The Factory Witches of Lowell, by C S Malerich

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 10, 2020

Summary: Faced with abominable working conditions, unsympathetic owners, and hard-hearted managers, the mill girls of Lowell have had enough. They’re going on strike, and they have a secret weapon on their side: a little witchcraft to ensure that no one leaves the picket line.

For the young women of Lowell, Massachusetts, freedom means fair wages for fair work, decent room and board, and a chance to escape the cotton mills before lint stops up their lungs. When the Boston owners decide to raise the workers’ rent, the girls go on strike. Their ringleader is Judith Whittier, a newcomer to Lowell but not to class warfare. Judith has already seen one strike fold and she doesn’t intend to see it again. Fortunately Hannah, her best friend in the boardinghouse—and maybe first love?—has a gift for the dying art of witchcraft.

Thoughts: Tell me there’s a book out there that offers a fictionalized account of early unions, fighting to gain new rights that will allow their members to live happier healthier lives. Tell me there’s a book that heavily involves the history of the textile industry. Tell me there’s a book out there where people can solve their problems by use of practical believable magic. Now tell me there’s something that combines all three of those things, and why yes, I do want to read that!

Enter The Factory Witches of Lowell.

The women and girls working at a textile mill in Lowell decide, not unreasonably, that they deserve more than what the company is willing to give them. Better pay, greater workplace safety, the usual things people have to fight for under a system that declares that “the winner” is whoever can give the least while getting the most. But the ensure solidarity, to ensure that all of them are together in the fight, they turn to witchcraft to bind themselves to the goal. It’s a rough trade, given that many of them work to earn money to send back to their families, and striking means no money. But a price must be paid for change, and the women know their value to the company, and compromises must be made to ensure that everybody can move forward again.

This novella could have been 100% real, a true account of a strike at a textile mill in a factory town, were it not for the magic element. I think that’s what makes it so compelling. I love historical fantasy and magical realism, things that are so grounded in the mundane that it makes the extraordinary that much more believable. Malerich did a really job job blending the mundane and the fantastical here; credit where credit is due, that’s a hard balance to strike.

We often take textiles for granted these days, what with new clothes being easy to come by and even easier to throw out most of the time. But Malerich shines a light on the dangers of the early mass production in the textile industry in The Factory Witches of Lowell. Low pay and long hours are obvious problems, and that was (and still is) common in a lot of work. But then there’s the young age of some employees, the danger of losing body parts if one isn’t quick enough with the large mechanical looms, the constant inhalation of tiny fibres that eventually destroy the lungs. It’s that inhalation that partly allows for the clever piece of sympathetic magic to work in the story. Cotton is in all of the employees, literally breathed in every day they work there, and that connection gave them a degree of power over each other and over the work itself. Between that and weaving parts of themselves into a piece of cloth, it made for a powerful binding, and I loved seeing such subtle magic work in tangible and believable ways.

The Factory Witches of Lowell isn’t a long read; I finished reading it in and afternoon, and I enjoyed every moment I spent with it. Malerich’s writing is clear and approachable, the story was interesting and contained aspects that are still relevant today despite the historic setting, and yes, being a geek for textiles made this novella that much better for me. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy and magical realism, then this is one book to look into sooner rather than later.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, by V E Schwab

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Publication date – October 6, 2020

Summary: A Life No One Will Remember. A Story You Will Never Forget.

France, 1714: in a moment of desperation, a young woman makes a Faustian bargain to live forever―and is cursed to be forgotten by everyone she meets.

Thus begins the extraordinary life of Addie LaRue, and a dazzling adventure that will play out across centuries and continents, across history and art, as a young woman learns how far she will go to leave her mark on the world.

But everything changes when, after nearly 300 years, Addie stumbles across a young man in a hidden bookstore and he remembers her name.

Thoughts: When I first heard about this book, my initial reaction was thinking it sounded like a concept that Claire North would tackle. Indeed, The Sudden Appearance of Hope also has a protagonist who disappears from peoples’ memories once she’s out of sight. But while the concepts for the protagonists are very close, the similarities end there, with both stories being very distinct. Both incredibly fascinating, both superbly told, both their own unique stories with their own particular charms.

Addie’s story begins in 18th century France, a small village that holds little appeal to an independent young woman who wants to live her own life and not be tied by marriage to a man and place she has no interest in. Desperate to escape, she makes a deal with one of the old gods, a deal that means she gets to lives as long as she wants, but with the proviso that when she’s done, she gives up her soul.

Oh, and also that she’s forgotten by everyone she meets. That too.

It sounds like a sweet deal, doesn’t it? Going through the world as long as you want to, people leaving you alone to just do your own thing, only dealing with people when you want to. But Addie quickly realizes the problems with this life. When people forget her, they really forget her. She’s a ghost, a nonentity, something that exists without ties to anyone and anything. If she goes home, her parents don’t recognize her, and try to kick this stranger out of their house. Forget romantic entanglements; once a lover wakes up in the morning, they don’t remember this strange woman in their bed. If she tries to make marks on paper, the marks fade as soon as she writes them. Addie can leave no mark on the world, as the world is doomed to forget her very existence.

But then along comes a man who recognizes her, who remembers her. For the first time in hundreds of years, Addie feels seen, is seen. But this man has a secret of his own, one unbelievable enough to match Addie’s story. And the dark god who granted Addie’s immortality doesn’t take too kindly to someone else being important in Addie’s life…

Though, as I said, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue bears an initial superficial resemblance to The Sudden Appearance of Hope, the rest of the story is pure Schwab. I’ve read some of her work before this, even if I haven’t reviewed any of it, and there are certain elements I’ve come to expect in her work. One is that whatever I’m reading will likely emotionally gut me, in one way or another. Usually by forcing me to confront uncomfortable truths about existence. The ephemeral nature of memory, the way we rely on being remembered through life, even for only as long as it takes to complete a transaction in a store… Addie’s life kicks you in the chest with how lonely she is, and how little she can rely on so many of the things we tend to take for granted. Reading this book had me reflecting on so many circumstances in my life that just wouldn’t have happened, were it impossible for me to be remembered outside of the moment.

And this sort of emotional gut-punch starts early, when Addie realizes that as much as she didn’t want her life to be contained solely within a small village, she had ties there that she appreciated, had come to rely on herself. Her parents being unable to recognize her, unable to remember that they even had a child. The closest person she had to a best friend having the same reaction, turning her attention to something else for a moment, and then turning back to see Addie, once again a stranger, once again a suspicious person in the insular little village. In her desperate bid to hang onto what she really valued in herself, she lost so much, and lived a pretty miserable life of first encounters and awkward goodbyes from them on.

Can you imagine this being your life? I think I would have given up my soul long ago, defeated and broken and unable to bear the loneliness. It’s one thing for me to say I’d like to be forgotten for a little while so that people will leave me alone, but it’s another thing to realize that this wish being granted would mean I’d be a stranger to my cats, my partner, be homeless almost immediately because my forgettable unremarkable self would have no claim to this apartment. Addie’s existence could be compared to that of a ghost, except that a ghost could at least settle down somewhere and not immediately be evicted as soon as they were discovered.

To say nothing of Henry, and the deal with the darkness that he made to alleviate his own pain. The feeling of the click ticking down on his life sometimes made it feel like the walls were closing in around me as I read, shrinking my own life in mirror to his. Schwab has this uncanny ability to really make the feel things, evocative storytelling as its finest, and as much as it always seems to hurt my heart, I can’t seem to get enough of it, and I always go back for more.

There really is so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. There’s the casual bisexuality/pansexuality, which I am 100% a fan of, since it normalizes the idea that, y’know, people can be bisexual, and there doesn’t need to be choice or debate about it, and that’s perfectly valid. Henry has had girlfriends and boyfriends. Addie has had, well, male and female partners, ones she definitely felt affection for, though whether she would consider them girlfriends and/or boyfriends when they couldn’t remember much about Addie beyond the moment, I really can’t say. But no big deal is made about this, it just is, they just are, and it’s so wonderful to see represented so casually as positively in fiction.

What really got to me, though, was the assertion that ideas are more powerful than memories, that the inspiration we give to someone can outlast that person’s memories of us. You don’t always need to remember the specifics of an encounter to remember the effect it had on you, especially if that effect is profound. Do you remember the specifics of the moment you learned you really enjoy reading, the scene of the book that sank into your mind and made you go, “Aha, there are so many brilliant stories out there and I want to see more of them?” I know I don’t. But somewhere along the way, the idea was planted, and here we are. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever really seen done so well in fiction before, if ever, and it really struck a chord with me.

There’s so much to love about The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Even as it tore my heart out, it made me want to keep going, to turn pages and see where everything led in the end. It asked some deep questions, and didn’t always give concrete answers, but sometimes the answers aren’t concrete anyway, and are always mutable. It’s a both a fantastic piece of speculative historical/modern fiction and an emotional punch that will likely catch you off guard more than once. I’m not sure there’s anything else out there quite like it, and I can’t recommend it enough.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Gods of Jade and Shadow, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 23, 2019

SummaryThe Jazz Age is in full swing, but Casiopea Tun is too busy cleaning the floors of her wealthy grandfather’s house to listen to any fast tunes. Nevertheless, she dreams of a life far from her dusty small town in southern Mexico. A life she can call her own.

Yet this new life seems as distant as the stars, until the day she finds a curious wooden box in her grandfather’s room. She opens it—and accidentally frees the spirit of the Mayan god of death, who requests her help in recovering his throne from his treacherous brother. Failure will mean Casiopea’s demise, but success could make her dreams come true.

In the company of the strangely alluring god and armed with her wits, Casiopea begins an adventure that will take her on a cross-country odyssey from the jungles of Yucatán to the bright lights of Mexico City—and deep into the darkness of the Mayan underworld.

Thoughts: I want to state right away that nothing I can say here will do this book justice. Reading this book make me bitterly regret that I couldn’t read it faster, because the story was so good and so compelling, while at the same time lamenting that I couldn’t go any slower, to make it last. This isn’t the first time I’ve had that thought process while reading one of Moreno-Garcia’s books, and I doubt it will be the last.

Gods of Jade and Shadow tells the story of Casiopea, a young woman working for extended family who, to be blunt, treat her pretty damn poorly. She wants more in her life than drudge work, dreaming of the day she can move to a bigger city and start a new life, a life that’s really hers. Her adventures in the wider world get unexpectedly kickstarted, however, when she accidentally frees the god Hun-Kame, whom Casiopea’s grandfather had trapped in a wooden box. Hun-Kame seeks Casiopea’s assistance to return him to his rightful place, ruling the Underworld, but this means finding his missing body parts to restore his power, as well as overthrowing his brother, Vucub-Kame, who now sits on the throne. The whole story is set against the backdrop of Mexico during the 1920s, setting it firmly as historical fantasy.

I’ll be honest here: the place and time period aren’t ones I know very much about, so I can’t comment on any artistic liberties or anything of the sort. As for the mythology… Well, I knew how to pronounce Xibalba before I opened this book, but that’s about as much as I can claim. My lack of familiarity with a lot of the cultural and historical elements, though, worked rather well for me, as now I feel compelled to end some of my ignorance by learning more. This is one of the things I love the most about reading novels set in this world but in places or times I’m less familiar with. If I enjoy the book, I’m usually inspired to learn more, to familiarize myself so that I’m less ignorant in the future, and so that I can better appreciate more media with similar elements.

I have a weakness for stories in which deities interact with mere mortals, and Gods of Jade and Shadow definitely delivered on that count. I expected a bit of amusement when it came to Hun-Kame trying to deal with the mundane world, but there was actually very little of that, sticking with a more serious tone throughout the story rather than taking a “fishgod-out-of-water” approach. There are some clashes between him and Casiopea, most of them due to Casiopea’s quick temper and her wants and needs, which were sometimes opposed to what Hun-Kame wanted or needed. While Hun-Kame’s status as a deity was in question through the story, it never really became a focal point for humour, which, honestly, was kind of impressive. I like that sort of take and expected some of it because it’s easy territory to play in, but that clearly wasn’t the story that Moreno-Garcia wanted to tell.

As I said earlier, there’s nothing I can say here that would do this book justice. It’s a fantastic novel, it’s a brilliant story set in a fascinating time and place, with a compelling story and flawed but interesting characters moving everything along. Even when you dislike characters, you want to know more about them, find out their motivations and goals. They all have a place within the plot, but none of them existed only to move the plot along. They all had their own lives, their own development, all of them felt fleshed out and real. There are themes of sacrifice and devotion, of duty and independence, of selfishness and taking risks and love of all kinds, and it’s just such a wonderful damn book that I can very highly recommend it to pretty much everyone who reads my blog. If your tastes are even a bit close to mine when it comes to SFF novels, you’ll find yourself very satisfied by what you find inside the pages of Gods of Jade and Shadow. Don’t miss out on it.

The Heirs of Locksley, by Carrie Vaughn

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2020

Summary: The latest civil war in England has come and gone, King John is dead, and the nobility of England gathers to see the coronation of his son, thirteen year old King Henry III.

The new king is at the center of political rivalries and power struggles, but John of Locksley—son of the legendary Robin Hood and Lady Marian—only sees a lonely boy in need of friends. John and his sisters succeed in befriending Henry, while also inadvertently uncovering a political plot, saving a man’s life, and carrying out daring escapes.

All in a day’s work for the Locksley children…

Thoughts: After reading and enjoying The Ghosts of Sherwood, I knew I was up for another tale of Robin Hood’s children. This novella, just as short and easy to pick up as the previous one, is set around 4 years after The Ghosts of Sherwood. Mary is not yet married, having yet to even lay eyes on the man her parents are considering for her husband. Eleanor still does not speak, showing many signs of what we now would likely deem autism. John stands in his father’s shadow, unsure what to do with his life or what he will become.

And now King John is dead, and his young son Henry ascends to the throne.

Robin decides to send John to swear fealty on his behalf, hoping that the two, being closer in age than the new king is to his advisors, will strike up a friendship, placing John in the position of confidant and unofficial (and maybe someday official) advisor. It’s undoubtedly a political move, not one intended to curry favour and gain power so much as help keep his descendants out of disfavour with the man who will, with luck, sit on the English throne for quite some time. John is rather angry about the political side of this move, but he does do what’s suggested, and he does manage to get in good with King Henry, partly due to participating in a semi-impromptu archery contest (alongside his sister Mary, because Mary is a very good shot), and partly after sneaking his way to Henry that night in order to sneak the young king out to engage in some tree-climbing.

Which isn’t a euphemism. John seems appalled that Henry never had the chance to climb trees, and so seeks to rectify the situation. The fun is cut short, however, when the two stumble across an attempted murder in the night, and take it upon themselves to solve the mystery of who and why.

I enjoyed The Heirs of Locksley as much as I enjoyed The Ghosts of Sherwood. I expected a shift in character focus from Mary to John, though it’s not like Mary was completely out of the picture here. The dangling plot thread of “will she actually marry the man her parents wish for her” got tied up nicely, though I can see how it might annoy some readers. She met him, and while it wasn’t love at first sight, they did agree to marriage pretty quickly, still knowing very little about each other. But honestly, that didn’t bother me; it fit the time period and setting. Mary met him, liked how she felt around him and saw that he treated his horses well, figured she could do a lot worse, and so made the decision. The decision didn’t seem out of character for her, so I have no real problems with it.

I also want to take a moment to talk a little about the vibes between John and Henry, and I swear, if there hadn’t been such an age and experience gap between them, I was wondering if there’d be a sparking romance between them in addition to that new friendship. But no, that wasn’t the case, and I can’t say I’m entirely surprised. I was surprised, though, by the very strong implication at the end that John was struggling a little to deal with thoughts that men are far more appealing than women.

But this is where I have to confess a little bit of disappointment. I can’t find any information to suggest that this series will be ongoing, everywhere lists this as book 2 of 2, and that dips its toes into problematic territory. Mary gets a story focusing on her, John gets a story focusing on him, but Eleanor, the neurodiverse one, gets nothing with a focus on her? We get hints that John might be gay, but that’s where it all gets cut off and nothing about that gets dealt with after a “maybe he is,” moment? This concern might be rendered moot if more stories are written, but as it stands for now, with no indication that this series will continue, it’s a disappointing place to leave things. I want more fiction with neurodiverse characters. I want more fiction with queer characters. I get disappointed when I run into things that dangle a carrot but don’t actually follow through.

So I’ve got my fingers crossed that this series will continue, that more stories of the Locksley children will be written. The stories are well written, fun to read even for those who, like me, aren’t super familiar with the Robin Hood story, and it would be a big disappointment to end things here, and for multiple reasons.

As with The Ghosts of Sherwood, The Heirs of Locksley is a low-investment read that has a big reward. It’s short, both of them could easily be read in an afternoon, and they’re well-paced well-written adventures that take the reader back to a time of history and folklore, setting the stage in a way that brings the hypothetical to life. I definitely recommend them as quick reads for fans of speculative historical fiction, even if there’s that caveat of how disappointing it will all be if it ends here, after teasing such potential inclusivity.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn

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

Summary: Robin of Locksley and his one true love, Marian, are married. It has been close on two decades since they beat the Sheriff of Nottingham with the help of a diverse band of talented friends. King John is now on the throne, and Robin has sworn fealty in order to further protect not just his family, but those of the lords and barons who look up to him – and, by extension, the villagers they protect.

There is a truce. An uneasy one, to be sure, but a truce, nonetheless.

But when the Locksley children are stolen away by persons unknown, Robin and Marian are going to need the help of everyone they’ve ever known, perhaps even the ghosts that are said to reside deep within Sherwood.

And the Locksley children, despite appearances to the contrary, are not without tricks of their own…

Thoughts: Despite being thoroughly of British descent, I had to admit that most of what I know of the Robin Hood story comes from the animated Disney adaptation where everyone was an anthropomorphic animal. I have picked up enough along the way, though, to get the gist of the legend and to not feel lost upon picking up this novella.

In The Ghosts of Sherwood, Robin and Marian have settled into a life that looks less like rebellious outlaws and more like everyday domesticity, if everyday domesticity involved being nobility in 12th century England. The story centres around their eldest daughter, Mary, old enough to be considered of marriageable age even if her parents aren’t fully sure they want to hand her over to somebody else just yet. Mary is prone to taking trips into the wood for some alone time, at on one such trip, accompanied by her younger brother and sister, the trip are kidnapped by a band of men seeking vengeance against Robin Hood. Will Robin Hood and his men reach the children on time, or is it up to the kids to see to their own salvation?

It always interests me to see the stories of those who live in the shadows of legends, especially those who don’t let the pressure of that legend overtake who they themselves are. It can’t be easy, having an outlaw hero for a father. Mary, though, seems to find the thought of running a household more daunting than living in her father’s shadow. She isn’t the sort of character who’s all, “Being female is a horrible thing; I’d much rather be running wild and doing archery!” which was good to read because such characters are frankly uninteresting to me. Give me someone who will work with what they have in order to live their best life, even if it isn’t their ideal, rather than somebody who will rant and rail against the system and nothing else. Mary seemed to me to be far more of the former than the latter, as she knew her skills, knew some of what life held for her, and even if she didn’t quite know what she wanted, knew enough of what she didn’t know to hold off on making decisions either way. She was sensible, and I loved that.

I loved the way Mary tried to bluff her way away from the kidnappers. I love the way she was given an impossible task and succeeded at it, against all odds, even when she knew that the bargain would not be honoured. I love the way, again, she used what she had to best advantage, even when what she had was out of her hands and instead of the hands of her sister. I could read more stories about Mary, I really could.

The Ghosts of Sherwood was a quick short story that I may not have too much to say about in the end, except that I enjoyed it and am looking forward to reading the sequel, The Heirs of Locksley. The characters was memorable, the concept of “what happens next” was interesting, and the balance struck between providing an interesting glimpse into the lives of the heroes of children while also not trying to set them up to all be heroes themselves was well struck. This is the first work of Vaughn’s I’ve read, and I have to say it was a pretty good introduction. If you’re a fan of the Robin Hood story, or — as I am — a fan of the whole “what about the people who live in a hero’s shadow?” idea, then this low-investment story will yield high rewards.

(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.)

The Night Tiger, by Yangsze Choo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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

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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.)