Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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

Summary: No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

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

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

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

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

No matter the cost.

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

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

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

That is, until the murders begin.

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

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

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

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

Anyway…

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, by Ken Liu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 8, 2016

Summary: A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

Review: Ken Liu’s The Grace of Kings made waves when it was released, and with good reason. And even before that, he caught my attention with the occasional short story I read in other anthologies. So when I heard that a collection of those short stories and more was being released, I knew it was going to be something I’d have to get my hands on.

And I wasn’t disappointed. Only 2 of the stories were ones I’d read before (Mono no Aware, and The Paper Menagerie), so all the rest were new to me, and all of them were freaking brilliant. Even rereading the two I’d previously read didn’t feel in the slightest bit stale, which is a sign of a great story. Seriously, I would reread this entire anthology again, not just a couple of stories from it!

Most of the stories have a connection to East Asian culture, mostly Chinese but with a bit of Japanese thrown in now and again, and so it’s impossible to come away from this collection without having a greater appreciation for the world beyond the West, and the history that goes along with it. Liu dips not only speculative futurefic here, but also looks back into history and mythology, making for an impressive variety of stories. All the Flavours turned out to be one of my favourites in the entire collection, which surprised me, since at first I thought i was going to be either one of the ones I’d already read, or else The Perfect Match for its not-at-all-veiled criticism of modern online interconnectivity. But All the Flavours dealt with history, mythology, and touched on uncomfortable racism that isn’t entirely of the past. It’s probably the longest offering in the book, but it’s absolutely worth reading.

This is one of those rare times when I can safely rate a collection 5 stars instead of the usual 4 that these things usually end up. All of the stories here are top-notch, the content wonderful and fantastic and speculative. The stories are thought-provoking, inspiring, and they spark curiosity (to which end Liu has also kindly provided info about articles and books that inspired some of the more sci-fi stories). For all this review has ended up being short (there’s only so much praise I can heap upon a thing without essentially ruining the plot of multiple stories), what it amounts to is that this collection is absolutely worth reading, and your SFF collection will be poorer without it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Planetfall, by Emma Newman

Again, we have another book that I deem worthy of having me crawl out of the woodwork for!

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Author’s website
Publication date – November 3, 2015

Summary: Renata Ghali believed in Lee Suh-Mi’s vision of a world far beyond Earth, calling to humanity. A planet promising to reveal the truth about our place in the cosmos, untainted by overpopulation, pollution, and war. Ren believed in that vision enough to give up everything to follow Suh-Mi into the unknown.

More than twenty-two years have passed since Ren and the rest of the faithful braved the starry abyss and established a colony at the base of an enigmatic alien structure where Suh-Mi has since resided, alone. All that time, Ren has worked hard as the colony’s 3-D printer engineer, creating the tools necessary for human survival in an alien environment, and harboring a devastating secret.

Ren continues to perpetuate the lie forming the foundation of the colony for the good of her fellow colonists, despite the personal cost. Then a stranger appears, far too young to have been part of the first planetfall, a man who bears a remarkable resemblance to Suh-Mi.

The truth Ren has concealed since planetfall can no longer be hidden. And its revelation might tear the colony apart…

Review: Over time I’ve come to understand that one sign of a great book is its ability to make you stop reading and ponder the implications of what you just read. To speculate and theorize in a way that’s too deep to do while still continuing to read on. Planetfall quickly became that kind of book for me, one where I needed to step back and start pondering the symbolism and implications of half of what was going on. I sank into that perfect brainspace that tells me yes, this book is one that provokes some interesting thoughts, and it’s definitely a keeper.

Planetfall starts out fairly innocuously, with the interesting idea of a smallish community on a non-Earth planet. The story is told in first-person viewpoint with Renata Ghali as the narrator, an engineer who lends her skills to the colony at the base of God’s city, where Lee Suh-Mi is said to be communing with God for the purpose of advancing the colony and doing God’s work The colonists left earth years ago, under Suh-Mi’s guidance, to find God and learn about humanity’s place in the universe. The colony runs fairly smoothly, at least on the surface.

Then a young man arrives, claiming to be Suh-Mi’s grandson, and his very presence threatens to unravel everything that the colonists have built.

On its surface, it seems like a fairly standard exploration of early human colonization of another planet, told from the perspective of a private person who was there when it all began. But it quickly becomes more than that. Newman starts the reader off partway through the story, telling necessary backstory in the form of seamless and brief flashbacks, revealing details piece by piece. I know that many people aren’t that fond of flashback storytelling, and I myself am rather torn on the matter (so often it can come across like a series of memory-infodumps, which gets irritating), but I find that Newman handled it well, making them relatively brief and with actual relevance to what was occurring in the plot. Ren having brief memories prompted by objects or places is perfectly natural, it happens to all of us, and so it wasn’t at all obtrusive, nor did it take me out of the story as a whole.

I love how very broken Ren is, and how slowly it all becomes clear to the reader. Little hints get dropped so subtly that by the time the big reveal hits, you’re left remembering all those small mentions that previous cropped up, putting all the pieces together until your heart just aches for her. Or at least mine did. Quite possibly because I can relate a bit to what she was going through, or at least some of the thought process behind it. Tension ran high once Ren’s secret is out in the open, too, and the colonists decide to force issues in unhealthy ways that leave her feeling trapped and threatened, and I felt my own anxiety surge when reading that particular scene. She was an interesting character even before that, of course, but the way her mental health comes into play added to my ability to relate to her, and I think it was all handled extremely well. Mental illness is a hard card to play in fiction, but Newman did it justice, I think.

One of the things that left me with an utter “Whoa!” moment was the parallel between this story and the Garden of Eden myth. To me this whole book was a twist on a creation myth, a sci-fi origin story. When you look into the flashbacks and realize that the journey from Earth and the discovery of a new planet with God’s city all started with a woman who ate a strange plant and then began to understand things far beyond what she’d understood before, the similarities become clear. However, that isn’t to say that Earth is meant to be Eden; part of the reason the initial colonists left with Suh-Mi was because the planet was devastated by overcrowding and pollution, and where they ended up had none of that. But when you see a story about how someone is influenced by forces they can’t understand, which leads them to gaining unprecedented knowledge and wisdom and leaving their home to search for God? Yeah, it’s pretty easy to draw the comparisons.

And I loved that! I love plays on myths, especially ones that draw from Judeo-Christian myths, because so many people see them as sacrosanct and unchangeable and yet they’re so familiar to Western culture that they’re often instantly recognizable when somebody does take that chance and play around with them. Newman tackled this all brilliantly, adding a wonderful new touch to an old story.

Long story short, Planetfall is definitely worthy of the high praise it has been receiving. It’s a compelling story of what people will do to maintain order, to keep up the status quo. It tackles mental illness, creation myths, and the questions of how much “for your own good” is actually still good. It’s more than just an early colonization story; it’s an exploration of humanity and its relation to the divine, to science, and to itself. It tells you that sometimes there are no explanations even when there are answers, and that there are times to leave well enough alone and time to delve deeper to gain a better understanding. Beautiful prose joins with fascinating subject matter, resulting in a profound book that has made its mark. Highly recommended for fans of social sci-fi, Planetfall does not disappoint.

(Received for review via the publisher.)

The Incarnations, by Susan Barker

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: Hailed as “China’s Midnight’s Children” (The Independent) this “brilliant, mind-expanding, and wildly original novel” (Chris Cleave) about a Beijing taxi driver whose past incarnations over one thousand years haunt him through searing letters sent by his mysterious soulmate.

Who are you? you must be wondering. I am your soulmate, your old friend, and I have come back to this city of sixteen million in search of you.

So begins the first letter that falls into Wang’s lap as he flips down the visor in his taxi. The letters that follow are filled with the stories of Wang’s previous lives—from escaping a marriage to a spirit bride, to being a slave on the run from Genghis Khan, to living as a fisherman during the Opium Wars, and being a teenager on the Red Guard during the cultural revolution—bound to his mysterious “soulmate,” spanning one thousand years of betrayal and intrigue.

As the letters continue to appear seemingly out of thin air, Wang becomes convinced that someone is watching him—someone who claims to have known him for over one thousand years. And with each letter, Wang feels the watcher growing closer and closer…

Seamlessly weaving Chinese folklore, history, and literary classics, The Incarnations is a taut and gripping novel that sheds light on the cyclical nature of history as it hints that the past is never truly settled.

Thoughts: Wang Jun is a taxi driver in Beijing. His life is relatively normal. Married. 1 kid. Okay job that pays the bills. Secret homosexual lust for a guy he met in a psych ward.

And a mysterious person sending him detailed and vivid letters about their past lives together.

Barker tells a brilliant and non-linear tale about Wang and his mysterious soulmate. The story is woven together in 3 parts: Wang’s present with his wife and kid, driving his taxi for a living and trying to make sense of the feelings he has for an old acquaintance; Wang’s childhood and early adulthood in an abusive and strained family situation; and the letters from Wang’s supposed soulmate, the person who has followed him from one life to the next, always meeting and developing some sort of relationship as they go along. And honestly, I couldn’t tell you which branch of the story I liked best, because they were all wonderfully compelling and full of amazing imagery and beautiful writing.

The letters themselves all tell different stories from different periods of China’s history, from over 1000 years ago right up to Wang’s present life. While the writer of the letters remembers all these past lives, Wang does not, and nor do the previous lives being written about. They’re not the same people in the same situations, just in different spots throughout history. Each past life is unique, each person an individual with their own urges, goals, faults, and so on. Each time these two end up drawn together for various reasons. Often there’s a sexual attraction, but not always. And a soulmate isn’t presented as a great romantic love, the way we often use the term. Instead, it’s somebody whose soul is joined with someone else’s, following them through lives, being a part of their life always. Sometimes it may be sexual. Sometimes not.

I kind of love this way of approaching soulmates, since the whole “love that lasts lifetimes” thing is wonderfully romantic, but it’s done so often that I get tired of seeing it. I often have a similar reaction to that presentation as I do to insta-love. It’s fine if two characters fall in love and get together, but having it be destiny or something they can’t help because of some past-life thing actually takes a lot of the interest out of it for me. There’s no drive for the characters to improve their relationship, or work at anything, because they’ll always mesh perfectly and there’ll never be anything to come between them. As I said, wonderfully romantic, but I’m tired of that. So it was a great thing to see the soulmate connection played out a bit differently. There is love, there is attraction, but those two things can have multiple layers, multiple presentations, and they don’t overcome everything.

As for the identity of the letter-writer, it’s an utter mystery until very near the end, as every good mystery should be. I spent most of the book trying to put together patterns from what was presented in the past lives, but every time I thought of who it might be, I’d also quickly be able to think of a very good reason why it also couldn’t possibly be that person. So the book really keeps you guessing.

But aside from the historical aspects of the book, Wang’s present-day life makes a strong story all on its own. It’s the kind of story that would easily stand alone as a piece of literary fiction. A man in a fairly average life has a secret forbidden romance that he wants kept hidden from his family, which arose due to trauma and a tremendously messed up set of situations in his childhood. Indeed, I’m sure plenty of book have been written with that idea as their framework. In this way, The Incarnations reminded me of Jo Walton’s My Real Children. Each part is a standalone story, utterly contemporary and on their own, still a good story. But it’s in the combination, the blending that it becomes something more than the sum of its parts.

Brilliant and evocative, The Incarnations is part historical fiction, part contemporary fiction, bound together with silver threads of fantasy. It’s a genre-bending masterpiece that I will most assuredly read again, and I highly recommend it to those fans of literary SFF or genre-crossing stories who are looking for something a little further from the beaten path.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Falling in Love With Hominids, by Nalo Hopkinson

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 11, 2015

Summary: Nalo Hopkinson (Brown Girl in the Ring, Skin Folk) has been widely hailed as a highly significant voice in Caribbean and American fiction. She has been dubbed “one of our most important writers,” (Junot Diaz), with “an imagination that most of us would kill for” (Los Angeles Times), and her work has been called “stunning,” (New York Times) “rich in voice, humor, and dazzling imagery” (Kirkus), and “simply triumphant” (Dorothy Allison).

Falling in Love with Hominids presents over a dozen years of Hopkinson’s new, uncollected fiction, much of which has been unavailable in print. Her singular, vivid tales, which mix the modern with Afro-Carribean folklore, are occupied by creatures unpredictable and strange: chickens that breathe fire, adults who eat children, and spirits that haunt shopping malls.

Thoughts: I’d never read Nalo Hopkinson before this book. Or so I thought, until one of the stories seemed very familiar; turns out I’d read Old Habits in some other anthology, and I remembered it being one of the ones I’d really enjoyed.

But really, I didn’t even need to read that far to know that I was going to enjoy this collection of short stories. The first story in there, The Easthound, was an interesting take on werewolf lore, combined with a hint of zombie apocalypse. The quality continued two stories later with Message in a Bottle, which was an odd look at time travel and the future of humanity, combined with the trials of mundane adulthood and child-rearing. The Smile on the Face was a really great look at empowerment and overcoming teen social pressure, especially when it comes to appearance and unwanted advances. Emily Breakfast was, well, hard to describe, because it seemed so mundane at first, with a guy losing one of his chickens, only when you get a little further you see lines about chickens being descended from dragons and you realize that this isn’t taking place in the familiar reality we’re all used to. Blushing was just chilling, a very disturbing piece of prose.

A Young Candy Daughter was a good take on the idea that God might be one of us (just a stranger on the bus), only most of the time in such explorations, God is still a white guy in his prime. Or a white woman. But here, you’ve got a little brown girl who has these divine powers and is still in the process of growing up and learning that there’s more to saving people than what a child’s mind can comprehend. It’s not written from her perspective, or even the perspective of her mother, but from a stranger, a Salvation Army Santa Claus who sees the girl fill his coin bucket with food that the hungry can take to feed themselves. It was surprisingly powerful, and while it seems to be one of the stories that didn’t resonate well with other reviewers I’ve seen, I really enjoyed it.

Interestingly, there are many stories in Falling in Love With Hominids that don’t seem to have much point. They’re snippets, scenes rather than stories in the way I’m used to thinking of them, but although they were a few that didn’t really appeal to me, I liked to see that done. Whose Upward Flight I Love features workers trying to restrict trees from flying away. Soul Case involves a woman giving up her life to defeat invaders. Small things, with no real point, per se, but sometimes stories don’t have points. They really are just scenes, ideas, and once you get that down that’s all that needs to happen. It doesn’t need to go anywhere else. From a writing standpoint, I thought this was wonderful, because it shows the value in those little ideas that come to our minds but only stay for a moment and never get elaborated on. From a reading standpoint, though, they do come across as fairly random, without purpose, and often without much story.

Still, I enjoyed some of them.

As a counter to that, though, there are some stories here that I would love to see expanded as novellas or full-out novels, because there’s so much potential to the short story. Message in a Bottle and Delicious Monster are the two that come to mind instantly for this, because there’s so much to them that goes unsaid, so many questions and what-ifs about them that I want to see more. The Easthound, too, to a degree, though that one still works so perfectly a short story that expansion could possibly ruin it.

Hopkinson does some beautiful things with the art of writing, her imagination is without bounds, and she challenges both readers and writers to go beyond what we see as the status quo. The book is filled with characters of colour, with LGBT characters, with characters who, one way or the other, are memorable and real and get to take part in some amazing stories. From this collection, I definitely want to see more of her work; she is without a doubt an author to keep an eye on!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Thoughts: It’s not secret that I have a thing for fallen angels. So when I heard the synopsis of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, I knew it was going to be a novel I’d have to look closely at. And this book is simply unlike anything I’ve ever read before, making it a stand-out addition to my personal library.

Paris has been devastated, thanks to destruction caused by warring fallen angels. The city is in ruin, gangs roam the streets, angel body parts and blood get sold on the black market, and the Great Houses still stand. House Silverspires was once the House of Morningstar, the architect of the falling of the angels, guiding followers in their survival. That is, until he vanished, leaving Silverspires with failing magics and slowly weakening defenses, with other Houses circling it like sharks closing in for the kill. But Philippe, a non-angelic (Fallen or otherwise) immortal with a mysterious past, might be the key to changing the fortunes of House Silverspires and everyone within it. For good or for ill.

This is an odd book. It’s slow, bordering on ponderous, and it’s largely free of the typical action scenes most readers of SFF come to expect in novels. That being said, there’s still a lot to take in, and the story itself is complex and full of spectacular levels of world-building. It combines myths from various religions and regions, some interesting takes on those myths, an alternate history, and all that’s before you even get into the diverse cast of characters who drive the story along. Selene, the leader of Silverspires, hard because she has to take up the mantle of a legend and keep her House and its dependents safe. Madeleine, hiding her addiction to angel essence, which is understandably taboo in Houses when you consider that it involves consuming pieces of an angel’s body.

And then there’s Morningstar. Morningstar, known more to us as Lucifer, appears mostly in flashbacks and memories, the founder of House Silverspires and Selene’s vanished mentor. Morningstar, so charismatic that people, be they angel or human, flocked to him. Morningstar, whose House is now crumbling and who is still somehow related to the events occurring, only just how he’s connected doesn’t really make sense until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. For a character who’s pretty much only there in spirit, he’s definitely a favourite of mine, and I found myself looking forward to Philippe’s looks into the past so that I could see more of the mysterious fallen angel himself.

The writing is downright lyrical at times, evoking some powerful imagery and emotion as the story progresses. It’s a very character-driven story in many ways, since although some plot points were put in motion long before the characters in question ever came onto the scene, it’s Philippe and Selene and Madeleine and Isabelle that move it along. Their mistakes, their curiosities, their fear and desperation and drive, all influence Silverspires. In a way, the House is the novel’s real focus, almost a character in itself, since the story is all about its slow decline and everyone’s attempts to keep it safe and overcome the darkness threatening it.

It’s hard to discuss this book without mentioning spoilers all over the place, honestly. Some books I can manage just fine with in reviews, and others are so rich and sense that it’s hard to say, “This whole section is great because…” or “It really hit home when this character did…” I’ve said before that some of the best novels are the hardest to review, for this very reason, and The House of Shattered Wings is definitely one of those books. There’s so much to it, layers of story and myth and characterization, plots that intertwine, breaking off sometimes but always coming back in the end, and while it takes a few mental twists to follow along at times, it’s worth the effort.

It’s a slow-burn kind of novel, and definitely not for everyone. I imagine that the slow pace would turn away some readers, as well as the fact that it’s set in an alternate past that was affected by various aspects of different myths. It’s a bit trick to wrap your head around exactly where and when this takes place, beyond, “Paris, ruined, with people dressing in fashions from decades ago.” Which, looked at more objectively, goes to show the fine attention to detail that de Bodard put into creating this fascinating setting. It’s a dark and beautiful book, filled with fear and hope in equal measure, and it certainly was unique. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that suits me very well. If this is what I can expect from other things the author has written, then consider me a fan right from the outset!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 21, 2015

Summary: In our rapidly changing world of social media, everyday people are more and more able to sort themselves into social groups based on finer and finer criteria. In the near future of Robert Charles Wilson’s The Affinities, this process is supercharged by new analytic technologies: genetic, brain-mapping, behavioral. To join one of the twenty-two Affinities is to change one’s life. It’s like family, and more than family. Your fellow members aren’t just like you, and they aren’t just people who are likely to like you. They’re also the people with whom you can best cooperate in all areas of life, creative, interpersonal, even financial.

At loose ends both professional and personal, young Adam Fisk takes the suite of tests to see whether he qualifies for any of the Affinities and finds that he’s a match for one of the largest, the one called Tau. It’s utopian–at first. His problems resolve themselves as he becomes part of a global network of people dedicated to helping one another, to helping him, but as the differing Affinities put their new powers to the test, they begin to rapidly chip away at the power of governments, of global corporations, and of all the institutions of the old world; then, with dreadful inevitability, the different Affinities begin to go to war with one another.

Thoughts: On the surface, this sounds like it could well be a typical YA novel plot, scaled up for more adult audiences. Which still has a kind of appeal, admittedly, and even had it been that, I probably would have enjoyed it on some level anyway. You see a lot of things similar to Affinities in YA speculative fiction these days, after all. Whether they’re called factions, strengths, groups, what have you, there’s great appeal for youth in finding a place you fit in, where your strengths will be recognized, and ultimately, you’ll rise above limitations that people place upon you.

But that doesn’t stop at adulthood. Which, I think, is part of why a concept like The Affinities works, both as something to read and within the context of the book itself. Adam isn’t in the greatest place in life. He doesn’t fit in well with his family, being overshadowed by his brother and disinterested father, finishing a degree in graphic design that may or may not get him a job, feeling pressured to marry a girl he doesn’t particularly care for in that way. Almost as an act of desperation, he applies to be tested for an Affinity. Affinities are groups of people connected not so much by common identifiable traits, such as being stubborn, or intelligent, or really interested in animal welfare, but by something that goes deeper. The kind of thing that you feel when you meet a random person for the first time and you develop a connection, even though you may have opposing political views and different jobs and very few of the same interests. What forms a rapport has been identifies, categorized, and those people directed together into medium-sized social groups.

Affinities tend to stick to their own. After having found a group of people who will accept you as you are, help you without question, love you just because you’re one of them, would you really want to seek companionship outside that circle? Run the risk of not getting along, being incompatible, when there’d be 29 other members of your immediate group who can interact with you without those risks? It’s a seductive idea; who wouldn’t want to find that kind of social home? Sure, there’s the risk of being cliquish, but does that really matter when you have so many people you get along with, and you’re not really hurting anyone on the outside?

But as is human nature, the dream can only last for so long. Conflicts inevitably arise. People who can’t be tested or don’t fit into an Affinity feel shafted by the ways Affinities work, such as often only hiring people from inside their Affinity. Don’t belong to an Affinity, your chances of finding a good job in your field might go down. People like to belong, so being told they don’t belong makes them angry. Things get political, and Affinities get looked at as cults, as dangerous. Affinities start warring with each other, taking sides in power struggles.

What The Affinities is, in a nutshell, is a novel of social exploration, wrapped in a speculative shell. The benefits and drawbacks of certain social systems, a look at what happens when you define social clubs scientifically and ramp them up to eleven. It’s told entirely from Adam’s perspective, beginning from the man who feels like he has nowhere to go, through his connection with the Tau Affinity, and on through to the other side where it seems like the cycle may begin again. There’s some brilliant commentary along the way, especially when Adam gets confronted with how things work outside an Affinity, where “keeping it in the family” does do damage to those on the outside. It’s a story of privilege, of multi-generational and cross-cultural privilege that you can enter into by having the right personality type, by getting along well with a certain class of people.

And Wilson’s not shy about showing the positives and negatives of this privilege. In a time where privilege is practically a negative buzzword, everyone likes to have it and nobody likes to admit that them having it might have deprived somebody else of it. Adam loves the privilege and safety that belonging to an Affinity brings him. He’s taken care of. There are so many things he doesn’t have to worry about. He will always have a place to stay, people to help him find employment, a chance to feel meaningful. And he’s confronted with the unfairness of this in a powerful fashion when an ex-girlfriend of his overdoses on drugs and has to be hospitalized, resulting in her young daughter being put on a social services watchlist. She blames Adam for this, since he was the one to convince the kid to call 911, and accurately and undeniably points out that had she been a Tau like him, things would have played out differently. Her daughter would be living with another Tau while she recovered. A Tau doctor and rehab specialist likely would have taken care of her. Or maybe even helped her before it got to the point of her ODing in the first place. Social services never would have known, because better and more confidential help would be available to her, as a member of this tight-knit group.

The Affinities is a book that allows all this social- and privilege-checking to sink in, almost unnoticed, by the casual reader. To reshape the way we might look at an unfairly balanced world around us. The original concept behind Affinities, that they might be a way to transcend the current system of classes and race and culture in order to create a better world, is hopeful but largely naive, since what it accomplishes in the end is mostly to set another fence around another group. With all the best intentions, of course, but isn’t that always how it starts?

Wilson lets these concepts sink into your brain in a fantastically entertaining way, pulling you along for a ride that’s simultaneously appealing and frightening. It’s a great look at social structure and privilege, and for all that it’s being plugged in many SFF-related circles, the only thing science fictional about it is the developed technology to determine your potential Affinity. The rest is pure human-driven fiction, set a little way into the future, just enough to give a backdrop to that technology that hasn’t yet been invented. It’s literary sci-fi, social sci-fi, something that can very easily cross genre boundaries and appeal to readers of more contemporary fiction. It’s a great read, not always comfortable but often insightful.

Time Salvager, by Wesley Chu

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2015

Summary: Convicted criminal James Griffin-Mars is no one’s hero. In his time, Earth is a toxic, abandoned world and humans have fled into the outer solar system to survive, eking out a fragile, doomed existence among the other planets and their moons. Those responsible for delaying humanity’s demise believe time travel holds the key, and they have identified James, troubled though he is, as one of a select and expendable few ideally suited for the most dangerous job in history.

James is a chronman, undertaking missions into Earth’s past to recover resources and treasure without altering the timeline. The laws governing use of time travel are absolute; break any one of them and, one way or another, your life is over. Most chronmen never reach old age; the stress of each jump through time, compounded by the risk to themselves and to the future, means that many chronmen rapidly reach their breaking point, and James Griffin-Mars is nearing his.

On a final mission that is to secure his retirement, James meets Elise Kim, an intriguing scientist from a previous century, who is fated to die during the destruction of an oceanic rig. Against his training and his common sense, and in violation of the chronmen’s highest law, James brings Elise back to the future with him, saving her life, but turning them both into fugitives. Remaining free means losing themselves in the wild and poisonous wastes of Earth, somehow finding allies, and perhaps discovering what hope may yet remain for humanity’s home world.

Thoughts: Imagine a future where the ability to manipulate time has not only been discovered, but where doing so is something of an elite profession filled with not-entirely-stable professionals. Imagine a future with dwindling resources, where the only logical course of action is to jump back in time and gather the resources that nobody will miss. James Griffin-Mars is a chronman, someone who does those time-jumps, elite among the elite. He’s seen World War 2. He’s met the woman who made the Time Laws that he lives by. But it’s not until a prime mission, one hat could buy out his contract and allow him to retire, that he starts to break those laws and unravel pieces of a mystery that could very well have created the society in which he lives.

It seems to be an inherent problem of time travel stories, that at some point, the paradox will hit. What if you go back in time and accidentally kill your great-great-grandmother. Your family line is broken, so you will never be born, which means you’ll never go back in time and kill anyone. Cycle ad nauseam. Chu manages to sidestep most of this with a series of strict Time Laws that are designed to avoid making ripples in the timeline. Only take resources that would be destroyed in events soon after your salvage, so anything missing would be assumed destroyed. Never bring anyone from the past back with you. Sometimes ripples can’t be avoided, and what’s done has further-reaching consequences than anticipated, especially when rogue chronmen break a rule or two. Most of the time, the timeline can self-heal, setting things to rights by itself. You accidentally save someone who was supposed to die in World War 2, and they go on to have a family? No matter, a car crash will kill them all, so their descendants don’t exist and so can’t contribute to change. The timeline is something of a fluid thing, subject to change but still capable of setting itself to rights so long as the diversion isn’t major.

All this careful manipulation, though, essentially means that an event near the end comes out of left field. You spend the whole book thinking that the time travel paradox will be avoided,, and then something gets revealed that essentially says: the current timeline was created through the manipulation of the past by someone on the current timeline. BAM, the paradox is back in play. I do hope that the sequel to Time Salvager will involve some multiverse theory, because otherwise cause followed effect. Well, cause still followed effect, but at least some multiverse stuff would help balance that out a bit.

In terms of characters, Chu comes through once again with a cast of diverse and well-developed people to lead the story. It’s always a treat to read his works, because he writes such realistic characters, ones that feel like proper people and not stereotypes or caricatures. James is a misanthropic seen-it-all man who’s riding the edge of death by drink, and the death by lack of medical attention when he goes rogue. He’s not always a great guy, not always right in his action, and is frequently selfish and gruff. Which makes him the kind of person who you don’t really want to associate with in real life, but who is great to read about, because he’s so unlike most SFF protagonists. Elise has an air of innocence and hope to her, which fits well for someone who believes that what she’s doing can change and improve the world, but without the usual naiveté that tends to get portrayed a lot in similar characters. She’s optimistic, but she’s no fool. And don’t even get me started on how interested the Mother of Time is, once you get to see her more!

As sci-fi thrillers go, this is definitely one to pay attention to. It’s more than just a frenetic romp through time and space. There are running themes about corporate transparency and limits on power, and ecological crises in the making and their consequences. While these are definitely hot-button issues today, their inclusion in Time Salvager is appropriate and done well, coming across as part of the plot rather than an attempt to preach to the reader. Which, honestly, I actually find to be the best way to convince others of a cause; you don’t beat them over the head with a message, but you include that message in other works, so that people get exposed to the idea in ways they find enjoyable in the first place. Even if you don’t have much interest in those themes in today’s world, it’s hard to argue with the presentation that Chu gives in Time Salvager.

What it all boils down to is that this is a book well worth checking out. I admit I’m not usually big on either hard sci-fi or thrillers, but when Chu writes something, I will read it. And enjoy it. He works magic with words and makes a tight fast story that I find very hard to put down. Highly recommended, and I can’t wait to see where the story’s future lies.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 30, 2015

Summary: Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief.

Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers–including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence–Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find—possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Just City, a book which blew me away when I first read it, The Philosopher Kings does exactly the same thing, and just as cheerfully. The first book of the series could stand on its own, and very steadily, without the need for a sequel. The story was complete, or at least complete enough that it didn’t feel unfinished in the slightest. However, it seems there was more of the story to be told after all, and The Philosopher Kings picks up some years after the end of the first book. The debate between Sokrates and Athene has become known as the Last Debate. The city has split, and 4 other cities have been formed, each attempting to build their ideal home according to Plato’s laws but with their own interpretation. Raids for art have become common, each city wanting their share of the time-rescued art and no other city prepared to give up what they have.

Thanks to the art raids, Simmea, one of the characters we see grow up in the Just City in the first book, someone who devoted her life to excellence as best she knew it, has been killed. Apollo, in his mortal guise as Pythias, vows revenge against the person he thinks orchestrated the attack: Kebes, a malcontent who left the Just City some years back, and who has long expressed his hate for the City and what it stands for. Together with his children, he sets out on a journey to get his revenge, and along the way discovers that the Republic experiment has reached further than anyone intended.

All of the things I loved about the first book make a return here. The thought-provoking debates, the unique and interesting characters, the expression of diversity amongst people who are still united for a common goal. Walton juggles many balls here, and does it all so well. The story of Pythias and his children seeking revenge on Kebes and finding other settlements that have been influenced by Athene’s plans would make an interesting enough story all on its own. Then you throw in the coming-of-age subplot with Arete, not only as she goes from child to ephebe, but also as she and her brothers discover that they have heroic souls, complete with a variety of divine powers, and they must decide whether to develop those powers and embrace that aspect of their heritage or to keep it hidden. Roll that all up into a ball with fantastic philosophical debates, and you get something that’s highly intelligent and will appeal to those with a keen mind.

I suppose this book falls under the category of “literary SFF,” as does The Just City. There are definitely some fantastical elements to it all. Deities bringing together people from multiple different times and places. Sentience and art arising in robotic workers. Everything that was already established beforehand stays true here. The only new element, really, is Pythias’s children and the nature of their souls, but even that is mostly a frame upon which to drape philosophy and questions. It does serve to advance the story, though in small ways rather than huge ones. Arete can detect when someone is lying, which comes in handy during important debates, for instance.

Walton works wonders with providing so much commentary on big issues here, issues that I can’t say I often think about but that are interesting to ponder once brought up. If you take a bunch of Christians and transport them back before the time of Jesus, does what Jesus did for humanity still apply? Is it better to have a high social standing and not follow your passion than to have a low social standing but be fulfilled by what you do there? What is true justice?

Actually, I spent a few hours contemplating that one, and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Best I can figure out, true justice is where the punishment inflicts proportional damage upon the perpetrator that they inflicted upon the victim. It’s not enough to follow “an eye for an eye” if the perpetrator is ambivalent about losing an eye and their victim valued their sight immensely, because things aren’t proportional. But that means that sometimes justice must be downright cruel, and sometimes it can never be served completely… See, this is the kind of stuff that reading this book makes you think about, which is why I love it! Rarely do I encounter books that put me in that exact frame of mind to ponder big questions in such an analytical way. It makes me want to search for answers. Not necessarily find them, but at least search for them, and in so doing improve my understanding of them.

In short, it makes me want to better myself, to bring myself that much closer to excellence. Which is the whole purpose behind Athene’s experiment with Plato’s Republic.

I’d say this book’s only real shortcoming is the ending. Zeus comes down in all his glory and swoops select people (and deities) away to have a chat about what’s going to happen to all the cities spawned from this experiment. They’re having a larger effect on the world than intended, and it can’t go on that way. Which makes sense. Even the proposed solution makes sense, even though it brings in some odd science-fictional elements that do fit, given the time-traveling powers of gods, but it seemed a little bit too neat of an ending for my taste.

But that still fit more than a single exchange between Apollo and Zeus. Apollo comments that through his time as a mortal, he learned about equal significance and how people have their own needs and wants that are just as valid as his own, even when those desires are in opposition. And Zeus replies by saying that he wondered how long it would take Apollo to figure that out.

And I just wondered if Zeus had been replaced by some other god. Some random deity in a Zeus-suit. Because when last I checked, Zeus is pretty well known for doing whatever he wants, to whomever he wants. So that came across as one epic, “Do as I say, not as I do,” moment.

Either that, or it was one wonderfully subtle reference to the changes in the Christian god’s personality once Jesus came into place. And especially given the frequent comments about how Apollo’s time as a mortal is extremely similar to the stories of Jesus being God in mortal form… I’m inclined to believe the latter, honestly, because Walton can do some amazingly subtle and impacting things with her writing, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that this was her intention. But without reading between a lot of lines, that dialogue seems to be a giant bit of mythological hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy or not, The Philosopher Kings was a brilliant book, and I adored it, as I expected to. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll feel the same way about this one. And if you’re looking for a fascinating take on philosophy, history, and religion, then look no further than this duology. it’s worth every second you spend reading it, and every second you spend thinking about it afterward. In a word, phenomenal!

(Received for review from the publisher.)