The Ghosts of Sherwood, by Carrie Vaughn

Buy from Amazon.com, Bookshop, or Barnes & Noble

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

Buy from Amazon.com, BookShop, or Barnes & Noble

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.)

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

Buy from Amazon.com, BookShop, or Barnes & Noble

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

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

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

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

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

Roll the dice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

In the Vanishers’ Palace, by Aliette de Bodard

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 16, 2018

Summary: In a ruined, devastated world, where the earth is poisoned and beings of nightmares roam the land…

A woman, betrayed, terrified, sold into indenture to pay her village’s debts and struggling to survive in a spirit world.

A dragon, among the last of her kind, cold and aloof but desperately trying to make a difference.

When failed scholar Yên is sold to Vu Côn, one of the last dragons walking the earth, she expects to be tortured or killed for Vu Côn’s amusement.

But Vu Côn, it turns out, has a use for Yên: she needs a scholar to tutor her two unruly children. She takes Yên back to her home, a vast, vertiginous palace-prison where every door can lead to death. Vu Côn seems stern and unbending, but as the days pass Yên comes to see her kinder and caring side. She finds herself dangerously attracted to the dragon who is her master and jailer. In the end, Yên will have to decide where her own happiness lies—and whether it will survive the revelation of Vu Côn’s dark, unspeakable secrets…

Review: When I first heard this novella described as a retelling of Beauty and the Beast, only with two women, and also with a heaping spoonful of Vietnamese mythology, I was sold. Over the past while, I’ve learned that I really enjoy fairy tale retellings, and long-time friends likely already know that I love positive LGBTQA+ representation in media, so I was on board with what de Bodard had to offer here.

In the Vanishers’ Palace tells the story of Yên, who is given by her village to the dragon Vu Côn, as payment for Vu Côn’s healing magics. She expects to be killed, but instead of given the task of educating Vu Côn’s children, Thông and Liên. Which doesn’t seem like such a terrible thing, and definitely a lot worse than her expected demise, but living gives Yên time and opportunity to reflect on her feelings for Vu Côn. Feeling which the dragon reciprocates. But disaster looms, and everything threatens to fall apart when secrets are dragged into the light and things are revealed to not be all they seem.

I love the world in this story, inasmuch as anyone can love a ruined post-apocalyptic world. The reader is plopped down in the middle of it and expected to pick up things along the way, which honestly, is the best way of doing things. No, “Long ago, the Vanishers broke the world,” here. It makes for a bit of confusion in the early pages, but it’s a quick adjustment. Yên’s world is one of rot and destruction, of fear and ruin and scarcity, where gene-twisting diseases run rampant and danger lurks beyond the city limits. And the characters are all very much products of their world, shaped by the way life and society had to adapt and move and survive once the old ways were gone.

I’ll say here that one of the things that appealed to me about the world in which In the Vanishers’ Palace takes place is the way it doesn’t just feel like a world of thin metaphor for current problems in North America. I’ve read about enough post-apocalyptic worlds over the years to become familiar with common tropes, the general feel of how many writers envision the world after a cataclysm. And this is nothing like most of those worlds. Perhaps it’s because of the Vietnamese cast and cultural influences, which, rather than feeling superficially exotic, come across as breath of fresh air when compared to so many stale cookie-cutter post-apocalyptic worlds encountered elsewhere.

So much of this novella centres on healing and choice. Paraphrasing one of the characters, there’s always a choice. The choices might not be great ones, but there’s always a choice. And with choice comes the need to accept consequences, regardless of intent. Thông and Liên attempt to heal a very sick man without Vu Côn’s knowledge, believing they’ll have success and will have brought a bit of life back to someone and maybe found a new way to heal others… and it goes very badly. Their intentions were good, but the result was bad, and they had to live with and atone for the consequences of their choices. Vu Côn was forced to confront the consequences of her choice to make use of Yên’s scholarship to tutor her children, and her inaction in noting Yên’s illness and attempting to heal her. Yên made mistakes, and learned from them, and let that learning change her, and sometimes things worked out and sometimes they didn’t, but she always had her ideas of what should happen and tried her best to make those ideas a reality.

I loved that about Yên, really: she was determined and headstrong and wanted what she wanted, and she wasn’t about to let circumstance stop her from trying. In that was she was a great counterpart to the more reserved Vu Côn. Interestingly, it was headstrong Yên who was more concerned with traditional duty, and cool Vu Côn who was more of a transgressor, doing things because she felt they needed to be done rather than “the way things were done,” so to speak.

I mentioned healing being a central theme, and in this, I don’t just mean the obvious illnesses that Vu Côn heals (or attempts to heal), though that is part of it. Primarily I think of Thông and Yên. Thông must come to grips with a side of themself that they fear and hate, a side which is also feared and hated by others. There’s good reason for that fear, and a loss of self-control could prove deadly. In reading Thông, I felt they were a character with a deep soul wound, one caused by their nature warring with what they wanted to be. In Yên’s case, she was living with her heart in two different worlds, a self-divided, and in the end that proved to be a very literal thing indeed. They both had deep conflicts that needed to be resolved in order to fully heal.

And this healing doesn’t come about by the end of the novella. It’s not some neat pat ending where every single problems is nicely resolved. Trauma doesn’t go away so easily, and I like that the ending wasn’t some saccharine “happily ever after.” It was about as happy as it could be, all things considered, but it was made very clear that the journey isn’t over for these characters, that they still have work to do and healing to accomplish, but that they’ve started on that path.

There’s so much to enjoy about In the Vanishers’ Palace. Marginalized representation across multiple areas, brilliant writing, characters I loved reading about and sitting on the shoulders of. If you haven’t read any of Aliette de Bodard’s writing before, I consider this a wonderful introduction to her work, an excellent taste of the creativity and skill she brings to the table.

(Received in exchange for review.)

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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

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

Summary: No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost.

Review: Seanan McGuire is a name you can’t really avoid when it comes to urban fantasy. And yet, I don’t think I’d actually read anything of hers until now. I knew the name, but not the works, and after having read and adored Every Heart a Doorway, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not making the time to do so sooner.

What we have is the story of Nancy, and let me take a moment to just right in with the praise because Nancy is one of the few asexual characters I have ever found in fiction. There have been a few, but often when present, authors fall back on explaining a character’s asexuality away as a result of trauma or that it was traded away for something (usually a religious something). McGuire is quick to mention that there’s a difference between celibacy and asexuality, that someone who’s asexual can absolutely have romantic feelings for someone, and in only a few short lines, scattered here and there throughout the novella, eradicate many of the assumptions that people often have about ace individuals. So many thanks to McGuire for improving visibility and representation for people like myself.

Anyway, this is Nancy’s story. And Nancy now finds herself at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, after having disappeared for a time into a different world, and when her parents have no idea how to bring back the person she used to be. But Eleanor’s establishment isn’t just a rehab place for emotionally unstable teens, as Nancy suspects. It’s actually for people just like her, people who has crossed over into other worlds and have been changed for the experience. Bit by bit Nancy learns that she’s not alone in her experiences, that everyone at Eleanor’s has traveled elsewhere at some point in their lives, and that there are countless worlds, all different but all, in their way, quantifiable. Although Nancy can’t return to the world that gave her such comfort for a time, it seems her life might be starting to look up.

That is, until the murders begin.

The story that follows has Nancy and her newfound companions attempting to catch the culprit and figure out why they’re killing off teens at the house. McGuire does a great job of building suspense and laying out the mystery piece by piece, leaving the reader narrowing down the list of suspects as events unfold. It wasn’t so much a case of “Is it this person? No? How about that person?” so much as it was, “It could be these people. Okay, now I know it can’t be that one… Or that one…” And so on. It’s not always a comfortable story. The characters are not your typical teens, even by urban fantasy standards. There are gruesome circumstances, frank talk of death and dismemberment, and sometimes you end up liking characters even as they frustrate and repulse you. But it’s still a fantastic story with a fantastic cast (one of whom is a well-presented trans guy, and yes, there is some antagonism from some of the other students over it all, because people are people and that means they can be ignorant sometimes), and I loved sinking into it all.

On a personal level, this story resonated with me in a far deeper way than I expected it to. Each of the characters who had gone to different worlds found that the new world suited them on a soul-deep level, that however much they had to change and learn new behaviours, there was something right about it, even when it was difficult. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never had that kind of experience myself. It was a long-ago dream, but in it I went somewhere else, somewhere out of time, where I didn’t have to worry about mundane problems, where I had an endless amount of books to read and video games to play, where I could stay always, and the proviso is that I had to stay silent. People there had an hour a day to interact, to talk quietly with each other, but for the most part, we stuck to ourselves, passing endless time in silence, happy because that was what suited us. I told my friends about that dream, how it felt so comfortable for me, almost ideal, and it worried them rather than intrigued them, because, well, most healthy people don’t dream about leaving everything behind and being silent forever. And I guess I can see that. But to me, it was still comfort. A place to go to in my mind that was still and peaceful and had no worries with it, and it was mine.

That was years ago. I still think of it, and I still remember the peace that came along with what I eventually just called the Silence.

And then along comes Seanan McGuire, writing about a bunch of people who found worlds that fit them as well as the Silence fit me, and so you might be able to understand why reading this hit me so hard.

Anyway…

The ending of Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet one, one that I didn’t know if McGuire would do. On one hand, Nancy desperately wants to return to the Halls of the Dead, though she’s told it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be able to do so. Few people return to their worlds. On the other hand, you do see her form bonds with people in this world, bonds that she would have to give up if ever she did return. So no decision is without its drawbacks, and without giving away too much of what happens at the very end, I have to say that I think the author handled it well. As I said, it was bittersweet, full of calm-but-deep emotion, and as satisfying as it could get.

This is a novella for the misfits, the people who don’t belong, the people who hope that there’s a place for them out there, even if it’s a strange and fantastical place that nobody else understands. It’s a story for the curious and the brave, for those who enjoy urban fantasy and magical realism but who are looking for a different flavour in their reading. It’s short and wonderful, it’s an adventure in both clarity and obscurity, and I know that I’ll be rereading this one again in the future. In all, an amazing introduction to McGuire’s writing!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Without Light or Guide, by T Frohock

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Always holding themselves aloft from the affairs of mortals, Los Nefilim have thrived for eons. But with the Spanish Civil War looming, their fragile independence is shaken by the machinations of angels and daimons…and a half-breed caught in-between.

For although Diago Alvarez has pledged his loyalty to Los Nefilim, there are many who don’t trust his daimonic blood. And with the re-emergence of his father—a Nefil who sold his soul to a daimon—the fear is Diago will soon follow the same path.

Yet even as Diago tries to prove his allegiance, events conspire that only fuel the other Nefilim’s suspicions—including the fact that every mortal Diago has known in Barcelona is being brutally murdered.

The second novella in T. Frohock’s Los Nefilim series, Without Light or Guide continues Diago’s journey through a world he was born into, yet doesn’t quite understand.

Thoughts: By this point, I’m no stranger to Frohock’s writing, and I know fairly well in advance that I’m extremely likely to enjoy what she does. And given that the previous novella in this series, In Midnight’s Silence, tripped all the right triggers with me, I was very eager to get my hands on the sequel and continue with Diago’s story.

Without Light or Guide doesn’t disappoint. Picking up very shortly after where the previous novella left off, Diago’s loyalty to some of the Nefilim is still uncertain, to the point that even though those closest to him believe that he won’t betray them, Diago himself is unsure. His heritage is against him, his history is against him, the fact that he feels unwelcome makes him pull away further, and really, I feel for the guy, because that’s a lousy situation to be in. And when people who used to associate with him start turning up dead, he appears even more suspicious in the eyes of those who already weren’t inclined to think the best of him. And Diago’s father, Alvaro, beckons to Diago for purposes unknown…

As terrible as it is for Diago to be stuck in the middle in a completely different way than he was last time, it was also interesting to see how he copes with it all. The people most important to him believe him him, as I mentioned, which provides a point of stability when doubt plagues him, but we get to see some of the internal struggle as he battles with the push and pull of various expectations. And it’s not so much that he feels temptation to side with daimons as much as it is that he feels the urge to fall back on old habits and run from the things that are causing him problems in the first place, even if that means leaving good things behind. Maybe it’s a little bit of me forcing my own issues on a character, but I see in him a man who wants very much to reconcile so many parts of his life and keeps getting shot down.

It was the major scene with his father that really got to me, in that regard. Diago wants, in a way, to put some things behind him and help Alvaro despite their awkward history, and then when Alvaro betrays him once again… It was the kind of thing that hit very close to home with me, because I’ve experienced that pain of reaching out to someone again and again and being disappointed every time, to the point where you have to eventually turn your back on family and see them for the flawed individuals they are. You owe them no loyalty when they repeatedly betray you.

I mention this for a reason beyond just the personal: one of the marks of a good author is their ability to make you feel. Even if you haven’t been in a similar position to Diago’s, you can’t help but have your heart ache just a little bit during that scene, and with the following emotional rise as Frohock dips a toe just a little bit into the cheesy side of things and has the power of love save the day. Evocative prose bring it all to fantastic life on the page, and you feel every up and down as the story flows along and Diago’s journey continues.

I love this series. Frohock’s storytelling shines as she tells a story of redemption and love and faith, all wrapped together with angels and demons and music and vivid history. It’s a series with a low level of investment and such a high payoff that if you enjoy any of those things, or just enjoy dark fantasy in general, then you’d be foolish to overlook it. Without Light or Guide is a brilliant follow-up to In Midnight’s Silence, hands down, and I’m already eagerly anticipating visiting all the characters again in the next installment.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

In Midnight’s Silence, by T Frohock

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 23, 2015

Summary: The fate of mankind has nothing to do with mankind…

Born of an angel and a daimon, Diago Alvarez is a singular being in a country torn by a looming civil war and the spiritual struggle between the forces of angels and daimons. With allegiance to no one but his partner Miquel, he is content to simply live in Barcelona, caring only for the man he loves and the music he makes. Yet, neither side is satisfied to let him lead this domesticated life and, knowing they can’t get to him directly, they do the one thing he’s always feared.

They go after Miquel.

Now, in order to save his lover’s life, he is forced by an angel to perform a gruesome task: feed a child to the daimon Moloch in exchange for a coin that will limit the extent of the world’s next war. The mission is fraught with danger, the time he has to accomplish it is limited…and the child he is to sacrifice is the son Diago never knew existed.

A lyrical tale in a world of music and magic, T. Frohock’s In Midnight’s Silence shows the lengths a man will go to save the people he loves, and the sides he’ll choose when the sidelines are no longer an option.

Thoughts: I have such a soft spot for anything to do with fallen angels. I’ve had a fascination with them for years, pretty much since I was in my teens, and so am just a touch predisposed to enjoy stories involving them. Add in male/male romance, and you pretty much have something that trip a couple of my biggest triggers in the best way. Knowing Frohock’s writing, and knowing those two things, I figured I was going to love this novella even before I started reading the first page.

Diago is a man torn between two worlds. With both daimonic and angelic heritage, he’s loyal to neither, remaining as neutral as he can while still supporting Miquel, his angelic lover who is bound to thwart daimons. It’s a fine line to walk, and it doesn’t come easy. But when Miquel disappears and Diago’s mysterious past comes back to haunt him, he finds himself unable to remain quite so neutral as everything hits hard and close to home.

Characters like Diago are great to read, occupying that great space between insider and outsider. In remaining neutral, at least officially, he allows the reader an opportunity to see both sides while choosing neither. Even so, though, it’s fairly clear early on that he favours the angels more than daimons. Perhaps because of Miquel, perhaps because he just generally disagrees with daimons but can’t bring himself to make that his official stance, I can’t really say. Even so, most of the story wasn’t about a man caught in the middle. It had more to do with personal salvation, with acceptance, with facing your past and acknowledging who and what it made you, with sacrifice and responsibility. How the past can catch up to you no matter how much you try to outrun or deny it, and sometimes that turns out to be a mixed blessing rather than an outright curse. There are so many of these little themes that add up to a strong message, and not a word wasted as the story gets told.

It’s worth pointing out that I love the subtleties in the way the author handled angels. They are immortal beings, yes, but they don’t hang around in the same body for hundreds of years. They can be killed. And when they die, they’re reborn into new bodies, to keep living. (Another good trigger tripped, there; I’m a sucker for reincarnation.) The new bodies bear scars and injuries from the previous body, and it’s established that some angels who can’t handle the idea of a new life with such disfigurements will choose to be enslaved by daimons instead. Which sounds shallow and selfish, until you think that some of them might have been in the reincarnation cycle for centuries, and have faced torture, and wanting an escape to that is nothing to be chosen lightly. This isn’t a major plot point within In Midnight’s Silence, but it speaks to the large amount of worldbuilding that Frohock put into a novella that would still have been fantastic even without the extra detail.

In Midnight’s Silence is dark without going over the top, poignant without being rigidly moral. And considering some of the themes involved, such as sexual consent or taking responsibility for someone else’s actions, that’s actually pretty impressive.

This is only the first part of an ongoing story, and I, for one, and eager to read part 2 already! Frohock has started something wonderful here, the perfect balance of dark and hopeful, draws a distinction between religion, faith, a spirituality right from the get-go; it’s unique and brilliant and, for all that it’s short, it has some reread value if you’ve got an interest in religious mythologies. It’s hard to escape the lure of the web that Frohock has woven, and I’m not inclined to try. As I said before, this novella trips all the right triggers, and  suspect it will continue to do so as the story expands.

(Received for review as part of a book tour.)

We Are All Completely Fine, by Daryl Gregory

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

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 21, 2014

Summary: Harrison is the Monster Detective, a storybook hero. Now he’s in his mid-thirties and spends most of his time not sleeping.

Stan became a minor celebrity after being partially eaten by cannibals. Barbara is haunted by the messages carved upon her bones. Greta may or may not be a mass-murdering arsonist. And for some reason, Martin never takes off his sunglasses.

Unsurprisingly, no one believes their horrific tales until they are sought out by psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer. What happens when these likely-insane outcasts join a support group? Together they must discover which monsters they face are within and which are lurking in plain sight.

Thoughts: A group therapy session. A support group for survivors, only these aren’t your average survivors of terrible events, if anyone in such a situation could be considered an “average” survivor. Each one has faced supernatural horrors and has come out the other side, not whole, definitely damaged, but still alive to tell their stories. But when nobody wants to hear those stories, when nobody believes the truth behind the events, who can they turn to but each other, after meeting at a very specialized group put together by Dr. Sayer?

The stories of each of the group members are horrific, ranging from Stan’s experience of being partially dismembered and eaten by a family of cannibals, to Martin’s experience of augmented reality games allowing him to see beyond and come into contact with terrifying creatures. And bit by bit, all their stories do come to light over the course of the novella, and I’m probably not the only reader who thought that it would have made for incredible reading to go deeper into the events themselves, to get a closer look at everything that landed everyone in that therapy group to start with. That Gregory managed to tell such complete stories in such a short space is a real testament to his ability as a writer; as much as I would have loved to have seen more, the important parts of the stories were told, giving you more than enough to appreciate what everyone went through.

I often end up thinking things like this when I read novellas. I’m so used to novels that when I read something shorter, I want more. I want to read it all fleshed out and bigger and long enough to allow me to completely immerse myself in it for days without coming up for air. Novellas are so quick, it feels like I just have a chance to get my feet wet before it’s over. But that perceived weakness really is a strength, too, since the author has such a small space to cram a coherent story into, and the very fact that Gregory can do this just blows me away. We Are All Completely Fine doesn’t just tell the backstories of multiple characters, but also the overarching story that ties them together and keeps things moving forward. It’s multiple stories combined into one, and just take a moment to contemplate the skill that takes to accomplish.

All of the stories fit so perfectly together, with one exception. I found that Dr. Sayer’s story seemed to come out of left field. There were small hints trickling through the cracks, and it was obvious that she wasn’t undamaged by strange events, but the way her story tied back to Stan’s just seemed tacked on. It wasn’t supposed to be obvious until the end, which makes sense since any revelation earlier would have ruined everything, but when her story comes together, it just seemed overdone, like it wasn’t enough for her to have some supernatural connection and be touched by weirdness herself, to be connected to them all by what had happened to Barbara (which affected all the group members, in a way).

But this is entirely a subjective thing and other people may have had no problem with that aspect of her story. It certainly did tie everything up in a neat package, no threads really left dangling except those that were supposed to dangle.

One aspect of the way the story was told that did interest me was the narration, and I’m left puzzled but intrigued by the choice. The first paragraph or so of each chapter is presented as though it’s being told by the same person, using “we” and “us” to indicate the group, so you think that it’s all being told by a member of the group itself. Then it switches to the third person, each chapter highlight one character or another, never going back to the same sort of first-person pronouns until the next chapter begins. It takes a while to realise that eventually, all of the group members have been talked about (and you’re sure that it’s all of them, because the story’s clear to point out the number of males and females in the group very early on), and this mysterious voice who calls everyone “we” isn’t actually going to get talked about. It’s one of those things that can hit you out of nowhere, and once I realised it, I couldn’t help but start to speculate on why. Was there somebody else there after all, an invisible someone watching everything? Was one of the members of the group split, in a sense, to think of themselves in the third person to prevent getting too close to trauma, and if so, which one? Or was it just a cool storytelling trick to hook readers and provide a little more interest? (Not that it needed it, because the story was fantastic even without that as a hook!)

What this all comes down to is that if you’re a fan of horror, or of anything Daryl Gregory has written elsewhere, or just of fantastic novellas that demonstrate exemplary storytelling, then you ought to read We Are All Completely Fine. The pacing is tight, not a word wasted, and for all that most of the immediate action occurs at the end, it never once feels slow or ponderous. Masterful writing and a sensational set of intertwining stories keep you reading, keep you pushing for details, and it’s a great thing to whet your appetite for more of Gregory’s superb writing. It’s early days yet, but this is already a strong contender for Best Novella in 2015’s eventual year-end Best Of lists!

(Received for review from the publisher.)