The Outcasts of Time, by Ian Mortimer

34103858When I was young enough that my mother still made me go to church, I was taught the Lutheran version of salvation. I prefer to say it in Latin—sola fides sufficitmostly because I’m a word nerd and because I like to sound smart. The idea of sola fide (“faith alone”) is a Reformation idea that believers will go to heaven simply because they have faith. Their faith would presumably lead them to do good works and generally be good people. This is different from the medieval Catholic doctrine that it was faith and good works that would get a believer into heaven. This issue of salvation is at the heart of Ian Mortimer’s slightly preachy novel, The Outcasts of Time.

John of Wrayment wants to be a good man and wants to get into heaven, but almost all of his attempts to do good go terribly awry. In other circumstances, John might have had a lifetime to try to do and be good. Unfortunately, John is alive in 1348, when the Bubonic Plague arrived in England. People are dying left and right. Trying to nurse people would be almost certainly fatal and yet, one day, John talks his brother into helping an infant that they found with its plague-dead parents. This good act ends up infecting them and others with the plague. The Outcasts of Time would have been a very short book if John hadn’t had a little bit of supernatural intervention at this point. A voice that might either be heavenly or infernal offers him and his brother the options of living out the last six days of their life with their families (and infecting them with the plague) or living each of those days at 99-year intervals. John takes the chance because he thinks he might have new opportunities to do good. His brother goes along, reluctantly, to stay with his naïve younger brother.

John and William then jump, every morning, from 1348 to 1447, 1546, 1645, 1744, 1843, and 1942. John’s bad luck apparently comes with him because his attempted good works keep going wrong. These attempts keep the plot going, but they were slightly less interesting to me than the conversations John would have with the descendants of people he knew in the Moreton (later Moretonhampstead) area about fate, good works, futility, human nature, faith, and other topics. Ideas of salvation change with England’s history, especially after the Protestant Reformation hits. The evolution of religion (ha!) deeply troubles John and he’s more than willing to argue about the superiority of his original faith for several of his last days—at least until the weight of history starts to press down on him and make him wonder about the difference between what he was taught and what he witnesses.

The Outcasts of Time has a facile ending that I didn’t like. But the ending, not to say too much about it, does provide a sense of hope that does a lot to relieve the sense of hopelessness that pervades the book as John often makes things worse rather than better. The Outcasts of Time wears its message boldly on its sleeve. Readers who want more subtlety will probably want to avoid this. Readers who like books that give them food for thought about fate or the idea that humans either improve or fail to improve over time, however, will enjoy The Outcasts of Time. 

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 2 January 2018.

 

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Brimstone, by Cherie Priest

30213129Until very recently, there wasn’t any treatment for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. There wasn’t even a good name for it either. But modern psychology and medicine would have a hard time treating what ails Cuban American World War I veteran Tomás Cordero in Cherie Priest’s Brimstone. Fortunately for him, novice medium and clairvoyant Alice Dartle does.

On her train to Cassadaga, Florida, Alice shares a dream with Tomás about fire and the trenches. Neither of them knows what it means but they are both left with the sense that they’re not alone. In alternating chapters, we watch Alice settle (sort of) into her lessons in Cassadaga’s spiritualist community and Tomás struggle with unexplained fires that cause enormous damage. Alice’s natural feistiness and willingness to go in over her head are a bit much for the surprisingly staid spiritualists. Tomás is bewildered and saddened at the same time as everything seems to burn around him.

Readers with a bit of knowledge about the history of witchcraft will figure out what’s going on in Brimstone fairly early. Still, interesting to watch things unspool here even if you do twig early, because the characters are wonderfully drawn. Alice is spunky and sweet. She would be a terrific friend to have. Tomás is the kind of wounded man that makes people want to help him. He feels deeply and makes friends for life. Every character, even the minor ones, feel utterly real.

Brimstone is, the way I read it, an unusual but strong metaphor for post-traumatic stress disorder in soldiers. Veterans of World War I were piled into trenches, faced horrific weapons, and were subjected to all sorts of propaganda about who they were fighting and what they were fighting for. The experience was toxic to everyone who fought and its no surprise that things would follow the soldiers home. Brimstone makes those things more tangible and thus something that can be defeated. In a not-fantasy genre novel, Tomás would have been dealing with memories and psychological triggers, probably for the rest of his life. In Brimstone, however, we all get a satisfying conclusion.

The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden

34050917Vasilisa Petrovna’s adventures continue in The Girl in the Tower, by Katherine Arden, the sequel to The Bear and the Nightingale. Without her family to shield her from the hostile villagers of Lesnaya Zemlya, she lights out for the territories on her trusty, magical horse to become a traveler. But because a) Russian fairy tales tend to be as bloodthirsty or more than Grimms’ and b) fourteenth century Russia is no picnic anyway, Vasilisa is almost immediately in peril.

In fourteenth century Russia, women have few options. It’s either marriage or a convent. And, for high ranking women, marriage came with lifelong seclusion in terem. All Vasilisa wants is to see the world. Though her protector, Morozko (the snow-king) tries to dissuade her, Vasilisa takes to the road. Meanwhile, we also check in with Vasilisa’s older sister, Olga, in Moscow, and her warrior-monk brother, Sasha. As Vasilisa is making her way, disguised as a boy, Olga is trying to maintain order in her haunted tower and Sasha is dealing with the fallout of a series of violent attacks on villages around Moscow by bandits who don’t leave tracks.

It doesn’t take long for the siblings’ stories to intersect and for Vasilisa to realize that she’s up against something supernatural. Again. I don’t want to say too much because if I start talking about what happens, anyone who knows a bit about Russian folklore might be able to figure things out too soon. But I will say that I love the way Vasilisa and her family are caught between the native spirits of Russia who are still hanging on in the banyas and hearths of the country and the new Orthodox faith that dismisses the bannik and domovoi as devils. A few centuries before, Vasilisa might not have had to deal with everything alone or been accused of witchcraft. Half (or more) of Vasilisa’s fight is just trying to get people to at least allow her get on with things.

I remember liking The Bear and the Nightingale a lot, but I think I might have enjoyed this entry in the series even more. The stakes have been raised in The Girl in the Tower. The story has widened to bring in even more figures from Russian folklore. But most of all, I love who Vasilisa is becoming. She is learning that she is mostly on her own and she grows increasingly capable with every new challenge. She also has a gift for pushing her family and allies to be better people, to become heroes. There’s so much in The Girl in the Tower that I loved. I strongly recommend these books for fans of folklore and folklore retellings.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 5 December 2017.

The Man Who Spoke Snakish, by Andrus Kivirähk

25246592I suspect that every generation thinks that they do things better than their parents and that their children should rely on their wisdom. This suspicion is certainly the case in Andrus Kivirähk’s The Man Who Spoke Snakish (translated by Christopher Moseley). Leemet, our protagonist, is caught in between two radically different “generations.” On the one hand, the forest elders exhort him to follow the old ways of placating the sprites and learning Snakish to control animals. On the other, villagers encourage Leemet to give up the old ways, get baptized, and learn to like bread. The Man Who Spoke Snakish is a story of generational struggle, Estonian myth, and conflicting world views through the life story of the last man to be able to speak to animals.

Time is fluid in The Man Who Spoke Snakish. It’s hard to tell when we are and how long Leemet’s life is. For one, there are still proto-humans running around (only two, but still). For another, the kinds of changes happening to the forest people and the villagers are not sudden. But it’s not really important to pin down when the events of this book occur. All we really need to know is that Leemet and his people are transitioning out of a time of pre-Christian myths into what we might think of as recorded history. Remarkable things still happen—Leemet’s grandfather makes wings out of human bones, Leemet’s people use Snakish to milk wolves, villagers swapping methods for avoiding werewolves—but it’s no longer possible to summon the Great Frog of the North to kill the invading iron men (German knights).

I could easily see Leemet’s story becoming a legend that people tell each other on winter nights, though maybe not as exciting as the lives of Beowulf or Roland or Siegfried. Leemet’s adventures seem like a (sometimes gristly) romp through the end of the primeval forest way of life. But Leemet’s story also gives plenty of opportunities to see the warring between the old and new ways of life. There’s a lot to unpack, as we say in academia. This might be a great book for a book group to discuss, so long as they’re okay with a lot of blood and guts. Or, this could be an entertaining, often funny, journey through a strange land at a very strange time.

The Midnight Queen, by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

20821047After a heavy read like The Revolution of Marina M., I needed something like Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s The Midnight Queen. It has so many things that I find delightful in a book: magic blended with history; a tall, shy guy falling in love with a talented, bookish girl; Celtic languages; cunning plots; and smart alecks. There was enough heft to keep my brain engaged but packed with plenty of humor and sweetness to keep things fun.

Gray Marshall is a scholarship boy at Oxford’s Merlin College when he is talked into participating in an errand that goes horribly wrong. The next thing he (and we) knows, he’s being hauled off to Brittany by his tutor to rusticate while his superiors figure out what to do with him. The Professor is a boor, but it isn’t until Gray starts snooping—and spending time with the Professor’s daughter, Sophie—that he figures out how much of a villain the man is.

Sophie is a powerful, albeit untrained, magician. She’s been sneaking into her father’s library for years to learn more about magical theory. Gray’s arrival, and his willingness to teach a female, is a blessing for her. The lessons lead to a growing friendship (and more, because this is a fluffy book), but also more discoveries about the evil Professor. Once Gray and Sophie figure out that there’s a plot to poison powerful Britons, things get literally explosive and they have to flee back to England to try and save some lives.

The rest of The Midnight Queen passes by quickly. I had so much fun reading this book that I could hardly bear to put the book down to get dinner or put on my PJs. (I stayed up until 1:00 AM to finish it.) Once I get out from under Mount Must-Read-Soon-Because-Deadlines, I’m definitely checking out the next book from the library.

The Bone Mother, by David Demchuk

31944708David Demchuk’s The Bone Mother is the kind of story collection that left me wanting more. Each chapter is a grim fairy tale that, together with the other chapters, builds up a disturbing world centered on three towns in the Romanian-Ukrainian border. The towns are full of people and creatures inspired by Slavic myths and, sometime during World War II, something happened to shatter this community. For added atmosphere, each chapter begins with an image from the Costică Acsinte Archive, a collection of photos from an early Twentieth century Romanian photographer.

While there are only a few characters who appear in more than one story, a narrative about the three unnamed towns coalesces before long. There were three towns in Romania and Ukraine where people were born with strange abilities, hungers, and traditions. Somewhere in the middle of it is a porcelain thimble factory with royal customers. Then the war came, along with violent men (it’s unclear who they are) who killed their way through the towns. Survivors scattered around the world, taking their abilities and hungers with them.

Most of the stories are only a page or two long; a few get a little longer. The stories are so spare that I had to read deeply into the subtext and scrape up what I know about Slavic myths to feel like I had a handle on what was happening. This book was best when I let go of my need to know what was actually happening and let things wash over me. The Bone Mother turned out to be a terrific book to herald the beginning of October. It is delightfully creepy and packed with mystery to think about after the last story ends.

The Trials of Solomon Parker, by Eric Scott Fischl

34237441We’d like to think that, if we had the chance to do something over again, we’d do better the second time. This is what reincarnation is about, after all. But in Eric Scott Fischl’s The Trials of Solomon Parker, we see a pair of men who have the chance to take back their biggest mistakes only to see their lives go wrong in new directions.

Solomon Parker and Billy Morgan are tragic men of the old school. Parker lost his wife to madness and his son to a bad decision during a mine fire. His gambling addiction means that he’s always on the run from the people he owes money to. Morgan is caught between his government school education, his native heritage (unspecified), and his very strange father and uncle. For the first quarter of the book, from 1900 to 1917, we see their lives getting worse and worse (mostly Parker’s). But when they’re both at their lowest point, Morgan’s uncle, Marked Face, offers them a gamble.

The first time Parker gambles with Marked Face, he has no idea what the stakes are. He wins, but it’s clear that he was supposed to. The next thing he and Morgan know, it’s 1916, right before the fire that would kill Parker’s son. Over and over in The Trials of Solomon Parker, Parker gets the chance to make things right. He can remember how events went wrong before, so he knows what he has to do to change things. The problem is that the universe is messing with both men and it has a nasty sense of entertainment.

As the novel develops, Morgan (and we readers) learn more about how he and Parker got tangled up in an ongoing story that goes back a lot farther than he would have realized. We are introduced to a new mythology based on several North American tribes*. For every bad decision Parker or Morgan made, there’s another one behind it in this new mythology. Untangling it would mean going back to the beginning, but is it necessary? Parker and Morgan have to decide if their new lives are better or worse than their old, and how much they’re willing to risk for another gamble.

While other novels about reincarnation and section changes tend to be hopeful overall, The Trials of Solomon Parker has a more cynical view of human nature. Its darkness and refusal to make one set of lives better than the other had me thinking less about human nature, however, than about chaos. Making a different decision the second time around doesn’t mean that everything will be better; it just means that everything will be different. The Trials of Solomon Parker is a darkly philosophical novel, one that feels very honest for all its lack of hope.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 3 October 2017.


* Fischl states in the author’s note at the end that he was deliberately not using any one tribe’s stories, to avoid cultural appropriation. This brings up other questions, of course, but that’s a whole other blog post.

Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang

After reading The Nazi and the PsychiatristI needed something completely different.

29938354Jialing does not have normal luck. In Dragon Springs Road, by Janie Chang, she either has very good luck—thanks to the fox spirit that lives in her house—or very bad luck—because she is an orphaned female in early twentieth century China. Though the novel centers mostly on Jialing’s home in a suburb of Shanghai, it’s clear that the old ways of life in China are dying. Unfortunately, they’re not dying fast enough for Jialing. The novel follows Jialing through highs and lows, from 1908 to the early 1920s.

In her earliest memories, Jialing knows she lived in the Western Residence of a siheyuan, a traditional Chinese residence built around courtyards, with her mother. After her mother disappears, Jialing is begrudgingly taken in by the Yang family. Grandmother Yang makes Jialing a bond servant (essentially a slave) because she believes this will help her score points for the next life. Jialing’s life might have been complete drudgery if it weren’t for the fox spirit (huli jing) that lives in the Western Residence. Fox made a promise to Jialing’s mother that she would watch out for the girl. Fox doesn’t have much power, but she is able to influence people and events so that, sometimes, Jialing gets lucky. Jialing even manages to get a mission school education—thanks to Fox.

beijing_siheyuan_structure
siheyuan with one courtyard. Few of these have survived to the present.

Though the Yangs raise Jialing to be a passive servant, Fox nourishes Jialing’s precocity and intelligence. Fox also tries to teach Jialing how to use her wiles once she reaches puberty, but Jialing resists. She saw what happened to her mother, after all. But in the first half of the twentieth century, there were few roles for Chinese women to provide for themselves. Even worse for Jialing is that her father was European. People who might have hired a Chinese secretary, nanny, or teacher balk at hiring someone of mixed race—though several men are quite willing to have her as their mistress.

The last third of Dragon Springs Road is much faster paced than the first two. The story evolves from a slowish bildungsroman, with a supernatural fox, to almost a thriller. (Still with the supernatural fox.) And, strangely enough, it all worked for me. I quite enjoyed this odd piece of historical fiction. This would be a great book for people who want something exotic, light but not too fluffy, with great characters at its heart.

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.