The Carnival of Ash, by Tom Beckerlegge

In The Carnival of Ashes, Tom Beckerlegge takes us back centuries, to a time when Italy was ruled by city-states and small kingdoms, when Venice governed a trading empire, and the fictional city of Cadenza was ruled by poets. This novel—which is arranged in linked prose chapters called cantos—shows us the strange events that bring down the city of poets and libraries through the eyes of a cross-section of its inhabitants. And not only do the characters vary from high to low, poet and non-poet, the cantos themselves transform from comic to Gothic to mystery to tragedy and more. This book is absolutely stunning.

We first see Cadenza through the eyes of the (initially) hapless Carlo. Carlo is an aspiring poet whose family originally fled from Cadenza decades ago due to a political scandal. Sheltered Carlo has come to redeem his family name, only to be cut to metaphorical ribbons the first time he meets a group of Cadenzan poets and battered by a lot of plain bad luck. Thankfully, he meets a strangely erudite gravedigger who will take him in until he figures out his next steps. The next time we see Carlo will be in a group of writers playfully kidnapping a woefully bad poet whose only redeeming feature is that his father is very rich. Later, we see Carlo as he tries to save a few lives during a revolutionary bonfire that would have done Savonarola proud.

But it takes us quite a long time to rejoin Carlo, because Beckerlegge introduces us to a mysterious ink maid (a woman who makes money by writing customized love letters to her clients), a formerly great poet who squandered his talent on a feud, monks and scholars, torture victims, pompous politicians and their wily wives, and others. By the time we’ve circled back around to Carlo, we have a fairly thorough impression of a city that is teetering on a precipice while others whistle as hard as they can in the dark. We learn that Cadenza is very much about tradition. For example, their leaders must be poets and the current leader (who took over after the previous one was killed by one of his bookshelves) is an accountant. When that leader cancels a central part of the city’s carnival revels, it leads to unrest among the poets. Traditions are jettisoned further when plague arrives. Rumors of invading Venetians and a poorly timed attack of paranoia tip the city even further into chaos. Without their traditions holding them in place, opportunists come out of the woodwork to either settle scores or rise to previously impossible heights.

Readers who enjoy political machinations will like The Carnival of Ash, as will readers who like vivid historical fiction (even if Cadenza wasn’t real). Readers who like virtuosic writing will like this book a lot, too. I was delighted by the way the cantos switched tones and genres without skipping a beat. Even though the characters are, more or less, connected, the different cantos and their genres created a sense of how different all of their lives and perspectives are. In so many books, especially genre fiction, we see characters come together to right a wrong or solve a problem. In The Carnival of Ash, everyone very much has their own problems and motivations. Alliances are temporary and betrayals are frequent in this collection of stories. The end result is an incredibly rich read that I want to dive back into.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing what Beckerlegge serves up next.

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

The Kingdoms, by Natasha Pulley

Beware of Scottish standing stones! It was true in the Outlander series and it’s true in Natasha Pulley’s new novel, The Kingdoms. This book might be Pulley’s most complicated story yet. It crosses history with alternate history, love and suppressed love, characters blinking in and out of existence, amnesia and shifting identities, and lots of conflicting motives. This sounds confusing. I’m not going to lie; parts of The Kingdoms are confusing. But I was hooked on figuring out what the heck was going on and the charmingly bewildered main character.

Joe wakes up on a train somewhere in England in 1891. He doesn’t know where he’s going. He’s not entirely sure what his name is. And when he learns that the train has just pulled into the Gare du Roi in Londres, he suddenly gets the feeling that something is seriously wrong. On arriving at the station, Joe is whisked off to the new Salpêtrière and told that he, like many other Britons, has a kind of epilepsy that has caused him to lose his memory. Readers with a dollop of French and a smidgen of history will know that this London—now Londres—is one where England was successfully invaded by the French, instead of an England that won at the Battle of Waterloo. Joe has no idea what’s wrong; he barely knows what his name is. So when two people show up at the hospital and claim him as an escaped slave, he has little choice but to go with them and try to settle into some kind of life.

The feeling of wrongness doesn’t go away in spite of Joe’s efforts. So, when he has the opportunity to travel to a lighthouse that has some link to his lost past, Joe finagles a trip to the wild, unconquered north. And then The Kingdoms starts to get really weird. Joe is kidnapped and whisked through time to 1807, finding himself in the middle of a very different version of the Napoleonic Wars. The strange stones off the coast of Eilean Mor in Scotland is where everything went wrong. It’s where, in 1797, a steam-powered ship blundered through from an England that won the war against Napoleon. It’s also where a man named Jem fell overboard and the ship and the crew were captured by the French. Not only does the ship, The Kingdom, represent a lot of advanced technology for the French, its crew is also a wealth of knowledge that the French can use to manipulate the future. Poor Joe and his engineering knowledge are caught in the middle of all of this. It’s not until much later that he learns how he got involved and just what his connection is to the disturbing and invincible Captain Missouri Kite.

The Kingdoms is the kind of time-travel/alternate history story that fascinates me. I love to think about historical what-ifs and might-have-beens. I like to follow chains of events back to moments that might be turning points. If this happens instead of that at just this moment, what will the downstream effects be? And, on top of that, what’s the “right” version if there is such a thing as “right”? After all, we wouldn’t think anything was wrong if the French had won at Trafalgar. It would just be history as we know it. Why should Joe help Missouri and the English win? He has no idea which side offers the better future.

Pulley’s other novels—and I’m thinking specifically of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street here—had whimsy to leaven the heavy moments. The Kingdoms, on the other hand, is a very serious book. There are several moments of surprising violence that stunned me and I completely lost track of the number of explosions. If anything lightens this book up, it’s the hints of love between Joe and Missouri that appear in the brief, quiet moments. The hope that Joe might finally recapture his lost memory and the hope that he and Missouri will be able to be together are what pulled me through this twisty, turn-y, exciting novel.

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

The Heavens, by Sandra Newman

A while back—I’m not sure when exactly—a student asked me why Shakespeare was such a big deal. The student said they didn’t really care for the plays; they wanted to know why their English professors made such a fuss. I told this student that part of the reason is that professors and critics decided that Shakespeare was the epitome of literary greatness in English. (There followed a small tangent/rant about how limited the canon is.) Before anyone strips me of my English major credentials, I followed up by explaining why I love Shakespeare. He expressed such a range of human emotion in the most stirring, humorous, loveliest words. I love Shakespeare because he makes me shout, laugh, and cry. I bring all this up because, at the beginning of The Heavens, by Sandra Newman, Shakespeare doesn’t exist for the main characters.

One of the main characters, Kate, seems to drift through life. She doesn’t have a job or career. She crashes with friends, for the most part. Her relationships with others are remarkably drama-free. Her friction-less existence seems to spring from the fact that this world isn’t quite as real to her as the glimpses of another world that Kate sees in her dreams. In those dreams, Kate sees a country called Albion, ruled by a queen, where Kate is the mistress of a noble. The dreams get longer as time goes on and, eventually, Kate realizes that she is dreaming herself into the life of the sixteenth-century poet, Emilia Lanier—a woman scholars speculate might be the Dark Lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. Kate’s plotline is so imaginative that it makes the arc of the other protagonist, Kate’s boyfriend Ben, fade into insignificance for the first part of the book. Sadly, Ben transforms from lover to villain as Kate starts to get lost in her dreams of Elizabethan England.

Kate’s problem with her dreams is not so much that she’s having them, it’s that things are always a little different each time she wakes up in her modern life. The changes might be that the curtains change to blinds. Or the changes might be that the president has another name or that the United States fought other wars or that we haven’t figured out how to leave fossil fuels behind. Kate’s world before she started dreaming seemed a lot like the future the liberals want. It slowly morphs into this world.

By the end of The Heavens, I was left with the question of whether or not the evils of our current world (violence, pollution, anti-science thought, poverty, etc.) are the price we pay for having Shakespeare’s work. As much as I love Shakespeare’s words, I would give them up for a world where no one was hungry or had to worry about being shot at kindergarten or where the clock is urgently ticking towards an unlivable, barren planet. I really enjoyed the brief descriptions of Kate’s original world; I very much wanted Kate to figure out how to reverse the changes she made. The Heavens ended up being a very depressing book for me because Kate can’t seem to stop the changes that her minor interferences appear to have caused.

The Heavens is an interesting thought experiment but, ultimately, it was too demoralizing for me.

Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey

The old trope of running away with the circus never really made sense to me. Sure there’s glamor and adventure, but it always sounded like a lot of messy, smelly work to me. Running away to join librarians, however, is just my cup of tea. Even without the added “motivation” that prompts protagonist Esther runs away to join a group of traveling librarians in a devastated future America in Upright Women Wanted, I would totally understand why she would rather tramp around the desert with librarians than stay in her locked-down home, pushed into marriage and motherhood. This book absolutely delivered on its promise.

Esther is different from all the other girls in her town…well, different from all except one other girl. Things go wrong with their love and when the other girl is murdered, Esther hides away in the wagon of a trio of traveling librarians. She promises to work hard and suppress her otherness, only to be surprised when the women who run the outfit hold each others’ hands and tell her that there are safe places in the world for girls like her. The tricky part is getting to one of those safe places.

Upright Women Wanted rockets along as Esther tries to adjust to life on the road, with danger from the environment and the violent people who try to scratch out a living there. There’s also danger from within, when the librarians pick up a parcel that turns out to be three women trying to escape to one of those safe places. So much happens in this book that I’m astonished it’s so short and so adept at developing its characters. This book is a wonderful treat of a novella. I loved every page.

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

The Record Keeper, by Agnes Gomillion

Trigger warning for physical abuse.

The protagonist of Agnes Gomillion’s The Record Keeper, Arika Cobane, prides herself on her knowledge of the Compromise and the laws of a post-World War III world. She’s in the running to be valedictorian at the brutal school that is training her to be a Record Keeper, with her eyes on the prize of becoming a senator for the Kongo—a dark-skinned people who have mostly been relegated to slavery. She has been told all her life that Record Keepers are a step above the rest of the Kongo people. Arika has been told a lot of things, to be honest. It’s only now that she’s about to take her Final Exam that she finally has the blinders pulled off her head to see how much of what she’s been told are manipulative, racist lies.

The Record Keeper, like Rivers Solomon’s excellent An Unkindness of Ghosts, is the kind of science fiction that deliberately makes us uncomfortable. We can see immediately that slavery has been recreated in a society that hypocritically prides itself on doing things better than the previous generations who ruined the world. Because Arika has limited knowledge of the world before, she does’t know what she’s seeing. She’s also been conditioned to not ask certain questions. Her sadistic teacher, Headmistress Jones, makes sure that all debates stay carefully within acceptable limits. I’m not sure what the future would have been for Arika if a new student, Hosea, hadn’t suddenly appeared, just before the final exam. Hosea’s hostile muteness sparks against Arika’s curiosity and determination not to feel inferior to anyone leads her to try and figure out who this guy is. Before long, Arika is in way over her head as Headmistress Jones bribes her to turn spy against Hosea.

The slavery, Jones’ abuse of her students, and the manipulation of history had me squirming throughout the novel. Usually, I can tell if the discomfort is useful or not. For example, An Unkindness of Ghosts had very intelligent things to say about identity and social conditioning. The brilliant and believable world-building layered over its themes made for a rich reading experience. Other books, like Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith, didn’t fully engage with the reality of slavery, leaving me feeling upset without having learned anything. I’m not sure where The Record Keeper falls on this spectrum. On the one hand, there is a lot of thought put into the world’s backstory and nothing seems forced. On the other, because this book is clearly part of a series, I’m not sure what the payoff is going to be.

This novel is divided into two sections. In the first half-ish of The Record Keeper, Gomillion sets up her world, characters, and the stakes. The second, after Arika has literally and figuratively begun to break free of her mental chains, consists of a long training montage. I was worried about how much could reasonably fit into the rapidly decreasing number of pages as I read. Fair warning: this book ends in a cliff hanger. Because of the book’s structure, I would recommend that anyone interested in reading this book wait for the second book in the series to be published. The Record Keeper and its sequel should probably be read as one, big book.

Man’s 4th Best Hospital, by Samuel Shem

I don’t think that anyone would argue that America’s health system is dangerous, inequitable, and unsustainable. It’s not the fault of the doctors. (In fact, as I read this book, I couldn’t help but realize how lucky I’ve been with my doctors.) It’s the for-profit insurance and hospital systems. Healthcare should not be for-profit. Samuel Shem, in his funny and heartbreaking Man’s 4th Best Hospital (sequel to The House of God and Mount Misery) shows us precisely why. Roy Basch is a battered and scarred veteran of American medicine. Just as he has started to feel healed, his old friend Fats pulls him into another venture in big medicine with promises of no night shifts and protection from hospital administration. But, as we know from the shape Roy is in in the prologue, things will end in some kind of disaster.

Fats reassembles the old team from House of God, a Jewish hospital that competes with Man’s Best Hospital—which is now called Man’s 4th Best because it’s fallen in the national rankings. All of these team members are as battered as Roy. They’re really only willing to give things a try at Man’s 4th Best because of their trust in Fats. Of course, as they have to deal with HEAL—a tablet-based medical records system designed for maximum billing—a resident with Nazi-medical-experiment tendencies, and an overriding pressure to make money, Roy et al. have serious misgivings. All the Fats-team wants is to heal people, to connect with their patients and it seems like everything in modern medicine is working against them. It’s really just Fats determination to bring the humanity back to medicine.

There is an overarching plot to Man’s 4th Best Hospital. Mostly that plot is Roy’s struggle to maintain sanity and sobriety. The prologue lets us know in advance that this adventure won’t have a happy ending. And yet, this book is highly episodic, centered on days in Fats’ Future of Medicine Clinic. There are some truly funny stories. (I laughed so hard at an incident involving a lizard that I had to put my iPad down for a moment to recover myself.) There are also a lot of moving scenes in which Roy manages to do some good in the lives of his patients.

Once I figured out who people were and read enough clues about their past histories (I haven’t read either of the previous books), I was completely hooked on Roy’s story and the gang at Fats’ clinic. At the end of the book, Fats begins to outline his plan to take on the national health crisis. This plan shows just how much any would-be revolutionary would have to take on. It’s like a turtles-all-the-way-down situation. To take on for-profit hospitals, you have to take out for-profit insurance. To take on for-profit insurance, you need to get legislatures to either replace them with a single-payer system and/or regulate the hell out of for-profit insurance. To get the legislature, you have to take on lobbying and Wall Street. It’s hard not to see Fats as Don Quixote. But also, like Don Quixote, I couldn’t help but root from him and Roy and the team–I, too, want a fair health system where people don’t have to worry about paying for the treatments that will keep them alive and well.

I would definitely recommend this book to readers looking for meaningful satire, although I might suggest picking up at least The House of God first, to save them some in medias res confusion.

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

The Future of Another Timeline, by Annalee Newitz

Stay with me for a moment. I will get to Annalee Newitz’s The Future of Another Timeline; I promise. It wasn’t long after Wikipedia launched that it became ubiquitous. In spite of the best efforts of many educators, Wikipedia has built a reputation for being (more or less) reliable. And yet, I regularly blow students’ minds by telling them about Wikipedia shenanigans, like edit wars. An edit war can break out for a lot of reasons, but the end result is the same: a page with content that is constantly shifting until an outside force locks it down. I bring up edit wars because they are at the heart of The Future of Another Timeline…but with time travel.

Tess and her colleagues, the self-named Daughters of Harriet, have been waging an increasingly heated conflict with men’s rights activists over a host of issues that basically boil down to whether or not women will have control of their bodies and reproduction. The MRAs, rallying around the actual crusades of Anthony Comstock, have been sneaking back in time to do nefarious things. Tess et al. are also running around the time stream to undo things or promote greater equality. Meanwhile, Tess has another mission: to stop something terrible from happening when she was a teenager. There are a lot of moving pieces in this book.

As the novel bounces through space-time and from narrator to narrator, we see teams forming, reversals, emotional highs, a dash of serial murder, victories, and a spectacular Spartacus reference. This book clearly has an agenda but, since it’s an agenda I agree with, I didn’t mind much when things suddenly fell into place for Tess and her friends. (Well, not too much, anyway.) Any time my right eyebrow started to lift in skepticism, something fun or interesting or profound would happen and my eyebrow would sink back into place.

I had a great time reading The Future of Another Timeline. Reading it felt like a shot of hope in the arm, considering the news in the United States and the United Kingdom lately. I would definitely recommend this book to people looking for a bookish pick-me-up.

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

The Violent Century, by Lavie Tidhar

In 1932, a scientist flipped a switch on a device without quite knowing what it would do. The device created a bunch of super-powered humans around the world, super-powered humans who are a lot like the X-Men. In Lavie Tidhar’s The Violent Century, we see an alternate history of the twentieth century, the way it would have played out if there had been superheroes running around the battlefields of World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War. There’s even a cheeky cameo by one Stanley Martin Lieber.

Fogg has been “out in the cold” for years when his old partner, Oblivion. They worked for the Bureau of Superannuated Affairs during the War and now, the Old Man, needs to talk to Fogg about some unfinished matters. Being spies, Fogg and Oblivion don’t give away much. It’s a little hard to figure out what’s going on from their conversation. Thankfully, this book is composed mostly in flashbacks that take us from Fogg’s childhood to his recruitment, to World War II, and beyond. By the end of the book, we get a completely different history of an entire century. I loved this gritty retelling of history so much!

Throughout the book, as Fogg and Oblivion pop up in history, Fogg constantly wonders about what makes a hero. From 1936, each of the major powers field what they call Übermenschen or superheroes or the changed. The Germans have Schneesturm (Snow Storm) and Machertraum (Dream Maker) and Wulfmann (Wolfman). The Russians have the Red Sickle and Rusalka and Koshchei the Deathless. The Americans have Tigerman, Whirlwind, and the Green Gunman. There’s even a brilliant appearance of a super-powered Jewish Pole during the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. The British have their share of superheroes, but they play a different game. Where other countries send their super-powered into the field, the British watch, take notes, and wait. Fogg is constantly told not to interfere, which goes against his instincts to save lives. His orders to stay out of sight really do a number on his psyche. It’s little wonder that Oblivion finds Fogg in a bar.

Through The Violent Century mostly looks back at Fogg’s past and the violent twentieth century, Tidhar brings everything to a stunning and satisfying conclusion. This book had me hooked from the beginning. It’s full of cameos and hints at our history that I loved puzzling out, on top of a fascinating story with terrific characters. This book is a wonderful adventure.

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

The Philosopher’s War, by Tom Miller

The adventures of Robert Canderelli Weekes continue in The Philosopher’s War, by Tom Miller, sequel to The Philosopher’s Flight. After training hard in Texas, Robert has finally achieved his dream: active duty in the Sigil Corps as a Rescue & Evacuation hoverer, just like his legendary mother. Traditionally, only women are members of the Sigil Corps; it’s believed that men just aren’t talented enough or strong enough to handle the work. (There’s a lot of very satisfying gender reversals in this series.) Robert is the first man to join R&E. But on his very first day in France in 1918, Robert learns what it really means to fly into the aftermath of a battle to evacuate wounded and dying men. He has to do a lot of growing up fast…and not just because war demands it, but because there are people high up in both the German and American armies who want to unleash doomsday weapons to break the stalemate and win the war.

You can almost divide The Philosopher’s War into two parts. In the first part, we see Robert having to adapt himself to life on the edge of the Western Front as a man in the middle of a woman’s world. Robert’s mantra is to keep his head down and work hard while the women who’ve been in France for years tease him and try to wear the newbie shine off of him. Eventually, he and his comrades settle into a working relationship (still with a lot of teasing, but friendlier) as they evacuate thousands off of the battlefield. The man plot of the book kicks off about a third of the way in, when Robert is approached by their division commander, General Thomasina Blandings, tells him about a plot to hit the Germans back with a terrible philosophical weapon if they use one first. Using these weapons, she says, will kills millions and she can’t abide them; then she asks him to join a mutiny. From that point on, Robert isn’t just rescuing soldiers, he’s also working unofficially for Blandings—until he reaches a moral crisis about who he should be fighting with and what he should be fighting for.

I strongly recommend that anyone interested in reading The Philosopher’s War read the first book in the series. This book just doesn’t have time to explain how philosophy works in this world. There’s so much plot that this book is basically cover-to-cover adventure, once the main plot kicks off. Miller doesn’t sacrifice characterization for plot, thankfully. Where Robert was very much a boy-hero in the first book and at little bit at the first book, he matures a lot in this book. Like many soldiers in many other genres, Robert struggles with what he’s been told about war and why they’re fighting. All he can see, from his vantage point as a philosophically-powered ambulance, is a lot of bloody, painful, tragic waste. If nothing else, The Philosopher’s War is a book about how comradeship develops and how strong it can be under pressure. Robert, who had idealized the Corps (mostly because of his mother’s reputation), finds that the people you can trust the most are the people you work and bleed with and not necessarily the people handing out the orders.

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

Rotherweird, by Andrew Caldecott

Sometimes I think I spot books that started as authors doodling maps of imaginary cities. From the maps, cultures and histories arrive, and the author has to splice in a plot to make all the parts move. This isn’t always successful, because the imaginary place can end up seeming more real than the characters walking its streets. Happily, this is not the case with Andrew Caldecott’s Rotherweird, the first novel in a trilogy. Rotherweird, England, is an isolated town set aside during the reign of Queen Mary to house children born with frightening abilities. Five hundred years later, this history is lost and the town has a reputation for little more than being unfriendly to visitors. Jonah Oblong, a history teacher, is dropped into the middle of the town at the beginning of the novel when he takes a job where he is prohibited from teaching anything before the year 1800.

Rotherweird is very much an ensemble piece. Oblong serves as an expository character so that we can get bits and pieces of history as he is told or figures things out. Meanwhile, various characters—a dodgy botanist, an antiquarian, a physicist, and a man with more secrets than is healthy—slowly maneuver around a conspiracy that dates back to the founding of the town. We see an occasional glimpse of events in the 1570s that shed a little more light on things. Still, things remain murky for a long time while the characters (and we readers) piece things together and create a plan to save their town from being taken over by a sinister billionaire who is trying to buy his way into the town’s mysteries.

Rotherweird is very much a slow burn. The town and its history are so interesting, though, that I didn’t mind taking the long way around. I wanted to know more about what makes the town special. Rotherweird is a hub of scientific discoveries and innovation, though it follows a parallel track to the rest of the country. The town also retains a strictly Elizabethan character. The buildings are stony and half-timber, all grown up haphazardly over time. Oblong scores invites to two of the town’s uproariously weird annual festivals, one of which is a river race using coracles while the rowers (for lack of a better term) are dressed up in elaborate costumes. I love that Rotherweird is illustrated; I wish there were more of them, in fact.

The setting steals the show more than once in Rotherweird, but the plot turns out to be very gripping once the ensemble start to share information and join forces to take down the rich man, upset an ancient scheme, and save the day. The plot definitely rewards the patient. That said, I wish the plot had taken less time to cohere and that the book focused on one or two fewer characters. Rotherweird is not quite a Dickensian sprawl, but it comes close at times. Readers who enjoy big, messy novels were nothing comes easily will enjoy this book very much. I suspect that readers who fall in love with the setting will be pleased to learn that at least two more books follow Rotherweird.

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