Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov

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Publication date – February 21, 2021

Summary: Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters. After riots cripple the capital, he’s banished to the border to oversee the construction of the biggest anti-airship tower in history. The use of otherworldly technology makes the tower volatile and dangerous; Shea has to fight the local hierarchy to ensure the construction succeeds—and to reclaim his own life.

He must survive an assassination attempt, find love, confront the place in his memory he’d rather erase, encounter an ancient legend, travel to the origin of a species—and through it all, stay true to his own principles.

Climbing back to the top is a slippery slope, and somewhere along the way, one is bound to fall.

Thoughts: I’ve really been into novellas lately. I used to note enjoy them so much, finding them less to my taste than a longer, meatier novel, but these days, I see a lot more appeal in them. They have the ability to give a person a complete and engaging story while not requiring a huge time sink, and don’t tend to come with the caveat that there’ll be so much story that you’re going to need to invest in a notebook to keep track of character dynamics and event implications. I appreciate their brevity far more than I ever used to.

That being said, Tower of Mud and Straw is a story that I think was poorly served by being a novella instead of a novel.

Novellas can certain feel like a snapshot of moments within a larger world, and Tower of Mud and Straw definitely fits that bill, but through much of the story, it felt like there was too much going on to be properly supported by the format. The events in the very first line of the summary, “Minister Shea Ashcroft refuses the queen’s order to gas a crowd of protesters,” we really only see as brief memories and mentions, a moment from huge and potentially fascinating event that happens before this story even begins. Thus, we don’t really get to see how that event influenced Shea, so much as we’re told that it did, and that there were consequences, and one of those consequences was essentially the catalyst for Tower of Mud and Straw. There are the Drakiri, a people who are far more technologically advanced than humans for some unexplained reason, and that technology is dangerous to use but only sometimes, and even by the end of the story, I didn’t feel like I quite had a handle on what the tipping point for danger really was. Shea develops a complicated romantic relationship after a time, another character ends up as his friend or at least in a decent working relationship, and the fact that I can’t quite tell how to describe it is due partly to the fact that so little time was given over to developing how the characters behaved around each other, how their interactions and relationships changed along the way.

There’s a lot crammed in here, and I feel like it could have been done greater service by taking the time to expand it all into a novella. Characters say things and their words are taken as truth without evidence, and sometimes it wasn’t exactly a convenient situation in which to demand said evidence, but there was no reason to just accept anything then either. Part of the conflict of the story involves a Drakiri legend about the Mimic Tower, a sort of hellish building that appears when a building of equal or greater height is constructed, which will bring with it great destruction, and this all ties in to Drakiri identity, and the concept of a demonic Tower of Babel analogue is fascinating enough on its own, and was a driving factor in the story, but again, too much crammed into too little. The end result was that the story felt smothered, trapped, while anything not critical was stripped away to save space. And unfortunately, that included a lot of potential character development and worldbuilding.

Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot to like here, and Barsukov’s work has a lot of potential. If this had been fleshed out and presented as a full-length novel, the vast majority of my issues with it would likely vanish, as they would at that point not be issues. I have no problem with the story’s premise, with the individual events as they unfolded, with the characters and the roles they played. They were just all done a disservice, I feel, by trying to slim them down and make them fit into a format that couldn’t show them off in their full glory.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Across the Green Grass Fields, by Seanan McGuire

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Publication date – January 12, 2021

Summary: Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to Be Sure before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines–a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Thoughts: Barring the first story in the series, all of the other Wayward Children novellas have been about already-established characters, and I say, “barring the first story,” because that’s the one that, well, established all the characters. While nearly all of the books could be read as standalones, they are so much richer when you have the foundation under your feet, and I can see why some may have been intimidated to just pick up and random book, knowing they might be missing some vital context.

So it was nice to see a story that really could be read as a 100% standalone, without characters from other stories making appearances, at least so far as I could tell. Regan’s story is one that could be picked up by somebody who’s heard good things about the Wayward Children series but who perhaps can’t get their hands on Every Heart a Doorway, but who still wants a glimpse into the kind of rich and compelling narrative these novellas hold without feeling lost or like they’re missing something.

Regan’s character is one that I think many people can empathize with to one degree or another. While in her mundane life, she tried hard to fit in, tried hard to fit into the boxes that other people dictated she should fit into in order to be ‘normal,’ even when doing so was a painful experience that cost her dearly. Only Regan didn’t quite fit into that box as well as she wanted, after receiving some news from her parents that on a biochemical level, she wasn’t quite like the other girls she knew. A moment of betrayal in telling the person she thought was her best friend, the one she’d worked so hard to please and be liked by, and Regan’s life began to spiral in directions that ultimately led her through a mysterious door and into the Hooflands, where she meets centaurs and unicorns and all manner of fantastical beings, all with hoofed feet. It’s there that Regan not only finds herself and finds acceptance, but also where she, as the world’s designated newly-arrived human, she discovers that she has a grand destiny to fulfill.

Honestly, I could spend years reading about the Hooflands and be quite happy to do so. The world that McGuire sets up in complex and real, with distinct cultures and geography and mythology and prejudice, and it feels deeper and more fleshed-out than some worlds I’ve read about in full-blown novels, where the author has so much more time to establish things for a reader. If next year I find that McGuire has sold a trilogy of novels set in the Hooflands, I will pre-order them all, I swear. There’s just something about the place that I love, and I feel like there are so very many stories that could be told there, all of them ones I’d want to read about. This isn’t my favourite otherworld that has featured in a Wayward Children novella, but it’s pretty damn close!

That being said, there was a moment of internal inconsistency that I wanted to mention, and I’ll preface this by saying that I read an ARC (advance review copy) and what I’m about to say might end up being erased from the final publication, but it stood out to be so much that I wanted to tackle it in this review. Shortly after Regan stumbles into the Hooflands and meets Pansy the centaur, Pansy utters a little colloquialism, “hay and horseshoes.” Which seems fitting, and was kind of the equivalent of our, “sunshine and rainbows.” You know, all the good things, everything being happy. But later on the same page, Regan mentions horses, and Pansy has no idea what a horse is. Now maybe this was just a case of someone not reflecting on etymology, because that happens all the time in real life, but it seemed very weird to me that someone would know what horseshoes were but not horses.

I can’t even give this one my usual handwave of assuming that everyone in the novel is speaking a language that isn’t English and everything I read is essentially translated for my benefit, because Regan is certainly speaking English, and Pansy is perfectly understood and seems to speak the same language, so it ended up being one of those weird internal inconsistency issues that kept nagging at me. Especially since Regan later mentions horses to another character, who doesn’t seem confused as to what a horse is at all. Or if she is, she doesn’t say anything about it.

But that one issue aside, the rest of the story was so very damn good that I was riveted from beginning to end. I loved seeing Regan’s progression as a character, I loved seeing more of the Hooflands and the people who lived there, and I loved the way the story took a turn in the end that made it feel very much like a great myth was being told, with Regan making unlikely allies who help her on her journey to fulfill her destiny. It was a fantastic read, and Across the Green Grass Fields quickly rose to become my second-favourite story in the entire series. And given how much I’ve enjoyed all the other books, that really says something!

Long story short, if you enjoyed the other Wayward Children books, you’ll love this one just as much. And if you haven’t read any of the other books yet but can’t find the first one or are intimidated to start at the beginning of a multi-book series (which is understandable; I often feel like if I start at the beginning, I ought to see it through to the end, and I don’t always have the time or ability to commit to that), then Across the Green Grass Fields is an excellent taste of what you’re in for if you decide to tackle the rest of the series. It’s a proper standalone that’s equal parts thought-provoking and exciting, giving readers a new and unique story while still feeding the craving for more books in the multiverse that is the Wayward Children series. I can’t recommend this one enough; it was brilliant, and I utterly loved it!

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.)

Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire

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

Summary: When Jack left Eleanor West’s School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors.

But death in their adopted world isn’t always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome.

Eleanor West’s “No Quests” rule is about to be broken.

Again.

Thoughts: I love the Wayward Children series more than a little bit. From the way the first one, Every Heart a Doorway resonated with me, right up to this one (which I’m sad to say actually took me this long to remember I actually had), the series has had more high points for me than lows, and each new story continues to impress.

Jack and Jill’s origin story, if you can call it that, was told in Down Among the Sticks and Bones, providing the details for how they found their door into their ideal world. When we last saw them in Every Heart a Doorway, Jack was carrying her sister’s dead body through the door back into their world, back where they belonged, an act of compassion even if Jill had just proven herself to be homicidal and had been killed to stop her from killing others. Now Jack has returned to Eleanor West’s school, but trapped within her sister’s body, with Jill haven switched bodies and stolen Jack’s once her own had been revived.

See, in their world, Jill is in thrall to her vampire master, seeking to become a vampire herself. But once-dead bodies cannot become undead, and so her own body became useless. Jack’s body, though, has never died, and so could go through the transformation. Jack now has to get her own body back before Jill does something irreversible with it, and all the while struggle to maintain the balance of power that the Moors demand.

You’d think that a world as bleak as the Moors wouldn’t appeal to me, but honestly, I love reading about it when it appears in these novellas. It’s certainly not the world for me, but it does hold a certain appeal, that dark pseudo-sci-fi from classic horror movies and the like, where you can practically hear the crash of distant thunder and feel the approaching storm as you read on. So it was nice to read another novel with Jack and Jill — though mostly Jack — as the centre of the story.

You know me, I love seeing queer characters in my reading. Jack is most definitely queer, given that she’s involved with a woman (and as such, so is Alexis), and Kade is transgender, and it’s so very good to see casual representation like that. This isn’t remotely a new thing for this series, but it still makes me smile every time, because McGuire knows how to write queer characters without making every aspect of them be entirely about their queerness, if that makes any sense. They are queer, and no attempt is ever really made to hide that, but it’s more than a “just so happens to be gay/trans/etc” situation. Their queerness is an important part of their character, but their character is much more than merely their queerness. I’m probably not doing a very good job of explaining it, and it probably makes a lot more sense if you grew up, as I did, with queer characters in fiction always needing some sort of coming-out scene, or another character needing time to adjust to the idea that someone they know is queer, then just sort of casual representation is a true treat, and I love it when authors do it. Their being gay is as much a part of them as another character being straight, their being trans is as much a part of them as another character being cis.

Anyway, moving on.

The Wayward Children series has a habit of making my heart ache for the characters and the situations they find themselves in, an emotional kick right to the chest, and Come Tumbling Down was no exception. From the bittersweet pain of realizing that Eleanor West herself was gradually coming to the end of her time as head of her own school, to Kade’s realization that being a hero sometimes means making the hard choices and the deep sacrifices so that others don’t have to, there’s a lot of emotion packed into so few pages, and it’s not exactly something I recommend reading if you’re feeling particularly vulnerable. While every novella within this series is an adventure story, they’re also stories with a strong overlay of loneliness, of the sort of isolation that comes with knowing you are not where you belong, and getting back there requires the sacrifice of everything you’ve built in the meantime. You follow these characters along on their journeys and you ache and mourn and yearn with them, every time, and you have McGuire’s stunningly evocative writing to thank for that.

I don’t think I’ll ever get enough of this series. Whether it’s revisiting previously established characters or showing the origins of entirely new characters, I’m here for the journey, and every ounce of heartbreak along the way. Even if I relate to some characters far less than others, there’s a familiarity to all of them that makes me want to keep coming back, to keep discovering more and more about where their lives take them. Jill’s horrible downfall, Jack’s painful rise, and the commentary along the way, commentary that strikes at the heart of so many marginalized experiences and lays pain and beauty bare for other to experience. This is portal fantasy, yes, but it’s also something beautifully and tragically unique, and I want to be there for every second of it.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Drowned Country, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2020

Summary: Drowned Country is the stunning sequel to Silver in the Wood, Emily Tesh’s lush, folkloric debut. This second volume of the Greenhollow duology once again invites readers to lose themselves in the story of Henry and Tobias, and the magic of a myth they’ve always known.

Even the Wild Man of Greenhollow can’t ignore a summons from his mother, when that mother is the indomitable Adela Silver, practical folklorist. Henry Silver does not relish what he’ll find in the grimy seaside town of Rothport, where once the ancient wood extended before it was drowned beneath the sea—a missing girl, a monster on the loose, or, worst of all, Tobias Finch, who loves him.

Thoughts: Silver in the Wood left readers with a change in stewardship within Greenhollow, the mantle passing from Tobias to Henry, with Tobias now a mortal man and free to leave the Wood. Henry hasn’t exactly taken well to his new role, though, isolating himself in his old house, which is now more of a crumbling ruin than the home he once knew, tending to the Wood mostly by forcing plants to grow when and where he wants them, regardless of the plants’ or Wood’s needs. It’s a visit from his mother that shames him (or perhaps just frustrates him) into leaving where the Wood is and going to where the Wood was, in order to help find a young woman who disappeared in the vicinity of a powerful old vampire. It turns out that Henry is more the vampire’s type than the missing woman, so his mother and Tobias mean to use Henry as bait to lure the vampire out, kill him, and rescue his victim.

I’d say that unsurprisingly, things aren’t quite what they seem, but to be honest, the twist was a bit of a surprise for me. I had settled in for a nice story involving the defeat of a vampire, and what I got instead had more to do with faeries. I can’t say that I saw that coming.

Whereas Silver in the Wood dealt largely with themes of betrayal and purpose, Drowned Country has strong themes of destructive obsession running through it. Maud’s obsession with returning to Fairyland caused problems in her mundane life, resulted in her essentially steamrolling the people sent to help her, but also positioned her to be consumed by a force that would similarly destroy anything to get what it wanted. Henry’s destructive obsession was himself, his own self-indulgence and inability to think beyond, “I am the lord of the wood and have these powers to do with it as I please.” Neither Maud nor Henry were particularly malevolent; it was more that the destructive aspect of their obsession came about because they focused on themselves, to the exclusion of all else, and couldn’t break free from that pattern of thinking to see that their actions had consequences that rippled beyond them.

That’s not to say that a person should be beholden to everyone else’s expectations, especially when those expectations are unreasonable. But there’s a certain amount of give-and-take that can be expected, and ignoring that has its consequences. Maud worried her parents, drawing strangers into the story so that she could be rescued, and her insistence that she was right while everyone else was wrong nearly got multiple people killed, just in the attempt to keep her safe. Henry’s refusal or inability to look outside himself and see that being the Wild Man of Greenhollow involved more than just sitting there and watching/making grass grow was hurting the denizens of the Wood, hurting Henry himself with his isolation and anger and grief. Obsession doesn’t always have to be destructive, but there comes a point where it can become so, where it becomes selfish and harmful, and I think Tesh did a good job of presenting different situations in which this happens.

For most of the story, the relationship between Henry and Tobias was… strained, to say the least. The two had a falling-out, and for good reason, and Henry wavered between trying to rekindle what had once been between them and then deliberately reminding himself that this wasn’t how things were anymore. I have to admit, I wasn’t too keen on that. It does get resolved more toward the end of the novella, but for much of it, I felt like it was going into, “queer people can’t be happy,” territory. Their relationship had failed, their lives would be bitter and lacking without each other, but for legitimately good reasons, trust had been spoiled and being together wasn’t an option for them anymore. And yes, that absolutely happens in relationships, both straight and queer, but it can be tiring to read so many stories where queer couples go through what seems like an inevitable breakup just to bring some tension to the mix. I do like that it was resolved eventually, but the lead-up to that resolution wasn’t exactly enjoyable to read, and I feel like it didn’t really add much to the story.

As interesting as Drowned Country was, I think I liked it less than Silver in the Wood. Partly because of the relationship issues, as I just mentioned, but also partly because in the end, the resolution felt handed to the characters. “Here, have your happy ending, regardless of the fact that you only worked for it for maybe a week, and also the thing causing friction is just gone now so you never have to worry about it again.” It would have been more interesting to see Henry properly come to grips with his new role in life, to pull himself out of his destructive spiral and actually thrive within it, or at least make his peace with it the way Tobias had. Or to take Tobias up on his offer to switch places, for Tobias to resume his role as the Wild Man since he took to it better than Henry did, and for the two of them to live happily that way. Instead, it was just, “Okay, now neither of you has to do this anymore, isn’t that great?!” It felt like a just clear way to wrap up the story, and I do know that this was intended to be a duology and not continue beyond this point, but it was far from satisfying.

I gave this book 3 stars, but if I were to give half-stars in my ratings, it would be 3.5. It wasn’t a bad story, it was well-written, and it definitely had things to say. But the relationship issues and that abrupt ending rather spoiled a lot of it for me, and I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the previous novel. Still a good read, and I think most people who liked Silver in the Wood will also like Drowned Country, but for me, it didn’t quite reach the same heights as its predecessor.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Silver in the Wood, by Emily Tesh

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 18, 2019

Summary: There is a Wild Man who lives in the deep quiet of Greenhollow, and he listens to the wood. Tobias, tethered to the forest, does not dwell on his past life, but he lives a perfectly unremarkable existence with his cottage, his cat, and his dryads.

When Greenhollow Hall acquires a handsome, intensely curious new owner in Henry Silver, everything changes. Old secrets better left buried are dug up, and Tobias is forced to reckon with his troubled past—both the green magic of the woods, and the dark things that rest in its heart.

Thoughts: This short-and-sweet novella had only been out for around a month by the time I read it, but I had heard so many positive reviews of it during that time that I’m surprised I managed to stay spoiler-free. All I knew upon starting to read was that it was very well received, and that the cover art was striking. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading.

The story is told from the viewpoint of Tobias, a man living in the woods of Greenhollow, solitary but for his cat. And the dryads. And other forest-dwellers that humans tend to not see. And he is quite happy living alone, until Henry Silver, new owner of nearby Greenhollow Hall, stumbles across Tobias’s cabin in the middle of a rainy night, the chance meeting starting a friendship that quickly runs deep and turns to something more romantic. The relationship between Tobias and Henry is very sweet, and very enjoyable to watch develop over the course of the story, a sort of slow-burn attachment that shows great devotion and affection between the two of them, even if nothing particularly salacious happens.

Silver in the Wood deals heavily with folklore. Henry Silver presents himself as something of a folklorist, collecting and analyzing the history and stories from around Greenhollow, in precisely the way early folklorists did. The fear that the old ways and traditions were dying out, replaced by modern conventions with no room for the old ways, was a fear amongst many who studied folklore when the field was young, and those aspects needed to be collected and catalogued to prevent them from being lost to the ages. But Tobias himself is part of the folklore told in the region, the Wild Man of the wood, connected to stories hundreds of years in the making. Tesh appears to have drawn on some very common folklore elements and asked not only, “What if this was real?” but also, “How does the old fit with the new? How long can the old endure before change comes, and what happens when it does?”

Silver in the Wood may be short but it packs in quite a bit. There’s the aforementioned folklore aspects, of course. There’s the question of duty and devotion, and how much one can sacrifice before they lose too much of themselves. There’s the matter of betrayal, and the different ways it can manifest. There’s a strong undercurrent of change and evolution throughout the piece, from Tobias’s slow acceptance of company where he previously kept to himself, the way stories and places change over time, to Tobias’s eventual replacement by Henry, at least after a fashion. It’s the sort of story that, on the surface, looks like a rural fantasy with supernatural elements and a queer romance, and it is those things, but beneath the surface, it’s quite thought-provoking on a variety of subjects and thought experiments.

Written with a deft hand, Silver in the Wood is an evocative and compelling story reminiscent of a dark fairy tale, filled with hints at what lurks in the shadows beneath the trees. But also with light that shines down through the leaves, dappling the ground and inviting you to stay a while and relax. Like the forest, it is both. And like the forest, I will want to visit it again later, to re-immerse myself in the rich atmosphere that feels at once real and mundane, and also like I momentarily pulled back the veil and saw a glimpse of what lay beyond.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.)

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

Roll the dice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)