historical fantasy · mystery · review

Himself, by Jess Kidd

The prologue to Jess Kidd’s horribly magical novel, Himself, is brutal. It was almost enough to put me off the book entirely as I read about a woman I later learned was called Orla Sweeney being beaten to death by an unknown man, as her infant son unwittingly watched. At the end of the prologue, the forest itself conceals a boy who grows up to become the protagonist of the rest of the novel from his would-be murderer and I was immediately hooked. Himself ended up being a blend of horror, mystery, supernatural doings, and quirkiness that I found completely fascinating. I’ve never read anything like Himself and, given how much I enjoyed Mr. Flood’s Last Resort (also titled The Hoarder), I am now a committed fan of Jess Kidd.

Mahony turns up in the town of Mulderrig, Count Mayo like a stranger in a western—at least until word gets out who’s son he is. He’s treated well (mostly) by the people of the town. He gets a bit of stick for his hair and trousers because, even though it’s 1976, rural Ireland is still in the 1950s (or earlier). It also doesn’t help him that he draws the eyes of the town’s female half and makes friends with the eccentric Mrs. Cauley. The town’s priest, Father Quinn, and his ally, Annie (who uses religion to disapprove of people) are wary of Mahony. Once he starts his investigation into his mother’s disappearance and probable murder, Quinn, Annie, and the mysterious murderer spring into action to get Mahony to drop it and leave. Flashbacks to Orla’s life before her murder let us know that Mahony is absolutely right to be suspicious of this seemingly-normal town. There are a lot of skeletons (literal and metaphorical) in the closets of Mulderrig.

Nothing in Himself happens as expected. Mrs. Cauley leaps on Mahony’s investigation with a will and comes up with a plan based on Miss Marple mysteries and her own theatrical talents. The plan shouldn’t work, but it does. The supernatural elements—such as Mahony’s ability to see and talk with ghosts—keep everything delightfully off-kilter. While Mahony, Mrs. Cauley, and their allies go to work, Father Quinn is tormented by what seems to be local spirits with a wicked sense of humor. Mrs. Cauley’s antics and whatever is messing with Father Quinn keep this book from being totally grim, giving Himself some much needed levity after the really dark parts.

My only complaint about Himself is that it was over too soon. The end was a bit of a rush, so fast that I didn’t really get a chance to decompress from the tension that Kidd had built up over the course of the book. Also, even though Mulderrig has some terrifying inhabitants, I wanted more of it. I wanted more of the ghosts and the sassy holy spring and the possibly sentient forest. But on the other hand, maybe if I had more answers about what was going on on the supernatural side of things, Himself might have lost some of the weird charm it held for me. I would definitely recommend this novel to readers who like mysteries that have a touch of the uncanny (especially if the uncanny elements do not include vampires and werewolves) and know when to crack a joke when things get too bleak.

I listened to the audio version of Himself, narrated by Aiden Kelly’s gentle Irish voice. I was glad of the narration because I would never have figured out how to pronounce some of the characters’ names correctly.

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historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke

It’s a remarkable coincidence that I finished reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down not too long before I read The Fox and Dr. Shimamura, by Christine Wunnicke and translated by Philip Boehm. Both books take place in the intersection of Western medicine and traditional folk medicine. This time, the story takes place more than a century ago, in Japan, France, and Germany. The titular Dr. Shimamura is caught looking for ways to heal his patients and himself from a position square in the middle of that intersection. Even more than The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, The Fox and Dr. Shimamura brilliantly shows us that the two systems of medicine (at least at the turn of the twentieth century) are not too different from each other.

This short novel drifts back and forth through time from Shimamura’s present to his past. In 1922, in Japan, Dr. Shimamura—retired neurologist—is not doing well. His lifelong fever and neurosis has taken a toll on the poor man. His wife, mother, mother-in-law, and a maid care for him as he whiles away the days lost in his memories. Those memories (which we learn are not always accurate) center on a few critical years around 1890 and 1891, which he was sent by his superior to a remote region in Japan with an epidemic of women possessed by kitsune, fox spirits. His life was never the same after. The time switches and Dr. Shimamura’s mental state are very well translated by Boehm. Even though there are many times when it isn’t ways easy to tell what’s true, I felt like everything was written with brilliant clarity.

Dr. Shimamura believes that he cured the possessed women by taking their foxes into himself. Though he believes firmly in the rationality of neurology and psychology, Shimamura also feels fox spirits inside himself. Sometimes they appear in hernia-like swellings. Most of the time, his possession manifests as a constant, slight fever and an attractiveness to women and animals. After his experiences with the fox women, Dr. Shimamura bolts for Paris, then Berlin. Ostensibly, he’s there to collect information about new techniques and ideas in neurology, but he drifts. His faith in neurology is shaken when he meets Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot at Paris’ Hôpital Salpêtrière, who is in the middle of an epidemic of hysteria. Hysteria looks an awful lot like kitsune-possession in Japan and Dr. Shimamura is completely shaken. It’s only after a series of meetings with Dr. Josef Breuer (Freud’s mentor) that he finds some equilibrium.

Kuzunoha casting a fox shadow, by Utagawa Kuniyoshi. (Image via Wikicommons)

Unlike Dr. Shimamura, I was fascinated by the parallels between hysteria and fox-possession. Both “conditions” only affect women. They involve uncontrollable emotion and physical contortions. There is no real “cure” and there are a lot of doubt about whether it’s all real or not. Some people dismiss it as attention-seeking behavior. Other people see it sympathetically and seriously. Reading about both conditions exposed my own prejudices. I completely reject the idea of hysteria as medicalization of women’s psychology, a means of controlling women’s emotions in a patriarchal society. On the other hand, I have a more open idea about fox-possession because I want to know more about the cultural context. Dr. Shimamura knows a bit more about kitsune-possession because he’s Japanese, but he doesn’t really see a difference between the two; he sees them both either as something fabricated or something masking an underlying emotional trauma.

At first, the tone of The Fox and Dr. Shimamura led me to think that this book would be a tale of arch silliness. There are a few gentle jokes at Shimamura and some cutting snarkiness about the French neurologists he meets. The archness never completely dissipates, but the tone of the entire book changes when Dr. Shimamura is dispatched to see the fox women. The more I read this book, the more I loved it—especially in light of reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. This book is strange and intelligent and melancholy and funny. It’s an amazing tale.

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

historical fantasy · review

The True Queen, by Zen Cho

I’ve been waiting for a follow up to Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho, since I turned the last page. The book was such a breath of fresh air yet, at the same time, gave me so many things I already knew I loved in historical fantasy. The True QueenI am happy to report, is well worth the wait. I honestly can’t recall the last book that I finished with such a strong feeling of satisfied happiness.

This novel picks up several years after the events of Sorcerer to the Crown…and in a different country. Two sisters, Muna and Sakti, have been rescued from the sea around Janda Baik, Malaysia. They don’t remember who they are, other than their names—and that they have been cursed by someone powerful. Thankfully, they are taken in by Mak Genggang, the fearsome sorceress who defends the island from colonizers. But when the girls catch the attention of a local British bigwig, they are sent to the Sorceress Royal of England (one of the protagonists of Sorcerer to the Crown) to finally sort things out. Things get even worse for the sisters when, on a shortcut through Fairy, Sakti is whisked away and her magic-less sister arrives in England alone.

Zacharias Wythe, the primary protagonist of Sorcerer to the Crown, only makes brief appearances in this novel. Instead, Muna takes center stage as she tries to find her sister and get un-cursed. Her only allies are a polong and Henrietta Stapleton, the best friend of the Sorceress Royal. This doesn’t seem like a lot, but Muna has a very strategic mind that makes the best of any tool or advantage that comes her way. That very strategic mind is repeatedly tested as Muna ends up in the middle of a fight between Fairy and England, a bunch of tangential power grabs, and a revelation that sharp-eyed readers will see coming long before Muna figures things out.

While I loved a lot about The True Queen, there was one thing that annoyed me. There are multiple scenes in which Muna, Henrietta, and others offer to sacrifice themselves to save someone else and have to argue their case repeatedly. One or two of these would have been plenty, but I lost count of how often this scene repeated itself. Thankfully, the pure joy of the ending made up for a lot of my annoyance. I’m 37 years old and I was in serious risk of, as the kids say, squee-ing over the whole thing.

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

historical fantasy · review

The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson

In 1491, Fatima’s world is coming to an end. She is the slave of the last sultan of Moorish Granada and a party of Spaniards have just arrived at the Alhambra to negotiate the sultan’s surrender. But even though it’s the end of one world, Fatima is about to go on a great (albeit dangerous) adventure. The Bird King, by G. Willow Wilson, is an amazing journey, full of heroism, sacrifice, battling religions, and magic. I loved every minute of it.

Fatima is a willful woman. Her privileged position lets her get away with a lot, even though she was born a slave and is one of the sultan’s concubine. She has enough leeway to make friends with the miraculous map-maker, Hassan, who has a knack for finding hidden ways around obstacles. Fatima is not particularly concerned about the end of the Emirate of Granada—until the Spanish discover Hassan’s secret and want him handed over to the Inquisition to find out how he does it. Fatima will not let that happen. Her anger and stubbornness, as much as the Reconquista, kicks off this brilliant and exciting tale.

When she was a bit younger, Fatima read the first pages of The Conference of the Birds, a twelfth century poem by Farid ud-Din Attar. The poem tells the story of a bunch of birds who, after much squabbling, decide to fly across the Dark Sea to look for the Bird King. The Bird King will fix things, they believe. This poem inspires Fatima and Hassan’s mad plan to also sail across the Dark Sea (the Atlantic) to seek the land of Qaf, where the Bird King lives. It’s a wild, incredible plan and Fatima would never have considered it if it hadn’t been for the appearance of other supernatural creatures from Middle Eastern myth and Hassan’s own talent for creating impossible maps.

Peacock, from a seventeenth century copy of The Conference, illustrated by Habiballah of Sava (Image via Wikicommons)

The journey across the Dark Sea to a place that may or may not exist would have been hard enough, but Fatima and Hassan are being pursued by Luz, a lay nun who would have been an Inquisitor if it weren’t for her gender. Luz is terrifying. She tortures at the drop of a hat, using her faith as license to do anything to “save souls.” She also knows things that she shouldn’t and has an uncanny knack for finding our protagonists even when they set sail. There are so many close calls in The Bird King that I could barely put the book down once I’d picked it up. I just had to know how things would turn out.

The ending of The Bird King is spectacular and beautiful, with a dollop of redemption to make things even better. I loved how Wilson used The Conference and djinn together with actual history to create this tale. Her characterization is excellent, too. Even with everything else going on, we learn a lot about Fatima’s psychology and her abiding friendship with Hassan, who is gay and all too willing to sacrifice himself when things get hard. I loved this book so much that, if I go on, I’ll just gush and ruin things for readers. Run, do not walk, to pick up this book!

I received a copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley and Edelweiss, for review consideration.

historical fantasy · review

Miraculum, by Steph Post

The name of the traveling carnival in Steph Post’s Miraculum oversells its attractions, but not by much. Pontilliar’s Spectacular Star Light Miraculum features a bearded lady, dancing girls, Russian acrobats, games, rides, and our protagonist, the tattooed, snake-charming Ruby Chole. It also featured a geek show at the beginning of the novel, but the geek and his sudden replacement by a sinister man in a tuxedo quickly clues us in to the fact that all is not right with this traveling show.

The Miraculum is one of the few homes Ruby has ever known. Ever since she agreed to be tattooed—at the request of her unscrupulous showman of a father, Pontilliar—Ruby can’t go anywhere without being stared at. She is covered from head to toe with strange symbols. These marks are so unusual and so different from what most Tattooed Ladies wear that Ruby has had to turn herself into a snake-charmer in order to have an act people will pay money to see. The traveling show is all she has, which is why she can’t allow anyone to mess with the Miraculum.

Daniel Revont wants to mess with the Miraculum. It’s his nature to mess with things. This strange man arrived just as the previous geek hanged himself after the night’s show. In spite of his lack of experience, Pontilliar hires him on the spot. Small things and short interstitial sections clue us into the fact that Revont is not what he appears. He can hypnotize people to do his bidding. He charms and menaces by turns. And all he seems to want is something to alleviate the boredom of centuries. The only person he can’t get his hooks into is Ruby. For some reason, she is immune and this fact fascinates Revont.

Unfortunately, Miraculum never quite lives up to the promise of having a supernatural interloper in a traveling carnival. There is just enough world building to make for an interesting setting and plot, but the ending was a complete disappointment to me. It undercuts all the wonderful tension that had been building since the geek’s death by just fizzling out.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

historical fantasy · review

The Winter of the Witch, by Katherine Arden

Katherine Arden’s amazing Winternight trilogy comes to a satisfying close in The Winter of the Witch. This novel begins in the immediate aftermath of the conclusion to the previous volume and readers should read this series in order so that they don’t get lost right off the bat. Everything in the first two books has been building towards the events in this concluding installment. 

Our protagonist, the beaten and weary Vasilisa Petrovna, is not allow to rest after the night when Moscow was almost destroyed by an angry firebird. There was so much destruction and confusion that the people of Moscow want someone to pay. Vasya is only just barely able to escape when an old enemy whips up a mob to try and burn her as a witch. The first chapters made me ache for Vasya. She was only trying to help. Of course, a lot of protagonists were only trying to help when they inadvertently caused all hell to break loose. Still, there’s no excuse for trying to burn someone alive. 

Her escape leads her on a series of episodic adventures that end up putting the Rus’ to rights after years of conflict between the supernatural chyerti and the Orthodox church; the warring Medved the Bear and his brother the winter king, Morozko; and the Rus’ and their Tatar overlords. Everywhere Vasya goes, she has to extract promises and strike bargains in an effort to save lives and find a measure of peace for everyone. Her tasks seem so impossible that, even though I knew things had to come out right because this was the last book in the series, I worried. Vasya has so much on her shoulders in this book between all of these struggles on top of her worries over her own sanity and for her family. The fact that she bears up under all of this had me marveling over her strength and ingenuity. 

Readers who have been following the series will be more than satisfied with this conclusion, I think. Each episode in the book is tense, with high stakes if Vasya should falter. All the loose ends are tied up. Nothing is easy and the ending is more than earned. Arden treats us to plenty of magic and headstrong characters drawn from Russian history and folklore, with new creatures we haven’t seen before. I savored every page of The Winter of the Witch. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 8 January 2019.

historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

Once Upon a River, by Diane Setterfield

40130093Diane Setterfield’s Once Upon a River mimics the river that runs through its chapters. Like the Thames, this novel is alternately meandering and rushing, dirty and fertile—probably just like Setterfield intended. The novel even begins in that most English of institutions: the pub. The Swan of Radcot, upriver from London, is the home of storytellers who suddenly find themselves at witnesses to a miraculous story when a severely injured man suddenly bursts into the common room with what appears to be a drowned child in his hands. These witnesses spend almost as much time trying to figure out how to tell the story of the little girl as they do trying to figure out who she is, where she came from, and what should become of her.

The injured man is Henry Daunt, a photographer who is capturing scenes of life along the Thames in the mid-nineteenth century. He might not have stopped at the Swan if he hadn’t come to misfortune at the appropriately named Devil’s Weir. Daunt isn’t much of a mystery to men who know their stretch of the river like the back of their hands; the girl in his arms is. At first, everyone thinks the poor girl drowned in the river, but she suddenly revives. The puzzle of how she apparently came back to life is immediately displaced by the question of who her family is. She might be the long-lost daughter of the wealthy and grief-stricken Vaughans. There’s an equal chance that she’s the daughter of a wastrel and his abandoned, suicidal wife. The Vaughans claim her when the wastrel gives up his claim, though his father—the wonderfully kind and gentle farmer, Robert Armstrong—is more than willing to help bring the girl up.

Each chapter focuses on different characters. Robert Armstong follows his son’s tracks to find out just what criminal mischief the young man has been up to in an effort to find out if the girl is his granddaughter, Alice. Anthony Vaughan struggles with his doubt about whether the girl really is his lost Amelia returned to the family. Meanwhile, Henry Daunt and Rita Sunday, the woman who nursed Daunt and the little girl, resist all hints of supernatural activity to find a rational explanation for what on earth (or on the river) is going on. Meanwhile, mentally tortured Lily White has her own theories about who the girl is and how she came to be in the Swan, dead to all appearances.

Once Upon a River is an incredible read, full of wonderful heroes and villains. There’s humor, love, terror, curiosity, anger, betrayal, and much more. It’s definitely the kind of book I want to buy for myself and my library, and then talk a bunch of people into reading as soon as I have copies in my hands. Do yourselves a favor and read this book, immediately if not sooner.

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

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A man, woman, and two children sitting on the stoop of a whitewashed house, England, c. 1850s, by William Morris Grundy. These period photos remind me strongly of the fictional ones made by Henry Daunt in Once Upon a River. (Image via Flashbak)