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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

An Almond for a Parrot, by Wray Delaney

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An Almond for a Parrot

Wray Delaney has concocted a delightfully scandalous historical fantasy in An Almond for a Parrot. In this wild tale, Tully Truegood tells us about her strange life—from her less than auspicious beginnings on London’s Milk Street as the daughter of a drunkard to the reason she is sitting in prison about to face trial for murder. Along the way there are chases, kidnappings, salacious details about life in a brothel, true love, ghosts, and magic.

I had no idea what I was in for when I started reading An Almond for a Parrot. The beginning of the book introduces us to Tully, who is pregnant and accused of murder, before taking us back to her tough life on Milk Street. Tully—who introduces many chapters with recipes—was mostly brought up by her drunken father’s cook before he noticed her when she turned 12. Being noticed by her father was not a good thing. Before she knew it, she was married off to a boy scarcely older than she was in a half-cocked plan to net her father some money. Tully’s next turning point is when she meets her father’s second wife (another half-cocked plan) and later learns that the woman is a madam.

As if all this weren’t enough for one life, Tully also sees ghosts and can make them appear to other people. Her growing abilities are a constant sub-plot running through the book. After she makes her escape from her father’s house, Tully is taken in by her ersatz step-mother and her conjuring partner—which leads to a dual career as prostitute and magician (though she and the conjurer never use that title for themselves). Tully is often a terrible prostitute. Not because she hates the work. (She is rather fond of the act.) The problem is that Tully keeps falling in love with her clients. Before the plot gets more sinister, the first half of the book is wryly funny.

I would have thought combining an already exciting plot with a weirder one would have overstuffed this novel, but it doesn’t, for some reason. It just added spice to the novel. If nothing else, the magical elements made for a thrilling (if slightly too-convenient) ending. After a couple of rough readsAn Almond for a Parrot was a very enjoyable read. Though it delves into some dark topics, it was original, daring, and quite fun. I look forward to whatever Wray Delaney comes up with next.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 28 February 2017.

The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

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The Bear and the Nightingale

In The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden, creatures and characters from Russian folklore barge into ordinary life and wreak havoc for Vasilisa Petrovna. Fittingly, the novel opens with a story about Morozko, the winter-king, who rewards the brave with riches but allows the cowardly and selfish to freeze. Russian folklore pulls no punches.

After the story about Morozko that sets the tone for the rest of The Bear and the Nightingale, the narrative takes us back a set to learn about the hardscrabble life of a boyar family in the wilderness north of Moscow sometime during the reign of the Golden Horde. Vasilisa Petrovna has always been a bit odd—talking to people no one else can see, an uncanny ability to work with horses, general uppityness that drives her father nuts—but her strangeness starts to cause real trouble after her father remarries a deeply religious, but deeply fearful woman. Anna Ivanova can also see the domovoibannik, and the rest and it is starting to drive her mad. She uses religion to keep it away as much as possible, though she has a tough fight ahead of her since the rest of the household and village are still mostly pagan.

Events really come to a head when a new priest comes from Moscow to replace the older, more tolerant priest. Konstantin Nikonovich begins a crusade against the old ways, unwittingly destabilizing an ancient magic spell that is keeping everyone safe from a creature that wants to devour them all. In Konstantin’s first few weeks in the village, he’s a nuisance to Vasilisa Petrovna. But in the best fanatical fashion, Konstantin Nikonovich begins to put the fear into the villagers. Before long, it’s starting to look a lot like Salem in this place at the end of the great Russian forest.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a novel of many layers. At the top, we get a gripping story of a girl getting into adventures. Another layer is feminist, as Vasilisa Petrovna finds the will to defy the men in her life who would boss her around. Another layer addresses the conflict of beliefs: old animism versus new Christianity. The top layer of adventure keeps things interesting, while the others leave plenty to think about after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.

The Cold Eye, by Laura Anne Gilman

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The Cold Eye

I have been eagerly awaiting the released of The Cold Eye, by Laura Anne Gilman, since I read the book that opened the series. This novel opens soon after the end of Silver on the Road, with Isobel and Gabriel traveling north across the Territory to find new wrongs to put right. Isobel is still learning the limits of her powers and jurisdiction as the Devil’s Left Hand and The Cold Eye very much focuses on the ruthlessness of frontier justice.

The Cold Eye takes some time to gain traction. To be honest, there were some repetitive passages that I skipped. I know that series are tricky, especially if they’re set in something other than our reality, because readers may have forgotten details from earlier entries. The first half of The Cold Eye is full of reiterations of Isobel’s original oath and titles that were unnecessary. These bogged down the plot while Isobel and Gabriel investigate a curious absence of magic in the northern Territory that seems to be causing earthquakes and depopulation.

Once Isobel and Gabriel figure out what’s going on—dangerous, hubristic magical doings that may be the opening salvo in a land grab by the neighboring United States—The Cold Eye finally starts to pick up. New characters step on to the page and we start to learn more about this strange reality in which the middle part of the North American continent is claimed by the Devil and where people who want to be left to their own devices call home.

What I found most interesting in this novel came in the second half of the book, when Isobel is forced to work in the space between established justice and magical justice. What happens in this book is beyond what anyone has ever had to deal with. There’s a chance that guilty people will escape to cause further harm to the Territory. Because there is no law against what they did, should they be allowed to go free? Can Isobel become an executioner in addition to her usual job of putting the land right? Answering these questions is a vital part of Isobel’s journey; it’s a pity that it took so long to get to them.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 January 2017.

Babayaga, by Toby Barlow

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Babayaga

Will van Wyck is an ordinary advertising man, working in France around 1960. On the side, he provides reports on various companies to a man who works for the CIA. This is about as much excitement as he can safely handle. When he gets involved with the mysterious Zoya, a woman who will hex you as soon as look at you, and with the chatty, Oliver, who drags Will much farther into the world of espionage than he really wanted. Toby Barlow’s imaginative Babayaga begins with separate plot threads narrated by Will, Zoya, and several other characters, slowly pulling them all together in a climactic and heart-wrenching ending.

The first chapters of Babayaga clue readers into the fact that this is no ordinary tale of the Cold War. Within pages, we learn that Zoya is much older than she appears to be and that she is planning to kill her lover in a particularly gruesome way. He’s not a bad man; it’s just that this is the end of one story and time for Zoya to move on. In comparison, Will’s narrative is dull and takes much longer to kick into gear. Will’s trouble with the law begins when Oliver and his associates blackmail him into sharing his company’s research with them. They never say who they’re working for, but Will almost drops dead of shock when one of his reports turns up at the Soviet Embassy.

Some readers may be frustrated with how long it takes for Zoya and Will’s plots to come together. We have to trust that what Barlow wrote into the book will eventually reveal its purpose. So, it’s a bit of a wait while the detective trying to track Zoya is turned into a flea by the witch’s nemesis, an even older sorceress, various affairs are revealed, and Will trails around after Oliver on one unexplained errand after another. Weirdly, this book felt longer than its almost 400 pages.

Perhaps this is because nostalgia is a prominent theme in this book. Many of the characters—except for Will, who is a youngster compared to everyone else in this book—reflect on life during World War II, between the wars, the Russian Revolution, and earlier. Apart from Will, they’ve lost their innocence and their ability to trust others. There is a lot of history packed into this book, wrapped up in a lot of world-weariness.

All that said, I’m glad I stuck with Babayaga. My quick summary doesn’t do justice to how interesting all the characters in this book are. In each chapter, there are flashbacks or clues that explain backstories and motivations. And, given, Zoya and her nemesis’s powers and all the spies running around, this version of Paris felt deliciously dangerous. Plus, there’s the ending where everything comes together. It’s beautiful how all the loose ends get tied up.

I was also fascinated to see what Barlow was up to with gender in this novel. Power flips constantly between the men and women in Babayaga, so that the upper hand keeps changing from one to the other. For most of the book, I had no idea who would win. There are occasional zings in the text as a character of a different gender will have a thought similar to another but with an important reversal. For example, one male character believes that women have cold hands because their biology routes blood to their ovaries and uteruses. Later, a female character thinks that women have cold hands because the blood is need for their brains. Ultimately, the women in this book kick some serious ass and I whole-heartedly approve of books in which women kick patriarchal ass. Even if they are witches who kill people.