[Guest Post] Sarah Chorn, on the LGBTQ+ History of the Wild West

Sarah Chorn’s upcoming novel, Of Honey and Wildfires (pre-order link, review), is a fantasy set in a place heavily inspired by the American Wild West. It’s also a novel with multiple queer characters, both in terms of gender and sexuality. I was thrilled when Sarah was willing to let me host a guest post she wrote, about the queer history of the real Wild West, which is an aspect of history that rarely seems to get mentioned in the history books.

Read to the end for a special giveaway announcement, too!

Without further ado, I’ll let Sarah’s words speak for themselves!


When I realized that all of my characters in Of Honey and Wildfires fell under the LGBTQ+ umbrella, I kind of panicked. You see, I don’t plan my characters. At all. I do not map them out. I don’t even usually have names for them that settle in until well after I’ve written the first few chapters. I like to let them tell me who they are as I fill up those blank pages.

But I had an incident with Seraphina’s Lament, where someone told me that they worried my book was “too diverse” and “there aren’t any straight people in it” and that haunted me. Ultimately, they argued, I risked losing readers due to it. So when I ended up with two lesbians and one trans point of view character in Of Honey and Wildfires, I heard those words again, and thought, “Oh shit, what if this is too gay, or not realistic enough? What if this is too much diversity? What if people can’t handle it and I lose readers?” I didn’t plan it that way, but when characters reveal themselves to me, I’m very, very reluctant to change anything that I learn about them. This is how these characters live when they are inside my brain, and to bring them to life I need to be true to the core of who they are, else what’s the point?

So I had three points of view, and all of them are LGBTQ+ and I remembered what someone told me after reading Seraphina’s Lament and really got nervous. Should I change my characters? Should I make at least one of them straight? Should I essentially force my story into a more socially acceptable box? Should I change who my characters are?

I ended up doing what I do every time my nerves get the best of me.

I did research.

Of Honey and Wildfires is set in a secondary world, but I largely based it off of the Wild West in the late 1800’s, and I did a huge amount of research to bring a lot of the details to life, so researching this particular topic was not so much of a leap for me. In fact, I was rather surprised I hadn’t done it before.

It turns out, there is a whole LGBTQ+ history to the Wild West that most people never really know about. According to this article in True West Magazine, the words gay or homosexual didn’t come to mean what they mean today until well into the 20th century. The first recorded use of homosexual wasn’t until 1868, and the word heterosexual is an even newer word, first seen in print in 1924.

scgp1

(Photo from True West Magazine, in the linked text above)

The argument is, these terms and the concepts they represented weren’t quite as solidified as they are today, and so the line between genders and gender roles wasn’t quite as solid, rather more of a soft, moving target than we tend to think, especially when we consider images of the Wild West, the rugged mountain men, the cow wrangler, the gun slingers.

There is a quote from the afore quoted article that says it all, as seen here:

scgp2

More than that, when these all-male groups lived together, think mining camps, mountain men, etc., often times groups would form family units, where some would do the more “feminine” tasks of housework and the like, while others did the mining/whatever.

It should be noted that not all of these partnerships, termed “bachelor marriages” were sexual. Some were just partnerships so they could better function as a unit to get things done both on the home front and in the wider world. However, it does show how the typical macho cowboy image wasn’t all as divided between gender roles as a lot of us tend to think. Read more here.

It is not just relegated to women, however. In this article in the LA Times, the story of One-Eyed Charlie was told. One Eyed Charlie was known as fastest stagecoach riders in the west. Once Charlie died, and an autopsy was performed, they discovered that One-Eyed Charlie was actually a woman, Charlette Darkey Parkhurst.

With all that said, one can imagine how the Wild West could foster such societies that blurred commonly perceived general roles, and how a person could live a life that felt truer to who they actually were under all that wide-open sky, with society so far away.

scgp3

(Image from Atlas Obscura, Regina Sorenson and others on the Minnesota Frontier)

When Peter Boag did his research for Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past, he fell upon a whole bevy of nearly unknown documents detailing the lives of people assigned one gender at birth, but lived elsewise out on the frontier. According to Boag, likely the segment of the population in the Wild West who lived such lives were probably a lot more prevalent than anyone has realized. Trans people have been in existence as long as there have been people. Boag posits that a lot of people saw the possibilities of reinvention in the West, and made their way to the frontier, and lived lives that felt truer to who they were.

And it makes sense. Out in the West, there was a lot more room for a person to get lost. It was a place you where you could show up, surround yourself with people you’ve never seen before, and be the person you’ve always longed to be with no one knowing any different.

scgp4As stated on The Forgotten Trans history of the Wild West on Atlas Obscura, another aspect of trans history in the west is stated here, and this is perhaps why we don’t know more about it. Humans, as ever, are so good at explaining things away.

It was easy for tabloids and historians of the time to explain away trans men as a quirk of the frontier. It was, after all, a land dominated by men: violent, physically demanding, and steeped in the oppression of women. It seemed logical that certain women might choose to disguise themselves as men for safety, or to gain access to power and agency—with no queer motive. “If people thought you were a man, you wouldn’t be bothered or molested, there’s good evidence that some women dressed as men to get better paying employment,” Boag says. The best job most women could hope for in the Old West was cooking or housekeeping. On the other hand, someone assigned female at birth who passed for a man could earn real wages.

But, as argued on the linked article, this idea of people assuming specific gender roles to fit into society better, find better jobs, etc., is likely part of why this aspect of society in the Wild West was so rarely talked about, and little known to us now.

And while that was likely true for some, there were people who did assume certain gender roles to do one thing or another (we’ve all heard the stories of the female soldiers assuming male roles so they could go to war, for example), it really wasn’t always as simply explained away or brushed under the rug as all that.

Another case and point on the Atlas Obscura article (seriously, read that article) is the case of Mrs. Nash, who was assigned male at birth, but lived in Montana, worked as a laundress, and was married to three men before she died. Mrs. Nash, arguably, cannot be explained away by higher paying jobs, and the like.

scgp5

Mrs. Nash, photo from Atlas Obscura

Now, I’ve talked a whole lot about men, but I haven’t said much about women, and there’s a reason for that. You can probably guess it. Throughout history, women have largely been left on the fringes, not important enough to mention. In my endless digging about this fascinating topic, I’ve found precious little about the females who have lived out on the frontier, unless they were trans.

There is some evidence and records of some Native American tribes, like the Lakota, who used to perform certain rituals for the women who did not want to marry. They would twine a rope to form a “baby” between them. Though the exact purpose of the ritual is unknown, the implications seem clear enough. Read more here.

Willa Cather was likely the most famous lesbian who lived on the frontier. And of course, one must think of the areas where women lived amongst women, and men frequented, but never stayed: the whore houses, some of which have left records of relationships between women.

So with all of this, it is pretty obvious that there is a wide and nuanced LGBTQ+ history of the Wild West, probably a much larger history than any of us really know of. I do suggest clicking on all the links above, because all of these articles are worth reading, and I’ve only really scratched the surface on this.

Ultimately, I decided to keep my characters as they were, to be true to who they were. That’s the whole point, isn’t it?

Back when I was facing this same issue with Seraphina’s Lament, I told a friend of mine what was bothering me. I asked if I should rewrite some of the characters, add in more straight people, and they replied, “Sarah, if every character in your book was straight, no one would ever say, ‘your book is too diverse.’ This isn’t really an argument about diversity.” I’ve kept those words with me. There have been LGBTQ+ people throughout history, in every country, region, and historical period in the world.

I found this rather hidden history of the Wild West to be incredibly fascinating, and I think it is unfortunate that we do not know more about this, and that we are not taught more about it. I felt, in the end, that Arlen, Cassandra, and Ianthe are perhaps a bit more representative of the Wild West as it truly was, than I’d originally thought.


Thank you so much, Sarah, for writing this piece and letting me host it. It really was a fascinating read!

And now, for the giveaway announcement! Sarah has kindly agreed to give away one (1) ebook copy of Of Honey and Wildfires, .epub or .mobi as the winner prefers. All you have to do to enter is to comment on this article with your favourite queer character from an SFF novel, and tell me why. What makes that character so special to you? What makes them awesome?

Don’t forget to leave contact info (email address, Twitter, etc) so I can contact you if you win!

This contest is open internationally, entries will close at 11:59 PM, PST, Monday April 27. The winner will be drawn and announced on April 28, and the winner’s contact information will be forwarded to Sarah Chorn so she can reach out regarding the prize. Best of luck to all who enter, and I look forward to reading your comments!

One Word Kill, by Mark Lawrence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll the dice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Mid-Month Check-In

How’re y’all doin’, m’friends?

It’s mid-April already. Somehow March felt like it took an eternity, and April feels like it’s flying by. Time is a weird inconstant thing that I think just messes with my head more and more as I get older.

But seriously. How are you all doing? This has been a damn hard time, and I want to know how you’re holding up.

Me, I’m still a weird mix of stressed and “this is just normal.” I spend most of my days inside anyway. I’m unemployed and have few meatspace friends and life sans pandemic is often spent the same way it is now. I stay in, I do my stuff, I communicate with friends online, and just keep going as I often do.

Then I look at the news and see the numbers rising, and remember that oh yeah, right now I was supposed to be visiting family in the UK, being able to see my 85 year old grandmother for probably the last time because these trips are expensive and all, and I had to cancel that because, well, *gestures*. Sometimes the stress just builds up to the point where I have to cry and I think to myself, “I’m not even supposed to be here,” and it all feels like it’s spiraling out of control and life will never actually be normal again.

I’m in a very lucky place right now, and I know it. For my life to not change that much means I’m probably doing better than people who are used to being out of their homes the majority of the time. My partner is currently sitting on the couch and setting up things for the next class he has to teach this afternoon, and I think how lucky we both are that he can do this, because a year ago, he was working in a hospital lab, and being the overnight tech meant that he was the one who drew blood from patients. Were it not for a chance encounter one day, meeting someone who mentioned they were part of a college that was setting up a new med lab tech program and oh hey, you’re interested in teaching, well send us a resume then… Yeah, if not for that, then my partner would be on the front lines.

Now granted, that would be on Prince Edward Island, where they’ve had only slightly over 2 dozen cases and only yesterday declared a state of emergency. There are perverse upsides to a province having nearly half of its population live in rural areas. But still. Were it not for him getting the teaching job, he’d still be living in a friend’s spare bedroom, working overnights at a hospital and being in a risky field, I’d be living by myself in another city, and visiting would not be an option because all non-essential travel between provinces has been stopped.

Life would be very different. We are very fucking lucky. I can’t allow myself to forget that.

Not when people have gone weeks without seeing their significant others, or have lost family members. We’re all living in a very uncertain time, we don’t know how bad this will get or how long it will last or the things and people we’ll lose along the way.

It’s the uncertainty that wears on me the most, I think. My motivation has been utterly sapped. I’ve been trying to work on videos, but half the time I just can’t be bothered, and then I beat myself up because I should be doing something productive, not just… [insert whatever I’m not deeming as ‘productive’ here]. I try to read, and my attention wanders. I see people learning new skills and cooking really awesome foods and I’m like, “That’s cool; I just ordered McDonald’s for the third time in two weeks.”

I keep trying to tell myself that feeling this way is okay, because society is changing around me and uncertainty means that mentally and emotionally, we don’t know what to do because we don’t know what’s worth taking the time and energy on when things could change tomorrow.

I also keep telling myself that come on, it’s been weeks now, surely you must be used to it by now, not much has changed for you, just get back to work.

…I hate my brain sometimes.

I think it’s normal to feel both things, because normal… kind of isn’t, right now. Normal is in a state of flux, this in-between point of, “Is it going to be like this for long enough that I need to make long-term adjustments?” and “Give it a couple of weeks and it’ll all be over, so I just need to cope for a little while longer and then things will go back to the way they were.” And we don’t know where on that timeline we are. We don’t know what’s worth taking the time to change, and what’s worth hanging on to. So we just kind of… exist.

I think that’s where a lot of my motivational problems stem from. Like a micro version of a macro problem. Just because a lot of my life’s patterns have stayed the same doesn’t mean I don’t still feel adrift in many ways. I would do the same things before as after the pandemic, but in many ways, I don’t know where that work fits into a larger pattern, because the larger pattern has gotten all jumbled up and distorted. If I could just feel a little bit certain about what the next month, for instance, would be like, then I could probably feel more comfortable about chugging along and not feeling so much at loose ends.

I wonder if that’s part of what’s driving other people’s lack of motivation, too. The discomfort of not knowing. Actively not knowing. Sure, we couldn’t really say at any given moment that oh, tomorrow I definitely won’t die, or a week from now, I’ll definitely still have a job, because that stuff can change. But assuming it was warranted, at least most of the time. But then huge factors started to change and up-ended our ideas of what everyday life was supposed to involve, and little seeds of doubt were planted in our minds, whispering to us that maybe it’s not even worth the effort to do a thing when tomorrow everything could change again just as drastically. What’s even the point?

…Wow, this blog post ended up in a different place than where it started.

I’m going to leave it here. Hopefully my pseudo-philosophical ramblings at least, uh, entertained someone? Always got to hope that! But let me know in the comments how you’re doing, whether that’s good or bad. Feel free to have a little ramble there yourself, if you want; it can be remarkable helpful sometimes.

Take care, stay safe, and I love you all.

The Bookshelf Symphony Orchestra Tour

I often listen to music while I’m reading. Usually instrumental stuff, because anything with lyrics often makes me want to sing along and it’s kind of difficult to sing while also reading. Plus it’s often easy to find good instrumental music to fit the mood of what I’m reading, given that most of what I read trends to fantasy and sci-fi. A quick search on Spotify will yield dozens of playlists with music that fits well for those genres.

But rarely does music get written specifically to accompany a given book. That’s usually reserves for movies or TV shows, but not for novels. Enter Austin Farmer, and The Bookshelf Symphony Orchestra.

bookshelfsymphonyorchestra The Bookshelf Symphony Orchestra is an instrumental concept album created for readers and writers. Over the course of 2 years, Austin Farmer teamed up with brothers Addam and Heath Farmer to help produce, co-arrange, and mix/master the album, bringing over a decade of experience in the music industry to the project. Every song is titled after the novel it was inspired by and couldn’t have been created without those stories. Austin’s previous songs have been featured on Nickelodeon, CBS, Fox Sports, and a national Sprint TV campaign with indie rock bands Island Apollo and The Bolts. Musical influences on this album include songs from many of the instrumental playlists he’d listen to while writing fiction, including Two Steps From Hell, Bear McCreary, and Joe Hisaishi.

His short story “Beethoven’s Baton” is featured in Baker Street Irregulars, co-edited by Michael A. Ventrella and NYT Bestselling Author Jonathan Maberry.

The music on the album is beautiful, and even if you haven’t read every novel associated with the playlist (which I can safely and sadly say that I haven’t), you can still appreciate the scene-setting that’s evident in every note. Listening to the album, even though the tone changes from song to song, it was hard to not just close my eyes and get swept away in the music.

I’m particularly fond of Flight of the Lionheart and The Alchemist. But each of us associated with the blog tour were assigned particular songs to focus on, and mine was the eminently creepy Patient Zero.

Patient ZeroGo figure the person with the zombie phobia gets assigned a song connected to a novel about zombies.

Don’t get me wrong. The song is fantastic, even if zombies scare the everloving hell out of me and I want nothing to do with them. It starts out creepy, evoking images of empty streets and tense silence, ramps up into what feels very much like a tight chase scene with high stakes, and then winds down again into a haunting repeat of the opening. It’s fantastic, spine-tingling, and I love it.

Farmer was kind enough to do a bit of a Q&A session with me (as well as all the other bloggers participating in this tour; so if you’re interested in reading those, head to the tour page for links), so let’s launch into those right now.

Q&A

1. I’m sure just about everybody has asked this by now, but what was it that made you want to make this album to begin with? Books don’t usually get musical accompaniment in this fashion, so I’m curious as to what inspired you to provide some.

That’s a great question! I’ve been wanting to fuse my passions of music, reading, and writing for a long time. When I’m writing fiction, I normally have an instrumental playlist pulled up to help inspire me to create, and I know that a lot of authors do the same thing. I wanted to create an entirely original album of new instrumental music for readers and writers to listen to while they’re working, and that’s how I originally thought to create The Bookshelf Symphony Orchestra.

It was a 2 year process from start to finish, from creating the songs, to pitching the idea as an album, to fully re-arranging, producing, mixing, and mastering the album ourselves. My brother Heath helped me co-produce and co-arrange these songs, and my other brother Addam helped mix and master these. They really helped bring this project to life.

2. There are a lot of novels that have zombie apocalypses as a theme. What was it about Patient Zero that made you want to highlight it in particular in the album?

Patient Zero by #1 New York Times Bestselling Author Jonathan Maberry (published by St. Martin’s Griffin) is amazing. I wanted to highlight this book in particular because I wanted to emulate the same adrenaline-fueled emotions I felt when reading about Joe Ledger’s journey.

I tried writing 3 different versions of a song for Patient Zero over the course of a year. The first two earlier drafts weren’t really cutting it, and I kept getting frustrated on how those versions were sounding. These drafts were completely different songs than what is heard for Patient Zero on the final album. I wanted this song to really feel like a journey into another world alongside none other than Joe Ledger himself, so I gave this song more time to cool off and start again without rushing the quality of the song. It wasn’t until we used new software and arranging techniques to help make the orchestral instruments work well with the mix that it started coming together.

In the first movement of the song, there is a dark piano part set against an underscore of strings. Then, a few layers of haunting choir singers come in, which soon transition with an 808 drop to a rhythmic, distorted synth beat. Shortly after, chaos ensues for the second movement of the song with a tense, driving orchestral rock jam session with horns. In this section, Addam played electric bass and I played drums. Heath helped create the horn and synth countermelodies for the second half of this section, and I’m really happy how it turned out (especially after 2 early drafts of the song for Patient Zero)!

Also, Jonathan Maberry is one of the most generous authors around and continuously gives back to the writing community with different writing events and resources. If you haven’t checked out his fiction yet, you need to.

3. Was there a particular scene from the novel you were trying to invoke with the Patient Zero song, or was it more emblematic of the novel as a whole?

Without giving anything away, there is a section in Patient Zero where Joe Ledger first demonstrates his abilities to his team. In this song, I wanted to evoke a sense of adrenaline where you can feel the tension continually rise, just like what Joe Ledger feels throughout this scene and the entire novel. I also wanted to bring about the feeling, like you mentioned, that zombies are right around the corner, so you can hear those elements in the intro and outro. I had such a great time recording this song. Thank you very much for listening!

If you want to get your hands on the album, which was release on August 17, 2019, you can find it on Amazon or Spotify, and I highly recommend giving it a listen. And thank you very much to both Austin Farmer and Storytellers on Tour for allowing me to be part of this fantastic blog tour!

AustinFarmer

Austin Farmer is a musician, writer, and filmmaker from Southern California. His music has been featured on Nickelodeon, Fox Sports, and a national Sprint commercial. His short story “Beethoven’s Baton” is featured in Baker Street Irregulars Volume 1 (co-edited by Michael A. Ventrella and NYT Bestselling Author Jonathan Maberry).

Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

Buy from Amazon.com

Author’s website
Publication date – April 28, 2020

Summary: From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

Thoughts: I’ve been a fan of Chorn’s writing style since reading Seraphina’s Lament in 2019. She has a brilliant evocative style that drew me in, turning emotions into landscapes in a way that felt downright poetic. That same style is evident in Of Honey and Wildfires, though I found that this one had a much stronger focus on the narrative than Seraphina’s Lament. It might be because her first novel dealt with events happening on a massive scale, changing how the very world worked, whereas here, the story has a narrower focus. One small area, a few primary characters. It’s a different scope, but Chorn deals with it just as well.

Of Honey and Wildfires is a fantasy Western, at its heart, taking heavy inspiration from the American West during the 1800s. The setting is Shine Territory, a place where shine is pulled from the world and is infused into everything. Shine is like magic, only with a physical form. Add some shine to food and it will taste better. Use it to make ammunition for guns. Give undiluted shine to a person and grant them temporary psychic powers, but also make them terribly addicted. Shine production and distribution is controlled by Shine Company, and is a blessing and a curse for pretty much everyone involved with it. Life gets better with it, but at the cost of the lives of those who mine it or pulls it up from wells.

Your basic capitalist scheme that values profits over people, basically.

While I don’t think that Chorn intended to write a book about worker exploitation specifically, that element is definitely present in the text, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore. One of the protagonists, Arlen, is the son of the head of Shine Company, sent out to Shine Territory to further company interests, sees firsthand how brutal lives of the company’s workers can be. Children in the mines, company propaganda about how kids working is a good thing because they help take care of their families, the benefits given to the people who agree to become addicts for the company’s sake… It’s not a pretty world, and the company byline clashes with the brutal reality of the situation, and early on the weight of the situation comes crashing down around Arlen’s head. He recognizes that his life has been immensely privileged, living off the benefits of an exploitative system, and the real meaning of that hits home when he sees the people who are being exploited for his comfort.

Arlen’s viewpoint isn’t the only one followed in the novel. There’s also Cassandra, daughter of an outlaw who works to shut down Shine Company, sent to live with extended family to keep her safe. Cassandra’s childhood isn’t an easy one, being markedly different from the people in Shine Territory, and also having a known outlaw for a father, but she’s a fascinating character, strong and stubborn and devoted to the things and people dear to her.

Cassandra’s one of those characters to whom things happen, whereas Arlen is one who has greater impact on the events he takes part in. True, Arlen still gets dragged along for rides now and again, but his is definitely the more action-oriented viewpoint, whereas much of Cassandra’s story involves the simple telling of a complicated life. Her narrative is compelling, to be sure, since she occupies a rather unique place in the world, but in many ways, hers is a more passive role. She could have been removed from the story as very little would have changed, since most of the main story elements were in the hands of Arlen and Chris, Cassandra’s father. The narrative would be poorer for her absence, since her tone and style are quite different from Arlen’s, but if her chapters were removed, most of what readers would lack would be context. Cassandra’s chapters are the emotional connection in many ways.

Now, I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this, to be honest. In one way, Cassandra’s character dips into some problematic territory. Her relationship with her best friend Ianthe ends somewhat tragically (this is foreshadowed heavily early on, so it’s not a massive spoiler to say so, I figure), which adds her to a large list of “queer characters who lose their lover in a tragic fashion.” Combined with her more passive role in the story, especially when compared to Arlen, it’s easy to categorize her as “a woman who isn’t really necessary to anything.”

But as accurate as those criticisms may be, they also do a disservice to Cassandra’s character. She may have a more passive role in the tale, but her parts of the story are still interesting. With her, you get context. You get to see how many people in Shine Territory live, what their lives are like, what their concerns are. I love reading this sort of thing. One of my earliest complaints with learning history in school was that we always got taught the big events, the major players in how things changed, but we never got anything about how the general populace lived out their lives. Wars occurred to determine who sat on a throne, but for your average labourer, their lives went on as they always did, and I wanted to know about those lives. That is, in essence, Cassandra’s viewpoint. She gives that everyday context that provides the counterpoint to Arlen’s experiences, and yes, I know that “woman who exists to further a man’s story” is also a damaging trope, but I don’t think Cassandra quite falls into that one, since she can absolutely carry her own story.

It just happens that her own story had less action and less impact to Shine Territory in the end. But it was no less interesting than Arlen’s, and I think it’s a testament to Chorn’s skill with writing that she can create a character who has less impact but is nevertheless just as compelling to read about.

I don’t know if there’ll be any more to Cassandra and Arlen’s connected story. Of Honey and Wildfires could be a standalone novel and work perfectly, a short glimpse into a fascinating aspect of a fantasy world that isn’t any more than it needs to be. At the same time, the world and characters are interesting enough that I absolutely want to see more, to see what has changed now that this book has ended and Shine Territory isn’t what it was in the beginning. It feels like there could easily be more stories set in the world, and I’m down for reading them. If the true tale is only beginning, I want to be there at the end. But I could still be satisfied with this one novel, if that’s all there needs to be. I do enjoy books that can stand on their own merits without needing to be half finished or give cliffhanger endings to keep me interested, and Of Honey and Wildfires definitely checks that box.

If you enjoyed Chorn’s other work, then you’ll similarly love this one. It’s an engaging story in an uncommon fantasy setting, and it’s written with the same beautiful and evocative style that I’ve grown accustomed to with Chorn. This is a novel that deserves a place on your bookshelves, with plenty to say and a compelling way of saying it. Do yourself a favour and dip your toes into this Western-inspired shine-soaked world that is sure to make an impression.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

March 2020 in Retrospect

What a year this past month has been! I mean, just… I don’t think there are any words to succinctly describe the way the world has fallen to shit since the beginning of the year, but especially this past month. It boggles the mind.

If any visitors from the far-future are reading this by extra-dimensional historical hyperInternet, then look up COVID-19. That’ll tell you what you need to know.

But as much as life has been thrown into utter turmoil by the novel coronavirus pandemic, it also goes on much as it always does. Filled with books, and the community spirit of those who love books. So with that, and the hope of a sense of normalcy in mind, let’s go over what happened on the blog this past month.

Reviews
Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear
Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear
The Queen’s Bargain, by Anne Bishop
The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky
I Still Dream, by James Smythe

I also wrote about why I have to be concerned about the COVID-19 outbreak, though what boggles my mind is that I wrote this piece mid-month, when many people were only just starting to take it seriously, and now only a few short weeks later the vast majority of the world is going through hell from this virus. I wrote that before my province had declared a State of Emergency and forced non-essentially businesses to close. We only had 7 cases, not the 68 we currently do. It seems like a completely different time.

Again, what a year this month has been!

I did also review the new Miss Fisher movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears!

Is This Real Life?

Things are a bit odd at home at the moment, with my partner now teaching lab science classes from home because the college has been temporarily shut down. Again, pandemic. So we’re trying to figure out new ways of doing things so that we can both work in the limited space that we have. It’s a work in progress. We’re slowly getting things figured out, though some adjustments have definitely been made.

Otherwise, we’re both doing well. We have plenty of food and supplies, due to the fact that limited modes of transportation result in us doing one massive grocery shop about once a month, rather than smaller ones every week or do. We were well stocked before things started shutting down, and we’re not running low on anything we can’t get.

The province we live in declared a State of Emergency last week and all non-essential businesses were required to close. We’re not quite under the “shelter in place” restrictions that some places are doing, but it’s close enough. We don’t go out unless we have to, except for short walks, during which we avoid coming into contact with other people as much as possible. My partner is kind of paranoid about contracting COVID-19, mostly because I’ve got crappy lungs and other assorted health problems (not like my partner doesn’t, but for some reason I seem to be the primary concern *shrug*), so we’re doing everything we can to stay safe and healthy.

I was originally scheduled to return to the UK to visit my family for the first 3 weeks in April, but for obvious reasons, that plan got cancelled. I’m still planning to go, probably in early autumn, and hopefully by then the pandemic has stopped raging so badly. It’s stressful, though, since all of my relatively are there. Except my dad, who is a long-haul trucker. But my gran is 85 years old, and I’m absolutely terrified that she’s going to pass away before I get the chance to see her again, and also that this might happen and I might not even get the chance to attend a funeral because international travel is a no-go. Right now, I’m living in a horrible state of uncertainty about whether I’m going to be able to see loved ones ever again, and frankly, that’s a feeling I could do without.

Upcoming in April

I want to get back to doing those deep-dive posts I started a while ago for Anne Bishop’s Black Jewels series. I was doing an in-depth examination of the novels, chapter by chapter, and it was time-consuming but fun, and so I do want to start doing that again.

I’m also aiming for 3-4 more book reviews, because book reviews are love. Support your favourite authors by talking about how awesome their books are, y’all!

So how was your March? Are you safe? Do you have what you need? Are you okay? Please remember that it’s okay to not be okay, and that it’s okay to mourn the loss of the lives we got so used to before all of this happened.

Please take care of yourselves, and hopefully we’ll all be here to recap the end of next month too.

I Still Dream, by James Smythe

Buy from Amazon.com

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.

Movie Review: Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears

I recently got into Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries in a big way. It’s a brilliant and highly entertaining show, set in the 1920s in Australia, following the adventures and misadventures of the self-styled “lady detective” Phryne Fisher. If you’re into historical crime dramas and women who are 100% in awareness and control of their sexuality, then you’ll probably love this show as much as I did, and I highly recommend you watch it.

Well. Barring the first half of season 3, anyway. The writing went a little off the rails there and I had a number of complaints, but it balanced out in the end again, happily.

So, it’s hardly a surprise that I’d been highly anticipating the first Miss Fisher movie, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, which I watched a few days ago.

Cryptoftearsteaser The movie takes place very shortly after the end of season 3 of the show, and I suppose it’s a movie you could watch without having watched the show first, but if you do you’re going to miss out on a whole load of context. Who people are, why they’re doing things, etc. This is a movie for the fans of the show, not for newcomers, so if this movie sounds appealing to you, then I recommend binge-watching the show first. It’s a damn good time!

Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears takes its characters from Australia to Jerusalem, where Phryne saves a woman from prison and gets entangled in a mystery involving this woman’s entire tribe disappearing, and her connection to what appears to be cursed artifacts. As is classic for mystery stories, you get misdirection, you get drip-fed clues, and you get taken on a wild adventure trying to put all the clues together as both characters and viewers slowly figure out what’s truly going on.

I’m not going to give too many spoilers in this review, because I do want people to watch and appreciate the movie for its many strengths, but I will say that one of the big reveals at the end is one of the most stereotypical “upper class murder mystery” plot elements that I had to laugh. I mean, it works, and it makes sense, and I’m bringing it up as a point of amusement rather than a mark against the story.

The characters were as strong as I remember them from the show, and the new characters introduced for the movie’s story were well done and fit well with the tone that the series has established. The cinematography was gorgeous more often than not, though I can’t say much about the movie’s special effects budget. Some parts were extremely obviously CG, and it looked pretty bad.

mfcotimage

The costumes, though, were delightful as always; I swear sometimes the fashion was the highlight of the show as often as the mystery itself!

While I did enjoy the movie in general, I did also find myself disappointed with it. Maybe it was a case of my expectations being too high or being different, but for all the hype, for all the love that the show had fostered in me, Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears wasn’t the smash that I expected it to be.

For one thing, never has the show dealt with supernatural elements. The few times that paranormal stuff has been part of a mystery, it was all shown to be mundane trickery, elaborate ruses set up by someone who wanted others to believe something otherworldly was occurring. It was a show that wasn’t always firmly grounded in science (believe me, I have a gripe with one particular episode that seemed to have no idea how dead bodies worked…), but it was grounded in the understanding that the physical plane of reality is where things happen. If spirits are ever involved in Phryne Fisher’s life, they’re the sort found in a bottle.

Until near the end of the movie, I wanted to say it was the same thing here, too. Cursed objects are one thing, but a curse doesn’t have to be real for people to believe in it or act as though it was affecting them; belief can be powerful. It could have been real, it could not have been.

But given that returning an ancient gem to its resting place caused a dried-up well to refill… Or that part of the movie’s urgency was that things had to be wrapped up by the time a coming solar eclipse happened, which was foretold decades ago… Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears dipped its toes into the supernatural, and it didn’t fit.

It felt a lot like the team behind the movie thought they had to go big or go home, that they had to do something that beat out what the show ever did in order to justify a movie, and from my point of view, that just wasn’t the case. The movie could have been the equivalent to a 2-parter episode and I’d have loved it, because it would have been more of what I already loved. Changing the location was an odd choice, but okay, new locales are fun to explore. Throwing in some new cultural stuff and an exploration of how World War I affected non-Western regions? Good stuff, and I don’t often see that. Cursed items and supernatural elements in my 1920s murder mystery series? Why though? Was the team running out of course material to pull stories from? Did they think they had to do something very different to keep audience attention, that the series as a concept wasn’t interesting enough?

mfcotimage2

I mean, I have my issues with season 3 of the show, mostly with Dot and Hugh’s characterization during their marriage subplot, but even then I didn’t stop watching. It was a low point in the series, but I still enjoyed it. And while I did enjoy Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, I feel that it was the franchise’s new lowest point for me, a story that didn’t fit in with the rest of the series and really only tied up one single plot thread, and that was done in the movie’s last 2 minutes. Fans of the show could avoid this movie and not really miss much, despite the fact that the movie was clearly made for fans of the show.

This wasn’t a bad movie. But it also wasn’t quite what I was hoping it would be, and I finished it with the feeling that more than anything, I just wanted to watch the show again. The acting was good, the general story was good, but it stumbled over itself more than once in what felt like an attempt to up the ante, and it really wasn’t needed. I may watch it again in the future, but I think I’m more likely to just re-binge on the show instead.

Watch it if you’re a fan of the show, but be aware that it does some odd things that don’t quite fit with what fans have come to expect from their Miss Fisher.

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.

Elizabeth Bear is an astonishing writer, whose prose draws you into strange and wonderful worlds, and makes you care deeply about the people and the stories she tells. The world of The Eternal Sky is broadly and deeply created—her award-nominated novella, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” is also set there.

Thoughts: Shattered Pillars picks up the story very shortly after the end of Range of Ghosts, with Temur still intent on finding and rescuing Edene and overthrowing his uncle, Samarkar still intent on helping him and also uncovering what is occurring with the cult of the Scholar God and al-Sepehr, and Hsiung and Hrahima coming along for reasons of their own. Where character development for most of the characters was slim in Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars takes the time to flesh them out, and to give many of them a bigger role within the story. Especially Edene. Previously, she was mostly Temur’s romantic interest who had been kidnapped, a “princess in another castle,” as it were, and the most development she got was in being a pawn in al-Sepehr’s scheme. She wasn’t exactly passive, but she was a character to whom things happened, rather than a character who actively affected things occurring around her. Shattered Pillars changes that a lot, giving her a storyline of her own as she escapes her confines with a magical ring and ends up becoming queen of the ghul.

Beyond that, a plague has come to the wizard city of Tsarepeth, a plague that involves demons gestating within human hosts, sickening and killing them as the demon babies grow. Which is exactly as horrifying as it sounds. The wizards, masters of science and the arcane, aren’t precisely helpless to stop it, but their efforts are experimental and yield little success.

Something that continues to fascinate me in this series is the very concrete way that shifting political lines affects the world. Who rules over an area doesn’t just affect policies or rights, but the very appearance of the sky above them. The shade of blue, how high it appears, all of it is affected by who controls a place, the borders of territory made very obvious because the sky changes when you step out of one region and into another. Normally I like it when the fantastical elements of a story have some scientific cohesion, rules that are followed and are easily understood. “Magic works by manipulating energy flows,” “deities only give power to their worshipers,” that sort of thing. The sky changing depending on shifting political lines doesn’t follow that sort of logic, so you’d think it would bother me, because there’s no science to it that I can grasp. And yet, it doesn’t. I think that’s because the changing-sky aspect of this world feels very mythical, and so do many of the events within the story itself, so it feels like they all go together even if certain aspects don’t make logical sense.

Shifting politics affect more than merely the sky under which people live. I was particularly interested in the plague storyline, and the attempts of the wizards to figure out the cause. So far as they knew, something like a demon infestation could not come within the walls of the city, as the city itself was warded against such things. They should have been safe. But the cause was revealed to be someone within the royal family being tricked into unknowingly giving permission for it to happen, negating the effect of the wards and bringing down a plague upon the populace. Not by saying, “Yes, stranger I’ve never met before, come in and do whatever you please,” but by actively working against the system. People from the Steppes, Temur’s people, are experiencing the same plague due to the political instability caused by Temur’s uncle coup. The health and status of a region’s politics has such far-reaching consequences that can be easily felt by citizens.

It’s easy to think that this is the author’s way of saying, “Don’t buck the status quo.” But it doesn’t read that way to me. To me, it seems more like, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If it works, don’t change it just for the sake of changing it.” Stability brought safety. Instability, acting against what has been established purely for personal gain, is what brought the problems, and it’s the people who bear the brunt of their leader’s actions. The situation on the Steppes adds weight to this. Qori Buqa has taken over despite not being heir, not being in the line of succession. If it was merely going along with the status quo that ensured a region’s health and prosperity, then all people would have to do would be nothing at all. Accept that they have a new ruler. After all, the Khaganate absorbed other places into their ruling over generations, gave places a new ruler whether they liked it or not brought people under a new sky, so there should be no problem with an internal takeover. And yet, there is. Because Qori Buqa took something that was not his, sought power for no reason but that he wanted power, and that opened the door to malign influence.

Bear isn’t saying, “Just accept things as they are and everything will be fine.” She’s saying, “Sometimes change happens, but there are limits, and when selfishness and greed drive that change, it invites corruption.”

I really enjoyed the story progression and the development from the previous novel to this one. The greater number of character perspectives added a lot of depth, and allowed readers to see more of the increasingly complex story as it unfolds. Edene’s increase in agency and relevance was great to see, since her passive role was something that did bother me somewhat about Range of Ghosts. It utterly subverts Second Book Syndrome by being far more complex and still keeping the story going at a steady pace. The compelling mix of cultures and mythologies keeps the content fresh and original while avoiding falling into the trap of exoticism. Though people who didn’t enjoy Range of Ghosts are probably unlikely to pick up Shattered Pillars, this book does address many of the concerns I saw regarding the first book, and it might have redeemed the series in the eyes of people who were a bit ambivalent at first.

For my part, I am very invested in this trilogy, and my main regret right now is that my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third book so that I can start reading it right away. Rest assured, though, once I do manage to find a copy, I’ll be turning its pages without delay.

The Immortals, by Jordanna Max Brodsky

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 16, 2016

Summary: Manhattan has many secrets. Some are older than the city itself.

The city sleeps. In the predawn calm, Selene DiSilva finds the body of a young woman washed ashore, gruesomely mutilated and wreathed in laurel. Her ancient rage returns, along with the memory of a promise she made long ago — when her name was Artemis.

Jordanna Max Brodsky’s acclaimed debut sets Greek Gods against a modern Manhattan backdrop, creating an unputdownable blend of myth and mystery.

Thoughts: I’ve had a long-running fascination with the idea of ancient deities in modern times. How do they get by? What’s left of their spheres of influence? Do some thrive while other dwindle, in accordance with changes in societal focus? Do small pockets of pagan worshipers them from dying out entirely, if their primary religions are no more? Do deities from different mythologies get along or do they clash?

Brodsky’s The Immortals addresses all of these questions except the last one, really. The novel follows Selene DiSilva, who is something of a private investigator and also punisher of men who harm their female partners. She is also Artemis, Greek goddess of the hunt and of maidens. She who has existed as a deity for untold amounts of time now exists as a not-quite-mortal woman in Manhattan, her powers dwindling slowly over time as humanity loses its connection with deities it once worshiped and feared. But Selene’s powers suddenly have a resurgence as cult-like murders begin to be uncovered, murders which hearken back to the mystery cults of old. Cults with rites that have not been performed in centuries, rites that nobody alive should even know about.

That’s the crux of the mystery in The Immortals. Who, or what, could be reviving old practices? Who would even know what to do? Why are these murders, and by extension the ritual attached to them, restoring Selene’s powers and bringing her back to the Artemis she once was? The novel doesn’t hide what‘s happening so much as why it’s happening, which to me is interesting. I admit I don’t have a great deal of experience with mystery novels, but it seems like most that I’ve read have hinged on only revealing part of what’s happening, and then some final linchpin event at the end when the who and the why is finally revealed. Here, we see pretty clearly what’s happening. There’s no mystery to that aspect. The biggest questions are who, and why.

Selene is such a wonderful character to ride on the shoulder of through this novel. She has a long and interesting history, so many experiences to draw on that make up her personality. She knows who she is, she knows who she has been, and she understands the situation she finds herself in. But given the strangeness she encounters through The Immortals, some things do change, things she did not expect to change. She finds herself increasingly attracted to a disgraced university professor who understands a good deal about the time and place when she was Artemis. The return of her powers, however limited, throws her for a loop, and honestly, gives her something of an existential crisis when she’s forced to consider that for some reason she is returning to strength while she watches other deities around her continue to diminish. Hers isn’t the only viewpoint we get through the book, but for my part, I found hers the most interesting.

I’ve noticed a number of times in recently years in which I read a book, really enjoy it, and have a moment of, “Wait, this is the author’s debut novel?!” This was the case here. Brodsky’s writing drew me in quickly, transporting me to places and times I haven’t experienced, and in a way where it was so easy to picture the scene and really get into the events occurring. She style is smooth, easy to read, and it pulled me along nicely. It was easy to fall into the “just one more chapter” mentality.

While The Immortals is part of a series, it could stand on its own perfectly well. It doesn’t end on a massive cliffhanger to attempt to bait people into buying subsequent books in order to find out what happens, and weirdly, that makes me actually want to read the other books more. I don’t have a problem with books in a series, which should be pretty evident from the number of books I’ve read and reviewed here over the years, but I’m not a fan of cliffhangers as a hook. Tell me a story, tell me a full and complete story with a satisfying ending, and I will enjoy the book. Tell me that complete story is actually part of a larger narrative, and I will be eager to return to the story’s world for its own sake, and not just to satisfy the urge to close out the story properly. If all you ever read of the Olympus Bound series is this first book, you’ll still feel like a proper story was told.

To be blunt, I wish more authors would take this approach to storytelling. As I said, it’s not that I dislike series, but I don’t like cliffhangers. That so many books end with cliffhangers to attempt to hook readers is frustrating to me. That Brodsky didn’t do this, didn’t have to do this to create a compelling world I want to come back to, is something that should be noted and lauded.

I think fans of Greek mythology will enjoy the way myth, mystery, and history all intertwine in The Immortals. It’s a fascinating mystery, it’s got a whole load of fascinating information from history and religious interpretation, and it’s hard to not get drawn into the narrative due to the great pacing and compelling story. Even if Greek mythology isn’t my all-time favourite, I’m definitely interested in reading the other books in the series, and I suspect a lot of people I know will feel the same after reading this strong debut.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)