alternate history · review · science fiction

Famous Men Who Never Lived, by K Chess

The plight of a refugee is never easy. Uprooting oneself and family, fighting red tape and prejudice to find somewhere safe, homesickness. Even if there is no hope of returning, some refugees might be able to recreate a bit of home wherever they land. Not so for the refugees in K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived. The refugees in this novel come from another universe, an alternate New York that was destroyed in a terrorist-created nuclear meltdown. This new New York and world are just similar, it seems, to remind them of how different the two realities are.

Hel and Vikram are two Universally Displaced Persons who, at first, seem to have found some kind of equilibrium with their new reality. Vikram works as a security guard at a storage facility. Hel hasn’t resumed her career as an otorhinolaryngologist, but she seems to be doing well enough. That is, until Hel gets the idea of trying to find the exact point where the two realities split. She does this by tracking down relics of a man who became a great science fiction writer in her reality, but who drowned at age 10 in ours. This quest quickly becomes another. Hel wants to use traces of the science fiction writer as the core of a museum for the Universally Displaced Persons’ lost reality.

Memory, as we learn in Famous Men Who Never Lived, can be both a comfort and a joy. For people like Hel, who lost a son when she won the lottery to travel to our New York, memory torments them. Everything reminds them of what they left behind and what’s different about their new reality. Everyone here, Hel feels, does things wrong. For Vikram and other UDPs, memories of their old life need to be balanced with their new reality. After all, they can’t go back; they can only move forward. And, lastly, for Hel and Vikram’s unknown antagonist, memories are to be destroyed as ruthlessly as the alien germ in the science fiction writer’s best known novel.

Famous Men Who Never Lived changed directions on me more than once. Characters won and lost my sympathy as I learned more about what was happening. This might sound like criticism, but it’s something I actually like. For me it’s a sign that characters are growing in a dynamic environment and, above all, I loathe static characters. I wish there had been a bit more detail about Hel and Vikram’s reality because I really like thinking about what might have happened if someone zigged instead of zagged and ended up changing history. Still, even without a lot of detail, I ended up very much enjoying this original, thoughtful novel.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration.

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alternate history · mystery

Golden State, by Ben H. Winters

Laszlo Ratesic, the protagonist of Ben H. Winter’s thought-provoking alternate history novel, Golden State, has a strange ability. Like other members of the Speculative Service, he can sense lies. He reacts to anything more than a figure of speech or a little white lie as though he has an allergy. Lies make him physically ill. This ability makes him an important law enforcement officer because his post-Apocalyptic state depends on every citizen telling the truth all the time. But, humans being humans, there are still liars and they are about to seriously bruise Laszlo’s sense of reality.

After a chapter that is a marvel of efficient world-building, in which Laszlo arrests a young man who lies to cover for his drug-stealing brother, he is saddled with a partner he doesn’t want and is dispatched to check for anomalies at the scene of what appears to be an accidental death. Laszlo’s new partner, Aysa Paige, urges him to look deeper. She tells him that something isn’t right. And, once he starts looking, Laszlo starts to see anomalies. The dead man wasn’t supposed to be at work that day. The house where he died belongs to a judge who is up to something. The more he digs, the more Laszlo starts to wonder if this death is somehow linked to his brother’s death years before.

The Golden State is a fascinating social experiment. residents exchange facts when they greet each other, everyone fears being exiled outside of the State, and no one is permitted to lie above minor metaphors. What would it mean if no one could lie? If they were always caught and punished for it? It seems like a good thing. Lies, misinformation, propaganda, disinformation, willful mucking around with the truth have made our current society an appalling mess. Slowly, however, we and Laszlo learn what we’re missing when a) we give up the right to imagine something different and b) the fact that some humans will always try to cheat the system.

The end of Golden State is surprisingly poignant. I wasn’t expecting it after a mash up of mystery, alternate history, science fiction, and thriller. I enjoyed Golden State very much, though I did spot a few places where the thought experiment threatened to take over the plot. Readers who like a bit of philosophical and emotional depth to their alternate history/science fiction will enjoy wondering, as Laszlo does, about what truth really is, what it means to try and create a an objective reality everyone can agree on, and what happens when a true believer finds the worm in the apple.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

alternate history · literary fiction · review · science fiction

Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich

34217599Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich, is part of a dialogue in fiction that goes back as far as The Handmaid’s TaleIn this particular type of women’s dystopia, something happens that drastically reduces fertility. The fertility crisis invariably results in women who can conceive having their freedoms curtailed so that the species can continue. In Future Home of the Living God, the catalyst is that evolution suddenly reverses. Plants and animals that have been domesticated for thousands of years suddenly revert to their original, wild state. We’re never told exactly what happens to the fetuses of pregnant women, but it’s speculated that their children will be more like earlier hominid species. We watch this crisis through the eyes of Cedar Hawk Songmaker, the adopted daughter of liberal parents, who may be one of the last women to bear a Homo sapiens child.

Cedar is pregnant by the time the book opens, though only a few months along. Her pregnancy spurs her to seek out her birth mother, an Ojibwe woman who lives on a reservation north of Minneapolis. Cedar’s quest gives us plenty of questions about motherhood. How can mothers give up their children? What do children owe their parents? What do parents owe their children? The novel does not shame Cedar’s birth mother for giving her up. Instead, I got the sense that this women could not adequately care for Cedar and that giving her up was the right decision, even though Cedar feels cut off from her Ojibwe heritage.

This beginning works in contrast to the rest of Future Home of the Living God. Cedar’s child is very much wanted. But with the fertility/evolution crisis, women in the United States have lost the right to not only to keep their children but also their physical freedom while they’re pregnant. Cedar is helped by her boyfriend (and the father of her child) to stay free in her home for a couple of months. Unfortunately, that boyfriend is captured and tortured into giving up her location. The rest of the novel contains a series of incarcerations and escapes. The ending of the novel broke my heart and made me incredibly angry.

Throughout the novel, Cedar thinks about or is reminded of her Catholic faith in ways that focus on the Virgin Mary and the Immaculate Conception. These reminders pair with Cedar’s story to show us just how little autonomy pregnant women and mothers have sometimes. Pregnant women go through harrowing deliveries after enduring advice (welcome and unwelcome), only to be judged by society about how they chose to raise their children. Over and over, this book reminded me of how many people think they know better than a pregnant woman or a mother. Mothers are not infallible, but they shouldn’t be imprisoned in hospitals, subjected to medical tests or procedures like the “husband’s stitch” without consent, and not told about what’s happening with their bodies and their children. Also, women should be able to freely chose whether or not they will give up their children or to terminate their pregnancies. This book reinforced my belief that women do not give up their right to bodily autonomy because they get pregnant or can get pregnant.

The premise of Future Home of the Living God is one of my personal flash points, but readers should know that this book is extremely well written. The way that Catholicism flows through the book is deftly done and Cedar’s character is particularly well drawn. I was constantly surprised at the twists in this book, which came when I least expected them. Erdrich has a gift for raising our consciousness about bodily autonomy and reproductive justice in a way that makes us look at the issues from the perspective of an individual, rather than as big, untackleable social issues. It’s not all meant to make us want to storm the barricades—though I think that it would be an outstanding read for book groups because of its premise. Future Home of the Living God is an affective and very effective book that I hope is read as widely as it deserves.

alternate history · fantasy · review · steampunk

The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark

38118138Creeper makes a living as a pickpocket but, at the beginning of P. Djèlí Clark’s delightfully imaginative novella The Black God’s Drums, she comes across a piece of information that could destroy her city. In this version of history, the Civil War has become a cold war. The Confederate States are still struggling along, while the Union maintains its borders with help from the Free Islands of the Caribbean. New Orleans, where Creeper lives, is an independent port where everyone gathers and schemes in a way that reminds me of Casablanca, but with a strong flavor of steampunk and the meddling presence of the orisha.

Creeper’s alcove near the city walls becomes the unlikely meeting place of a band of Confederate States soldiers and an opportunistic Cajun. The soldiers are plotting to kidnap a visiting Haitian scientist who knows how to harness a supernatural weapon of mass destruction. She hides as best she can, then bolts as soon as they leave. The plot doesn’t pause for a minute as Creeper dives head long an attempt to save her city. Fortunately for her, Creeper has allies in form of a visiting Haitian captain and her crew, and a pair of nuns who know everything that’s going on in New Orleans.

Clark is excellent at world-building. The problem (if you call it that) is the plot races along so quickly that we never get a chance to just hang out and enjoy the setting. I hope that there are more books featuring Creeper and the world Clark created just so that I can spend more time in this amazing world. That said, the plot is top notch and full of great action sequences. The Black God’s Drums would be a great read for reader’s looking for a fun, original ride this summer.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.

alternate history · historical fantasy · review · thriller

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · historical fiction · metafiction · review

Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg

36470806Confessions of the Fox, by Jordy Rosenberg, is a very sneaky book. It begins as a discovered manuscript story when academic R. Voth comes across a handful of eighteenth century pages that purport to be the “confessions” of legendary thief and jail-breaker, Jack Sheppard. This is exciting enough, but then it quickly becomes an audacious and extremely erudite story about an intersex protagonist and transgender archivist, slavery, and capitalism. The book sucked me in with Jack’s story only to leave me thinking unsettling thoughts about how much we might (or might not) own our own bodies and livelihoods.

Jack Sheppard was a historical figure with short career as a thief. He is mostly known to us today because he escaped Newgate Prison four times—which was believed to be impossible—before being hanged at Tyburn at the age of 22. In the manuscript Voth discovers, Jack Sheppard has an even more intriguing secret: he is intersex. He prefers male pronouns and dress, but he constantly worries about being found out as well as being rejected by the women he is attracted to. Jack does find love with Bess, a sex worker (as Voth deliberate names her), and the two lead their nemesis, Jonathan Wild, a merry dance, for as long as they can.

Jack_Sheppard
Jack Sheppard in Newgate
Wikicommons)

Voth speaks to us through footnotes. In the beginning of the book, the notes define eighteenth century London slang and offer references to actual scholarly works. But then, they begin to comment on the strangeness of the text—and to fight with their employer, the Dean of Surveillance. The Dean, and his bosses (a nefarious company with too many holdings and very good lawyers), very much want the manuscript. Unlike Voth, who wants to share the text with the world, the Dean and PQuad have a prurient interest in Jack and Bess’ sex life and Jack’s anatomy. The Dean and PQuad don’t understand Jack. They see someone they can gawk at like the Lion-Man in Jack’s story. Their interest raises the stakes for Voth, who suddenly has a bigger mission than just transcribing the manuscript.

I loved the interplay between Voth and Jack’s stories. The parallels between the two lives get stronger as Confessions of the Fox continues, leading to a twist that I’m still thinking about. There is so much in this novel to unpack; this is one of the smartest books I’ve read in a long time. Readers with an academic background will be right at home with this metafictional marvel. Readers who don’t like footnotes, however, may have a hard time with this book. This is also one of the rare books I recommend people read in print.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · horror · review

Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland

30223025Sometimes I worry when authors introduce supernatural or horror tropes to tragic historical events. But I couldn’t resist Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation when it was getting so much positive buzz from readers I know care about diversity and sensitivity. I’m glad I listened. This book is absolutely incredible for the way it introduces zombies to American slavery and institutional racism. Yup: zombies.

Jane McKeene had a privileged but tenuous position at Rose Hill Plantation.The fact that Jane is the black daughter of the plantation mistress is still a scandal, but everyone’s position gets a lot more tenuous when the dead start to rise after the Battle of Gettysburg. The next time we see Jane, she’s drilling with the other (black) students at Miss Preston’s federally-created school for black and Native American children, designed to teach them how to fight the undead—so that the whites don’t have to risk their skins.

On top of the undead, Jane has to deal with the overwhelming racism from the whites around her. They condescend. They punish her when she speaks up for herself. And when she and two of her friends uncovers clues that the there is an unspeakable conspiracy going on that involves shipping people (black and white) out to a places called Summerland when they become “troublesome,” she gets sent on a train out to a town under siege in the middle of Kansas.

Dread Nation is a gripping read. There’s plenty of zombie-killing action and the alternate history is richly imagined. Even though there are undead creatures running around, I found this book incredibly plausible—and incredibly heartbreaking because some of the worst things people say and do in this book are based on things that were really said and done after the Civil War. This book made me very angry, like it was supposed to. Thankfully, Jane’s prowess at killing the undead is hugely satisfying after someone white says something unforgivable.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 3 April 2018.