historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygın Ersin

38330852Food is powerful. A good meal can bring people together who normally can’t stand to be together (Thanksgiving, anyone?). A favorite dish can recall lost memories of childhood (Proust made a whole career out of this). But in Saygın Ersin’s The Pasha of Cuisine (translated by Mark Wyers), a man known only as the cook attempts to use his mastery of flavor and scent to win back his lost love from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire himself.

The book opens with leeks. The Chief Sword Bearer to the Sultan loathes them, but the cocky cook serves them up anyway. It’s the opening gambit in a plan he’s been working on for years, ever since he escaped certain death at the hands of the new Sultan’s guards along with all the other children of the old Sultan. Flashbacks show us how the cook survived and learned his art, as well as how he met his great love, Kamer. Meanwhile, the action chugs along as the cook’s leek dish results in his return to the palace, albeit as a cook in service to the volatile, cruel Chief Sword Bearer.

The restored Imperial Kitchens at Edirne Palace, where some of the action of this book takes place.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The best parts of The Pasha of Cuisine are obviously the lush descriptions of the food. There are several sections that made me wish that there was a Turkish restaurant I could rush out to so that I could try some of the things the cook made. As it turns out, the cook is not only a great cook; he also knows how to work magic with food. A whispered word can amplify the emotional impact of his dishes and inflame the eater’s passions, make them terribly ill, and more. The cook uses his creations to manipulate the people who can set Kamer free from the Odalisque Harem, where she was sent after they met and fell in love years ago. It’s a tricky process, as one might expect, and I was very entertained by the unintended consequences of the cook’s dishes.

Mark Wyer’s translation of Ersin’s book walks a careful line between making the book comprehensible, while still preserving the exotic names of some of the cook’s dishes. Wyers and Ersin use slightly archaic language throughout much of the book. I found some of the prose a little overworked until I started to think of it as a more-fleshed-out fairy tale. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the book to get in the way of the action and the cook’s apprenticeship and journeymanship struck me as something I might find in folklore.

The more I read The Pasha of Cuisine, the more I liked it. It was a treat to visit the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Most of all, I enjoyed the cook’s heroic journey. He battles all kinds of human monsters on his quest, armed only with a mighty knowledge of food and its effects on the eater. I would recommend this to readers who like a taste of the exotic, both in terms of setting and in terms of cuisine. Bon appetit!

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 4 September 2018.

historical fantasy · review

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys

36144841Deep Roots, the second novel in Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series, builds on the strange world her protagonists discovered and fought in Winter Tide. This entry in the series shows Aphra Marsh’s confluence—her magically bonded family members and friends—taking on new enemies and learning more about the creatures they didn’t know were already living on earth.

At the beginning of Deep Roots, Aphra et al. are in New York looking for distant family members who might have survived the devastating government raids of 1929. New family members could help them rebuild their species. They’ve traced a couple of distant cousins to the city, but it seems that someone else has a claim on cousin Freddy. While Aphra and the confluence try to get the measure of the Outer Ones and their bizarre, disturbing abilities to travel, they also have to contend with old frenemies: the weird stuff office of the FBI. Aphra reluctantly asks for their help because the Outer Ones have a fearsome reputation. But the problem with asking for federal help during the opening years of the Cold War is that the FBI agents will use every opportunity to find an advantage they can use against the Soviets.

While there are some great scenes in Deep Roots, notably the fight scene at the end of the book, most of this book is dialogue. Much of the dialogue is negotiation and plotting, between Aphra and the FBI, between Aphra and her much older relatives, between Aphra and the Outer Ones, between the Outer Ones and the FBI—and between Aphra and the members of the confluence. Too be honest, it was all a bit wearying. I enjoyed learning more about this revamped version of the Lovecraft mythos. The problem with this book is one I’ve seen in later series entries in urban fantasy when the various factions in the book all have immense powers. Instead of fighting or, well, any kind of action, it’s all talk.

Reader who were hooked by Winter Tide may enjoy this continuation. I suspect that it will be necessary reading for the next book in the series. I’m still curious about what will come next in the Innsmouth Legacy, since the ending of Deep Roots seems to clear the board for more adventures for the confluence. I just hope that those future adventures have more magic and action than talk.

I received a free copy of his book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

historical fantasy · review

What Blooms from Dust, by James Markert

36576181Jeremiah Goodbye could be described as a lucky guy. Jeremiah himself, however, would say that it’s fate. It’s clear from the beginning of James Markert’s What Blooms from Dust that something is looking out for Jeremiah. The novel opens just after Jeremiah escaped from prison (thanks for a tornado) after being electrocuted for five seconds at his execution. He’s got a job to do. The problem is that he doesn’t quite know what that job is.

Jeremiah is called the Coin-Flip Killer. He was caught burying bodies at the Nowhere, Oklahoma silo, but there is some question about whether or not Jeremiah actually killed four men. At the beginning of What Blooms from Dust, though, Jeremiah seems like a hardbitten man—not surprising considering it was a miracle that he escaped from his own execution in the spring of 1935. Our first hint that Jeremiah might just be misunderstood comes when he rescues a boy (described as “not right” by his parents) from being sold to a stranger. The stranger gives off a bad vibe and Jeremiah just can’t walk past. So, after intimidating the stranger, Jeremiah and the boy, Peter, walk to Nowhere.

Black Sunday in the north Texas panhandle. (Image via Wikicommons)

Even after Jeremiah and Peter arrive in Nowhere, Jeremiah has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He can’t hide. Everyone knows who he is and his own twin brother was the one who turned him in. He’s not really trying to exonerate himself. He doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out what to do with himself when a series of dust storms, including the terrible Black Sunday storm, hits the town and strange things start to happen. The storm catches most of the town outside and the dust does weird things to almost everyone who breathed it in. It’s only in the worst days after the storm that Jeremiah and Peter learn what they’re supposed to do.

The Dust Bowl becomes a malevolent force in What Blooms from Dust. It wasn’t much different in reality, I suspect. The constant dust storms on top of a decade of drought and economic depression must have broken people. No wonder that so many people from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas packed up and took to the roads just to get away with it. This book is full of references to digging out from yet another storm that got tired and I was just laying on the couch.

Readers who don’t like essential coincidences might not like What Blooms from Dust. Readers like me who love watching seemingly disparate events and clues come together to create a marvelous ending or who enjoy atmospheric novels that put you right in the setting will enjoy this book. There is so much to enjoy about this unsettling tale of fate and good and evil.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · historical fantasy · review · thriller

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Hawkman, by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

36596712After World War I, millions of traumatized men returned to their homes to sink or swim with very little support for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder.* PTSD was called shell shock or battle fatigue by people who recognized it as a psychological condition. People who didn’t called it cowardice or malingering. In Jane Rosenberg LaForge’s The Hawkman, we see a both reactions to a severely damaged returning soldier. Michael Sheehan has wandered Gloucestershire since the end of the war. He doesn’t speak. His hearing is damaged. He rarely sleeps. He is teased and chased off by most people he encounters. When he meets Eva Williams, it is the first time someone treats him with sympathy. Her kindness might save him from his memories.

Eva Williams teaches at a local women’s college in Bridgetonne; she also writes fairy tales that reference the modern world. Her forthrightness tends to startle the English villagers and annoy Lord Thornton, who’s money and influence attempt to keep the town the way it was before World War I and the Second Boer War. When Michael Sheehan arrives in Bridgetonne, Lord Thornton and everyone else wants him gone, in spite of Eva’s entreaties to help him. Lord Thornton thinks Sheehan is a malingerer; others think he’s a madman and a danger to ordinary people. So Eva starts to help him on the sly, helping him to slowly return to himself.

The Hawkman is a blend of Eva and Sheehan’s story, Eva’s fairy tales, and Eva and Sheehan’s past. Something will remind Eva of her mother, then her mind will drift back into the past before morphing into something like a fairy tale. Chapters will start with episodes that reveal Sheehan’s service as an Irishman in the British Army during the war before he became a prisoner-of-war. The closer we get to the end of the book, however, the harder it is to distinguish between Eva’s stories and what appears to be happening to Eva as she succumbs to a disease that’s not quite like tuberculosis. The more I read, the less I cared about what was might be real and what was fantasy.

This novel is an incredibly moving account of a returning soldier and the woman who is kind to him. The flashbacks and the tales add depth to a story that already had a lot of emotional weight. What I loved most was the way the layers of story circled around each other. By the end, I realized that some of the stories Eva wrote foreshadowed what happened to her in Sheehan. I was already intrigued by the story, but I marveled at the way The Hawkman was written. In addition to readers who like their fiction blended with fairy tales, I would also recommend this novel to writers who want to learn how to experiment with structure and genre boundaries.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

* Post-traumatic stress disorder certainly existed before World War I, it just didn’t get much attention as far as I can tell.

historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Spirit Photographer, by Jon Michael Varese

35407656When I requested The Spirit Photographer, by Jon Michael Varese, I had no idea that the story of a man who claims to take pictures of spirits would take me into the hell of American slavery and the injustice of the Fugitive Slave Act. But now that I think about it, the opening scenes represent a moment in which the crimes of the past and the frauds of 1870 Boston come together into one damaging, disturbing photo, in which a senator and his wife appear to be shadowed by a young Black woman who should not be there.

Edward Moody is a celebrity in Boston’s Spiritualist community, but he’s not really happy about it. He’s grieving for the lost love of his life, who disappeared before the Civil War. Because he is numb with grief, it doesn’t really bother him to dupe people who come in for spirit photographs that will show their dead loved ones hovering around them. Unfortunately for everyone involved, it all comes crashing down when the Garretts sit for their portrait. Mrs. Garrett is expecting to see their son, who died at age three. They all recognized the Black woman who appears behind the Garretts. Isabelle is Moody’s lost love and the Garrett’s servant.

After the photo, the Garretts are so bothered by it—and what it might reveal about their own past—that they call in a family friend to arrest Moody for fraud. Meanwhile, Moody and his new assistant, Joseph Winter (who has ulterior motives of his own), are off on a quest to answer what they think is Isabelle’s call to find her. Moody and Winter head south, to New Orleans, where they think Isabelle was born. They are followed by shadowy men, one of whom wants to silence them both forever.

The Spirit Photographer moves back and forth between Moody and Winter’s journey into an American South that is being forcibly Reconstructed in spite of White efforts to reestablish something like slavery and the Garretts’ journey back into a past that they’ve been suppressing for almost twenty years. With each chapter, we learn more about the America of 1870. Even five years after the end of the Civil War, the nation has barely moved on. This isn’t really a surprise, considering the crimes that people committed against each other before, during, and after the war. Without saying too much about the ending of the novel, I can say that at least in this little corner of America, there is a little bit of justice.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 17 April 2018.

historical fantasy · review

Tomorrow, by Damian Dibben

35087548One of the firmest rules I follow in my reading is that I do not read books about pets. I don’t read these books because the pet almost always dies and I can’t handle that. But I have broken this rule for Damian Dibben’s Tomorrow, because the dog in the book doesn’t die—even after waiting for his master to return for him after two hundred years.

Our canine protagonist has been with his master for a long time. His earliest memories are of roaming the castle of Elsinore and going oyster digging with his master in the early 1600s. His master is a chymyst (he serves as the model for Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, but has issues with his portrayals). They travel from court to court, where the master offers his services as a natural philosopher, doctor, or other profession that helps fund his personal researches. Our hero and his master are not the only immortal beings wandering around Europe and their happily peripatetic lifestyle is disrupted when Vilder blows into town to make demands.

One of those interruptions separates dog and man in the late 1600s in Venice, though our hero doesn’t know it until later. Our poor narrator spends almost two hundred years waiting for his master in Venice, following his last instructions to stay put if they get separated. In 1815, however, he has enough and decides to start actively looking for his master, along with his companion, an ordinary street dog named Sporco.

Tomorrow moves back and forth in time from the 1600s to the 1800s. Unlike other books about immortal characters, we’re not inside the worldweary head of a human. Instead, we are off to one side while humans wonder what their purpose is and whether it’s a bad thing to be immortal. Because we’re in the head of an extremely loyal dog, Tomorrow is more a meditation about what we might do for the people (and animals) we love. Without the love of another, we learn, life is pretty pointless. It was a surprisingly sweet book, with plenty of interesting history to keep it all from getting too saccharine.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 30 March 2018.