Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka

Suzuki is in way over his head in Three Assassins, by Kōtarō Isaka. But then, it’s true that revenge never goes according to plan…and especially not in an Isaka novel. When we meet him, Suzuki is in a very awkward position. He’s managed to infiltrate the organization run by the father of the guy who killed his wife. Suzuki hopes his plan will get him closer to his wife’s killer. It’s not a bad plan, except that Suzuki is not nearly as good an actor as he thinks he is. His “supervisor” devises an awful test for him and, just when Suzuki has to make a decision, the plot erupts to life. Isaka takes us on a wild ride across Tokyo as plans collide with schemes and get tangled up in last-ditch efforts. It’s an intricately plotted mess involving a lot of very dangerous people.

While Three Assassins begins with a revenge plot stopped in its tracks, it quickly turns into a bunch of narratives bouncing off one another. Suzuki’s bumbling intersects with the efforts of the Cicada (a master with knives who specializes in eliminating entire families) to make his name in the “industry” of killers for hire and with the Whale’s (who specializes in forcing people to commit suicide) attempts to settle scores that have been racking up over the course of his shadowy career. And then there’s the Pusher, who kills people with a timely push in front of a car or train. All three of these assassins are people you never want to meet. Unfortunately for Suzuki, he’s on a collision course with all of them.

I can’t say too much more about Three Assassins without giving things away. Suffice to say, this book is an excellent thriller. Isaka’s intersecting plots and mordant humor are a delight to read. The hints of the supernatural make things even better. Readers who want a fast, fierce read should pick this one up.

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

Come to This Court and Cry, by Linda Kinstler

It’s been 77 years since the end of World War II and the Holocaust. We know a lot about what happened but, as Linda Kinstler finds as she tries to track down any information about a grandfather who disappeared, there are things that we will never know. Documents were destroyed. Mass graves were obliterated. We have survivor testimonies but not everyone was willing or able to talk about what happened to them. Now, after so many decades, many of the last survivors and perpetrators have passed on. In Come to This Court and Cry, Kinstler investigates two mysteries. First, there is what might have happened to Boris Kinstler. The second—and the one that ends up being more successful—is Kinstler’s exploration of what Herberts Cukurs did during the war and why Mossad agents assassinated him in 1965. What connects the two men? They both served in the notorious Arajs Kommando, under the command of the SS in Latvia.

Kinstler begins her book in what might strike some as an odd place for a work that spends so much time discussing legal culpability and rules of evidence. She begins in a book store, with a copy of a novel about the assassination of Herberts Cukurs based on actual events. Within a few paragraphs, however, it makes sense to begin this book with a novel. Kinstler repeatedly talks about how we use law, history, and story to organize the bits and pieces of what we know into a coherent whole. For example, there are multiple testimonies from survivors that place Cukurs at the scenes of massacres during the war. Some survivors claim they say Cukurs shoot people. Another survivor, however, explains how Cukurs saved her from the Riga ghetto and helped her escape to Uruguay. There aren’t any documents that definitively prove that Cukurs killed anyone; they only confirm that he was in the Arajs Kommando (which definitely carried out massacres of Jewish people). To make these fragments into a whole that tells us whether or not Cukurs was a perpetrator or a fellow traveler, we have to use what we know about the place, the time, the Holocaust, and so on. Kinstler presents everything she knows, then leaves us to decide on Cukurs’s guilt and if he deserved to be gunned down by Mossad.

The memorial and ruins of the Great Choral Synagogue of Riga, destroyed by the Arajs Kommando and others in 1941 (Image via Wikicommons)

In the same way that Kinstler meditates on the roles of literature, law, and history in determining the truth, she also returns to the questions of culpability and guilt. She references the Nuremberg Tribunal and other trials that sought to assign blame for the Holocaust and punish the perpetrators. So few people were tried. Of those who were tried, some served gallingly short sentences. But what about the people who followed orders? Who turned in their neighbors? Who voted the Nazis into power in the first place? Once you think about it, the ripples of guilt spread out to thousands. And to what end? It wasn’t possible to arrest most of continental Europe after the war. And arresting everyone wouldn’t bring back everyone and everything that was lost.

And what about Kinstler’s grandfather, Boris? Well, there even the best storytelling can’t bring him out of the shadows. It’s so sad that Kinstler ends up knowing a lot more about a probable war criminal than she can know about her own grandfather. She’ll never know if he was a perpetrator or an agent of the KGB or both. She’s like a lot of other descendants in that she will never know what happened to her forebears in the Holocaust. All that’s left are bits of documentation, stories, rumors, and a sense of denied justice.

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

The Book Eaters, by Sunyi Dean

Devon, the protagonist of Sunyi Dean’s unsettling novel, The Book Eaters, is caught between a rock and a hard place. In her case, the rock is her family and the hard place is her child. Devon’s family is special. They sustain themselves by eating books and not in a metaphorical way. The family keeps to themselves as much as possible. By the time we meet Devon, however, she has managed to break free somehow. Well, sort of. Her rock and her hard place keep her from being truly free. The hope that she might be keeps Devon putting one foot in front of the other as the rock and hard place collide, catching her in the middle.

The Book Eaters jumps back and forth from Devon’s present to her past and it takes several chapters to learn what on earth is going on with Devon and her son, Cai. All we know at first is that Cai is very sick. There’s a drug that can make him well, but the only people who make it have gone off even the secretive book eater grid. Unlike his mother, who draws nourishment from books (the older the better), Cai eats minds. At this point, I realized that, instead of a bookish flavored fantasy, this book is actually a horror novel. This book gets very bloody (or inky, as the case may be) very quickly.

The chapters set in Devon’s past explain why and do absolutely nothing to relieve the creepy atmosphere. Devon, we learn, was the treasured girl-child of a family in decline. The book eaters are struggling to reproduce. As soon as they are of age, girls are entered into arranged marriages in the hope that they will have children before their ovaries shut down. The girls have no choice in the matter. Sometimes, the marriages go well, while they last. Unfortunately for Devon, her first marriage was not good and her second was much worse.

I understood Devon’s motivations. She loves her son and would do anything to keep him alive. On the other hand, I didn’t understand the motivations of her brother, Ramsey, who sets himself up as her antagonist. Where Devon just wants an escape for herself and her son, Ramsey wants to restore the old way of things, with himself bossing everyone around. He’s given a background full of the kind of abuse meant to make him loyal to the “knights” who are tasked with controlling people like Cai and with arranging the marriages that produce the next generations of book eaters. It works too well for me to find it plausible. I found Ramsey’s monologing and stubbornness weirdly one-dimensional, especially in comparison to Devon and Cai’s characterization.

I try not to fault books for not being what I hoped they would be after reading the early publisher blurbs. I wish there had been more about the history of the book eaters. Some of the characters hint at their origins, but we only ever get hints. Instead, the book takes its premise and the wonderful character of Devon and insists on steering the plot into horror and thriller territory. The Book Eaters is an interesting book, sure, but I wouldn’t recommend it to fans of fantasy or dark academia. This book is for readers who like original scenarios along with flying bullets.

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

Witches, by Brenda Lozano

Trigger warning for rape, anti-LGBTQ+ prejudice, and interpersonal violence.

There are so many things we don’t know about ourselves. There are medicines we take for which we don’t know the mechanism of action. There are ailments that we don’t have good treatments for or, sometimes, any treatment at all. Perhaps the most mysterious illnesses of all are the ones that afflict our psyches or, as the protagonist of Brenda Lozano’s affecting novel, The Witches, would say: sickness in our soul or our “deep waters.” Feliciana, modeled in part on real-life curandera María Sabina Magdalena García, has been healing people’s sick souls for decades through veladas, ceremonies involving the use of psychoactive mushrooms. When journalist Zoe comes to interview Feliciana after the murder of Feliciana’s transgender mentor and friend, Paloma, we see how Feliciana works her magic on maladies that no one else would consider curable.

The Witches is thoughtfully translated by Heather Cleary, who also writes a very informative introduction that I recommend to readers who aren’t familiar with curanderos or third-gender people in Mesoamerican cultures.

Feliciana and Paloma are the children of curanderos. Their family knowledge of local flora and fungi give them the ability to heal people with conditions Westerners might diagnose as alcoholism, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Over the years, attention from Western researchers, doctors, and (mostly) celebrities has turned her into a powerful woman who is viewed with jealousy by many people in her small Mexican village. But whatever ire is directed towards Feliciana pales in comparison to the violence faced by muxe Paloma, who we only meet through Feliciana’s memories about her mentor and friend. Just before the book opens, Paloma is murdered by a man who she accidentally infected with “a disease unborn,” which I think means HIV.

Psilocybe caerulescens, one of several psychoactive mushrooms used in Mesoamerican healing (Image via Wikicommons)

Feliciana tells her story—and Paloma’s story—to Zoe, a journalist who has reached the end of her psychological endurance. Just as Feliciana relates her life story, the curandera asks Zoe about her own life. It isn’t hard to see the parallels between Zoe and Feliciana’s lives: parents with abilities beyond the strictly mundane, sisters with histories of abuse, and pressure to “stay in their place” from society at large. The big difference between the two is that Feliciana has a deep, hopeful faith that everything wrong can be righted whereas Zoe has struggled to function and find happiness in her own life.

While Witches is primarily centered on the women’s lives, it does touch briefly on cultural appropriation, the limits of faith and healing, and the duty to one’s own happiness versus the duty to use one’s knowledge to help the community. I was glad to see these topics addressed because it enriches what is already a fascinating pair of stories. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a soul-deep story about hope, healing, and honesty.

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

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Learning another language is hard work for most of us, and I’ve always been a little jealous of kids who grew up bilingual and people who have the knack for picking up new languages. It’s not just the memorization, which I think of as a feat on its own. It’s also the ability to get one’s brain to push a native language to the side enough to let in new grammar, idioms, word order, and cultural context. That first language always leaves a big imprint. I’ve never really been able to get past the stage of translating in my head whenever I’ve attempted to pick up a new language. I’ve always dreamed in English. The protagonists of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang, however, have the knack for language. Once their linguistic talents were discovered, our protagonists were scooped up from around the British Empire and sent to Oxford University, to take part in the multilingual machine that fuels the whole operation. Word nerds will love this highly original historical fantasy.

Robin Swift was rescued from death by cholera (which killed his family) in Canton by a wealthy Oxford don. His early fluency in Cantonese and English gave Professor Lovell enough confidence in Robin’s talents to take him to England, teach him Latin, Greek, and Mandarin, and eventually send him to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. The Royal Institute controls the silver-work trade. In this version of history, silver has the ability to transform the inherent instability* of translations to make ships go faster, heal the sick, ensure the safety of roads, and do so many of the things that keep the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world. At the Royal Institute, Robin and the rest of his cohort—Ramy, from Bengal; Victoire, from Haiti via France; and Letty, the sole British student in their group—learn to trace etymologies along with studying the vocabulary and grammar of their designated languages to create the powerful match-pairs of words that fuel the silver.

Robin has had doubts about the British Empire and his role in it almost since he met Lovell. These doubts grow in the face of the casual racism he and, later, the brown members of his cohort experience constantly in England. Robin also grows up starved of love in Lovell’s house. There are strong hints that Lovell is Robin’s biological father and yet the man is incapable of praising Robin or showing him any sign of affection whatsoever. Worse, Lovell firmly believes in the superiority of the white race and is violently prejudiced against Asians. The only reason he learned Mandarin and Cantonese—and fathered children with Chinese women—was because the Royal Institute required increasingly diverse match-pairs because the English language notoriously adds new vocabulary whenever its speakers meet a new language. Robin’s questions about the injustice he sees everywhere around him only grow louder as he learns more about what the Royal Institute and the British government have done and are doing to preserve their preeminence.

As Robin and his cohort get closer to graduation, the novel shifts from Babel to The Necessity of Violence. More people than just Robin, Ramy, and Victoire are unhappy about the status quo. They are contacted by members of the Hermes Society, a group of disgruntled students and former students of the Royal Institute who want to change the world. They want justice. They want equality. The problem is that they are tackling entrenched, systemic inequality and they can’t decide if the best way to affect change is by persuasion or through violence. Robin et al. waver between peaceful protest and violent acts of sabotage for much of the book, until betrayal and events that look an awful lot like the start of the Opium Wars kick off. They can’t go on among Oxford’s dreaming spires with clear consciences. Something has to be done.

Some readers might find Babel a little preachy at times. Even though I agree with a lot of the arguments made here about redistribution of wealth, anti-racism, gender equality, and dismantling monopolies, there were some sections of dialogue I skimmed over. That said, there was a lot I loved in this book. I loved the tricky character development and psychological realism. I adored Kuang’s reimagined Oxford and magical system. I was absolutely hooked by the sections that discussed with relish the intricacies of language. As I said, word nerds are going to enjoy the hell out of this book. I also think that readers who see injustice in the real world around them will find a lot to relate to here and, maybe, find some of the gumption Robin finds to make a stand and foster change for the better.

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

Panorama of Oxford University, 2016 (Image via Wikicommons)

* While it is possible to translate words one-for-one between languages, something is always lost in terms of nuance and context. Translators often wrestle with fidelity (perfectly capturing the original language) and making something flow in another langauge. For example, German word order often kicks a verb to the end of a sentence. For example, if I were to faithfully translate the sentence “Ich würde lieber Kaffee trinken” in English, I would end up with the ungrammatical “I would prefer coffee to drink.” It’s easy with this simple example to re-render the sentence into “I would prefer to drink coffee” without losing much, if anything. But this small example doesn’t involve untranslatable terms like Schadenfreude**, idioms, complex tenses, etc. When that happens, translators have to make choices about what’s essential and what’s grammatically/lexically possible.

** One of my absolute favorite words and I’m glad English stole it from the Germans.

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A Dreadful Splendor, by B.R. Myers

Life is hard for a medium. It’s even harder when the medium’s landlady is blackmailing said medium in order to get her to steal from her wealthy clients. Although Genevieve Timmons is a natural at cold-reading and getting clients to believe that she can communicate with the dead, she is not at all talented in theft. In the opening pages of B.R. Myers’s delightful A Dreadful Splendor, Genevieve is caught red-handed and thrown in a London jail. The only way out comes in the form of a curious offer from an elderly lawyer. He can get her out, he says, but only if she can use her mediumistic skills to help his employer get over the grief of losing a fiancee.

It’s a lot to take in but Myers barely gives us or Genevieve a chance to catch our breaths before whisking us away to an estate in northern England that could almost challenge Manderley, Thrushcross Grange, or Thornfield Hall for moody dampness. (If you recognize those place names, you’ll probably also pick up on hints of Rebecca, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre scattered around A Dreadful Splendor. Thankfully, those references and vibes are merely seasonings in this entertaining and original story.) Genevieve meets the master of the house under inauspicious circumstances on her very first night at Somerset Park and is dragooned into yet another plot. Gareth Pemberton still wants Genevieve to hold a seance but, this time, he wants her to use her cold-reading skills to get his fiancee’s killer to confess.

Genevieve is a wonderful amateur detective. Normally I get annoyed at these kinds of characters because they’re often written to be instant experts at forensics or interrogation or something; I don’t find it believable when a chef or a bookstore owner suddenly becomes a master detective. Genevieve I can believe. She was brought up to notice things and use her observations to manipulate her target’s emotions. She’s also learned to hide what she can do under the cover of the supernatural—which turns out to be very effective against the superstitious or those with guilty consciences. Because Genevieve is under orders from both her lawyer-rescuer, Mr. Lockhart, and Pemberton, she has to dance as fast as she can to keep her secrets.

The pace set in the first chapters never slackens. In fact, the twists start coming hard and heavy after Genevieve is pushed into detective duty. And there are definite signs that nefarious things are afoot at Somerset Park, from the hints about the terrifying family history to the voices in the walls to the creepy housekeeper. A Dreadful Splendor isn’t all mystery and horror, however. Genevieve and Mr. Pemberton start to spark almost immediately. Watching these two verbally spar with each other was as much fun as trying to figure out what on earth is going on at Somerset Park and what really happened to the lamented fiancee. This book was an absolute pleasure to read.

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

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, by Tsering Yangzom Lama

There are (at least) two different histories of the land we know as Tibet, depending on who you ask. The official People’s Republic of China version calls its actions a “liberation” or an “annexation” of Tibet. If you ask Tibetans, China invaded and occupied their country. In 1959, after an attempt to get the Chinese Army out of Tibet, the 14th Dalai Lama, his government, and thousands of Tibetans fled their mountains to India, Nepal, and other countries. Tsering Yangzom Lama’s novel, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies, follows a family of refugees from their mountain village to Nepal and Canada, from 1960 to the early 2010s. Through the eyes of Lhamo, Tenkyi, Dolma, and others, we see the effects of exile, loss, disappointment, and misunderstanding. This book is a welter of emotion that, among other things, serves as a reminder that the Tibet many once called home may never be reclaimed.

We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies follows a roughly chronological structure, with some jumping around the generations. The book opens in 1960, with Lhamo. Lhamo is the daughter of a shaman. She and her father mind the house and keep people fed and clothed while Lhamo’s mother consults gods and spirits for any visitor who needs answers to their questions. Lhamo is the kind of dependable person who, from a Western perspective, might be seen as a doormat. She is always taking care of others, especially her younger sister, Tenkyi. We learn about her dreams and longings as we spend time with her. She wants better than a life of very hard work but always puts other ahead of herself. Tenkyi, who we meet later in the novel, travels further than her sister. Her intelligence is recognized early and the teacher in their Nepali refugee camp helps raise funds to send Tenkyi to college in Dehli. Dolma, Lhamo’s daughter, perhaps travels the furthest. She and Tenkyi manage to get visas to Canada, where Dolma goes to graduate school. Dolma’s distance isn’t just geographical. Unlike Tenkyi and Lhamo, Dolma never lived in Tibet. She was never fully immersed in the culture and beliefs. The closest she can come to knowing her heritage culture is to study it with Western anthropologists on another continent.

As we sojourn with the women through the decades and the miles, we watch them try to make a life for themselves out of their displacement. None of them can know what might have happened if Lhamo and Tenkyi’s parents hadn’t chosen to flee. (Their mother was under suspicion for her role as a religious leader and healer.) When those parents tragically die, the girls are even more adrift. It seems like Lhamo, Tenkyi, and Dolma constantly revisit the question of what might have been as they grow older. What might have happened if Lhamo had been able to find love? What might have happened if Tenkyi had been with the security of a family? And what might Dolma have been able to become if she’d grown up fully living her culture, instead of learning about it secondhand?

Under the heartbreaking plot and character studies, We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies is the richest depiction of Tibetan life and culture that I’ve ever encountered in fiction. I was engrossed in the narrative but what really grabbed me were the details about Tibet’s shamanic traditions, the food Tibetans were able to create in their sparse homeland, and a way of life ruled by the tenets of Gelug Buddhism. I spent a lot of time bouncing around online and in Wikipedia looking at pictures of Tibet and its people, while trying to get up to speed on the political history. I wanted to see what I was reading about. The Wikipedia dive isn’t necessary to understand this book and, actually, I recommend saving the research for after you’ve read the book. Without prior knowledge of the historical context, readers of We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies—which I think is a reference to pilgrim’s prostrations—might be able to feel some of the bewilderment of an uprooted people, who have unreliable access to trustworthy information, living in long-term exile.

If you enjoy family sagas or books set in locations far away from any place you’ve ever been, I would definitely recommend We Measure the Earth with Our Bodies.

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

Drigung Monastery, eastern Tibet, 2009 (Image by Antoine Teveneaux and hosted on Wikicommons)

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The Bruising of Qilwa, by Naseem Jamnia

There are a set of questions that students often ask me. How long does this paper need to be? How many sources do I need? What’s a good length for a paragraph? After the first couple of years of college, professors tend to take off the training wheels and just give students a target range to aim for. I can’t do much better than to tell students “as many sources and as many pages as you need to get your point across.” It’s an aggravating response because, without experience, it’s hard to know how to pace yourself. Authors, of course, don’t even have target ranges to aim for. The divisions between novel, novella, and short story are notoriously subjective. The reason I bring all this up is because I think Naseem Jamnia shorted themselves with The Bruising of Qilwa. They have invented such a fascinating world and such interesting characters that I was left wanting a lot more after a scant 176 pages.

Due to supernatural and political violence, the city-state of Qilwa has become the uneasy home of thousands of refugees. Firuz-e Jafari and their family are among them. Firuz is a half-trained blood adept (a magically-powered physician) who manages to support their family by finding work at the last independent clinic in the city. All of the others are under orders from the city government and medical academy to extract payment from patients and, even worse, turn away refugees. From the perspective of Firuz and their boss, Kofi, this is not only inhumane but also incredibly stupid because there is a plague making its way through the population.

For most of The Bruising of Qilwa, Firuz keeps their light under a bushel. Firuz has the ability to use their blood and the blood of patients to diagnose and heal. But blood adepts are poorly understood in the city and, like so many other poorly understood things, they are feared. Not only does it mean that they have to do their job with a metaphorical hand tied behind their back, it also means that they can’t openly research how to help their brother align his body with his gender identity. Interestingly, while Firuz has to hide their magical abilities, Qilwans are so accepting of transgender and nonbinary identities that the only hiccups Firuz and her brother seem to experience are linguistic ones as the characters share their preferred pronouns. No one bats an eye at LGBTQ+ relationships. I love this trend in fantasy and science fiction literature.

My major complaint about this engrossing story is that it’s much too short. Firuz and their family’s past hints at a fascinating history, one that I very much want to know more about. I also wanted to know more about, well, everything. How did Qilwa, Dilmun, and other countries come to be? What does the larger world look like? More specifically, why does the medical academy have so much power in Qilwa? Why is the government so involved in the running of Kofi and Firuz’s clinic? How does blood magic work and what can it do? I really enjoyed the touches of Zoroastrianism and other real-world faiths and cultures that appears in The Bruising of Qilwa. I just wanted a lot more of it. At not even 200 pages, this book is shockingly short. I really hope Jamnia picks up their keyboard and gives us more of this world. They could have easily taken a couple hundred more pages for their assignment of telling Firuz et al.’s story.

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