Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

I’m glad that I read Vaishnavi Patel’s essay on how the Ramayana and its stories have been retold in Indian culture and politics before I read her own electrifying retelling, Kaikeyi. I had only the vaguest idea of what happens in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, only what I’ve gleaned from some quick skims of the relevant Wikipedia articles. Patel’s essay added some important subtext to this novel and why she wanted the long-maligned Kaikeyi, the woman who exiled Rama to the forest and kicked off one of the greatest epic tragedies ever written, to finally tell her side of the story.

Kaikeyi was (in Patel’s version) a very gifted but isolated girl who was forced to grow up very quickly after her father exiled her mother. At a very young age, Kaikeyi had to take on her mother’s duties of running the palace and host her father’s subjects and other high-ranking visitors when they have business in the northern Indian kingdom of Kekeya. Aside from these roles, her father ignores Kaikeyi so much that she is able to wheedle lessons in charioteering, archery, and swordsmanship out of her twin brother…at least, she is ignored until her father realizes that Kaikeyi is of marriageable age. Before she can figure a way out, Kaikeyi finds herself married to the king of Ayodhya.

It’s in Ayodhya that Kaikeyi finally comes into her own. Her kind husband, Dasharatha, is more than willing to give Kaikeyi power, especially after she saves his life in spectacularly martial fashion during a battle against an upstart warlord. In fact, Dasharatha seems to be one of the few men in Kaikeyi’s life (or in Kekeya or Ayodhya or any of India’s many kingdoms) who is willing to upset the status quo enough to give women more freedom. His advisors—especially his religious advisors—warn him that doing so will not only annoy many of the men in his kingdom; it will also anger the gods. And there they are, the central conflicts of Kaikeyi: the old ways versus the new ways, the secular versus the divine, the men versus the women.

Kaikeyi, Rama, and other figures depicted in a Mughal-era edition of the Ramayana. (Image via Wikicommons)

The events that follow Kaikeyi’s marriage begin to take on the kind of epic weight that I associate with the Greek or Norse or Egyptian legends, when the gods sput their divine noses into the human’s lives. Everything that happens feels inevitable. Because we’re following events from Kaikeyi’s perspective, we understand the decisions she makes. We know why she fights so hard for women’s rights. We know why she tries to avert war at every chance. And we can’t help but feel her frustration and fear when everything around her conspires against everything she wants, especially when her court and her own children start to turn on her. This book does everything those great epics do. It draws us inescapably into a great but very human story, with larger-than-life characters whose actions are still retold today.

I highly recommend this story, whether or not you’re familiar with the Ramayana or the Mahabharata. Wikipedia and the essay I linked in the first paragraph are more than enough to catch you up. Please read this amazing book and then tell all your reader friends about it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova

Orquídea Divina has been keeping her secrets for a long time. Now that she’s about to die, she calls her descendants back to the family ranch (a ranch that appeared just as mysteriously as Orquídea Divina herself did). Most of them come expecting an inheritance of some kind. Three of them, however, just want to know what’s been hidden from them their entire lives. In Zoraida Córdova’s The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, all the chickens come home to roost and Orquídea’s secrets turn out to be as deadly as they are magical.

All Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly—three of Orquídea’s grandchildren—know before they come back to Four Rivers is that Orquídea came from Guayaquil, Ecuador; that she has had five husbands but only speaks about four of them; and that she is able to make things happen that no one else can do. When our three protagonists and their relatives come back home, their plan is to try to finally get Orquídea to tell them about what she left behind…except, Orquídea still refuses to speak. Like she has done all their lives, Orquídea makes Marimar, Rey, and Tatinelly figure things out for themselves. When Orquídea dies (in spectacular fashion), she leaves even more mysteries behind. But when Orquídea dies, nothing is stopping her secrets from trying to wipe out her entire family.

At first, The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina moves in fits and starts. The day Orquídea dies is wild, full of magic and weirdness. But when Marimar and her cousins start to rebuild, it slows down. It’s only in the second half that things pick up again. It’s a little odd, but the characters, setting, and premise of the book were so interesting that I didn’t mind. I was just as busy as the protagonists were in trying to figure out what the hell was going on with Orquídea. Thankfully, the contemporary part of the story is interwoven with chapters set in Orquídea’s past in Ecuador.

We learn, long before her grandchildren, that Orquídea is the kind of person to seize every opportunity that comes her way. She might not have magic at first, but her gumption and ability to drive a bargain put her on the road to the wondrous and terrible things to come. There are river monsters (gods, thank you very much), living stars, flowers growing from bodies, and lots of wishes that never seem to come out right.

I really enjoyed this magical book.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

What is it about watching two characters who are into each other but won’t reveal their feelings that draws us in? When I discover that this trope is surrounded by unique characters, an intricate conspiracy, and an original magic system—as in A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske—well, that’s just catnip to me. I inhaled this book on a cool weekend day with a pair of cats and a pot of tea (and probably a dumb, happy grin on my face). This book was a joy to read.

After a very intriguing prologue, A Marvellous Light opens with Sir Robert Blyth (he prefers Robin) visiting his new office for the first time. He has no idea what his new job is or who he reports to. All he knows is that his predecessor has disappeared and that he only got the post because someone higher up on the food chain hates him. Then a very curt upper-class man, Edwin Courcey, walks into that very office and reveals that magic exists. The post, Robin is informed, is liaison between the Prime Minister and a magical ministry that regulates the sorcerous part of the country. No moss has a chance to grow on Robin before he finds himself in the middle of the sinister mystery that (we later learn) took the life of the missing man who used to have Robin’s job. At the end of his very first day in the position, Robin is slapped with a painful curse that no one in Edwin’s magical world has ever seen.

The plot whisks us off to the country (where we meet dangerous holiday entertainment and a murderous hedge maze) as Edwin tries to figure out how to remove the curse, Robin tries to find his feet in the magical world, and both of them try to figure out what the hell is going on. Best of all, we get to watch while Edwin and Robin strike sparks. Edwardian England (magical or not) is not friendly to gay men, so both of them are used to interpreting glances and touches. My heart warmed as I saw Robin work his way past Edwin’s prickles to find a sensitive, loyal lover. For Edwin’s part, he finds a partner who stops him from constantly running himself down and pushes him to innovate even more in magic.

I am so looking forward to the next books in the series.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Peculiarities, by David Liss

Thomas Thresher is the sort of person who, if I met him in real life, I would have nothing to do with. He’s a child of privilege who’s never had to work very hard in his life. He’s used to having fun and feels very put upon having to work as a junior clerk at the family bank. He feels even more put upon because his blustering older brother demands that he marry a woman he’s never met before. He struck me, at first, as the kind of useless, rich man who likes to get his way. My first impression of him was not sweetened with his casual Victorian-era anti-Semitism. But, over the course of The Peculiarities, by David Liss, Thomas started to win me over with his stubborn determination to uncover secrets and put things right.

Thomas doesn’t make a very good impression on many of the people he meets at the beginning of the novel. Miss Feldstein doesn’t like his casual sexism. His boss at the bank doesn’t like his inability to keep his mouth shut. And his brother really doesn’t like him, but we don’t really learn why until much later in The Peculiarities, when Thomas’s investigations start to bear fruit. The only people who actually seem to like Thomas are the wolfwomen he meets in the East End and the one and only Aleister Crowley…but that comes after Thomas starts poking around at the bank and finds some financial peculiarities. The financial peculiarities led Thomas to new friends, but also to a mystery involving the Peculiarities—the supernatural phenomena that have appeared around the world that have caused people to transform, women to give birth to rabbits à la Mary Toft, and strange creatures to messily kill people in the poorer districts of London.

Aleister Crowley in his Golden Dawn regalia, c. 1910
(Image via Wikicommons)

All of those plot threads—plus Thomas’s attempts to stop his own transformation and not marry Miss Feldstein—take Thomas to the East End, to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, and to a trio of mysterious women (including Miss Feldstein) who might be able to help him unravel all the threads. All of these threads (and the women) push Thomas to grow into something more than a young man with a big allowance and too much time on his hands. He also started to shed his Victorian notions of proper behavior for women and the stereotypes about Jewish people. Thank goodness.

Because of my initial reaction to Thomas, I wasn’t sure I would like The Peculiarities all that much. I’m not averse to unlikeable characters, not as long as they have some kind of redeeming features or are interesting in some other way. But I’m glad I stuck with the novel. Liss’s supernatural reinvention of London was highly original and very entertaining. Crowley had me laughing every time the egotistical pervert showed up. Most of all, I love that The Peculiarities never went where I expected. I appreciate a story that never makes anything simple.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

A Radical Act of Free Magic, by H.G. Parry

H.G. Parry draws her sprawling historical fantasy to an abrupt close in A Radical Act of Free Magic. The first half of the duology, A Declaration of the Rights of Magicians, created a world of suppressed magic that erupted into the French and Haitian Revolutions. Now we see a magically boosted Napoleon attempting to steamroll across Europe. With a kraken. And a dragon.

Where A Declaration had plots running in tandem, connected by a character it would be a spoiler to talk too much about, the plots coalesce geographically in A Radical Act. Fina makes the long journey from Haiti to Great Britain so that most of the action takes place in London or William Pitt’s various residences. There are some amazing set pieces in Egypt and Trafalgar that people who know Regency history will know the significance of. (Sadly, there isn’t one for Waterloo.)

The battles liven up an awful lot of dialogue about what kind of world the various characters want to create. William Wilberforce and Fina cross verbal swords with Pitt about abolition, who keeps putting it off to focus on fighting a war and maintaining power against idiots who would muck it all up. Meanwhile, Napoleon and his (supposed) magical ally are sparring over who will eventually rule over continental Europe. Will there ever be meaningful progress? Or will Fina and Wilberforce have to grudgingly content themselves with gradualism? Will their enemies win and push Great Britain and Europe back into the dark ages? How on earth will our heroes defeat that dragon?

A Declaration gave me high hopes for this duology. I love a solid historical fantasy that blends magic with actual historical events. A Radical Act of Free Magic, however, felt more like a middle book than the second half of a two-book series. Characters are shuffled around so that they’ll be in place for showdowns or whatever the plot cooks up for them. Plans are discussed. Philosophies are delved into. It happens at a fairly leisurely pace that made me think that there was going to be another book after this one for a great big resolution. Also, who brings Napoleon into a book and doesn’t include the Battle of Waterloo? I had fun during parts of this book, but the rushed ending killed a lot of my enjoyment of this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

In the waning days of the Yuan Empire, a girl whose original name we never learn takes her dead brother’s name and marches away from her famine-stricken village to claim her brother’s great fate, too. Using that starting point and a lot of real history, Shelley Parker-Chan weaves a story about the rise of the Ming Dynasty and the fall of Mongol rule in China in She Who Will Become the Sun. There are battles, miracles, lots of betrayals, and even more determination to rule whatever is left after the Mongols are driven back north.

Our protagonist is one of millions of peasants in rural China when bad luck kills her father and brother, her last surviving relatives. Before their deaths, the father took his son, Zhu Chongba, to a fortune-teller. The fortune-teller reveals that Zhu Chongba’s fate is to be great (no other details are provided). Our protagonist sneaks in a question about her own fate; he tells her that her fate is to be nothing. It’s little wonder that our protagonist—who has been doing her best to not starve to death—takes her brother’s name and heads off to one of the few places that has food: a monastery. Taking her brother’s name isn’t enough for Zhu (as she’s called for the rest of the book) to get into the monastery. She also has to hide her gender. Zhu ends up suppressing her female body and habits so much that she fools everyone.

Zhu has many good years at the monastery until a Yuan general shows up and burns it to the ground, in revenge for an insult delivered years ago. This general becomes Zhu’s sinister shadow for the rest of the book. General Ouyang is also masquerading as a man except, in his case, he’s doing his best to living up to the expectations of Mongol manhood after being forcibly castrated as a teenager. After Zhu winds up in the middle of the Red Turban army and a miracle occurs that makes it look like she’s divinely blessed, Ouyang is usually the one on the other side of the battlefield from her. Both of them want big things—so most of the plot revolves around both of them scheming among their supposed allies at the same time that they keep facing off against one another. This book was so much fun to read!

I didn’t know about the history when I started reading She Who Will Become the Sun. In fact, I didn’t know that this book was based on history until some names started to ping loose scraps of knowledge tucked away in my brain from something else I read. A little Googling and a little reading on Wikipedia taught me that Parker-Chan wrote her story in the gaps about what we know about the last decade or so of the Yuan dynasty’s rule. By the end of the book, I was in love with the story. Too bad I have to wait for the next installments to see how the author spins the facts into her absolutely gripping fiction.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker, is not the book I was expecting. I think it might not be the book a lot of people have been waiting for since The Golem and the Jinni came out in 2013. Instead, it’s a more mature book. It’s the story of what happens after two characters start what they think will be their happily ever after. This is a book about learning to change or not changing, about learning to trust and betrayal, and about learning how to really love people. I wasn’t sure about this book when I started reading it, to be honest. But although this isn’t a perfect book, there are a lot of things about The Hidden Palace that I really enjoyed.

Chava, the golem, and Ahmad, the jinni, are comfortable with their lives after all the excitement in the last book. Chava is a champion baker for a Jewish bakery. Ahmad is a partner in an ironworks where he can exercise his creativity making beautiful things. At night, they walk the streets of New York and talk. That’s when the friction starts to appear. Ahmad slowly grows frustrated with Chava’s reluctance to change the status quo. Chava still feels the need to hide. Her ability to be violent and destructive when pushed terrifies her. So: she bakes, she does what her bosses ask of her, and she walks the city. The pair fight more frequently. They say things to each other that strike at their insecurities, wounding the lovers deeply. I was surprised to see the two characters grow estranged from each other over the long timespan of the novel, from 1900 to 1915.

Meanwhile, Wecker also follows Toby Blumberg and Sophia Winston, two more characters introduced in The Golem and the Jinni. Sophia is still suffering from her affair with Ahmad. She sails off to the Middle East to seek a cure for her extreme cold. Toby, the son of Chava’s best friend, has grown up in a world of adults keeping secrets from him. But, because his mother has to work most of the time, Toby grew up faster than most children these days. While Sophia travels around by camel, donkey, and ship, Toby has his trusty bicycle and a Western Union job that gives him a reason to roam the city. Wecker also introduces us to Kreindel Altschul, a young genius who helped her father create a golem in a tenement apartment before a catastrophic fire kills her rabbi father. The unintended consequences of Kreindel, Toby, Sophia, Ahmad, and Chava’s actions lead to a climax that threatens to destroy all of them, plus some New York real estate.

It takes a long time for all the characters to converge again. So long, in fact, that started to think that The Hidden Palace was paced too slowly. I haven’t entirely changed my mind about this, but I understood why Wecker had to make the first half or so of the book so sprawling. Everything comes together beautifully in the last third of the novel. The melancholy I felt as Chava and Ahmad fell apart vanished when events sped up for an incredible conclusion. Once I hit that last section of the book I couldn’t put The Hidden Palace down. I had to know how everything turned out.

Because The Hidden Palace looks at what happens after happily-ever-after, it is unlike every other love story I’ve ever read. It’s not like the literary novels that look at the end of irreparable relationships. It’s also much more complicated than romance novels. That said, The Hidden Palace shares some of the elements of both genres. Ahmad and Chava’s personalites’ compliment each other. Ahmad pushes Chava to do more than just work. Chava helps Ahmad shed his carelessness and holds him steady. Unfortunately for both, it takes them years—and a lot of fights—to figure out how to appreciate their differences and learn to be together. I loved the ending of The Golem and the Jinni, but I have more confidence that the new happily-ever-after of The Hidden Palace will last.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Within Without, by Jeff Noon

John Nyquist returns for a fourth outing in Jeff Noon’s surreal, layered novel, Within Without. These mysteries are not for everyone. They are deeply weird, as I first learned in Creeping Jenny. Noon effectively transplants a veneer of mystery—Nyquist is a private investigator—onto a very thick layer of New Weird. This entry sees Nyquist paired with a partner for a trip to the city of Delirium, which is crisscrossed with replicating borders, bizarre rules, and captivating glamour. It’s also a place he’s managed to avoid up until now, and it isn’t long before we know why.

Nyquist’s world is technically a mid-century England but, bar a few references to English place names and dates, everything else is deeply strange. The city of Delirium is, in fact, possibly the weirdest place I’ve ever read about. It’s an impossible city. First, there’s a border that visitors have to queue for hours to cross. Then there are more borders after that. Some borders cross the city; others might cross just a street. At one point, Nyquist and his partner, Fairclough, get caught in a border that just encloses them. See what I mean? Delirium might just be the weirdest place I’ve ever read about. Nyquist and Fairclough are have arrived to help one of the world’s most famous actors find this lost image. This is not metaphorical. In the city of Delirium, a famous person’s image is actually a sentient-but-ephemeral creature magically attached to the person so that it can enhance their musical abilities, acting, or other talents.

But as I learned in Creeping Jenny, Nyquist’s cases are just the tip of a weird iceberg. Before long, Nyquist has to travel into Delirium’s deepest corners, find a series of enchanters (one of whom has taken the man’s home is his castle metaphor literally), battle bureaucrats, and slip through layer after layer to figure out just what the hell is going on. Like many other New Weird books, Within Without is the kind of story that you have to let wash over you. If you stop to question the surrealism, you’ll throw yourself right out of the book. If you stop to question how Nyquist got to where he is in each chapter, you’ll also through yourself out of the book. It’s hard to do this for some readers. (I’m looking at you, English majors.) If you can switch off the more analytical parts of your brain—and you’re a fan of weird books—I think you’ll find one of the most wildly imaginative stories I’ve ever read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark

A Master of Djinn, by P. Djèlí Clark, was a completely enchanting novel. I was instantly hooked on this adventurous mystery featuring Fatma el-Sha’arawi, of Cairo’s Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Decades before the novel opens, a mysterious sorcerer connected our world with the world of the djinn. Magic flooded into the world. In 1912, when the story is set, people like Fatma try to keep everything in harmony between the magical and the mundane. I loved everything about this novel: the characters, the setting, the plot. I can’t praise it highly enough.

Note: The narrative makes frequent references to a previously published story. I was able to read A Master of Djinn without it, but I was thrilled to see that Tor republished the story to accompany the publication of the novel. If you’d like to read the story, you can find “The Angel of Khan el-Khalili” on Tor’s site.

Fatma is the kind of person who lives for her job. She rarely has any downtime. (Of course, since most of that downtime is spent in the company of the captivating Siti, Fatma can’t really talk about it with others in the still fairly conservative Cairo.) That little bit of downtime vanishes almost entirely when a group of British men (and one Egyptian woman) are mysteriously murdered. They are burned to death by a fire that didn’t touch anything else. The Ministry is called in to investigate. We know a little bit about what happened because of the prologue, but we have to learn along with Fatma about who did it, why, and how on earth they can capture what appears to be an almost omnipotent opponent.

The action never stops after Fatma arrives at the crime scene. Along with her new partner at the Ministry, Hadia, and Siti, Fatma dives into a case that involves a colonialist secret brotherhood, djinn and angels, intersecting plots, masterful deceptions, and cults that worship the old Egyptian gods. I loved every minute of this book. I don’t want to say too much about it because that would ruin the mystery for other readers. I will say that the mystery element of the story escalated into an incredible climax that had me breathlessly reading until Fatma, Siti, and Hadia found a way to fight fantastically powerful enemies.

Right! That’s it for this review before I give away too much! Go read A Master of Djinn. It is outstanding in every way and I am already looking forward to more historical fantasy/mysteries featuring Fatma, Siti, Hadia, and all of the delightful characters in this imaginative series.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow

When you think about it, we rarely see good anger. Literature is full of annoyance, frustration, rage, and wrath—but it’s hard for me to think of examples of righteous fury. When we see anger in literature and the movies, we see anger as a bad thing and something that characters need to get through in order to find forgiveness and redemption. And, most of the time, I think this is a perfectly valid way to portray anger. Anger is like fire: dangerous when it gets out of control. But in The Once and Future Witches, by Alix E. Harrow, I got to see the power of righteous fury in changing the status quo for the better. This anger is dangerous, sure, but it warmed me like a cozy hearth.

Like so many other stories, The Once and Future Witches begins with three sisters. One is wise. One is strong. The last one is wild. All of them are on the run from a horrible childhood and old grudges. They’ve been separated for seven years but, when James Juniper Eastwood arrives in New Salem after running from her latest crime. She plans to seek out her sisters but, first, she wants to attend a big suffragist rally in the main square. This novel doesn’t let any grass grow under its metaphorical feet when a work of great magic pulls the three sisters together while also revealing something that all women thought was lost when the last witches were burned at old Salem two hundred years prior.

The Once and Future Witches races along, twisting together sub-plots featuring all three sisters’ emotional traumas with the larger story of the three sisters leading a witchy rebellion against a man who threatens to stamp out the women’s movement (witchy or otherwise) once and for all. I loved every page of this novel; I really did. I loved how Harrow created an alternate history of great women of the past, plagues, and magic. And I really, really enjoyed seeing the protagonists harness their fury against the world’s unfairness and misogyny and racism and fight back against it with everything they have. This book is a fantastic antidote to the weary depression I feel when I read the latest news in this very shitty year.

This summary doesn’t do justice to The Once and Future Witches. There’s just too much to sum up about this incredible story. It’s the kind of book I don’t want to go into too much depth on because I want readers to fall into it the way I did, with no clue what was going to happen next while the plot rocketed around from highs to lows to defeats and triumphs. I want readers to feel just as breathless as I did. It’s the kind of book I want to buy a bagful of copies so that I can run to all my friends, shove it into their hands, and shout “Read this!” while I hurry off to the next future reader.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.