Chant (a title, not a name, he is quick to tell us) is not having a good day when we meet him at the outset of A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland. He’s hungry. He’s in a foreign country. His apprentice is missing. Worst of all, he’s on trial for being a blackwitch and the court is a Kafkaeque nightmare (or it would be if Kafka existed in this fantasy world). Just as he completes his apology for committing brazen impertinence in front of the court, Chant suddenly finds himself on trial for being a blackwitch and a spy. With a death sentence hanging over his head, how on earth is a humble storyteller to get out of this one? He does it by telling stories. It’s what a Chant does, after all.
A Conspiracy of Truths, a wonderfully diverse fantasy novel, turns Scheherezade on its head in more ways than one. A Chant isn’t just a storyteller, we learn. A Chant studies the construction and effects of stories as much as they collect them from the nations they visit in their lifelong wanderings. When our Chant sets his mind to it, he can use a story to stretch out his life a little more and earn himself a few creature comforts for his cell. But the stories he tells to the paranoid elected leaders of Nuryevet result in the collapse of what turns out to be a corrupt regime. Before long, our irascible protagonist is smack in the middle of murderous factions scrabbling for power in a growing vacuum. Oops.
Chant is not an innocent. He knows that stories can have strong effects on the listener. After all, he dips into his repertoire to manipulate the Queen of Order into staunchly and honorably defending the old ways of doing things even though he knows she’s facing up against a pack of unscrupulous political weasels. Perhaps he might be forgiven for making up a detail or two to save his life. After all, how could Chant know that telling the Queen of Order that one of her rivals is hosting a blackwitch would result in her violently taking that rival out of the equation? And how could Chant know that his stories would cause a revolution? Chant protests that Nuryevet’s government was sick and would have collapsed anyway after he learns how far things have gone. His good-hearted apprentice and his frequently exasperated advocate would say that all this is Chant’s fault. Chant, though he has some regrets, would argue that he’s just a storyteller. It’s not up to him what the audience does.
Over and over, this book asks subtle questions about the ethics of truth, lies, propaganda, and stories. Knowing that listeners can be swayed by the right story, should the storyteller ever use their powers for personal gain? Should a storyteller make amends if things go awry? I love thinking about these kinds of ethical snarls, especially when they involve stories. Even readers who aren’t keen on ethics will enjoy themselves. A Conspiracy of Truths is packed with stories from Chant about the marvels and strange customs of what sounds like a wildly diverse world. Chant’s stories are well worth the price of entry and left me wanting more.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 23 October 2018.
Creeper makes a living as a pickpocket but, at the beginning of P. Djèlí Clark’s delightfully imaginative novella The Black God’s Drums, she comes across a piece of information that could destroy her city. In this version of history, the Civil War has become a cold war. The Confederate States are still struggling along, while the Union maintains its borders with help from the Free Islands of the Caribbean. New Orleans, where Creeper lives, is an independent port where everyone gathers and schemes in a way that reminds me of Casablanca, but with a strong flavor of steampunk and the meddling presence of the orisha.
Creeper’s alcove near the city walls becomes the unlikely meeting place of a band of Confederate States soldiers and an opportunistic Cajun. The soldiers are plotting to kidnap a visiting Haitian scientist who knows how to harness a supernatural weapon of mass destruction. She hides as best she can, then bolts as soon as they leave. The plot doesn’t pause for a minute as Creeper dives head long an attempt to save her city. Fortunately for her, Creeper has allies in form of a visiting Haitian captain and her crew, and a pair of nuns who know everything that’s going on in New Orleans.
Clark is excellent at world-building. The problem (if you call it that) is the plot races along so quickly that we never get a chance to just hang out and enjoy the setting. I hope that there are more books featuring Creeper and the world Clark created just so that I can spend more time in this amazing world. That said, the plot is top notch and full of great action sequences. The Black God’s Drums would be a great read for reader’s looking for a fun, original ride this summer.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.
There is no way out of her little town for Rin, unless she passes the fiendishly exhaustive Keju exam. If she fails the exam, she will have to marry a man decades older than she. If she can pass the exam, as Rin believes at the beginning of R.F. Kuang’s The Poppy War, she has it made. Her future will be assured and she will no longer have to work for people she hates or marry who they choose. Little does Rin know, but Keju is just the beginning of her struggles.
Against all expectations (except her own), Rin passes the Keju. Passing this test, modeled on China’s imperial examination, earns Rin a place at the Sinegard, a renowned military academy in the capitol. Students who do well at the Sinegard are almost guaranteed to do will professionally. What Rin finds at the academy, however, is prejudice and high standards—so high that there’s a good chance she’ll flunk out.
The Poppy War follows Rin through her school years to the day when, the Federation of Mugen invades and the entire school is immediately drafted into the military. Even Rin, who has pledged to study the obscure and frequently bizarre field of Lore, is sent out to fight. Rin gets sent to serve with the weirdest unit in the army because of this. That unit, led by a previous star pupil at the Sinegard, has a lot of strange abilities and a very bad reputation. No one else thinks they’re capable of much, but that star pupil manages to land Rin and the rest of the unit right smack into the middle of the war.
There’s a lot of plot in The Poppy War, but that plot is a vehicle for Rin’s slow discoveries about her heritage and strange abilities. At the beginning of the book, Rin is a firm patriot. The problem is that she’s the kind of patriot who has never really thought about the horrible things her country has done to stay independent. By the end of the book, it seems like Rin is fighting a completely different fight: one with her conscience about whether or not there are prices that are too high to pay.
I was completely hooked by The Poppy War. I love the Chinese-inspired setting and Kuang’s willingness to raise the stakes for the characters. No one is safe in this book. I’m really looking forward to the next book in the series, partly because of the setting and the ethical wrangling, but also because the ending completely changed the game for Rin and her few surviving allies.
In Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik has woven together a handful of fairy tales to tell the stories of three women in a fantastical medieval Lithuania. Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender who is terrible at actually collecting money. Wanda is the daughter of a drunken, abusive father. Irina is the overlooked daughter of a duke. These women believe in their value and, as their stories take off and they mix with magic and danger, the three will finally have a chance to demand the respect they are owed.
We first meet Miryem before she takes over her father’s business. Her father is such a soft touch that its easy for the villagers to take advantage of him. But Miryem discovers a talent for making money when her mother falls ill and she has no choice but to go out and get money for food. She can turn silver into gold with her entrepreneurial skills—which unfortunately gets misinterpreted by the terrifying kind of the Staryk, who wants her to literally transform silver into gold and takes her away from her home to his snowy kingdom. Meanwhile, Wanda pays off her father’s debt by working for Miryem. In one of the less weird touches of magic, Wanda and her brothers is watched over by their mother’s spirit from where their mother lives in a snow tree.
It’s only later that we meet Irina, who attracts the attention of the tsar. This might have been the start of a dream come true except for the fact that the tsar is possessed by a fiery demon. For several chapters, the three women continue on their more-or-less magical paths, until they start to scheme their way out of their predicaments. Unlike other books with multiple narrators, I found all of the stories equally enthralling—maybe because I was busy trying to spot the fairy tales Novik was playing around with.
The themes of value and cost come up over and over in this book. Miryem has to bargain with the Staryk king for answers to her questions. Irina has to bargain with the demon to stay alive. Unlike Irina and Miryem, Wanda has to learn that she has value beyond what she can earn with her labor, but she has the spirit to say no when she’s pushed into deals she doesn’t want to accept. Spinning Silver is satisfyingly feminist as these women refuse to just go along with what the men (and supernatural beings) in their lives want. This book had me cheering for the protagonists as they battled whatever high stakes, seemingly impossible challenges came their way.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.
I’ve been chasing the high of reading Angela Carter’s collection, The Bloody Chamber, ever since I first read it. When I first heard about Daniel Ortberg’s short story collection, The Merry Spinster: Tales of Everyday Horror, I hoped that I would find the same sort of disturbing truths that I found in Carter. Ortberg is not Carter, but that’s not a bad thing. Carter’s stories are about sexuality and power. Ortberg’s stories touch on sexuality, but I mostly found explorations of autonomy and the collective. Ortberg took familiar stories and uses them as a vehicle to ask new questions.
Some of the standout stories from this collection are:
“The Merry Spinster” is a retelling of Beauty and the Beast with a twist on the ending that I absolutely adore. Folklore is full of stories of self-sacrificing daughters. Women sacrifice their well-being and happiness for foolish parents or to end conflicts, etc. When her financial whiz mother loses and regains the family fortune, Beauty (an ironic nickname here) is asked to pay the price for her mother’s trespassing on Mr. Beale’s property and stealing his roses. Beauty is not happy about this. She is less happy when Mr. Beale starts asking her to marry him. In this version of the story, Beauty will sacrifice only so much. She holds her ground when asked for more.
“The Frog’s Princess” is an unsettling tale set in a land where beautiful people are obliged to others because of their appearance. They don’t belong to themselves. Beautiful people are told to smile, to make other people happy. The king’s daughter (who is written about using “he” pronouns”) runs a foul of this when he loses a golden down a well occupied by a frog. The frog offers him a deal: the frog will return the ball if the daughter keeps the frog with him forever. The daughter never says yes, but the frog retrieves the ball anyway. Even though the daughter never took the deal, he is beholden because someone else acted on his behalf. This story is an uncomfortable look at the thorny issues of implied consent.
“The Rabbit” is probably the most disturbing story in the collection. In this tale, a velveteen rabbit wants to be Real. Only a child can make him Real, so the rabbit takes out his rivals to become a boy’s favorite toy. The original book, The Velveteen Rabbit, was a story about love. This version is parasitic, as the rabbit becomes more Real as his leeches the life out of the boy who loves him. In the end, we’re left to wonder about how far it’s acceptable to go to be self-actualized.
The reaction to The Merry Spinster has been mixed. Some readers have liked it for its boldness with the source material. Other readers have been too weirded out by the stories. I can see their point, but I’m on Team Boldness. Ortberg reinvigorates old stories that ask questions our society desperately needs to have conversations about. I was disturbed, but I enjoyed reading this collection.
Usually, reading a fantasy novel transports me—like it’s supposed to—into strange worlds with different customs, social issues, technologies, and histories. But as I read Beasts Made of Night, by Tochi Onyebuchi, all I could think was, “If any group of people need to go on strike and seize the means of production, it’s the aki in this book.” I wanted to lob a copy of The Communist Manifesto into the book like a Molotov cocktail.
Taj and his fellow aki are a shunned underclass in the city of Kos. They have the ability to do a necessary job that no one else wants: they can eat the sins of other people. If they don’t do their job, it’s possible that sin beasts will attract even worse monsters that could kill everyone. Despite this, they are underpaid, often hungry, their jobs will eventually kill them, and they are sneered at by everyone else. The fact that they wear the sins they eat like tattoos doesn’t help. It’s a reminder to everyone else that they are sinful, too, and that’s it’s just pure luck that they’re not aki themselves.
Taj is a justifiably angry character. He feels the guilt of other people’s sins constantly. But it doesn’t seem like there’s anything he can do to change things, until he is blackmailed into taking permanent jobs at the palace. Once that happens, the plot of Beasts Made of Night kicks into high gear. Before long, Taj is up to his ears in other people’s plots and conspiracies. The mere chance of changing the status of the aki (and saving his family’s lives) keeps him going until the exciting conclusion—which is also an infuriating cliffhanger.
I would recommend that readers who are interested in reading Beasts Made of Night wait for the next book in the series. It’s an original read, but the way the book ends is hugely aggravating because it ends at the absolute peak of the plot. I am…peeved.
Sam Hooker’s Peril in the Old Country, the first novel in a trilogy, is a new entry on the very short list of books that feel like they were written to spec for me. It has a shy, sheltered character who finds themselves suddenly way over their head in conspiracy and derring-do. The world is full of goofy details (goblins the appear when people swear, for example), with satirical subtext. It’s written with an old-fashioned loopiness with paragraphs that start with exposition and end with jokes dotted throughout the text. I loved everything about this book except for the cliffhanger ending.
Sloot Peril does his best to be the perfect citizen and accountant so that he can spend his life drawing absolutely no attention to himself. But then he corrects a report written by a coworker and gets a promotion. For anyone else, this would be great news. Sloot thinks so to, at first. When he tells his mother the wonderful news, he is stunned to learn that she has been a spy for the Old Country’s nemesis, Carpathia. No only that, but she’s retiring so that Sloot can take over. Being a spy is the last thing he wants. He doesn’t want to be caught and sent to the Ministry of Conversation (recently rebranded by the Ministry of Propaganda). Unfortunately for Sloot, everyone else in his life easily out-stubborns him. Sloot reluctantly takes up his new posts as Carpathian spy and financier for the scion of the richest family in Salzstadt, the capitol city of the Old Country.
Adventure arrives soon after. Before long, Sloot has to deal with all the people who think they can tell him what to do, getting involved in plots, trying not to swear, keeping a man-child from disaster, and not blow his cover. Peril in the Old Country runs along the fine line between action and comedy, with some touching little scenes in which Sloot tries to share his feelings for Myrtle (who is inconveniently possessed by the ghost of a philosopher). I enjoyed this book so much that I almost swore when I came to the cliffhanger ending. Now I have to wait who knows how long until the next book comes out and I can find out what happened to Sloot and Co.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.