Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King

34466922Sleeping Beauties, by Stephen and Owen King, is a perfect example of an idea being more important to the authors than characters or story. The idea in this book is: what if all the women in the world were gone? It gets a Stephen King twist, of course. Here, the women have succumb to a mysterious condition that puts their bodies to sleep, cocooned in a web-like substance, and sends them to another world. Where this book goes wrong is that I think it required a lot of editing to get rid of extraneous subplots and characters and a lot more work to create characters that are better than stock villains and heroes. At times, I thought Sleeping Beauties was written like two men creating something that women might like to see because most of the men are just bad dudes and most of the women are victims or ass-kickers. Over and over, this book declares that women are better than men, using tired stereotypes that are as irritating as straight-up misogyny.

As women across the world fall asleep, Sleeping Beauties introduces a bunch of characters in Dooling, a small Appalachian town. Clint Norcross is a prison psychiatrist at a women’s correctional facility just outside of that town. He is one of the few good guys in the book, basically a white knight. His wife, Lila, is the town’s sheriff. With the exception of her jealousy and self-reproach, she’s also fairly uncomplicated. Their chief antagonist later in the book is Frank Geary, the town dogcatcher who drives the town to out and out war in the name of waking up his daughter. Surrounding the Norcrosses and Geary are a bunch of wronged women and the men who wronged them.

The most interesting character to me was, unfortunately, the most unexamined. Evie appears the day that women start to fall asleep. She steps out of the Dooling woods and kills a (male) drug dealer and one of his (also male) customers. After messily dispatching these men, Lila takes Evie to the prison for evaluation by Clint. There is no question there’s something not right about Evie. She knows a lot more than she should about the women’s condition and everyone’s secrets. She mysteriously claims to be the key to solving the mystery of the sleeping “sickness” and manifests some strange powers to back up that claim. The problem is that we never learn what she is, who she’s working for, or what anyone hopes to achieve by putting all the women to sleep. This was my greatest disappointment in the book.

Evie’s manipulations, coupled with the sleeping “sickness,” set up a massive war (complete with teargas and explosions) between those who want to let Evie do her thing (Clint) and those who want to use her to cure the women at any cost (Frank). Underneath this conflict is one between Men and Women. The sleeping whatever it is asks the characters (and readers) if women would be better off without men—but this question is woefully underdeveloped in the name of making that war more exciting plus poorly represented by characters that make it blindingly obvious how we should chose. The question is complex and should’ve been treated that way.

I recently read The Power, by Naomi Alderman, which also asked questions about gender balance and gender-based violence. Both books suffer from preachiness. I have yet to see a book that does justice to the inequality between men and women. The Power gave us a world in which women, once they had the ability to physically overpower men, became bullies. In Sleeping Beauties, the women shown to be superior to men in almost every way in a way that smacked of old sexist arguments about women being the “fairer sex” who gentle men when they can. I really wish that this book had created characters that were more than straw people.

I honestly can’t think of anything I liked about Sleeping Beauties. The fact that it was so long, at just over 700 pages, just made it worse. There is so much foreshadowing in the book about what is supposed to happen that it’s frankly annoying to have to wait for the payoff. So much of this book could have been edited out that I think it would’ve worked better as a novella or even a short story.


Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, by Ruth Emmie Lang

33574161I was utterly charmed by Ruth Emmie Lang’s Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance, a novel about a reclusive man with strange abilities told by the people who knew him as well as anyone could. From the doctor who delivered him to his foster sister, adopted mother, and his frequently lost love, everyone knows that there’s something odd about Weylyn Gray. It rains when he’s upset and woodland creatures bring him presents. Oh, and he was partially raised by wolves.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance jumps from decade to decade as Weylyn touches other characters’ lives with a mix of good and bad luck. Weylyn’s abilities are never fully explained, which I think adds to sense of sustained curiosity as people meet and lose him over time. For the most part, Weylyn and his ad hoc family and friends treat him like a secret. No one else will believe them anyway about the weather and the animals and the shockingly verdant plants that follow in his war. Further, there’s something about Weylyn makes people protective.

What saves this book from being tritely inspirational—Weylyn often reads like a socially anxious Jesus—is the fact that, over and over, things don’t work out according to anyone’s plans. Just like bad weather, animals, and sudden gardens, unintended consequences follow him throughout his life. His friends and family are more than willing to take the risk, but Weylyn is terrified of accidentally hurting someone with his abilities. He’d rather take to the woods and live like a Disney hermit than chance it.

This isn’t a perfect book. There is one misstep at the end of the book, but I chalk that up to the limitations of having the book narrated by characters other than Weylyn. Readers willing to over look this and Weylyn’s more messiah-like moments will find a quirky, fast read for those of us who don’t trust happy, uncomplicated endings. Over and over, Weylyn’s plot arc demonstrates that love and life are often dangerous. The rewards, however, are much better than a safe loneliness.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 7 November 2017.

Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw

32452160It’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to doctor the monsters of London. If it weren’t for Greta Helsing, who would replace bones for the mummies, treat the ghoul children’s ear infections, or help treat the vampires’ depression? In Strange Practice, by Vivian Shaw, is the first novel in a new series featuring the good doctor. Not only does the good doctor have to care for her patients in this novel, but she also has to contend with a new supernatural threat. It’s good thing she’s not alone. Greta has the help of two vampires, one demon, and very goofy librarian*.

The novel opens with Greta receiving a call from her good friend, Lord Edmund Ruthven (vampire), to come and care for another vampire, Sir Francis Varney, who has just arrived at Ruthven’s house in terrible condition. Little does Greta know but that this is just the beginning of a terrifying campaign against a band of rogue warrior monks. They don’t know this right away, of course. At first, Varney can only recall vague details about robes and strange chanting about sins and uncleanliness. Ruthven calls in a friend, August Cranswell (the goofy librarian) at the British Library to do some scholarly digging. Meanwhile, Greta’s family friend, the demon Fastitocalon, uses his infernal powers to sniff out the warrior monks.

The usual practice in a contemporary fantasy thriller-mystery is for the protagonist (almost always female) to take the lead, to dive into dangerous spots with guns blazing, and sort everything out. While I enjoy a good kick-ass heroine, it was refreshing to see Greta et al. take a more team-based approach. Greta is more than willing to lean on her friends to stop the killings, given their “special talents.” She even volunteers to stay behind if necessary to tend to the wounded. The team-based approach also means that we don’t have the carrying-the-world-on-her-shoulders-like-Buffy trope (which I think gets old fast). But it would be wrong not to consider Greta a hero. When Varney asks her why she does what she does, she responds that it’s because she has to do what is right. She fights, but she fights intelligently.

Strange Practice is a fun, fast read and a different take on the genre. I loved all of the characters since they were so different from what I normally see in the genre. (Sure, there’s brooding, but that doesn’t last.) The review copy I read had the first chapter of the next book in the series, Bad Company, and I’ve already decided that I must read it as soon as it comes out.

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

* I deeply appreciate this character.

Roses and Rot, by Kat Howard

Roses and Rot

Sisters are tricky. For every pair that get along, it seems that there is another pair that have terminal sibling rivalry. (Although, I might have an exaggerated view of this because I read so much fiction.) But I tend to stay away from stories like this because they just don’t interest me all that much. There has to be something else to get my attention. So Kat Howard’s Roses and Rot slowly pulled me into its story of rivalrous* sisters with hints of magic before it really grabbed hold of me with a gripping tale about sacrifice.

Melete is a legendary artists’ retreat in the world of this novel. Artists, musicians, poets, novelists, etc. would give up a lot to be selected for Melete’s program because so many of its alumni have gone on to have huge success. In spite of this, Imogen is reluctant to apply. Her sister, Marin, twists her arm until they both apply and are accepted. Writer Imogen and dancer Marin haven’t seen each other for years (and we are given a lot of backstory to explain why), though they have a happy reunion when they meet up again at Melete. Together, they get make friends among the other accepted artists—as well as tolerate some of the odder residents.

Imogen hasn’t been at Melete long before she starts to see and hear strange things. She’s not the only one and the mentors at the retreat eventually reveal to the young artists what’s really going on. Without giving too much away, I can say that the artists are offered the chance at a Faustian bargain in return for guaranteed artistic success. In exchange for seven years’ service in Faerie, they will have all their artistic dreams come true. The price is terrible, but many of the mentees are more than willing to pay.

The artistic bargain, while interesting, is not what spurs the last third or so of the book. The relationship between Imogen and Marin is tested when they become frontrunners for the bargain. Even though the two are trying to repair their relationship with each other, the competition threatens to tear them apart again—perhaps forever. At the beginning of the novel, when the artists found out about the bargain, all but one** said they would take it without thinking twice. By the time the competition really heats up, Imogen finds a line she’s not willing to cross. But for Marin, the bargain is her only chance at the kind of life she wants.

I realize this summary leaves out a lot of the magic and mystery of the book, as well as Imogen’s haunting take on fairy tales, but I think these are best experienced by reading Roses and Rot oneself. Even though I had other things I really had to do this weekend, I could not put it down. I was hooked and enchanted by this novel. If you love retellings of fairy tales, sibling rivalries, or stories about artists, I would definitely suggest Roses and Rot for a great day’s reading.

*  This is a real word. I looked it up and everything.
** One of my favorite secondary characters, a singer, is the lone holdout against the bargain. It may be because I’ve read too many Faustian tales where the bargainer regrets their decision, but I totally understand the singer’s point that taking the deal would be a kind of cheating. They will never know if they might have been able to be successful on their own—which I would find intolerable because this question opens the door to crippling doubt.

The Changeling, by Victor LaValle

The Changeling

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.

All the Birds in the Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky

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.

The Trees, by Ali Shaw

The Trees

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.

The Devourers, by Indra Das

The Devourers

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.

The Ferryman Institute, by Colin Gigl

The Ferryman Institute

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 Witch Who Came in from the Cold, by Various Authors

The Witch Who Came in from the Cold

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 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.