gideon’s father passes down local legends that the Orme is actually the body of a sleeping dragon, one that guards its treasure and bides its time before it will eventually awaken, and father and son both bond over these stories for a large part of Gideon’s life before, well, his father commits suicide.

If you haven’t gathered already, Ormeshadow is a story that is heavy with pain and suffering, the mundane sort of pain of everyday cruelty and favouritism that wears a person down and can destroy whatever they try to build of themselves. Try as he might, Gideon can only ever seem to please his father, and even that comfort is taken from him after a while. As he grows up on the farm, he falls further and further away from the man he wanted to be as a child, seeing opportunities slip from him and be stolen from him, and his despair and resignation are palpable throughout the text. Ormeshadow is the kind of story that can hurt your heart, because nearly every ounce of its pain is entirely relatable, not something we can easily distance ourselves from by seeing it in  secondary world or a wholly unreal situation. Gideon’s pain is the pain your next door neighbour might all too likely have lived. It’s the sort of pain you might have lived.

Where the fantasy elements comes in is, as I said, right at the end, where it’s revealed that the folklore of dragons that Gideon’s father shared with him throughout his life actually turns out to be real, and the sleeping dragon awakens to Gideon’s pain, rises up, and literally burns everything away. The mother that cheated on her husband, the uncle who abused his sons and nephew, the neighbours who wouldn’t stand up when they saw the abuse, all of them set alight by a dragon who slept knowing the taste of betrayal, and awoke to taste it just as keenly coming from another source. Gideon inherits more than just his father’s share of the farm (which is now burned anyway), but also the treasure that the dragon guarded on the land. As an adult, Gideon can now use his vast resources to buy his way into the life he dreamed of as a child, but at a massive cost. Not just the cost in lives lost to the dragon’s fire, but the cost of all of pain he endured leading up to that moment.

And he isn’t sure it’s worth the price.

Ormeshadow isn’t a simple story of patience winning out in the end, of abuse being punished. It’s a story that shows just how much even when those outcomes happen, the scars don’t disappear, don’t fade, and may not ever fade. Gideon can get what he wanted in life in the end, but also not, because what he wanted did not include a youth of abuse and loss, of pain and no refuge. You don’t just get to put aside those things once you can reach your once-put-aside dreams, because you are still the person you were the day before that miracle, still the person who lived through everything that made you put aside those dreams, and no miracles can change that. Ormeshadow doesn’t feel like a story of triumph, and endurance, so much as a story of survival, wrapped in clothes that might once have looked fine on a fairy tale but the lustre has long since faded, tattered. Our own childhoods have probably been littered with stories of downtrodden children who just endured long enough and eventually got their rewards for their tenacity and bravery, but fairy tales gloss over the trauma that comes with those sorts of stories. Ormeshadow most definitely does not.

This is a novella that is both difficult to read and yet so compelling that I kept turning the pages and forgetting that I was still waiting for something fantastical to happen. I had expectations, but while reading, I just didn’t care anymore. I was invested in Gideon, in his life and story, and I wanted him to be happy at the end, to have retribution for the wrongs done to him, but that wasn’t the story I got, and it feels all the more relevant for it, more poignant. Ormeshadow is far from a comfortable read, but it is a worthwhile one.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.

The Lady Rogue, by Jenn Bennett

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 3, 2019

Summary: Traveling with her treasure-hunting father has always been a dream for Theodora. She’s read every book in his library, has an impressive knowledge of the world’s most sought-after relics, and has all the ambition in the world. What she doesn’t have is her father’s permission. That honor goes to her father’s nineteen-year-old protégé—and once-upon-a-time love of Theodora’s life—Huck Gallagher, while Theodora is left to sit alone in her hotel in Istanbul.

Until Huck arrives from an expedition without her father and enlists Theodora’s help in rescuing him. Armed with her father’s travel journal, the reluctant duo learns that her father had been digging up information on a legendary and magical ring that once belonged to Vlad the Impaler — more widely known as Dracula — and that it just might be the key to finding him.

Journeying into Romania, Theodora and Huck embark on a captivating adventure through Gothic villages and dark castles in the misty Carpathian Mountains to recover the notorious ring. But they aren’t the only ones who are searching for it. A secretive and dangerous occult society with a powerful link to Vlad the Impaler himself is hunting for it, too. And they will go to any lengths—including murder—to possess it.

Thoughts: When I first heard this book described as something that fans of A Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue would enjoy, my attention was caught. Despite me having problems with it’s sequel, I really enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide, and the idea of a book in that vein but with the legend because Vlad the Impaler thrown in, The Lady Rogue sounded like something I would similarly enjoy.

And it wasn’t bad, really. It just wasn’t something I was able to get into as much as I had hoped.

The Lady Rogue is primarily told from the perspective of Theodora, daughter of a wealthy adventurer who is frequently left behind in the care of tutors and caretakers while her father travels the world on grand adventures, seeking lost artifacts and mysteries. Suddenly reunited with her previous boyfriend, who was supposed to be traveling with Theodora’s father, she finds herself caught up in an adventure of her own as she not only attempts to track down her missing father, but also a lost ring connected to Dracula’s legacy and the dark power that runs through her veins.

In between many of the chapters are short interludes from her father’s journal, where we see the entries dated in the late 1930s. I will be completely honest here — I spent a good amount of the novel thinking that the reason Theodora’s father was missing was because he had somehow traveled back in time. I came to this erroneous conclusion because none of Theodora and Huck’s sections were dated, and they both talked as though they were far closer to today than to almost 80 years ago. Almost nothing was given to indicate the time they existed in, and I based my cues on their behaviour and speech, and it wasn’t until I noticed that I wasn’t seeing any indication that time travel was actually going to be a plot element that I had to look up when the entire book took place.

Now yes, there are some things that do indeed indicate the time period, but I think many of them, to a reader less inclined to look things up, might just assume that they could be explained away by east Europe being, well, not North America. Of course rural European settings would use small mail delivery planes. Of course people would take trains and buses rather than going by car. That’s just how it’s done over there.

It didn’t help that I found two instances (at least, two that stand out in my mind) of characters using slang that is entirely inappropriate for the time period. At one point, Theodora is telling her father off, and comments that, “FYI, [thing].” Now, FYI as an abbreviation for “for your information” did certainly exist in the 1930s, but primarily in a journalistic sense, from what my research has led me to conclude. You would see it in marginalia and in newspaper corrections, that sort of thing. It’s hardly something you would have heard many people say aloud as though they were 90s teens.

The second instance that comes to mind is Huck saying toward the end that he was getting “hangry,” and no, I’m sorry, but that portmanteau gained popularity in the 90s, even if it was used as far back as the 50s, and neither of those decades are the 30s.

Now, I admit that I read an ARC of this book, and those issues might not be in the final release, so I admit that those particular problems might not even be problems in the version that most people will read. However, that doesn’t eliminate any of my commentary on why I was confused about the time period of the book. Neither Theo nor Huck talked or behaved as though they came from any time period but “timeless modern,” and considering this book is meant to be historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural to it, so much felt so out of place for so long.

I did, admittedly, enjoy the story of The Lady Rogue, when I was getting distracted by how anachronistic many of the characters acted. The mystery of Theodora’s father’s disappearance powered most of the book, though along the way, as they made their way from Istanbul to various Romanian cities and towns, the subplot of the ring slowly overtook all else. Theodora’s father was initially searching for the ring, on the premise that 3 identical rings were made but only 1 was real, and supposedly connected to dark magics that gave the wearer great power but also brought death and ruin down around them. In this, I can see how the comparison to The Gentleman’s Guide to Vice and Virtue were made; both are historical fiction, and both feature a possibly-magical item as a motivation for the characters to progress through the story. Whether that item is actually magical or not is irrelevant; what matters is that people believe it to be, and act accordingly.

The ring was magical (the rest of the legend surrounding it wasn’t quite accurate, though I’ll refrain from giving too many details so that at least something in this book isn’t spoiled for future readers), though it really only proved itself to be at the very end. There were signs building up to it, signs which certainly convinced Theodora even if they didn’t quite convince Huck, but similar to Gentleman’s Guide, the magic itself wasn’t what compelled people. It was the belief in the magic, the legends themselves that made people seek it out, committing sometimes terrible acts in the name of legends and folklore, and I find that sort of thing fascinating. It interests me, to see what people will do in the pursuit of perceived power, what they might be motivated to do to get closer to something they only believe is the truth but don’t have definitive proof of. It’s a testament to the power of myth and belief, and I’m glad to have seen this appear in multiple novels over the past few years.

Unlike Gentleman’s Guide, however, there was no queer element to this story at all. It shares the same element of historical adventure with a supernatural element, but that’s where the similarities end, and I know many people enjoyed Gentleman’s Guide because it was all that and more, a good piece of queer representation. Readers looking for something similar in The Lady Rogue are only going to find superficial resemblance, I think.

The Lady Rogue is certainly an adventure, with a few interesting mysteries that the characters must solve along the way, usually employing a bit of cryptography and sleuthing. The characters are decently developed, though I admit that if you asked me to describe them outside of the context of the story within this book, I’m not sure they’d be that recognizable. Theodora is hot-tempered, intelligent, and in many ways spoiled. Huck is… Irish, and Theodora’s ex-boyfriend-but-it’s-complicated. Theodora’s father is… I don’t know here. An adventurer. Selfish and thoughtless. That’s about it. But within the context of the novel itself, they are distinct from each other when it comes to tone, dialogue, behaviour, and so it wasn’t difficult to tell who was doing or say what if you picked a random line in the middle of a random page.

But on the whole, I didn’t close out The Lady Rogue with many positive feelings toward it. Not many negative, either, for what it’s worth. I had an awkward start with it due to the anachronistic issues I mentioned earlier, but I enjoyed the mystery of the ring well enough, and I think the two sort of cancel each other out, leaving me with a rather neutral impression overall. I don’t think this is one I will ever get the urge to reread, and I think I can feel confident in recommending it to those who enjoy YA historical fiction with a bit of a twist, but that’s likely a fairly niche group, and I’m not sure it has much appeal beyond that. It wasn’t bad, but it’s not one I’d recommend going out of your way to read.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SPFBO Review: The Music Box Girl, by K A Stewart

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – April 19, 2016

Summary: FOR THE LOVE OF MUSIC

Steam and steel are king, nowhere more so than Detroit, the gleaming gem of the world’s industrial crown. A beacon of innovation and culture, it is the birthplace of the mechanical automatons, and the home of the famed Detroit Opera House. It is where people come with their dreams, their plans, and their secrets.

A young man with the voice of an angel and dreams of stardom.

A globe-trotting heiress with a passion for adventure and memories of a lost childhood love.

A mysterious woman with a soul made of pure music and a secret worth killing for.

Beneath the glitter and sparkle, something sinister lurks at the opera, and three lives will collide with tragic consequences.

Review: It only took reading a few chapters for it to start dawning on me just what this book was. It’s a genderflipped steampunk Phantom of the Opera. With robots.

Really, that could be the 2-sentence tagline of The Music Box Girl. If you’re familiar with the Andrew Lloyd Weber musical, at least (I can’t say much about the original novel, as I haven’t read it), then just about nothing in this story will come as a surprise. There are a few pieces of curiosity here or there, such as wondering just what little differences there are between the book and Phantom, but beyond that, it’s all fairly set in stone from the moment you realise the story’s inspiration.

The Music Box Girl gives you three character perspectives from which to watch the story unfold. Anton, who starts off as an opera stagehand, quickly attracts the attention of a mysterious women — known to many as the opera ghost but who gets names Melody by Anton himself — who offers to train his singing voice, to get the skill that will allow him to replace the opera company’s ageing tenor. Bess, Anton’s childhood friend turned adventurous globetrotter who is at the centre of no few scandals, reunites with her friend and they kindle a romance that has lain banked since they separated so many years ago. But Melody takes exception to Bess’s arrival and Anton’s attraction to her, and jealously seeks to keep the two apart so that she and her plan for Anton can stay central in his focus.

Melody is, of course, not human, but in fact an automaton, gears and switches in a human shape, with all the strength that comes with being made of metal. In the steampunk Detroit that Stewart sets up, automatons are physically stronger than humans, which is why they were created in the first place, but require human assistance to stay active. They also possess what’s known as an aether core, which houses their memory, the sum of their experiences, but after a while, imperfect machinery being what it is, when an automaton has experienced enough to develop a personality of their own, those memories also begin to clog the core and become disconnected, erratic, and the automaton becomes dangerous. As such, aether cores are often wiped clean, preventing a personality from forming so that the automaton can stay an obedient servant to human needs without any pesky moral issues of slavery coming into play. Melody is unique, an automaton that has no need of humans to keep her running, but has thus developed that dangerous personality. She hears voices from those in her past who are no longer there, the memories accumulating in her aether core coming and going at random, and she strives to overcome that as she teaches Anton to hone his singing voice.

It was interesting to note the subtle ways in which Stewart referenced the original Phantom story, even when dealing with new elements. For instance, Melody’s face isn’t disfigured by scars or anything of the sort, as she’s made of metal, but instead one side of her face is warped and tarnished, a callback to the reason that, well, the mask is so iconic. Stewart provides a fresh SFF look at a story that has been ingrained in public consciousness for years, melding familiar content with new twists.

The Music Box Girl‘s main drawback, though, is that it doesn’t so much pay homage to its source material so much as it just rewrites it. It’s basically a retelling, albeit with a steampunk flair and some very good crisp writing. And as much as there’s nothing inherently wrong with retelling an old story, it does unfortunately come off as being derivative. It’s not a nod to a franchise that can be appreciated by fans in the know, but, as I said in the beginning, a genderflipped Phantom of the Opera, with robots. If that’s what you hear when going into this book, very little will surprise you. You’ll know how the story will play out, because you know the story of Phantom.

Do I think that means The Music Box Girl isn’t worth reading? Not by a long shot. Given the source material, I think this will appeal massively to fans of Phantom, and believe me, there are plenty. But even aside from that, there’s plenty to like here. Stewart’s writing style, as I said before, is crisp, with plenty of clarity and detail, and it flows smoothly. The characters all feel different when you’re reading about them, and more than that, they don’t feel like they’re just rehashes of someone else’s characters. It’s a fun journey, even if you know the destination. Seeing things from Melody’s perspective — the perspective of an automaton, gives opportunity for great lines like this:

One voice, though, one voice stood out to her, and some apparent malfunction in her glass eyes tinted the world red.

The classic descent into obsessive madness, as told by a robot. It’s interesting, and I think I enjoyed reading Melody’s sections most of all, to see the perspective of someone who is both victim and villain.

So overall? Yes, definitely read The Music Box Girl. It may not be the most original, but it brings original twists to a familiar story, and it’s a smooth-flowing tale of ambition and sacrifice, which is exactly what I expected. It’s quick and engaging, the characters are interesting and very much themselves, and it’s quite enjoyable, at least from where I’m standing. I can see steampunk fans enjoying this dive into musical pop culture.

The Hidden People, by Alison Littlewood

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)