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.

The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman

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The Magician’s Land

Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land is a satisfying and cathartic conclusion to a very smart fantasy series. On the surface, the series is about a group of magically gifted people who discover that the setting of their favorite childhood stories is real. They become high kings and queens of the land, have adventures, and play with magic. One layer down, it’s about a group of very talented people who have serious personality and self-esteem issues who have too much power. One layer below that, as we learn in The Magician’s Land, it’s about a group of very sensitive and intelligent people who’ve had their hearts broken by their parents and have no good models for how to be adults. All of the books center on Quentin Coldwater, more or less, who embodies all of these problems more than any of his friends.

Quentin Coldwater was exiled from Fillory in the previous books and has been searching for a way to return ever since, as well as figure out a way to resurrect his lost girlfriend. In the first book in the series, The Magicians, Quentin irritated me so much that it soured the book for me. But he has grown up a lot since then. As he’s gotten older, he’s learned that happiness is always tempered with imperfection when you’re an adult. You can never recapture what you had and expected as a child. So, Quentin finds work at his old magic school and settles down to, more quietly and cautiously, find a way to reunite with his friends.

A dramatic chase and confrontation lead to Quentin’s expulsion from the school, leaving him with no childhood refuges. To get money to fund his research, he takes a job to steal a mysterious case with some tie to Fillory for two million dollars. While the heist is planned, we are treated to chapters set in Fillory featuring Quentin’s friends. The plot regularly slows down while characters talk about their parental issues and the moments that forced them to leave their innocence behind. Thus, the major theme of this book: coming to terms with the end of childhood, whatever that might mean.

The other major plot involves the death of Fillory. Whatever magic is holding it together is failing. No one has any ideas of how to fix it. Even the land’s gods have gone AWOL. The whole thing works to fuel the plot as well as function as a metaphor for how childhood innocence cannot last; it always has to end. We all have to grow up eventually. That said, it pushes The Magician’s Land even further into melancholic retrospection.

There’s plenty of magic and excitement in The Magician’s Land. Grossman is talented enough to make these rather interesting, so that they don’t completely bog down the plot. Without the magic, though, this book could have been awful given how much psychoanalysis there is. I found the book to be immensely satisfying because the characters pulled through their trauma to confront their challenges. The characters, especially Quentin, have come a long way since their desultory days after graduating from magic school. The Magician’s Land, which began with resignation, frustration, and a certain amount of doom, ends on a brilliant note of hope for the future.

The Obelisk Gate, by N.K. Jemisin

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The Obelisk Gate

I’ve been enjoying the recent trend in fantasy literature that explores what happens after—after the big bad is defeated, after a major disaster. In addition to making all those political philosophy classes I took in college relevant at last, books like N.K. Jemisin’s The Obelisk Gate offer a glimpse into a moment when survival meets idealism. When you’re scrabbling to find enough for your family to eat, is there time to fight a larger battle for equality?

The Fifth Season introduced us to a planet that regularly sees geologic disasters the cause (or have the potential to cause) mass die offs and extinctions. Orogenes have the power to manipulate stone, heat, pressure, and other forces and have been required to keep the continent safe from volcanoes and earthquakes on pain of death. At the end of that book, an orogene caused a potentially planet-killing earthquake. In The Obelisk Gate, the survivors have holed up in various comms (communities) and working as hard as they can to store up supplies for the long “fifth season” that’s coming. As if it wasn’t enough for the protagonists to cope with, they soon learn that there is a lot more going on that might kill them sooner than starvation or raiders. Oh, and their safe(ish) communities might tear themselves apart because of anti-orogene prejudice.

Because the planet’s human civilizations have been interrupted so frequently, Essun and her daughter, as well as the other characters, have lost a lot of history about past empires, peoples, languages, and even a rough narrative of what’s happened on their patch of earth. That history, unfortunately for them, has chosen this moment to emerge and make a play to force human extinction at last. Essun and her former lover and mentor, Alabaster, only have vague stories and artifacts of past civilizations to try and piece together the whole story of a) why their planet is so screwed up and b) who wants to kill off humanity and why. This is another reason why I like books that look at what happen after. Novels that end with a big showdown that eliminates whatever was wrong with the world make things look easy. If the protagonists take down the big bad, they’ll have a happily ever after. This new wave of fantasy brutally shows us that the reality is probably a lot more complicated than that.

The Obelisk Gate is beautifully constructed. It picks up soon after the end of The Fifth Season. There is little to no summary of what happened previously, allowing us to dive right back into things. Jemisin is a marvel at balancing continuing characterization and exciting subplots with furthering the larger story of the war between humans and the ancient stone creatures that are mostly out to get them. I want to hold this book up to would-be fantasy writers and shout: “This is how you do it!” The characters are so real that I can sympathize with almost everyone, even “enemies.” (Essun breaks my heart.) The world Jemisin created is just getting richer and richer, and the story is so engaging that I read this book in less than 12 hours.

Bardo or Not Bardo, by Antoine Volodine

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Bardo or Not Bardo

Antoine Volodine’s Bardo or Not Bardo (translated by J.T. Mahany) is another book for the “what the fuck did I just read?” files. The summary on Goodreads makes sense: seven chapters show seven different characters (many of them named Schlumm) fail to achieve enlightenment while traveling through bardo and end up being reincarnated back on earth. I was initially attracted to this book because the review I read said this book was a humorous take on characters struggling in bardo; I was hoping for something a bit like Christopher Moore’s A Dirty Job or Secondhand Souls. This book is nothing like Moore’s work. It’s too weird and disjointed for comfortable reading. There were some parts that made me chuckle, but mostly this book just bewildered me.

Bardo, to briefly define it, is a period of 49 days after death. Buddhists have that long to come to terms with their death and exit the cycle of rebirth or get reincarnated. The Bardo Thodol or Tibetan Book of the Death contains instructions that are to be read to the dying and already dead so that they can avoid the demons that might distract them from enlightenment. This book is repeated to characters throughout Bardo or Not Bardo, but they usually fail to hear or understand it. In my favorite vignette, the recently dead can hear his lama reading it, but ignores the advice to try and stay in bardo and avoid the whole nirvana/rebirth rat race.

I suspect I would have to know a lot more about bardo, the Bardo Thodol, and Buddhism in order to glean the full meaning from this collection of linked vignettes. There were parts where I was pretty sure I understood what was going on. Most of the time, I was just rolling with whatever Volodine was putting on the page and hoping that it would eventually make some sense.

The Grace of Kings, by Ken Liu

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The Grace of Kings

Power, like nature, abhors a vacuum. If you didn’t already know this, you will after reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu. This fantasy novel begins with the death of an emperor who had hoped to completely transform his world through the next several years of near constant warfare as various warlords and would-be kings try to carve out their own territory.

The Grace of Kings begins before the civil wars with a man, Kuni, who is so busy having a good time mooching off of friends that I had a hard time believing he was going to be one of the heroes of the book. Kuni is just too nice to be a political wheeler and dealer. I was more likely to believe that Mata (later Kuni’s friend, then his enemy) was going to be the big hero. Mata, after all, was raised to take vengeance against the emperor who had his family killed and trained to be a great warrior.

Over the course of the book, we see Kuni grow from a ne’er-do-well to a political radical against a very violent background. The emperor who is widely hated dies. His advisors manipulate the succession so that the emperor’s youngest son takes over under a regent. The civil war against the untried young emperor starts almost immediately. There are times when The Grace of Kings is hard to track. Men rise and fall. Armistices are signed and broken. I had to keep flipping back to the map at the beginning of the book for reference as the boundaries kept being redrawn.

Apart from Kuni’s antics, what I enjoyed most about The Grace of Kings was the interference of the countries’ gods. The eight gods go to war at the same time as the humans. The old emperor’s patron god is furious that the empire didn’t last more than a few decades. The gods of the conquered countries start to choose heroes and manipulate events to help those champions. Men find prophecies in fish, a statue saves a man’s life, and drown armadas. I was strongly reminded of the way the Greek gods would occasionally swoop on to the battlefields around Troy to bail out their favorites.

There are parts of The Grace of Kings that are written with language that reminded me of legends (lots of people doing things for three days and three nights), which might be irritating to readers who are looking for something a bit grittier. The chaotic plot might annoy others. I’ll admit that, at the beginning of the book, I wasn’t sure if I would continue the book because I wasn’t digging it. Once I got a bit further into the book, I started to get fascinated by shifting politics, the heavenly wrangling, and feminism. I ended up reading the whole thing in less than 24 hours; I just got hooked.