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.

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fantasy

The Coincidence Makers, by Yoav Blum

The opening of Yoav Blum’s delightful The Coincidence Makers asks us to imagine where the beginning of a string of events begins. Where is the cause that begins all the effects that come after? For the eponymous character who manufacture the coincidences that lead to romances, innovation, inspiration, and so on, it doesn’t really matter where things begin. The object is the important thing and only a few rules govern how they get there. This might sound ruthless—and a certain amount of ruthlessness is called for—but this is a surprisingly satisfying and happy read. At least, it’s satisfying as long as you don’t fall down the rabbit hole of thinking too much about whether we have free will or not. 

Guy is part of a small class of three coincidence makers. After being promoted from imaginary friend, he specializes in arranging meet-cutes for future lovers. Emily is particularly good at helping artists find their passion. Leo seems to specialize in being irritating, but he is very good at setting up coincidences of all kinds. The two meet for regular breakfasts to share their exploits and make bets. For Emily, it’s also a chance to be near the object of her affection, Guy. Unfortunately for her, Guy is still hung up on someone he miraculously met while he was still an imaginary friend. Guy and Emily are both suffering from a bit of melancholy because they, unlike their subjects, believe they can never really get together with their soulmates. I would say more about the plot, but I don’t want to ruin the book for people who might want to pick up The Coincidence Makers. This is the kind of story that is meant to dawn slowly on a reader as more and more clues are dropped. 

In between chapters showing the continuing adventures of Guy and Emily as they wrestle with their calling and their limitations, we get excerpts from the coincidence makers’ final exam and reading materials that shed a bit of light on what they do and their history. I would have loved even more of these chapters because I wanted to know more about the great coincidences of history. But I understand that it would have cut the tension of the rest of the book if there were too many side trips. This is a tiny quibble, to be honest. I was completely wrapped up in learning more about Guy and Emily and what was really going on behind all the coincidences they were making. The extra bits were just gravy. 

The Coincidence Makers is kind of book I finish with a chef’s kiss for the author. The various plot lines, which intrigue and tug at the heartstrings, wrap up beautifully at the end of the book, bringing us back around to the question of where things really begin and who is pulling the strings. I suppose people who want to believe in pure free will will be made uncomfortable by this novel. It’s not a cheering thought to believe that everything we do is the result of brain chemicals and other people’s actions. On the other hand, I kind of like the idea of supernatural beings tugging on the threads of fate to make the world a little bit better, one person—or one couple—at a time. 

fantasy · review

The Gradual, by Christopher Priest

29236440Time is seriously out of joint in Christopher Priest’s The Gradual, though our protagonist has no idea until much later. Sandro grew up under the junta of Glaund. The regime taught him to keep his head down, ask now questions, and do what he was told. Because he’s what we would consider a classical musician, Sandro is mostly left to his own devices, even when he starts to receive attention in musical circles. His troubles really begin when Sandro is chosen to go on an orchestral tour of the mysterious Dream Archipelago. Sandro’s tour is set to last nine weeks; he returns home more than a year and a half later.

Sandro and the people of Glaund know a little bit about the Archipelago. The islands are officially neutral and refuse to help either Glaund or any other country at war. For some reason, there’s no map of all the islands in the Archipelago. And, for some reason, it seems like some band on a remote Archipelagan island is plagiarizing Sandro’s work. But no one talks about the strangest thing about the islands: time is fluid there. It’s only after Sandro and the rest of the tour group return home after their tour that he realizes that time has carried on in Glaund without him. With his wife gone, his parents dead, and bills piling up, Sandro has to start all over again—except this time Sandro has even less ambition than he did the first time he started out in music.

The Gradual is a very slow book in spite of all the jumps in time. The first third of the novel sets up Sandro as a character and his ascetic existence as an avant-garde composer. After his inadvertent Rip Van Winkle-ing, Sandro becomes even more passive, resentful, and indecisive. I might have tossed the book except that I really wanted to know what on earth was going on with time and the Archipelago. I got more interested in the novel after Sandro abruptly defects from Glaund, after being “asked” by the regime to write a nightmare symphony for the junta’s tenth anniversary. That said, hanging out with Sandro while he’s on the run was almost like going on a cruise with Hamlet and none of the clocks work.

The last chapters of The Gradual reveal why Sandro and we readers had to take the long way ’round the plot. We never do learn why time is so strange in his world, but Sandro does find a purpose at the very end. The conclusion was surprisingly satisfying after all of Sandro’s drifting through life and the often dry descriptions of his musical thinking. I suspect readers who like books about ideas and fantastical settings may enjoy The Gradual. It has plenty of both. Readers who prefer decisive, active protagonists and/or quick plots will probably be frustrated with it.

fantasy · review

A Conspiracy of Truths, by Alexandra Rowland

34328664Chant (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.

alternate history · fantasy · review · steampunk

The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark

38118138Creeper 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.

fantasy · review

The Poppy War, by R.F. Kuang

35068705There 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.

fantasy

Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

36896898In 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.