The City of Brass, by S.A. Chakraborty

32718027It’s never easy to suddenly find oneself in the middle of a centuries’ old tangle of warfare, rebellion, and politics. Worse still, there’s magic in the mix. Nahri, at the beginning of S.A. Chakraborty’s astonishingly beautiful and thrilling The City of Brass, thinks she has a pretty good handle on life as a con artist in eighteenth century Cairo. But when she accidentally summons a djinn, Nahri is swept up into a strange world straight out of Arab and Persian myth and a lot of political wrangling. She is, quite simply, in over her head.

Nahri doesn’t know who her people are. She managed to bring herself up on the streets of Cairo by running scams. She’s always been able to do strange things like healing people and understanding every language spoken to her like a native. But when she attempts an exorcism (for the money, not because she believes in what she’s doing), Nahri manages to summon up a djinn from years of slavery and violence. The next thing Nahri knows, she’s on the run from ifrits, ghouls, and other mythical creatures. While she might have wandered into a fairy tale, this one is deadly serious. Not only that but her only guide, Dara, is irritated by her questions and his duty to shepherd her to the presumed safety of Daevabad.

Nahri is a scrappy survivor and I loved getting to know her. (Watching her needle the men around her is always a delight.) But I felt for her as she is forced to navigate her new world. There are the great expectations forced on her once Nahri’s heritage becomes clear. It’s as if Nahri has walked into a play in progress and no one handed her her lines. Everyone around her knows the city’s history, the properties of all the magical inhabitants, and what the all the factions are after. The former con artist is suddenly a pawn in a lot of different games.

It’s not all politics and magical training montages, however. There are several utterly thrilling action scenes in The City of Brass. I actually read through a few of them so fast that I had to go back and reread them; I raced ahead because I just had to know if my favorite characters survived. No one pulls their punches in this book and, even though this is a trilogy, it seems like no one is guaranteed to make it through to the next volumes apart from Nahri herself.

The City of Brass completely swept me away. (I loved it so much that I’m a little angry that I have to wait a little longer than everyone else to read the second book in the trilogy.) On top of the amazing, action-packed plot is a fully realized world full of magic and creatures from a tradition that hasn’t been thoroughly mined in English-language fiction. This review barely scrapes the surface of what I found in The City of Brass, but I will say that I was so hooked by this book that I read it in one sitting this evening after work. Dinner was whatever I could grab and eat with one hand. I am going to be singing this book’s praises for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 14 November 2017.

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Three Dark Crowns, by Kendare Blake

28374007Some readers (at least those who remember Highlander) might sum up Kendare Blake’s series opener Three Dark Crowns with “there can be only one.” While I do remember Highlander, all I can say to summarize this book is “Oooh, you done fucked up.” In the world Blake created, three queens are born in every generation and, to rule, one has to kill the other two. The queens are born with special abilities—immunity to poison, power of nature, ability to manipulate the elements, etc.—to help them in their battles, along with advisors who are absolutely invested in holding or taking power. The problem is that his particular generation of queens and their advisors seem cursed. No one’s plans turn out right. Bad luck and misunderstandings just make everything worse. It’ll be a wonder if anyone manages to be queen after this not-so-comic series of errors.

Each chapter of Three Dark Crowns centers on a different potential queen. We meet Katherine, a poisoner who gets sick every time she takes poison. She and her guardians/advisors are desperate to keep this quiet. The previous three queens were poisoners and Katherine et al. don’t want to let down the side. Then there’s Arsinoe, who is supposed to be able to make things grow and bond with animals but can’t manage it. Her guardians and advisors seem to be already mourning her, knowing that she won’t be able to match her sisters. When we meet Mirabella, who can summon and control the elements, we get to see the queens’ magic. She is so talented that the contest is a forgone conclusion. The problem is that Mirabella does not want to kill her sisters.

Katherine and Arsinoe’s allies scheme to try and keep their queens alive. There are all kinds of underhanded plots, trickery, and dastardly deeds. Mirabella’s advisors, meanwhile, are trying to find a way to eliminate her competition since Mirabella is not willing to do so on her own. In spite of all this plotting, nothing goes right. There’s too much to explain (and too many twists to reveal), but everything gets incredibly complicated incredibly quickly. (Petyr Baelish would consider them very much amateur hour.) The only explanation for all the going awry is that whatever power behind the scenes (probably divine) is not happy with the way things are being done.

I was hugely entertained by Three Dark Queens but I hated the cliffhanger ending. The cliffhanger could be interpreted as a last bundle of twists. I, however, could only see it as a plot to make me by the next book in the series. I’m hugely tempted, but the third book in the series isn’t out and I’m worried that book two will end with more cliffhangers. I don’t want to be stuck wondering until it gets published; it would really hate that. This is such a fast paced series that having to wait is awful. This is definitely a series I should’ve waited until it was finished before I started.

I really want to know how everything turns out. Nuts.

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

25526296Eleanor West runs a school for a very special group of students: young kids who’ve wandered into other worlds, had adventures, and really want to go back. The school is meant to help them cope with the “real” world again, or at least bide their time until the door to their preferred world opens up again. In Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire, we watch as Nancy reluctantly attends the school while pining for the Halls of the Dead.

Nancy is used to quiet, stillness, and gravity—the exact opposite of her boisterous roommate—and is struggling to adjust. Things get even more uncomfortable when that roommate, then another student, and a third victim are murdered. Because Nancy just came from the Halls of the Dead, she’s a suspect. Every Heart a Doorway is a fast read, less than 200 pages. The plot races along as Nancy and the other “creepy” students try to figure out what’s going on using the skills they learned in their other worlds.

While the mystery gives the book structure, the book is more about finding a place to belong and feeling comfortable in one’s own, sometimes creepy skin. Nancy’s parents—and the parents of the other students—want to “fix” their kids and make them the way they were before their adventures. The cats are out of their bags and the horses have clearly left their stables. There are several long discussions about how much the students miss worlds where they could be the heroes of their stories, rather than being overlooked, pushed to conform to the wrong gender or be the parent’s idea of perfect.

I loved the set up of Every Heart a Doorway so much that I immediately bought the second book in the series and requested the third from NetGalley. I want to know more about Logical, Nonsensical, High Rhyme, and Mortis worlds. Each of the worlds has a kernel of another legend or folktale. (Nancy is a Persephone. Jack and Jill have stumbled into Dracula and Frankenstein.) I want more of this universe.

The Stone Sky, by N.K. Jemisin

I have also reviewed The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gatethe first two books in this trilogy.

31817749Now that I’ve finished N.K. Jemisin’s The Stone Sky, the last volume in her Broken Earth trilogy, I wish that I had heeded Jeff O’Neal of Book Riot, who refuses to read series until they are finished. I waited a year between each volume of this book and clearly forgot a lot of important details. Because each book in the series picks up immediately where the last one left off, I would have been better off waiting and then reading them all over a weekend.

At the end of The Obelisk Gate, our heroine Essun had helped save her community from annihilation and her daughter, Nassun, faced down her murderous father. Now, both are on the move. Essun is traveling north to find a new place to live with her community before leaving them to use the power of the Obelisk Gate to put their planet to rights. Nassun is also heading for the Obelisk Gate. Neither of these characters wants things to continue as they are—with deadly Seasons constantly trying to wipe out every living then—but they have very different ideas about how to change the world.

Essun’s plan is to restore the planet’s moon will help stop the earthquakes and volcanos. She hopes that humans and orogenes (humans with the ability to manipulate forces and stone) will be able to live in peace once they’re no longer struggling just to survive. Nassun, however, wants to burn it all down. In her scant ten years of life, she’s seen too much violence and hatred. She hasn’t lived long enough to see how people can change; she just sees the same patterns playing out over and over. The Stone Sky is, then, a race to see who will get to the Gate first and change or end the world.

The Stone Sky also takes us deeper into the past, so that we can see how the war between life and death started—as well as how the prejudice against orogenes developed. I found these sections hugely interesting, mostly because they made it clear just how far humanity had fallen in the centuries since the Obelisk Gate was created. Humans were capable of amazing things but were brought down to their current subsistence levels of living through purest hubris. (As per usual.) I wanted very much to play Cassandra for these characters and it was only by sheer force of will that I wasn’t actually shouting at the book in my living room.

This book is so packed with searing emotional dilemmas and conflict, rich detail of a world in peril, and intriguing history that it was a pity (I thought) that the ending was so rushed. It’s possible that I was fooled into expecting more because the kindle app was telling me that I still had about 9% of the book to go when I reached the actual end of The Stone Sky, but I wanted more—just more—at the end of the book. Events happen so quickly that the conclusion felt too easy to me. It’s also possible that if I had waited to read all the books at once, I would have been more ready for the end after so many hundreds of pages.

And now to wait for whatever Jemisin cooks up next…

 

Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore

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Reincarnation Blues

Milo has had many chances to get it right—almost 10,00 to be exact. One would think that he’d be able to get it right and achieve not just perfection, but Perfection. At least, that’s what his definitely not gods think. In Reincarnation Blues, by Michael Poore, we see Milo on his last chances to live a perfect life. The only problem is that Milo isn’t ready to move on. He’s in love with Death (who prefers to be called Suzie) and they get to be together after every incarnation. What’s the point of perfection if it means leaving the person he’s loved for millennia behind?

We meet Milo just before he’s eaten by a shark. It’s the end of one more life on earth, but it’s routine for an old soul like Milo. (His favorite death was the time he was catapulted over the walls of Vienna in 1683.) Every time he dies, Milo gets to spend time with Suzie, who he’s known almost since his first death. When he gets the itch, he picks a new life and head to earth for a while. It’s a surprisingly cozy existence for Milo—until he learns that he only gets 10,000 tries to live a Perfect life. If he doesn’t get it right, his soul is erased. No more Suzie. No more interesting lives. Nothing.

In Reincarnation Blues, we see Milo struggle to figure out how to get it right and still hang on to Suzie. These last chances play out in short episodes, with glimpses of his past lives. He lives in an asteroid prison colony, is a student of the Buddha, and more. As his clock winds down, Milo tries ever more desperately to show love to his fellow souls and make huge sacrifices to show his worthiness for just a little more existence.

This book has so many of the things I love: a non-linear view of history, a quirky love story, and plenty of reincarnation. On top of that, the tone and storyline remind me a lot of Christopher Moore’s Lamb, one of my absolute favorite books, with its irreverence and off-kilter cosmology. I truly enjoyed reading this book because it kept raising the stakes for Milo in terms of what a perfect life might be. It’s not just a matter of following rules or being kind. Rather, a soul has to make a difference in the world with its lives, so that the arc of history really does bend towards justice. The best thing, in Milo’s universe, is to improve as many lives as possible. No wonder souls have 10,000 chances at it.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 22 August 2017. 

Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey

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Afterlife

There are hundreds of novels (probably more) that speculate about what happens after death, but I doubt that few authors* have the gumption to reimagine eschatology the way Marcus Sakey has in Afterlife. In this fantastical thriller, protagonists Will Brody and Claire McCoy have to chase a mass murder across the boundary between life and death. For these two, an FBI badge doesn’t expire after they die.

Afterlife opens with a short, disturbing prologue about a murderous boy named Edmund and how he came to the New World before leaping ahead to present era Chicago. Brody and McCoy are trying to track down a serial killing sniper who leaves little evidence behind. After answering a call about suspicious activity at an abandoned church, Brody becomes the sniper’s eighteenth victim. (This in the first quarter of the book, so it’s not a spoiler. Brody wakes up after his death in a curiously abandoned Chicago and has to quickly learn the rules of the afterlife—including why three people wanted to kill him as soon as he turned up dead-side. When Claire is also killed by the sniper, she and Will reunite and team up to take down the sniper.

As I read, Afterlife’s thriller-plot-with-fantastical-elements become a fantasy-with-thriller elements. The afterlife, as imagined by Sakey, is a bleak hunting ground for creatures (like Edmund from the prologue) that have gained enough power to warp their reality. Brody and McCoy have obviously never tackled anything like the antagonist of this story, but their shared hero complex and their soul-deep love for each other keep them from hiding until the danger passes over their dead heads. They just wouldn’t be able to live(?) with themselves if they didn’t try to take down the baddie.

The thriller elements of Afterlife never entirely go away. Even though this is a good-sized novel at 300+ pages, I couldn’t put it down. So many chapters have twists and reversals that kept the plot racing along that I was done with the book before I realized it. If you don’t mind dark stories that get very weird, very quickly, this is a cracking read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 18 July 2017.


* The hands-down weirdest book I’ve ever read that was set in the afterlife is Mick Farren’s Jim Morrison’s Adventures in the Afterlife. In fact, it might be the most batshit book I’ve ever read.

Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly

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Amberlough

I think it’s clear that the western world is still processing World War II because the war, the Holocaust, and the run up to both still feature heavily in our fiction—even in genres you might not expect. In Amberlough, Lara Elena Donnelly grafts elements of Weimar Germany onto a fantasy novel, with a healthy dollop of Cabaret on top, to tell a story about lovers caught in impossible situations as their world changes for the worse.

Amberlough centers on three characters. Cyril DePaul is a spy who has seen better days. He has a desk job when we meet him, but is sent back out into the field shortly after the opening of the book. Meanwhile, his lover Aristide divides his time working as a drag queen at the Bumble Bee Theater and smuggling things into the city to support his lavish lifestyle. Lastly, Cordelia strips at the Bumble Bee and juggles lovers (unsuccessfully). Cyril is our entry point into life in the city of Amberlough and the changing political landscape, as the country begins a rapid descent into fascism.

Curiously for a story about love, the various lovers spend a lot of time apart. Cyril and Aristide are separated when Cyril is sent north to investigate election shenanigans. The fascist party has pulled a lot of strings to win an election (the beginning of the end for free-wheeling Amberlough). They spend most of the rest of the novel trying to get back to each other. Cordelia makes mistakes that sends her lovers running. (Though I think she later learns that she likes blowing things up more than men.) All three get more and more political as the fascists infiltrate parliament, the police, and the rest of Amberlough.

All three characters—Cyril, Aristide, and Cordelia—are fighting the same fight for their loves and their city. But they fight from different angles. Cyril has been blackmailed by the fascists, so he’s trying to fight them from within. Aristide and Cordelia fight back from varying levels of the city’s criminal underworld. They intersect frequently and it’s a marvel sometimes to watch the plot threads weave together and apart for the length of the book.

Amberlough, though it borrows heavy from pre-war noir, had me guessing almost constantly. I had no idea what would happen next because Donnelly consistently defies genre convention. By that I mean that nothing goes right for the trio. Their plots get found out or they just have bad luck. Because of Cyril and Aristide’s love and Cordelia’s spunk, I couldn’t help but root for them. Some of the events of the end of the book punched me right in the feels.

I sincerely hope we see more from Donelly about the city of Amberlough.

City of Miracles, by Robert Jackson Bennett

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City of Miracles

Robert Jackson Bennett’s Divine Cities comes to a satisfying conclusion in City of Miracles. Each of these books, featuring a different lead character, has told the story of what happens when a world faces a radical change in its power structure. Gods used to rule this world directly, until a subjugated people learned to kill them. Humans stepped into the power vacuum, but in City of Miracles, we learn that a little bit of the divine survived. And that little bit of the divine is hungry for revenge.

Sigurd je Harkvaldsson has appeared in both of the other two books in this series, City of Stairs and City of Blades, but now he takes a turn as protagonist. It’s been thirteen years since the end of City of Blades and Sigurd has been hiding out after the terrible things he did when he daughter was killed. After he learns that his old partner and friend was killed by an assassin, he comes out of his self-imposed exile to take revenge. This quest for vengeance becomes the start of a strange, bloody odyssey in which Sigurd is forced to face the worst of his inner demons and take on the most powerful enemy he’s ever encountered.

City of Stairs and City of Blades both featured either the old gods themselves or the remnants of their power. City of Miracles features the children of those old gods. Those children have been keeping their heads low since their parents were killed, but one of them has decided that it’s now time to seize whatever scraps of divine power they can and take on their parents’ role as master of reality. What begins as a story of revenge slowly becomes one of what one should do when one has the power to remake reality.

The Divine Cities trilogy is an original, gritty fantasy series that I have enjoyed from the very first page and City of Miracles is a brilliant end to the tale. I marveled at the way Bennet brought all of the loose threads of all three novels together after building everything up to a fever pitch. I was up way past midnight finishing this book because I just could not put it down.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 May 2017.

The End of the Day, by Claire North

Writing this review is going to be a special challenge because I have always had a hard time talking about books that I loved and that have moved me deeply. I tend to gush without explaining why I enjoyed the book so much.

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The End of the Day

On first impression, Claire North’s stunning and strange novel, The End of the Day, is about death. Charlie is the most recent Harbinger of Death. As he explains it, he goes before as a courtesy or a warning. Through his eyes, we see good deaths and bad—and the longer you read, the more you realize that this is not a book about death so much as it is a book about empathy. I read The End of the Day in chunks over two days. I would inhale the short chapters until I could take no more of its emotional honesty and have to take a break. The breaks didn’t last too long because I just had to have more.

The End of the Day covers the three or four years at the beginning of his career as Death’s Harbinger, but it tells his story out of order. We see Charlie when he’s bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as he enjoyed traveling around the world to meet the last woman of her tribe in Peru. We see him as he has a mystical encounter with Death on a glacier in Greenland. We also see Charlie as all of the senseless deaths shake him to the core when he visits a rebel compound in Syria after years of civil war. Charlie’s relationship with death, and Death, are constantly changing—though he seems to have a better grip on what Death is than most of the people he meets.

Charlie’s job is supposed to be either a courtesy or a warning. When it’s a courtesy, Charlie sees people before they have a good death, at peace with their lives and their ends. When it’s a warning, Charlie strives mightily to get people to heed him so that Death might pass them by. But Charlie also has an unofficial third duty to perform: answering questions from people who want to understand Death and try to bargain with the psychopomp. These parts of the book are often harrowing for Charlie because of his answers, though some of them are incredibly thoughtful.

Throughout the book are interstitial chapters that consist of nothing but untagged dialogue. These snatches of speech, for me, were gut-wrenching contrasts to Charlie’s deep empathy for everyone he meets. Some of them sounded like they were taken directly from Donald Trump or Fox News because of their profound racism and stupidity. I was struck, over and over again, by how current they sounded because we seem to be living in a time when more and more people only care about themselves and their families. Everyone else can go hang for all they care. None of these voices realize that Death comes for all of us in the end. The divisions we put up between ourselves and others are completely meaningless and do nothing but make us miserable.

The End of the Day is not for everyone. It’s achronological structure will bother some readers. The issues the book covers will distress others. But I found the book to be one of the most enlightening and beautiful novels I’ve read in a while.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released on 4 April 2017.

The Princess Bride, by William Goldman

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The Princess Bride

Even though I’ve seen the movie a dozen times, it wasn’t until last week that I picked up The Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I needed something purely escapist (because I live in America and am a frustrated liberal and I read the news) to read and I couldn’t think of anything better than this book. Fortunately, the magic of The Princess Bride still works even if you already know the story back to front.

To summarize for those who haven’t seen the movie or read the book, The Princess Bride is Buttercup, the most beautiful woman in the world (once she learned to use soap). After her true love dies, she agrees to marry the prince of Florin—but he wants to use her to start a war with the country over the water. A few months before the wedding, Buttercup is kidnapped by hired criminals, then re-kidnapped by a mysterious man in black. The man in black is Buttercup’s true love, returned from the sea, and the rest of the book is them trying to escape from the evil prince. Parts of the book reminded me strongly of Anthony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda because it never gets too deep. There’s just enough plausibility to keep the plot afloat and offer plenty of opportunities for fighting and derring-do.

Because I’ve seen the movie so many times, I had the actors’ voices in my head as I read the familiar dialogue. (This isn’t a bad thing. As far as I’m concerned, Mandy Patinkin, Cary Elwes, and Andre the Giant were the perfect people to play their characters.) Most of The Princess Bride (the book) made it into the movie; some bits of dialogue were taken verbatim. What the book provided was a bit more background about Florin and some of the characters, as well as a lot more of the frame narrative. I read the thirtieth anniversary edition, which has an extended introduction and a chapter of a planned-but-abandoned sequel. In it, Goldman (as a character) talks about the making of the book and the movie (which is biographical, as far as I can tell), but also about the origins of The Princess Bride as written by S. Morgenstern, a Florinese author, and how Goldman came to “translate” and “abridge” it. I think some readers will find Goldman (the character) a little tedious and whiny, but I kind of enjoyed his metafictional playing around.

I highly recommend this book for readers who need to disappear into a story for a few hours.