fantasy · review

Middlegame, by Seanan McGuire

How is one supposed to play a game when one doesn’t know the rules? Roger and Dodger, two children with strange abilities, have to find out in Seanan McGuire’s Middlegame before the game kills them. Because they don’t know the rules of the game—and neither do we—there is a long learning curve to this book. I’ll admit that I didn’t full understand what was going on until almost the halfway point of the novel. Readers who are patient, however, will be rewarded with an incredible, magical, and terrifying journey to the cutting edge of alchemy.

One day, when he is seven years old, Roger hears a voice in his head. The voice belongs to Dodger, who Roger doesn’t believe is real until she helps him with his math homework and lets him see the world through her eyes. The two share a deep connection. They balance each other. Roger knows words. Dodger knows numbers. Roger pumps the brakes when Dodger runs ahead. But then then their connection is broken when a strange, frightening woman shows up at Roger’s house with threats if he doesn’t stop talking to Dodger. Every time the two children reconnect as teenagers and young adults, it seems like someone is always standing in their way. They are pawns in a very long, very dangerous game.

As Middlegame unspools, we watch as Roger and Dodger experience what appears to be multiple lives. It’s impossible, but a lot of what happens in this book is impossible. Alchemy sneers at impossible. Books that reset like this can be difficult to read because it’s easy to lose track of the overall story or to figure out what’s going to be important later on in the novel. Sometimes it’s hard to tell, in these kinds of books, if we even are in a different timeline because the differences can be very subtle. A character zigs instead of zags and a butterfly gets to cause a storm somewhere. Reset books are just the kinds of books I relish for the challenge of reading them. That, and I am fascinated by the way that little decisions can have huge consequences.

While Dodger and Roger connect and disconnect, we visit the other players in the game and learn more than the two children know about what’s going on. Some readers might want to do some extra reading about alchemy before diving into this book because the villains in this book are after much more than the philosopher’s stone. They also speak in metaphors without explanation, in the best tradition of actual medieval alchemists. If it weren’t for the fact that this book is full of magical creations and events, Middlegame would’ve been a purely intellectual exercise in the form of a thriller. Even though the first half of the book is bewildering, the magic and the excellent character development are more than enough to keep readers going. At least, I hope so, because Middlegame is one of the most brilliant books I think I’ve ever read.

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

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fantasy · review

Soul Remains, by Sam Hooker

Poor Sloot Peril. He suffered terrible trials in the first book in the series, Peril in the Old Country. Sloot went from humble accountant in the impenetrable bureaucracy of Salzstadt before being wrapped up in evil schemes, international warfare, and falling in love. I’m not sure whether or not to be surprised to see him again at the beginning of Soul Remains. On the one hand, what happened to Sloot at the end of the first book in the series should have meant that, at the very least, we should have a new protagonist. And yet, at the beginning of this novel, Sloot pops right back into action. From his own grave. Because he’s a ghost.

Sloot’s troubles are not over now that he’s dead. If nothing else, the stakes are even higher. The plots that sent Sloot to his death are still afoot and Sloot’s employers still expect him to keep working. Now, however, they can summon him in an instant through arcane magic. It is incredible annoying for the fractious Sloot. It’s even more irritating for his girlfriend and the people who want to talk to him. Sloot needs summon-waiting.

There’s too much to sum up to give you all an idea of what this book is about. If I tried, not only would I run way over my target word count, I would also sound demented. Soul Remains is a madcap romp through two countries and the afterlife as Sloot struggles with his impossible tasks and his girlfriend (who is also dead, but only sometimes) tries to untangle him from his various bosses. There are fairies, one warlord, numerous necromancers, plenty of ghosts, goblins, and so much more. Readers who like oddball fantasy novels that never take themselves too seriously even during the serious bits (i.e. fans of Terry Pratchett) will love this continuation of poor Sloot’s progress. I had a blast.

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

fantasy · review

The Oyster Thief, by Sonia Faruqi

They say over and over again in Sonia Faruqi’s The Oyster Thief, that fire and water will never meet. Most of the time, the people who say that are right. After all, the humans on the surface are destructive. They pollute. They pillage. But when Izar finds himself transformed from human to merman and meets disgraced apothecary Coralline, it might just be possible for human fire and merfolk water the meet for once.

I loved the character of Coralline right from the beginning. She’s a bookish girl who strives to be the best apothecary she can be. She’s not quite the girl her mother and her potential mother-in-law want her to be. She’s a bit grubby and unfeminine, and she has a whale shark as a muse (like a pet-cum-sidekick), which no one seems to like. But she has a fiancé who loves her and a bright future…at least until she is fired from her job at the Irregular Remedy and her brother is poisoned in an oil spill.

Meanwhile, Izar, on the surface, is trying to create a robot that can scour the seabed for gold and jewels, armed with a gun and a fire-breathing cannon. He has been brought up to invent things for Ocean Dominion, an oil-drilling and fishing corporation run by his adopted father. While Coralline frequently disappoints her mother, Izar strives to live up to the high expectations his father has for him. Izar is a good son–which is why it is very strange when a series of “accidents” and strange events reveal that someone is trying to kill him. His life gets even worse when an assassin takes him out to see and throws him overboard. Izar suddenly becomes a merman, one of the people he believes killed his real parents.

Coralline and Izar meet in a surprising coincidence. (There are a lot of surprising coincidences in The Oyster Thief.) Izar has just been tossed off a boat in the middle of the ocean. Coralline is on a quest to find a magical elixir that will save her brother’s life. That coincidence, however, turns into fate as Izar and Coralline start saving each other’s lives all over the ocean as people try to kill or arrest them. Coralline and Izar are clearly in deep waters. Not only do they have to find Coralline’s elixir and a way to turn Izar back into a human, they also have to confront important questions about what they truly want in life, what love really is, and how to deal with difficult parents.

There is a distinctly Potterish vibe to The Oyster Thief. There are magic potions galore and the characters have wonderfully alliterative names that seem to come from Hogwart’s history of magic texts. These notes save the book from being a lot darker. It definitely could have been given that one of the primary conflicts of the book is the battle between the humans and the residents of the ocean. I loved the blend of silly and serious, and I absolutely adore the characters. It feels like a pity that I finished the book because I would love to spend more time under the sea with Izar and Coralline.

fantasy

Amnesty, by Lara Elena Donnelly

See my reviews of the first two books in the Amberlough Dossier trilogy: Amberlough and Armistice.

The war is finally over in Amnesty, by Lara Elena Donnelly, but peace has not yet arrived for the cast of characters. They’ve been on a long road for a decade, some literally and some figuratively. In this final entry in the Amberlough Dossier, we see Lillian DePaul, Aristide Makricosta, and Cyril DePaul on the last mile of that road. They’ve been through a hell of a lot and my heart was in my throat the whole time as I waited to see what hurdles Donnelly would put in their way.

Lillian has been home in Amberlough for some time, trying to rebuild a life as a press agent in the government of the new Prime Minister, whoever that turns out to be. It’s a challenge because of her past working for the One State Party (Ospies), who coerced her to work for them, and also because of her name. Cyril, her brother, torched the family’s good name when he turned double agent during the events of Amberlough. His actions led to the fall of independent Amberlough and the rise of the Ospies. When it turns out that Cyril didn’t die after those actions has made her life all the more complicated. Of course, however complicated Lillian’s life is, it’s no comparison to how complicated life is for Aristide. Cyril was Aristide’s lover and it was his love for the former burlesque star and smuggler that made Cyril betray his country.

The characters in the Amberlough Dossier have a very bad habit of working at cross purposes and not talking to each other. Lillian, Aristide, and Cyril have a long history of having to work on their own while very much in the shadows. This bad habit goes all the way back to the first volume in the trilogy, to catastrophic effect. The characters have learned a lot, but they still haven’t learned this lesson. While Lillian wheels and deals (and deals with a stroppy teenaged son), Cyril’s life is once more in danger from people who blame him for the war and the still unrepaired damage it caused. Aristide and Lillian do their best to try and save him one more time, but Cyril seems willing to go to the gallows for his treason. Lillian calls in a lawyer to work with the system. Aristide…very much does not…and there are more than one passage where it looks like their actions could cause everything to go to hell again.

Amnesty contains political machinations, criminal enterprises, and an imperial ton of emotional baggage—some of it utterly heartbreaking as Cyril and Aristide wrestle with their feelings for each other. While all of this torments our trio of protagonists, it makes for highly entertaining and thrilling reading. This book was a brilliant finale for a highly original trilogy. I am more than satisfied.

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

fantasy · review

The Binding, by Bridget Collins

Trigger warning for rape.

The idea of a technology that can remove unwanted memories is not new. Most of us can easily recall The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. But Bridget Collin’s constantly shifting novel, The Binding, gives us the premise in a different way. In the world of this novel, binders—magical book binders—can extract painful memories from people and lock them away in books. This might sound like a good idea. Who among us does not have memories we wish we didn’t have? But in this world, bindings are not just used to help people heal from terrible trauma; they are also used in terrible, unspeakable ways. The first third of the book is very bleak. I was astonished to find that The Binding contains a beautiful queer love story.

Emmett Farmer is a troubled young man when we meet him at the beginning of The Binding. He’s doing his best to help pull his weight on the family farm, but he constantly castigates himself for his lingering physical weakness and his episodes of violence that he doesn’t remember afterwards. There are a few hints about Emmett’s mysterious ailments before he is whisked away to apprentice to the local binder—a woman who is frequently called a witch by people who don’t fully understand her professional ethics. Emmett feels at home in the bindery in a way he hasn’t felt in a long time. Unfortunately for him, his mistress suddenly dies and Emmett is immediately re-apprenticed to a man much less ethical than his first mistress. Where Emmett’s first binding mistress used her abilities to take memories away from people who were clearly suffering, this new master uses his ability to attract rich clients with horrible, abusive details they’d rather not share with the world.

At this point, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue reading The Binding. The things that Emmett’s new master’s clients were doing are chilling and completely reprehensible. I didn’t want to see the protagonist to get wrapped up in the appalling misuse of binding in his new digs. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait too long before the book turned on its head again. On his very first job for a particularly nasty piece of work, Emmett runs into Lucian Darnay. The son of the client affects Emmett in a way that sets his head spinning. The meeting makes Emmett realize that he himself has been bound. Even though bindings are supposed to be willing, Emmett learns that he unwillingly gave up the memories of his love for Lucian. Lucian has been similarly bound, but it takes much longer for him to retrieve his lost memories.

The middle part of the book, which details how Emmett and Lucian first met and fell in love, is my favorite. The relationship between the two young men is original and organic. The two compliment each other wonderfully, but their prickly class consciousness keeps things from being too easy. The exciting and satisfying ending where Emmett and Lucian right a lot of wrongs is also a lot more enjoyable than the rough first third. (Readers who make it through the first third of the book will be richly rewarded. That first third is hard, however, and leaves plenty of questions about how binding words, how it came to be, and what on earth the Crusades were. Be prepared for some awful stories from people who seek bindings.) Do you know the expression, “Burn it all down”? There is a lot of literal and figurative burning it all down.

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

fantasy · review

The Kingdom of Copper, by S.A. Chakraborty

S.A. Chakraborty continues her magical series of djinns, creatures from Middle Eastern folklore, and the healer caught in the middle of it with The Kingdom of Copper. This installment picks up five years after the apocalyptic events of The City of Brass. Those five years have been spent healing but, more often, frantically trying to maintain peace in a city that’s just a few degrees from erupting in violence.

Three characters take turns narrating The Kingdom of Copper. Nahri, who was the protagonist of The City of Brass, is caught between her desire to use her magic to heal everyone who needs it and the ruler of Daevabad, who wants to use her to hang on to his tyrannical regime. Meanwhile, the exiled prince Ali is trying to build life in a remote oasis. Unfortunately for him, several forces are scheming to bring him back to the city. And in the background, the resurrected Afshin warrior, Darayavahoush, has found himself in the middle of someone else’s scheme to conquer the city. With each chapter, each of these characters is pulled closer to a blood bath they all want to prevent. It’s too bad for everyone that their manipulators have just the right leverage to keep our narrators in line.

In nearly every chapter of The Kingdom of Copper, we and our narrators are reminded of massacres of the past. The humans hate the daevas and the djinn. The djinn hate the humans and the daevas. The daevas hate the humans and the djinn. The brewing war easily takes advantage of this to try and settle old scores. Only Nahri and Ali want to see all three groups living in peace, but they are stymied at every turn. Common sense would argue that it’s time to move on, to let all that bad blood go and try to move forward to a better future. No one will listen to Nahri and Ali’s arguments; no one wants to let anything go. 

The Kingdom of Copper is a tense read, almost unbearably so. None of our narrators seems capable of stopping all the schemes around them or getting anyone with power to listen. I fear The Kingdom of Copper suffers a bit of middle book syndrome; I could easily see characters being shifted into the place for a later showdown. I also felt a bit frustrated, even though I enjoyed piecing together the hints characters drop about Daevabad and its history. It was only in the last chapters, when all hell has broken loose, that I started to fully enjoy the book. I enjoyed the chaotic ending so much—and I love the characters so much—that I desperately want to know how the story ends.

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

fantasy · review

In an Absent Dream, by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series with In an Absent Dream. This entry tells the story of Katherine Lundy and her adventures in the Goblin Market—and with the even more daunting concepts of obligation and fair value. Katherine is not an unhappy child when we first meet her. She’s also not a particularly happy child. Instead, she’s quiet and obedient, reading her way through life and school until something happens. When it does, Katherine finds herself caught between what she wants for herself and all the promises she’s made to others.

The Goblin Market, we learn from the Archivist who conveniently clues Katherine in at the beginning of the novel, is a place where debts manifest in feathers, claws, horns, and other animalistic features. Too many debts and people turn into animals. Everything runs on trade and the trades must be fair. Bad trades can incur debt, too. Katherine takes to this world like a duck to water, especially since she has her friend Moon and the guidance of the Archivist. For years, Katherine escapes away to the Goblin Market from her humdrum life, armed with a bag full of things to trade, to have more fun than she could ever have as the daughter of a school principal. She comes to life so much at the Goblin Market that, when she returns home, that it seems like all the color has been bleached out of those sections. 

In an Absent Dream puts the focus on Katherine’s inner dilemmas. There are references to her greatest adventures in the Goblin Market, but her most harrowing challenges come when Katherine tries to meet all her obligations. In the Goblin Market, all promises must be kept. Breaking a promise could mean turning into an animal. Katherine worries constantly that she might not be giving fair value in her friendship to Moon or to her parents and sister in our world. When a person is caught between two big obligations, where is the space for them to do what they want? One way of thinking would call Katherine selfish for all the worry she causes her family, or a bad friend for leaving others hanging in the Goblin Market. Another way of thinking could argue that those who hold obligations over Katherine are the selfish ones. Is it fair to force Katherine to conform when it means she misses out on a bolder, possibly better life? 

This novella is yet another beautiful, thoughtful entry in the Wayward Children series. Like all good fairy tales, it contains a life lesson for readers to chew over after the last page. Like all great fairy tales, that lesson isn’t dropped on us like a ton of metaphorical bricks. In an Absent Dream lets its lessons about obligation, value, and selfishness build up slowly, all while keeping us entertained with a lively, plausible fantasy world that left me wanting more. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.