Apollo Kagwa thought he had the perfect life. He’s got his dream job as a rare book dealer. He’s deeply in love with his wife and they’re expecting their first child. Unfortunately for Apollo, he’s in a Victor LaValle novel, which means that things quickly get strange, dark, and dangerous. In The Changeling, Apollo soon finds himself in a parental nightmare that stretches back centuries.
The Changeling takes several chapters to gain traction as LaValle starts Apollo’s story with his parents. While we learn why Apollo is so determined to have a traditional family and so happy when he thinks he’s found it, I wondered all through those chapters when the action was going to start. When it does start, the plot took me for a terrifying ride alongside Apollo.
A few months after Apollo’s son is born, his wife, Emma, starts to behave strangely. A doctor might diagnose her with post-natal depression. After six months of Emma’s loathing of their child, she attacks Apollo and murders the child. Then she disappears. Apollo goes to jail for holding Emma’s co-workers hostage in an attempt to find out where she went. And then, things get very strange when Apollo realizes that the son he’d cherished was not at all what he thought it was.
The Changeling is, on its surface, a horror story in which the ordinary becomes supernatural and deadly. Underneath that surface, it’s a story that asks serious questions about what it means to be a parent when the day-to-day reality of the job is far from the ideal. Being a parent is about sacrifice, but I doubt that any parent has to face the struggles Apollo and Emma go up against when they find out what happened to their real son.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 June 2017.
The future is impossible to predict, which is why I’m always surprised that some people are so willing to give credence to prophecies and visions. There are two many factors at play to say for certain what’s going to happen very far down the road. Things are different in fiction, of course, but I tend to stay away from books about destiny and prophecies because the outcome is preordained. What I do enjoy, however, are stories that subvert this trope. Near the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, the stunning debut by Charlie Jane Anders, we learn that one or both of the protagonists will destroy the world. But since neither has actually done anything, they’re innocent. It’s a dilemma.
All the Birds in the Sky is the story of a witch and a nerd genius. (It’s a delightful blend of the two genres.) Both have a very hard time with bullies because they just don’t fit in with their peers. Because they are both ostracized, they gravitate to each other, comforting each other in the middle of rumors, dumpster wedgies, and worse. Life gets hard for each once they hit their mid-teen years. Their guidance counselor—who is an incognito assassin from a mystical order—has had a vision that these children will destroy the world with their powers. They must be stopped. But since he is prohibited (on pain of death) from killing children, he tries everything to get someone else do the dirty work. He starts with the witch, Patricia. He tells her that her only friend, Laurence, must be killed or else. When that fails, the counselor turns the school against Patricia and has Laurence packed off to a sadistic military school.
After a spectacular scene in which we learn what Patricia is capable of, All the Birds in the Sky jumps ahead. Patricia has learned to be a witch and is doing some kind of penance by healing everyone she can get her hands on. Meanwhile, Laurence has left behind his AI project to try and create a wormhole creator so that humanity can escape if earth becomes uninhabitable. The two characters’ stories once again weave together as Patricia and Laurence reestablish their friendship. Unfortunately, events run ahead of them and the pair find themselves in the middle of a war between science and magic.
I realize that my summary might make All the Birds in the Sky sound a little dull. This book is anything but. It’s just hard to capture the richness of Anders’ characterization and world-building. The science fiction chapters and the fantasy chapters are utterly convincing. It only takes Anders a few paragraphs to get you to sink into each genre. Also, unlike most destiny-based novels, Patricia and Laurence get less likely to fulfill their destinies as time goes on. How are these two, who only want the best for humanity, going to destroy the world? The mystery kept me reading All the Birds in the Sky way past my bedtime.
Some people need a catalyst to spur them to become who they were always meant to be: better, wiser, stronger. Adrien Thomas’s catalyst, as we learn in Ali Shaw’s The Trees, is more catastrophic than most. One night, he goes to sleep after eating cheap takeaway and sulking about his life. When he wakes in the morning, he discovers that the primeval forest has returned with a vengeance. Massive trees have erupted everywhere, destroying houses, roads, and anything that stands in their path. Civilization collapses as the trees rise. But Adrien, miserable and cowardly as he is, now has a mission in life: to find his wife.
The Trees is a story about learning what we are capable of. The main story belongs to Adrien. Adrien used to be a teacher, until he gave it up because he couldn’t stand his pupils’ bullying. He never found his purpose in life. Instead, he would spent his days worrying about everything and annoying his wife. Before the trees came, Adrien’s wife went to a conference in Ireland. Without planes or boats, the Irish Sea seems an insurmountable barrier. Apart from that, without his new friend Hannah’s help, Adrien wouldn’t have made it very far in this brave new world.
As Adrien slowly (sometimes painfully so) learns to stop worrying about everything and giving up before he starts anything, Hannah learns just how brutal nature can be. Before the trees came, Hannah worked at a plant nursery. She learned as much as she could about the natural world. When the trees came, Hannah briefly entertained the hope that humanity could now live in Edenic harmony with nature. Humans being humans, however, eventually disabuse Hannah of her naiveté. So while Adrien learns how to be less of a coward, Hannah learns that the good sometimes have to do bad thing to protect their own.
Together, Adrien, Hannah, Hannah’s son Seb, and Hiroko—a Japanese student stranded in England while on a school trip—make their way west through the forest. They are possibly the least likely questers in literary history. Adrien has no clue what he’s doing most of the time. Seb and Hiroko would be happy just wandering off into the woods to live like wild people. After Hannah badly compromises her principles, she frequently gets lost in self-castigation.
The quartet are a mess and they could really have used a wizard a couple of times. They never get a wizard, but they have their guides. Hannah occasionally spots kirin, who show her where the group needs to go when they have a crisis. Adrien’s helpers, the whisperers, are less obviously helpful. They haunt him rather than actively intercede for him. It isn’t until much later that Adrien (and we, the readers) learn what they were trying to tell our erstwhile hero.
I was hooked on The Trees from the first chapter. The only thing that keeps me from giving this delightfully tense adult fable a five-start review is a slow, bloody passage that takes place after the questers arrive in Ireland. The narrative looses touch with the mystery of the forest for a little too long while Hannah wrestles with her conscience. But the ending put the novel right back on track. On balance, I really enjoyed this book.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: recommended for readers with a tendency to give up too soon or to beat themselves up when they make mistakes.
Alok shouldn’t trust the stranger he meets at a baul (a musical performance by Bengali mystics). The stranger tells him this more than once as he pulls Alok into the story of his past. Even though Alok is a history professor, he has to know more about the stranger’s story of werewolves, rakshasas, and a Mughal woman who was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of a monster. The Devourers, by Indra Das, is a strange history of creatures from folklore who are uncomfortable in all of their skins.
Though the novel is framed by Alok’s acquaintance with the stranger, who asks him to transcribe what he claims are ancient documents, the bulk of the novel tells the story of a werewolf who has learned to feel guilty for his killings and long for the love of a human. The stranger claims to be a half werewolf and his story is hypnotic to Alok. As Alok gets deeper and deeper into the stranger’s stories, he gradually shakes off his postmodern skepticism and take most of what the stranger claims at face value. More than anything else, he has to know what happens next.
In current contemporary fantasy, werewolves run a close second to vampires as objects of forbidden desire. In The Devourers, the werewolves (drawn from various folklores) really are forbidden. Their own laws prohibit them from having any contact with humans other than to hunt and eat them. And yet, Fenrir (who named himself after the wolf of Norse mythology) is fascinated by these short-lived beings. Unlike werewolves, humans can create. In India, during the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir sees a woman who isn’t automatically terrified of his wild-looking, smelly self. The first document Alok transcribes is Fenrir’s tale of how he came to “love” the woman, Cyrah, and his desire to make a child with a human.
The second document contains Cyrah’s story. After Fenrir’s rape, she makes a deal with the werewolf’s former pack mate to track him down. She plans to make Fenrir suffer some kind of retribution, though she’d be the first to admit that she doesn’t know what that punishment will be or how she will mete it out. But as we’ve learned from Alok and the stranger, two people can’t stay in close contact and share their stories without learning to find what they have in common. Cyrah and Gévaudan (named for the region he came from in France, which would later suffer attacks from the Beast of Gévaudan) are enemies at first, then partners, then something like friends.
Most of The Devourers is violent and full of gore. (I lost count of the number of people who got eaten.) By the end of the novel, however, powerful themes about identity emerge. Though the werewolves have their own culture, some of them can’t forget that they were once human. They regret what they’ve lost. Once that happens, they can’t quite go back to being rapacious werewolves. (Well, they kind of can, but they feel guilty about it.) The Devourers is very much a story of beings stuck between cultures and worlds.
The Devourers is also about story and folklore. It’s possible to trace some folk tales to actual history. The stranger’s story is just like one of those tales. The real story is awful (in both senses of the word) and messy and full of mistakes. Over time, the rough edges get smoothed away and details get reshaped into a mythology of demons and protector goddesses and great, heroic drama.
I’ve heard raves about The Devourers since it started appearing in pre-publication alerts. Now that I’ve read it, I completely understand. This book is a blending of so many things I enjoy in fiction—history behind folklore, monsters being monsters, a setting that I’ve never been to in a novel before—that, even though it is very violent, I would recommend it in a heartbeat to adventurous readers.
Charlie Dawson is a legend at the office but, after two hundred fifty years of escorting souls to the afterlife, he’s starting to get burned out. He’s tired of seeing death after death and not being able to do anything to actually save their lives. In Colin Gigl’s amazing novel, The Ferryman Institute, we see what happens when Charlie is finally given a choice: to save a life or remain a Ferryman.
The Ferryman Institute, founded by Charon the original Ferryman, exists to keep earth from being overrun with angry spirits and poltergeists. At least, this is what Charlie has always been told. So, every “day” (time is more than a bit relative in Charlie’s world) he takes calls to escort souls to whatever afterlife they’ve believed in. He’s the best, so he gets to see more than his fair share of awful deaths and tragedy. He escapes from the office and requests retirement every chance he gets, but his little escapes are not enough when his bosses just won’t let him go.
The only thing that’s different about his latest mission, to escort the soul of Alice Spiegel, is that it comes straight from the president of the Institute. It offers him the choice of saving the girl (who is about the commit suicide) or stay a Ferryman. In a split second, he makes the choice to stop Alice. With that choice, everything about his daily grind goes haywire. Before the day is out, he and Alice are on the run from the Institute’s notorious Inspector Javrouche, almost killed in car chases, and are ambushed more than once.
For a book that has so much action, The Ferryman Institute is very contemplative about the meaning of life and death. Given Charlie’s profession, it’s no wonder that he thinks about life a lot. Some of the souls he meets are ready to move on. Others are filled with regret about unsaid goodbyes and unfinished business. Some, like Alice, are tragic because they need someone to see how far they’ve fallen and only need a helping hand. With Alice, Charlie at last has a chance to talk with a person who needs to learn why they should go on with their life—and learn that he, too, needed to find a reason to carry on.
I chose this book from NetGalley because I was intrigued to learn what Gigl might do with the idea of psychopomps. I’m fascinated by stories that take mythology and twist it a bit, especially when the author has wit. This book was excellent; it combines an intelligent premise with action and humor, all bent around a brilliantly unpredictable plot.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommend to readers who feel burned out by their jobs.
The Cold War has proved fertile ground for writers, even more than twenty years after the Berlin Wall came down. The pervasive tension, the betrayals, the doubts, the idealism—all of it is perfect for writers. The writers of The Witch Who Came in from the Cold, however, thought that their characters could use even more complexity in their lives. Over the course of the book, Gabe Pritchard (CIA) and Tanya Morozova (KGB) have to deal not just with defections, stealing secrets, and interfering bosses, but a golem, monstrous constructs, and a bigger war than the one between the Communist East and the Capitalist West. The bigger, magical war seems more likely to end the world than the two superpowers launching nuclear strikes against each other.
Tanya Morozova is a veteran of the KGB and of Ice, a magical organization that works to keep agents of Flame from destroying their earth. When we meet her, she and her partner, Nadia (also KGB and Ice), are trying to stop Flame from capturing someone who hosts an elemental. (Hosts and elementals are hoarded by each side because they can boost the effectiveness of magical spells.) The fight is touch and go for a bit, causing some damage to the streets of Prague, but Tanya and Nadia eventually manage to bring the host “in from the cold.” This is just the beginning for Tanya when it becomes clear that the little job leads to open warfare between Ice and Flame.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Gabe Pritchard, a CIA agent who also serves as our entry point into the war between Ice and Flame. He tangled with the weird in Cairo, before he was transferred to Prague. He’s got mysterious migraines that are starting to affect his work; he almost bungles turning a Soviet agent. He needs help, but he really does not like that getting help means working with people who nominally work for the KGB. While Tanya shows us more about Ice, Gabe sticks as close as possible to CIA work. Each chapter flips back and forth between the two characters, so that we always get our fill of magic and espionage.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold is packed with action. While Tanya and Gabe work for their official bosses (complicated enough), they’re also increasingly caught up in working for Ice. Gabe fights hard with his loyalties and we see just how hard it is for individuals to try and serve two masters. This conflict is the heart of the book. The more I read, the more I felt the pressure the characters were under. How were they supposed to get everything done and not blow their covers? It’s almost unbearable at times—though I did get a kick out of how Tanya got revenge on a KGB official from Moscow who spent too much time reading spy novels and wanted to put what he’d read into practice.
The Witch Who Came in from the Cold was originally published as a serial novel. Each “episode” was written by a different author: Lindsay Smith, Max Gladstone, Cassandra Rose Clarke, Ian Tregillis, and Michael Swanwick. Reading all of the episodes as a novel reveals how skilled these authors are at picking up on each other’s plots and characterization, adding to them, and leaving the next author plenty of room to add their own touches. It’s stunning to watch them all work together.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration.
There have been moments in George’s life that seem hyperreal but also very strange. They are described like waking dreams: everything is weird but he accepts what comes without question. The Crane Wife, by Patrick Ness, begins with one of these moments. George hears a keening cry from outside and discovers a large crane with an arrow through its wing. The next day, a woman named Kumiko appears at his print shop. George and Kumiko are immediately attracted to each other. The Crane Wife borrows heavily from “Tsuru no Ongaeshi” and other Japanese myths. Even without the crane’s appearance at the beginning of the book, the short interludes in which a crane-woman falls in love with and spars with a volcano let us know that George has wandered into a strange story and that his life will never be the same again.
George knows he’s a lucky man when he and Kumiko start dating and creating art. All his life, he’s been told he’s too kind, too soft. His ex-wife left him because he was just too nice. Kumiko, however, loves George’s kindness. She tells him more than once that he’s a refuge for her, though she won’t tell him what she’s running from. She just tells him that her life has been hard up until now. She also won’t let anyone see her work as she creates stunning collages from feathers. She only lets him see the art once it’s ready for him to add his piece, a shape cut from a used book.
As George and Kumiko grow closer, the narrative’s perspective widens to include Amanda, George’s daughter, and JP, his grandson. Amanda is always angry. She’s angry at bicyclists, her friend who speaks with a rising inflection all the time, her ex-husband, the world. Both George and Amanda are unhappy and lonely—Amanda’s just a lot more vocal about it. It doesn’t take long before Amanda gets pulled into George and Kumiko’s story and, like George, Amanda doesn’t really question the less-than-natural things that have been happening around them.
The interludes help provide context for Kumiko’s actions and some of the things she says about her art. Once an artist’s work leaves their hands, it’s up to the viewer or reader or listener to make sense of it. Kumiko resists all of George’s attempts to figure out what their collaborative art means, especially when George tries to talk about the “ending” to the “story” related in their art and what it means. Kumiko says:
Stories do not explain. They seem to, but all they provide is a starting point. A story never ends at the end. There is always after. And even within itself, even by saying that this version is the right one, it suggest other versions, versions that exist in parallel. No, a story is not an explanation, it is a net, a net through which the truth flows. The net catches some of the truth, but not all, never all, only enough so that we can live with the extraordinary without it killing us. (141-142*)
In the context of the folkloric interludes, this speech makes sense. I’m sure George was bewildered at the time, not yet realizing that he’d blundered into someone else’s story. Without the interludes, this speech still says something interesting about art. Meaning, Kumiko tells us, is not fixed—not even by the artist or writer or composer.
I wasn’t sure about this book when I first started it. George really is too nice, but only in his passivity. I enjoyed reading about a polite protagonist, but I can see how other people would be bored by him. His daughter is his polar opposite in temperament. Reading about both of their personality could cause whiplash. Once the story started to settle and Kumiko started to have an effect on the pair of them, The Crane Wife became a beautiful, moving tale of passion, the imperatives of certain stories, betrayal, sacrifice, and forgiveness. This is a remarkable novel.
* From the 2013 kindle edition from Penguin Press.
I imagine that authors dread the question “Where do you get your ideas?” as much as I dread the question “What’s your favorite book?” Inspiration is as personal as trying to identify a favorite story. In fact, I suspect that answer to both questions is similar. Where do you get your ideas? Everywhere. What’s your favorite book? Most of them. That said, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen has turned the question of where writers get their ideas into a sinister tale of vampiric writers and the creatures that haunt them in in The Rabbit Back Literature Society. This edition was translated by Lola M. Rogers.
Ella Malina is a substitute teacher in Rabbit Back, Finland, a town with a stunning literary reputation. It’s the home of Laura White, an internationally celebrated children’s author. White is also the head of the Rabbit Back Literature Society, a group of nine writers she mentored as children. The writers have gone on to success in most genres. They are reclusive; White doesn’t give interviews. But there’s a chance that someone will become the tenth member of the society. Being invited to join is an almost certain guarantee of literary success. Decades have gone by, however, since anyone has joined the society. It’s the long shot of all long shots that Ella is invited to join after White reads Ella’s story in the local paper.
The Rabbit Back Literature Society has no straight plot lines, it seems. Just when I thought I was figuring out where it was taking me, the plot would take a sharp left turn into something new—usually something sinister. The beginning of the book made me think the book was about a woman, Ella, losing her father to Alzheimer’s. Then Ella was invited into the society. Then White disappears and Ella’s literary hopes disappear.
The book settles down (a bit) after the first half, after Ella decides to return to what she does best: literary research. She uses the Society’s Game against the members to get information about their earliest days and find out about the missing tenth member that no one talks about. The Game is essentially interrogation. The challenger asks the challenged a question. The challenger is allowed to hurt and drug the challenged to get the whole truth out of them. Then the roles are reversed.
It doesn’t take long for Ella—and us readers—to work out that the Game is the source of quite a lot of the Society member’s work. Through interrogation about the most intimate and sensitive topics, the writers glean feelings and memories that they will put into their next projects. Under White’s tutelage, the writers have become permanent outsiders. It seems they can only observe. While at the local grocery store, Ella runs into one of the writers, who tells her:
But if you want to find characters for a book, this is a good place to do it, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I found bits of a serial killer’s mother, half a hero’s lover, and three whole peripheral characters today. A nice haul. (n.p.*)
When I read these lines, I was strongly reminded of all the fearful jokes I’ve seen about writers. “Be careful! Or you’ll end up in my novel!”
I found the writers’ isolation and methods very interesting, but the supernatural elements that are hinted at throughout the book only really come into play near the end of the book. I’m still not sure how I feel about how Jääskeläinen ultimately used them other than that I wanted more Finnish folklore. This sounds like I think this novel has missteps, but that’s not quite true. The Rabbit Back Literature Society works and I enjoyed it. It just didn’t go in the direction I wanted; that’s hardly the book’s fault.
If you want to know what a diverse read looks like, read Daniel José Older. His Bone Street Rumba series is full of brown characters, gay and lesbian characters, senior characters. None of it is forced, as critics of diverse reads might argue. (And who the hell are they anyway?) No one is a token. Older’s cast feels and, almost more importantly, sounds right. He takes New York and all its variety, slatters it all over with half-zombies, ghosts, and various nasty critters, gives his characters brilliant dialog, and sets it all to a roaring plot. Half-Resurrection Blues was amazing, but Midnight Taxi Tango just blew me away. Older sets the standard for anyone attempting to write contemporary fantasy and write diversely.
Midnight Taxi Tango is set several months after the events of Half-Resurrection Blues. After his lover left, Carlos has been looking more dead than usual. Even his bosses are trying to squelch him. They won’t let him investigate a series of very strange deaths around Prospect Park. Carlos being Carlos investigates anyway and discovers, of all things, a cockroach cult. (This is exactly as weird as it sounds.) The plot follows Carlos and his more-than-usually ragtag band of allies as they work out what the roaches are up to and how to defeat them.
This synopsis just covers the surface of Midnight Taxi Tango. For one thing, Carlos shares time with two other narrators. Reza works for an escort service as a bodyguard and driver before the agency’s leader decides they’re going vigilante after losing two employees to the roaches. One of the victims was Reza’s girlfriend and Reza will not stop until the people (creatures) responsible have been exterminated. (Yes, pun.) The third narrator is Kia, who works at Baba Eddie’s botánica. Kia has just landed in a pile of weirdness and does her best to adjust when she starts to see ghosts, meets her long-lost cousin, and winds up on the roaches’ hit list.
It was pure joy to read Older’s Midnight Taxi Tango. Yes, it’s bizarre, but it was so much fun and I loved the characters so much that it could have gotten even weirder and I wouldn’t have minded. The diverse cast is terrific. I could have stayed around for another 100 pages, just for the dialog. I am so looking forward to the next book in the series.
In the past, when I’ve talked to fans of H.P. Lovecraft, readers always use the same adjectives: eldritch, insane, incomprehensible. A little further reading on Wikipedia* gave me a bit more information on the king of the weird. Someone manages to discover and tap into a weird power beyond kenning and ends up insane or dead. I bring all this up because the main character in Jonathan L. Howard’s Carter & Lovecraft, comes to a Lovecraftian story with even less knowledge than I do. For Dan Carter, it starts with a case that he can’t let go and ends with…who knows?
Dan Carter is a police detective the first time we meet him. He’s just tracked a serial killer to his lair with his partner Charlie. They should’ve called for backup. Within minutes, Charlie is inexplicably dead by his own hand and the killer is teasing Dan about the Twist. Even though Dan rescued the killer’s last intended victim, he can’t count it as a victory. The case niggles at him even as he quits the police force and becomes a private detective. Then, he inherits a bookshop in Providence, Rhode Island, from a man he’s never heard of and gets a call from a man who drowns on dry land.
Things get weird pretty quickly after that.
Carter drives north to figure out why he’s suddenly saddled with a bookstore and another impossible murder case. At least now he has a partner. Emily Lovecraft (descendent of H.P. Lovecraft, but not directly) runs the bookstore her uncle left to Carter. She’s never heard of Carter, either. It’s a mystery to them. Carter is the kind of dogged policeman that I admire, because he can’t leave a murder unsolved even though it would be safer to stay away—especially since forces beyond kenning are stirring below the surface of this story.
The man behind the dry land drowning and another horrible (but entertaining if you’re a Monty Python fan) death in Atlantic City turns out to be a mathematician who’s managed to find a way around the laws of probability. (This isn’t a spoiler. The discovery happens before the halfway point of Carter & Lovecraft.) William Colt is terrifying. He’s an unloved, overlooked nerd who figured out how to be a god. He found more power than any human could—or should—handle.
I’m sure I’m missing out on a lot of Lovecraft reference in this book, because I’ve never been tempted to dip a mental toe in his weirdness. I like stories that twist reality, sure, but his purple prose is just too much for me. That said, I did pick this book up because the description on NetGalley mentioned the author. The worlds Lovecraft created are a playground for authors to muck around in and I really like it when authors like Howard pick up the torch and run with it—particularly Howard, because the man has a wicked sense of humor. I can tell that Howard is kicking off a new series with this book. The epilogue of Carter & Lovecraft makes it clear that there are more mind-bending adventures ahead for the duo. I am very much looking forward to new instalments.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 20 October 2015.