Come Tumbling Down, by Seanan McGuire

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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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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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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.)

Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

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

Summary: He has been too many things to count. He has been a dragon with a boy on his back. He has been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. He has been dream and dreamer. He has been a god.

But “he” is in fact nothing more than a spark of idea, a character in the mind of Sylvia Harrison, 73, award-winning author of thirty novels over forty years. He has played a part in most of those novels, and in the recesses of her mind, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.

But Sylvia won’t live forever, any more than any human does. And he’s trapped inside her cave of bone, her hollow of skull. When she dies, so will he.

Now Sylvia is starting a new novel, a fantasy for adult readers, set in Thalia, the Florence-resembling imaginary city that was the setting for a successful YA trilogy she published decades before. Of course he’s got a part in it. But he also has a notion. He thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of mortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.

Thoughts: Sometimes I think I know what I’m in for when it comes to Jo Walton novels. Other times, I get something that leaves me reeling, not so much exceeding my expectations as being something I didn’t quite expect in the first place. I expected a straightforward if thought-provoking novel about, well, exactly what it says in the summary. However odd that concept might be. What I got, however, was a story that merged 2 separate stories, breaking the fourth wall, a bit of non-linear narrative. It asked questions about the very nature of creativity and reality, gave no concrete answers, and left me wondering if the whole thing was a semi-fictional confession of Walton’s, because this book uses lines from some of Walton’s previous novels with the heavy implication that they’re lines from Sylvia’s novels, or possibly that the story itself is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that it’s self-aware enough to know it’s a story written by the same author who wrote those lines to begin with.

See what I mean when I said that I didn’t quite get what I expected here?

The story is narrated to us by a voice inside Sylvia’s head, a sort of muse, a spirit of creativity, only those words don’t quite seem to encompass the whole of what that character is. He’s had multiple different roles in Sylvia’s works, an aspect of himself put into characters so that he experiences what they experience, live what those characters live in Sylvia’s stories. At the same time, he’s a distinct enough presence that Sylvia converses with him her aloud and him responding in her mind, since that’s where he lives. It reminded me of some aspects of Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, only with a far more personal feel to it. When he starts to suspect that Sylvia is dying, he comes to the realization that he too will die, living in her head as he does, and seeks to find a way to bring Sylvia into her own created world, a place where death and life only come if people will it to, so that they might both survive.

And that’s meant quite literally, not in the sense of an author and their characters living on so long as people still read the words they wrote and the stories they live in. Sylvia will be drawn into her fantasy world of Illyria, where she is already known somewhat as a representation of the goddess Hekate. Illyria itself is already a world primed for that sort of crossover, since it is based a good deal on real-world places and literature, with stories of people traveling between worlds every now and then. So is the case with Tish and Dolly, two people from the 19th century who find themselves teleported into Illyria, and who must learn to navigate the strange mix of new and old in order to thrive, in addition to playing an integral role in what the gods themselves have planned for Illyria.

The gods, of course, being Sylvia and the narrator of the novel, the spirit in her mind.

While all this goes on, Sylvia must continue to live her life in the real world, going for walks around Florence, eating good food, dealing with plumbers, writing the latest and last story of Illyria. For much of the novel she has no idea what the spirit in her mind is planning, because he is the narrator to us, the reader, and not she. And as readers who are repeatedly addressed, we too become part of the story, albeit a more passive part than others.

Though a section near the end made me wonder if everything was going to go full Neverending Story and demand that the reader themselves give the narrator a new name so he could keep on living…

I love that Walton grabs hold of an idea that most creative types have talked about, the idea of characters being in our minds and talking back to us or demanding that they do what they want and not what we want, and just runs with it! Writer friends, how many times have you experienced a character needing to do something for the sake of the story, only to have them go, “Nah, I’ma do this instead,” only to leave you going, “Well that’s not what I planned for,” in their wake? It’s a long-standing joke at this point, and in this novel, it’s delightfully literal, a character that can be many characters, distinct from the author in whose mind they live, doing what they will regardless of author intent. I love how relatable this concept is, and how it’s used here.

Or What You Will is a brilliant multi-layered story that I suspect will provoke something very similar to Among Others. Every time I reread Among Others, some new detail pops out at me, something I missed before and am not sure how I missed it, and sometimes I think the different mood or situation I’m in affects what I see in novels. What I missed before because it wasn’t that important to my mentality at the time suddenly jumps out upon rereading, a piece that was always there but now I’m better primed to see it, or perhaps it just means more at certain times and that’s why I see it more clearly. Or What You Will is so full of questions and thought experiments and rich details that I think the same thing will happen, that new details will jump out during rereadings, adding new perspectives to the story, or just meaning something different on a purely personal level. Similar to Ficino’s augury when he looks out from behind Sylvia’s eyes, counting cars and birds and divining meaning from the mundane, looking for answers in something that doesn’t really offer answers but instead offers imagery that can be interpreted, the spark that ignites and helps guide us down a path. Nothing is new, nothing has any meaning that it didn’t have before, but at certain times, with certain ways of thinking, things can be more meaningful to a person.

If you’re a fan of Walton’s prior novels, especially things like Among Others, My Real Children, or the Thessaly trilogy, then you’ll feel right at home reading Or What You Will. Many of the hallmarks I’ve come to expect of Walton’s writing are here, the passion for certain subjects, the difficult real-life experiences like strained relationships with partners or parents, and while I’m sure a lot of the Shakespearean and Florentine references escape me (or else mean less to me than I’m sure they do to others), the novel is no less enjoyable for my ignorance, and it brought me a step closer to something, somewhere, that I may never get the chance to experience. It’s a trip to multiple worlds, real and imagined, past and present, painful and beautiful. It’s not a novel that I think will appeal to everyone, or even most people, but those who enjoy a unique novel that makes you contemplate reality and creativity and consequences will find a true gem here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Finna, by Nino Cipri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

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.)

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2015

Summary: They came after the Diseray. Some were terrors ripped from our collective imaginations, remnants of every mythology across the world. And some were like nothing anyone had ever dreamed up, even in their worst nightmares.

Monsters.

Long ago, the barriers between our world and the Otherworld were ripped open, and it’s taken centuries to bring back civilization in the wake of the catastrophe. Now, the luckiest Cits live in enclosed communities,behind walls that keep them safe from the hideous creatures fighting to break through. Others are not so lucky.

To Joyeaux Charmand, who has been a Hunter in her tight-knit mountain community since she was a child, every Cit without magic deserves her protection from dangerous Othersiders. Then she is called to Apex City, where the best Hunters are kept to protect the most important people.

Joy soon realizes that the city’s powerful leaders care more about luring Cits into a false sense of security than protecting them. More and more monsters are getting through the barriers,and the close calls are becoming too frequent to ignore. Yet the Cits have no sense of how much danger they’re in-to them, Joy and her corp of fellow Hunters are just action stars they watch on TV.

When an act of sabotage against Joy takes an unbearable toll, Joy uncovers a terrifying conspiracy in the city. There is something much worse than the usual monsters infiltrating Apex. And it may be too late to stop them?

Thoughts: It’s been a while since I first read this book, and I admit, I wasn’t too fond of it the first time around. Knowing that I can get this way with Mercedes Lackey’s more recent books, though, I deliberately let it lie for a while, then picked it up again recently to reread it, to see if my opinions had changes any with the passage of time.

I did enjoy it more the second time around, which I’m happy to say. However, the problems I had with it the first time remained for my second reading.

Hunter was written during the YA dystopia boom and it really shows. Now, Lackey has shown no problem is the past with writing books in popular genres primarily to pay the bills, and in general I have no problem with that, because writing is art and art is work and work deserves to be paid for. I think perhaps it was published a bit too late to really capitalize on that boom, but it hit enough of the tail end of it to still do decently, as both of its sequels have been published between then and now.

A few hundred years in the future, the apocalypse (known as the Diseray, a corruption of Dies Irae) happened, and now the world contains all sorts of malevolent and destructive beasties from the depths of worldwide mythologies. Protecting the remains of humanity from these creatures are the Hunters, people with not only magical talents but also the ability to summon guardian beasts known as Hounds, a pack to guide and fight alongside in the war against Othersiders. In North America, Hunters are required to go to the city of Apex to do their jobs, and that’s where the story begins with Joy, on her way to Apex for the first time.

Once in Apex, Joy finds that not only does she have to protect the citizens there from incursions of Othersiders, but she also has to do so while essentially being a streaming celebrity. Watching Hunters fight monsters is entertainment to the citizens of Apex, and Hunters gain improvements to their lives by rising in the rankings of the entertainment industry. Joy rises quickly through the ranks, but it seems that somebody objects to what she’s doing or how she’s doing it, because she quickly finds herself a target, and whoever has their sights set on her doesn’t care who gets caught in the crossfire.

It’s not difficult to see the real-world inspirations for certain aspects of Hunter. People today stream aspects of their lives through sites like Twitch and YouTube, and become celebrities for it, giving people a way to live vicariously through others, and also providing comfort and inspiration to viewers. “Those celebrities started off with no more advantages than I have; I could be just like them one of these days.” It’s a sentiment I know well. It was employed in an interesting way in Hunter, since drone-cameras follow Hunters nearly everywhere to catch the exciting aspects of their lives, but also the broadcasts are on a delay, allowing editors to change or remove footage that doesn’t play into an established narrative. The governing body of Apex doesn’t want people to know that Othersiders are getting closer and closer to the city’s barriers every day, and so alter footage to make it look like Hunters are further away than they really are. Here we have the “circus” aspect of “bread and circuses;” keep people entertained so that they never wonder about broader complications; make them think they see everything, so they never question what’s happening behind the scenes. The way Lackey handled the discourse on whether stream celebrities are authentic or not was heavy-handed in places, but not entirely unwarranted.

I think my biggest problem with Hunter is its main character, Joy. She’s one of those exceptional can-do-no-wrong characters, and that much is made clear very quickly. She has a larger-than-average pack of Hounds, he’s proficient with multiple weapon types, she’s encountered things that Hunters in Apex haven’t and so gives advice to people who have been doing the job as long as or longer than she herself, right from the get-go. She ascends to near the top of the ratings ranks within a few days of arriving at Apex, she makes friends with powerful people, and she does things that have never been done before, such as acquiring someone else’s Hounds after that person dies, because she’s just that special. She’s no-nonsense and has little time for frivolities, she’s earnest about wanting to protect people when many Hunters want the perks that come with the job, and of course this makes her at least one enemy, especially when she decides she wants to push for Elite ranking after having been in Apex for, what, less than a month?

Frankly, this kind of character gets extremely tiring to read about, because they aren’t remotely believable outside of myth, and for an experienced author like Lackey to write somebody this way feels incredibly amateurish. There’s the oft-repeated advice that characters ought to have flaws, believable and relevant flaws, and no, a character who is beautiful and popular and talented at nearly everything but who, for instance, can’t sing, isn’t a believably flawed character. It doesn’t matter that she can’t sing. That’s not really a flaw. That’s just the lack of a talent. The two aren’t the same. The worst flaw I think Joy has is that she doesn’t suffer nonsense, but it’s handled in such a way that even then, she comes off as somehow the winner. If somebody got in Joy’s face and accused her of not knowing something, she’d just tightly point out that she knows how to figure it out and name off all the resources she’d use, and then people would be impressed by how well she handled the situation. She is (and I hate to use the term) the very image of the Mary Sue that is endemic in so many bad fanfiction pieces, the sort of character aspiring authors are cautioned to avoid writing.

Dislike of character types is a highly personal thing, so I admit that Joy’s presentation won’t bother everybody, but it definitely bothered me. I felt less like I was reading about a real person and more like I was reading about somebody attempting to humanize a hypothetical future fictional hero, and that’s is far more complicated than it needs to be.

For as much as I found the presentation problematic, I am, at least, interested in how the rest of the story plays out in later books. I don’t think they’re books I’ll go out of my way to track down, but if I come across them, I’ll probably give them a try, to see if Joy becomes a more interesting character or if any interesting story elements override my annoyance with her. The city of Apex, as a character, is of more interest to me, because it seems to have many layers to it, most of which depend on keeping citizens ignorant and entertained in equal measure, as well as keeping those who know better either in appalling living conditions and scrabbling to eke out a living, or in plush comfort in exchange for their silence. This riding on the coattails of the dystopian wave, I want to know what’s in store for the city, its ruling body, the systems that keep it running, and I’m more interested in that than I am in Joy McSpecial over here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)