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.

The Devourers, by Indra Das

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The Devourers

Alok shouldn’t trust the stranger he meets at a baul (a musical performance by Bengali mystics). The stranger tells him this more than once as he pulls Alok into the story of his past. Even though Alok is a history professor, he has to know more about the stranger’s story of werewolves, rakshasas, and a Mughal woman who was unfortunate enough to draw the attention of a monster. The Devourers, by Indra Das, is a strange history of creatures from folklore who are uncomfortable in all of their skins.

Though the novel is framed by Alok’s acquaintance with the stranger, who asks him to transcribe what he claims are ancient documents, the bulk of the novel tells the story of a werewolf who has learned to feel guilty for his killings and long for the love of a human. The stranger claims to be a half werewolf and his story is hypnotic to Alok. As Alok gets deeper and deeper into the stranger’s stories, he gradually shakes off his postmodern skepticism and take most of what the stranger claims at face value. More than anything else, he has to know what happens next.

In current contemporary fantasy, werewolves run a close second to vampires as objects of forbidden desire. In The Devourers, the werewolves (drawn from various folklores) really are forbidden. Their own laws prohibit them from having any contact with humans other than to hunt and eat them. And yet, Fenrir (who named himself after the wolf of Norse mythology) is fascinated by these short-lived beings. Unlike werewolves, humans can create. In India, during the construction of the Taj Mahal, Fenrir sees a woman who isn’t automatically terrified of his wild-looking, smelly self. The first document Alok transcribes is Fenrir’s tale of how he came to “love” the woman, Cyrah, and his desire to make a child with a human.

The second document contains Cyrah’s story. After Fenrir’s rape, she makes a deal with the werewolf’s former pack mate to track him down. She plans to make Fenrir suffer some kind of retribution, though she’d be the first to admit that she doesn’t know what that punishment will be or how she will mete it out. But as we’ve learned from Alok and the stranger, two people can’t stay in close contact and share their stories without learning to find what they have in common. Cyrah and Gévaudan (named for the region he came from in France, which would later suffer attacks from the Beast of Gévaudan) are enemies at first, then partners, then something like friends.

Most of The Devourers is violent and full of gore. (I lost count of the number of people who got eaten.) By the end of the novel, however, powerful themes about identity emerge. Though the werewolves have their own culture, some of them can’t forget that they were once human. They regret what they’ve lost. Once that happens, they can’t quite go back to being rapacious werewolves. (Well, they kind of can, but they feel guilty about it.) The Devourers is very much a story of beings stuck between cultures and worlds.

The Devourers is also about story and folklore. It’s possible to trace some folk tales to actual history. The stranger’s story is just like one of those tales. The real story is awful (in both senses of the word) and messy and full of mistakes. Over time, the rough edges get smoothed away and details get reshaped into a mythology of demons and protector goddesses and great, heroic drama.

I’ve heard raves about The Devourers since it started appearing in pre-publication alerts. Now that I’ve read it, I completely understand. This book is a blending of so many things I enjoy in fiction—history behind folklore, monsters being monsters, a setting that I’ve never been to in a novel before—that, even though it is very violent, I would recommend it in a heartbeat to adventurous readers.

The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey

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The Snow Child

It was pure whimsy that led Mabel out into the snow to start a snowfight with her husband, Jack, and build a snow-girl with him. Until that point, they had been having a rough time on their Alaskan homestead. The couple were running low on money and supplies. The winter of 1920 might be their last in the wilderness before they had to pack it in and go back east. The morning after Mabel and Jack made the snow-girl, they found it destroyed and started to see a small girl running in the woods nearby. From this point on, it’s hard to tell if The Snow Child, by Eowyn Ivey, is historical fiction or fantasy because we can never really know if Faina is the Snow Maiden from the Russian folktale or the orphaned daughter of a Russian trapper.

Long before we get to know Faina, we learn about what made Mabel ask her husband to set up a homestead in Alaska. They used to live in Pennsylvania on a prosperous farm, surrounded by Jack’s family. But Mabel never really fit in. After their only child was stillborn, Mabel convinced Jack that they should move to Alaska, to a life much harder than she ever realized. Much of The Snow Child is a survival story, in which Mabel and Jack weather various disasters and calamities that ruin or kill them.

After Faina appears, the novel revolves around winters. Faina only shows up after the first snow and disappears before the spring breakup. Though she is very young, she resists all efforts to stay in civilization. Fortunately, she has learned to take care of herself. She is hardy and canny—more than Jack and Mabel are. Curiously, Mabel is more accepting of Faina’s absences when she believes that the girl might actually be the Snow Maiden from folklore.

The frontier, at least in fiction, is a strange place where reality is simultaneously more and less real. On the one hand, a mistake or an accident can kill. Settlers have to plan ahead and take care to survive. On the other hand, without others to argue and contradict, a settler might become convinced that they are fostering a girl who walked out of a Russian story book and that this is entirely logical. Perhaps it’s a product of being alone too much, but it certainly makes like more interesting. The Snow Child is a wonderful examination of this strange dichotomy.

Little Nothing, by Marisa Silver

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Little Nothing

There’s nothing wrong with Pavla. Rather, there’s a problem with everyone who meets her in Marisa Silver’s Little Nothing. Pavla was born somewhere Bohemia before the First World War. The people in her small village are highly superstitious and no one knows what to make of a dwarf. For the rest of her life, people will try and transform her into what they think she ought to be. Silver tells her tale as a grittier version of a fairy tale in which elderly parents pray for a child, after which nothing goes right.

Pavla is a bright child, talented with mathematics and engineering. She is also a dwarf. Once her parents learn to love her for who she is instead of lamenting the perfect child they’d wished for, Pavla’s life is wonderful. But nothing good can last in Pavla’s world. As she gets older, her aged parents wonder what will happen to her after they die. Who will marry her, they ask. Who will give her a job? Feeling they have no other options, Pavla’s parents ask for help from a witch, doctors, and quacks until they find one who can make Pavla taller.

The cost of transformation is high, much higher than Pavla’s parents might have expected. Over and over, Pavla will be transformed by people who think they know better. Each time, her life gets worse. She will spend time in a circus, wander the woods, and be incarcerated. Her story is shadowed by Danilo’s story. Danilo was the assistant to the doctor whose “cure” worked. He has regretted it ever since. While Pavla survives her various transformations, Danilo tries to follow the woman he comes to love, though he has his own share of trials.

Little Nothing is a challenging read. Not only is it told, at times, in the vague and unreal tone of a fairy tale, it is also relentlessly grim*. There are innocents, but they keep getting caught in the machinations of other characters. Then they get caught in the edges of World War I. Even with all its darkness, I was interested in the trace of magic in Little Nothing. It was as though I was reading a story about the last days of pre-modern Eastern Europe, when there were such things as witch’s curses and werewolves. Perhaps everything went wrong for Pavla and Danilo because modern ways of thinking kept intruding and screwing up the magic.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 13 September 2016.


* I am not at all sorry for this pun.

The Upright Heart, by Julia Ain-Krupa

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The Upright Heart

I think authors write about the Holocaust and readers keep reading about the Holocaust because there is no coming to terms with a crime so massive, so damaging. Every novel is a fresh perspective on an event that will always shape humanity. That said, Julia Ain-Krupa’s The Upright Heart is one of the most unusual perspectives I’ve yet seen in Holocaust fiction. Instead of replicating history, this novel is a ghost story, with the dead place as much or more of a role than the living.

Even though The Upright Heart is a short novel, it is a meandering story. It opens in small down in Poland just after the end of World War II with a man who is late for work. Wiktor is running to his post when he is hit and killed by a train. Only then do we learn that Wiktor is our entré into a tangled story of unfinished business. Wiktor hops trains as a ghostly hobo until he comes across Wolf, who left their town for America just before the war with his new wife. Wolf was not in love with that wife. Even years later, he still pines for his lost love, non-Jewish Olga, who died in the Holocaust.

Over the course of The Upright Heart, Wolf is haunted, psychologically and literally, by Olga, their unborn child, and the ghosts of others who died during the war. Though Wiktor is our initial guide, he mostly disappears over the course of the book as other characters step forward to tell their stories. There isn’t an overarching plot, as such. Rather, this book is a puzzle for readers to work out. As the novel unfolds, we slowly learn how the characters are connected to each other and what they meant to each other when they were all alive. The Upright Hearkeeps moving on to new characters and I had to roll with the narrative, even though I wasn’t sure quite who I was supposed to be paying attention to.

Readers who prefer a more straightforward read may be frustrated by The Upright Heart. To be honest, I am one of those readers. This book never quite gelled for me and there were too much writerly fireworks for me to fully understand the story and its characters. But I do appreciate the chance that Ain-Krupa took in creating a ghost story about the Holocaust. At the beginning of the novel, when Wiktor runs across a squad of the ghosts of Wehrmacht soldiers, I was powerfully struck with the image that all of eastern Europe must be covered with the ghosts of World War II dead. It’s a wonder that the living can function when they must constantly run into the chill of past crimes.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 6 September 2016.