The Midnight Queen, by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

20821047After a heavy read like The Revolution of Marina M., I needed something like Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s The Midnight Queen. It has so many things that I find delightful in a book: magic blended with history; a tall, shy guy falling in love with a talented, bookish girl; Celtic languages; cunning plots; and smart alecks. There was enough heft to keep my brain engaged but packed with plenty of humor and sweetness to keep things fun.

Gray Marshall is a scholarship boy at Oxford’s Merlin College when he is talked into participating in an errand that goes horribly wrong. The next thing he (and we) knows, he’s being hauled off to Brittany by his tutor to rusticate while his superiors figure out what to do with him. The Professor is a boor, but it isn’t until Gray starts snooping—and spending time with the Professor’s daughter, Sophie—that he figures out how much of a villain the man is.

Sophie is a powerful, albeit untrained, magician. She’s been sneaking into her father’s library for years to learn more about magical theory. Gray’s arrival, and his willingness to teach a female, is a blessing for her. The lessons lead to a growing friendship (and more, because this is a fluffy book), but also more discoveries about the evil Professor. Once Gray and Sophie figure out that there’s a plot to poison powerful Britons, things get literally explosive and they have to flee back to England to try and save some lives.

The rest of The Midnight Queen passes by quickly. I had so much fun reading this book that I could hardly bear to put the book down to get dinner or put on my PJs. (I stayed up until 1:00 AM to finish it.) Once I get out from under Mount Must-Read-Soon-Because-Deadlines, I’m definitely checking out the next book from the library.


The Bone Mother, by David Demchuk

31944708David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the kind of story collection that left me wanting more. Each chapter is a grim fairy tale that, together with the other chapters, builds up a disturbing world centered on three towns in the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The towns are full of people and creatures inspired by Slavic myths and, sometime during World War II, something happened to shatter this community. For added atmosphere, each chapter begins with an image from the Costică Acsinte Archive, a collection of photos from an early Twentieth century Romanian photographer.

While there are only a few characters who appear in more than one story, a narrative about the three unnamed towns coalesces before long. There were three towns in Romania and Ukraine where people were born with strange abilities, hungers, and traditions. Somewhere in the middle of it is a porcelain thimble factory with royal customers. Then the war came, along with violent men (it’s unclear who they are) who killed their way through the towns. Survivors scattered around the world, taking their abilities and hungers with them.

Most of the stories are only a page or two long; a few get a little longer. The stories are so spare that I had to read deeply into the subtext and scrape up what I know about Slavic myths to feel like I had a handle on what was happening. This book was best when I let go of my need to know what was actually happening and let things wash over me. The Bone Mother turned out to be a terrific book to herald the beginning of October. It is delightfully creepy and packed with mystery to think about after the last story ends.

The Trials of Solomon Parker, by Eric Scott Fischl

34237441We’d like to think that, if we had the chance to do something over again, we’d do better the second time. This is what reincarnation is about, after all. But in Eric Scott Fischl’s The Trials of Solomon Parker, we see a pair of men who have the chance to take back their biggest mistakes only to see their lives go wrong in new directions.

Solomon Parker and Billy Morgan are tragic men of the old school. Parker lost his wife to madness and his son to a bad decision during a mine fire. His gambling addiction means that he’s always on the run from the people he owes money to. Morgan is caught between his government school education, his native heritage (unspecified), and his very strange father and uncle. For the first quarter of the book, from 1900 to 1917, we see their lives getting worse and worse (mostly Parker’s). But when they’re both at their lowest point, Morgan’s uncle, Marked Face, offers them a gamble.

The first time Parker gambles with Marked Face, he has no idea what the stakes are. He wins, but it’s clear that he was supposed to. The next thing he and Morgan know, it’s 1916, right before the fire that would kill Parker’s son. Over and over in The Trials of Solomon Parker, Parker gets the chance to make things right. He can remember how events went wrong before, so he knows what he has to do to change things. The problem is that the universe is messing with both men and it has a nasty sense of entertainment.

As the novel develops, Morgan (and we readers) learn more about how he and Parker got tangled up in an ongoing story that goes back a lot farther than he would have realized. We are introduced to a new mythology based on several North American tribes*. For every bad decision Parker or Morgan made, there’s another one behind it in this new mythology. Untangling it would mean going back to the beginning, but is it necessary? Parker and Morgan have to decide if their new lives are better or worse than their old, and how much they’re willing to risk for another gamble.

While other novels about reincarnation and section changes tend to be hopeful overall, The Trials of Solomon Parker has a more cynical view of human nature. Its darkness and refusal to make one set of lives better than the other had me thinking less about human nature, however, than about chaos. Making a different decision the second time around doesn’t mean that everything will be better; it just means that everything will be different. The Trials of Solomon Parker is a darkly philosophical novel, one that feels very honest for all its lack of hope.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.

* Fischl states in the author’s note at the end that he was deliberately not using any one tribe’s stories, to avoid cultural appropriation. This brings up other questions, of course, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang

After reading The Nazi and the PsychiatristI needed something completely different.

29938354Jialing does not have normal luck. In Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang, she either has very good luck—thanks to the fox spirit that lives in her house—or very bad luck—because she is an orphaned female in early twentieth century China. Though the novel centers mostly on Jialing’s home in a suburb of Shanghai, it’s clear that the old ways of life in China are dying. Unfortunately, they’re not dying fast enough for Jialing. The novel follows Jialing through highs and lows, from 1908 to the early 1920s.

In her earliest memories, Jialing knows she lived in the Western Residence of a siheyuan, a traditional Chinese residence built around courtyards, with her mother. After her mother disappears, Jialing is begrudgingly taken in by the Yang family. Grandmother Yang makes Jialing a bond servant (essentially a slave) because she believes this will help her score points for the next life. Jialing’s life might have been complete drudgery if it weren’t for the fox spirit (huli jing) that lives in the Western Residence. Fox made a promise to Jialing’s mother that she would watch out for the girl. Fox doesn’t have much power, but she is able to influence people and events so that, sometimes, Jialing gets lucky. Jialing even manages to get a mission school education—thanks to Fox.

siheyuan with one courtyard. Few of these have survived to the present.

Though the Yangs raise Jialing to be a passive servant, Fox nourishes Jialing’s precocity and intelligence. Fox also tries to teach Jialing how to use her wiles once she reaches puberty, but Jialing resists. She saw what happened to her mother, after all. But in the first half of the twentieth century, there were few roles for Chinese women to provide for themselves. Even worse for Jialing is that her father was European. People who might have hired a Chinese secretary, nanny, or teacher balk at hiring someone of mixed race—though several men are quite willing to have her as their mistress.

The last third of Dragon Springs Road is much faster paced than the first two. The story evolves from a slowish bildungsroman, with a supernatural fox, to almost a thriller. (Still with the supernatural fox.) And, strangely enough, it all worked for me. I quite enjoyed this odd piece of historical fiction. This would be a great book for people who want something exotic, light but not too fluffy, with great characters at its heart.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter

Theodora Goss’ The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a delight for lovers of classic science fiction and fantasy. Goss has spun a story around the assorted daughters of men who dared to create life only to see their experiments turn into nightmares. Here, we see Mary Jekyll and Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein, and Beatrice Rappaccini—with the assistance of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson—as they attempt to solve a series of murders that make it look like someone is carrying on their fathers’ work.

When the novel opens, Mary Jekyll is dismissing her servants and wondering what else she can sell (her father left she and her mother without any other income other than Mrs. Jekyll’s annuity). Then she receives a letter that lets her know of one other source of money: once hundred pounds that has been set aside for the care of Hyde. Mary, being a take charge sort, not only decides to recoup whatever was left of the money, but inquire of Mr. Holmes if the reward offered for information about Mr. Hyde is still available. From there, the book takes off with an ever deepening mystery involving a series of Ripper-like murders, a very old secret society, and a lot of classic stories colliding.

There are pauses in the mystery as Mary meets (and sometimes rescues) the daughters of ethically challenged scientists. Catherine Moreau, our scribe, introduces the pauses so that each daughter can explain her origin. She also includes many asides from the daughters, who cannot resist commenting on how Catherine is telling their story. The asides are hilarious—especially the ones by the hellion Diana Hyde.

There is a long denouement in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter that makes it clear that there are more adventures in store. In fact, it dragged on so long that I wondered if the big climactic scene with the villains was a false ending. The more I read, however, the more it became clear that these stories are not just about having fun in the margins of famous stories. The first paragraph of the author’s note at the end clinched it. Goss wondered about the unnaturalness of men who dared to create life, then destroyed their creations. What if, this novel asks, these daughters had lived? Not only that—what if they lived long enough to pick up the pieces of those disastrous experiments?

I’m very much looking forward to the ladies’ next adventure.

The Bedlam Stacks, by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks

I’ve been anxiously awaiting Natasha Pulley’s second novel, whatever it happened to be. I’m happy to report that The Bedlam Stacks is another strange, fantastical tale of male friendship that lives up to the standard set by The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Keita even makes a cameo appearance in The Bedlam Stacks, though the book is chiefly about Merrick Tremayne and a very mysterious man named Raphael.

Merrick is, ostensibly, on a mission from the India Office (successor to the notorious East India Company) to secure cuttings of the cinchona tree. The Office is tired off paying through the nose for the only reliable remedy for malaria and they want to start their own cinchona plantations. Merrick is reluctant to take on this mission, and not just because he’s been told that the forests of Peru are full of armed men protecting the cinchona trees and the monopoly on quinine, but because he is still recovering from a serious injury when he was blown off a boat in Canton. He can hardly ride a horse let alone hike all over to hell and gone. His old friend, Sir Clements Markham (who in our history really did lead a successful mission to steal cinchona plants from Peru), manages to twist his arm hard enough that Merrick signs on.

In Peru, Merrick lands smack in the middle of a old family mystery. Merrick’s grandfather and father had traveled back and forth from the ancestral home at Heligan*, Cornwall (also a real place with a few fictional additions) to a small village called New Bethlehem, Peru (called Bedlam as a dark joke). No one knew why, not even Merrick or his brother. Like Merrick, we slowly learn that the world in The Bedlam Stacks is a lot weirder than we might have dreamt of. Merrick’s guide and friend, Raphael, later points out repeatedly that Merrick couldn’t have believed him if he’d told the truth. Merrick—and we readers—had to see Bedlam and its forests to believe.

I was interested in The Bedlam Stacks because it is based on real history, though I didn’t know much about the story of cinchona and quinine. But I was amazed at the tale Pulley wove out of history and her delightful imagination. As Raphael and Merrick head deeper into the Peruvian forest, all kinds of magical things are revealed—though the story gets harrowing a time or two as various entities chase the pair of them all over the place. I hate to say anything more than these vague details because its so much fun to puzzle out what’s going on. I’m glad I hadn’t come across any spoilers before I read this book because I felt a kind of wonder through most of it.

The Bedlam Stacks is more melancholy and less whimsical than The Watchmaker of Filigree Street. Readers who didn’t like the tweeness of Watchmaker have nothing to worry about here. Still, if I had to choose, I’m not sure I could chose a favorite. I loved both books.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 1 August 2017.

* The lost gardens of Heligan are now on my European bucket list.

Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn

Devil’s Call

Even though Li Lian was warned that three bad men were on their way to her De Soto, Nebraska home, she was not prepared for what would happen—not that night and not during the long months she would spend tracking down the man who killed her husband. Devil’s Call, by J. Danielle Dorn is a tale in the tradition of Western revenge, but with the added bonus of witchcraft and devilry. You see, Li Lian is a witch from a long line of witches and the man she’s hunting is no ordinary man.

Devil’s Call is told to us directly by Li Lian, though she is narrating what happened to her unborn child. She grew up without knowing the father who gave her Asian eyes and an Asian name. She didn’t want her own child to not know the kindness of her murdered husband. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that Li Lian wants her child to understand the choices she made and who she was before she took up her quest for vengeance.

Li Lian tracks back and forth through her life and family history, revealing the witchy history of her female forbearers. While she tells us why the women in her family had to flee their ancestral Scotland, she also traces her too-brief courtship and life with her husband before launching into the steps she took to trace the very bad man who suddenly arrived to destroy her life. Each iteration of these parts of the story takes us deeper into a secret war between witches and the men (or creatures) that have hunted them over the centuries.

Devil’s Call also gets darker and darker as Li Lian learns more about George Dalton, the man (sort of) she is hunting. Dalton is not a hard man to follow, as the line goes, because he leaves dead people everywhere he goes. We know Li Lian will find him. What we don’t know is who will come out on top in the end. This is a tense, gripping read with an ending that turned everything I had learned on its head. Devil’s Call is short, but it packs a hell of a punch.

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

The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

The Witches of New York

There is a feeling throughout Ami McKay’s entertaining novel, The Witches of New York, of a gathering storm. A war is brewing in New York between witches and their traditional enemies—people who take Exodus 22:18 very seriously—backed by some very scary demons. As the novel picks up speed, that feeling of dread builds, right up to the nail-bitingly tense ending. I hope that this book has sequels, because I enjoyed my walk on the wild side of a magical fin de siècle New York.

In September of 1880, Beatrice Dunn makes a wish: that she will become the shop assistant at Tea and Sympathy in New York. Because she makes the wish using a witch’s ladder charm, events line up to take her straight there and land the job. Her employers, Eleanor and Adelaide, are real witches and the perfect guides to help Beatrice explore the supernatural. Things aren’t that simple, though Beatrice doesn’t learn this until quite a bit later. Chapters narrated by other characters, accompanied by newspaper clippings and excerpts from a pamphlet by Cotton Mather on how to break a bewitching let us know that Beatrice, Eleanor, and Adelaide face serious danger from the deranged reverend at a nearby church, his equally disturbed organist, and their mysterious patron.

I was less interested in Beatrice (who serves mostly as plot catalyst and character-who-has-things-explained-to-them) than in her employers. Both Eleanor and Adelaide have fascinating and detailed backstories. Through them, we learn about the secret history of witchcraft (Eleanor) and the more scammy side (Adelaide) of fortune-telling and cold reading. Eleanor is cautious, devoted to her craft, and provides some much needed wisdom for Beatrice. Adelaide helps the girl develop confidence, by showing her how to put on a performance. (If this book had been more lighthearted, Adelaide would be a master of headology.)

There is a strong feminist streak in The Witches of New York. The witches, for all their faults, are sympathetically portrayed. Their opposites are very much not. The reverend and the organist, Mrs. Piddock, have the worst traits of un-Christian Christians: judgmental, unforgiving, fundamentalist, Puritanical. Mrs. Piddock is devoted to her faith. She believes she’s doing the right thing by stalking and harassing the witches, trying to keep people away from them. The reverend is a serial killer in the trappings of a witch hunter and man of God. Neither of them has a redeeming feature and there’s no doubt who we’re supposed to root for. I’m all for feminism, but it’s less interesting to me when our nuanced heroes take on unambiguously evil villains.

Much of The Witches of New York has the feel of a first novel in a series. So many characters are introduced (though a few meet a brutal end at the reverend’s hands) that it feels like McKay is setting up a chess board. There’s also a lot more attention paid to world-building than letting the plot race—which explains why this book is nearly 600 pages long. There’s enough episodic action to keep the exposition from slowing the pace too much, but I felt like the book is setting us up for an even longer story. The Witches of New York has a satisfying conclusion, but it leaves unfinished business.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 11 July 2017.

The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer

The Scribe of Siena

When I was younger and just getting into history, I used to think a lot about which time and place I might travel to if I ever got the chance. (Before I got older and realized that I would be burnt as a witch in most times and places.) One of the last times and places I ever wanted to go was 1348 in Europe. Unfortunately for the protagonist of Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena, that’s exactly where she ends up when she suddenly slips through time.

Dr. Beatrice Trovato has just left a career as a neurosurgeon to take care of her recently deceased brother’s affairs in Siena when, one fine day, she finds herself in 1347. All she knows is that an artist’s journal and one of his surviving frescos has somehow pulled her through the past. Otherwise, Beatrice manages to cope fairly well in the medieval city (barring a few mishaps with sumptuary laws). She lands a job as a scribe—being one of the few people the brothers and sisters at the Ospedale (hospital and pilgrim hostel) who can read and write—after a nun takes pity on her. Beatrice desperately wants to go home. She knows that in only a few months the Black Death will arrive and hit Siena hard.

When she meets the artist who painted the fresco (which has a figure with her face in it), everything changes. Gabriele is a kindred spirit for Beatrice, and it isn’t long before they fall in love. At this point, anyone who’s read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is going to start making comparisons. Both female protagonists are doctors who fall through time. Their lovers are curiously understanding men from the past. Beatrice is different from Claire Fraser in that she seems to have a mystical sort of empathy (which ends up being a deus ex machina more than once). Beatrice is also different from Claire in that she seems to travel through time more easily, so The Scribe of Siena has a bit more back and forth with the present than Outlander.

Winawer clearly did a lot of research, but has a light touch with the information. This book is rich with detail. So much that I felt like I was traveling with Beatrice and enjoying the food of pre-tomato Italy. The Scribe of Siena is also jam-packed with plot. Once it gets going, this book races along and Beatrice and her Gabriele have to contend with Yersina pestis and Medici schemes. In spite of its similarities to Outlander and loosey-goosey approach to time travel, I enjoyed The Scribe of Siena.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

Winter Tide, by Ruthanna Emrys

Winter Tide

Though I haven’t read any of his stories myself, I can understand why Lovecraft‘s Cthulu mythos appeals to other writers. It’s so sprawling that one writer, even if they lived to ripe old age, wouldn’t have enough time to tell all of the stories. It’s also got problems with inclusivity, enough that writers like Victor LaValle and Matt Haig have staked a claim on the mythos for African Americans. In Winter Tide, Ruthanna Emrys has done something similar for women and LGBTQ people.

In 1928, Aphra Marsh was taken, along with all of the inhabitants of Innsmouth, into the American desert in the mistaken belief that they were unnatural monsters. In truth, Aphra and her family are just another kind of human. By the time we meet her, Aphra has managed to rebuild her life on the west coast and is trying to put the past behind her as much as possible. Unfortunately, her knowledge of her family’s lore and magic make her the perfect agent to investigate FBI agent Ron Spector’s latest case. Even more unfortunately for Aphra, the case will take her back to Massachusetts and old wounds.

Winter Tide is a meandering tale, which is fitting considering that the main character is tied to water by nature. The beginning of the book makes one feel a bit of urgency, but the plot takes its time. The case offers a bit of structure while Aphra takes on more magical students, reconnects with family, thwarts and is thwarted by various plots, tangles with creatures beyond space and time, and more. This is very much a book to sink into rather than be carried away by—unless you’re a geek like me who really digs reading about the strange books of Miskatonic University. To enjoy this book, one has to go with the flow.

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