The Witch and the Tsar, by Olesya Salnikova Gilmore

Great characters never die. They invite us to retell and reimagine their stories for all kinds of reasons: for inspiration, for remembrance, for entertainment. It will always amaze me that some characters have been walking alongside us for centuries because they just do something for us. One of those characters, the terrifying witch of last resort Baba Yaga, gets her own feminist retelling in Olesya Salnikova Gilmore’s stunning The Witch and the Tsar. I’ve always loved stories about Baba Yaga because while she might kill and eat you, she might also help you with your heart’s desire. We never know which Yaga we’re going to get until after we’ve stepped through the door of her chicken-legged cabin. You have to keep reading to find out what kind of story you’re going to get.

Gilmore keeps a lot of Baba Yaga’s supernatural elements: her herb magic, her house with its chicken legs (adorably called Little Hen here), her ability to talk to animals, her wolf and owl companions. She also drops in Koschei the Deathless, Marya Morevna, and several cameo appearances by Slavic gods. But Gilmore puts Yaga into a real historical conflict against Ivan IV, better known to history as Ivan the Terrible.

We meet Yaga as we usually do. She’s at her cabin in the woods, offering cures and bits of magic to petitioners. As The Witch and the Tsar opens, she received a visit from two old friends. The first visiter, Koschei (spelled Koshey here), stretches the definition of “friend” pretty far but the second, the tsaritsa Anastasia Romanova Zakharyina-Yurieva, is definitely a friendly face. It’s readily apparent that the tsaritsa is deathly ill. Yaga manages to cure her but follows her queen back to Moscow to find out who has been poisoning the poor woman. At the kremlin, Yaga meets the unsettling Tsar Ivan and manages to stay on his good side until Anastasia’s death and things go violently to hell.

Baba Yaga and her house, from a 1915 illustration (Image via Wikicommons)

Ivan the Terrible is a formidable foe for Baba Yaga and her allies—Marya Morevna and a bunch of fed-up boyars and peasants who want the violence of the Oprichnina to end—because no one, Yaga included, is willing to bump off the tsar and get a new one (or go totally crazy and set up a nice constitutional monarchy or something). Interludes between Yaga’s chapters slowly reveal that there is something supernatural behind Ivan’s literally bloody madness. Selica is a woman who fate and myth have very much wronged. Centuries before Ivan came to the thrown, Selica was married off to Morozko, the god of winter. Every year, Selica has to kill her husband so that spring can come…and in order to do that, Selica has to die herself (twice). Most of the time, she lives in the Underworld and dreams of living in the world again. The only way she can be free of her story is to take the souls of the living. A lot of them. So she pulls strings and ensnares powerful beings to do her will.

Gilmore knows how to spin a tale. The characterization is top-notch. The research takes us back to the mid-1500s and an endless Russian winter without ever dragging things down. (In her afterword, Gilmore explains what she took from Russian history and Slavic mythology to create her astounding re-envisioning of Baba Yaga’s story for nerds like me who want all the stories.). The plot is epic in every sense of the world. Fans of folklore retellings—especially those who like their stories with a sharp bite—should immediately pre-order this book, put themselves on the library hold list, and do whatever they can to get this book into their hands. This book is a purely incredible read.

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

Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang

Learning another language is hard work for most of us, and I’ve always been a little jealous of kids who grew up bilingual and people who have the knack for picking up new languages. It’s not just the memorization, which I think of as a feat on its own. It’s also the ability to get one’s brain to push a native language to the side enough to let in new grammar, idioms, word order, and cultural context. That first language always leaves a big imprint. I’ve never really been able to get past the stage of translating in my head whenever I’ve attempted to pick up a new language. I’ve always dreamed in English. The protagonists of Babel, or The Necessity of Violence, by R.F. Kuang, however, have the knack for language. Once their linguistic talents were discovered, our protagonists were scooped up from around the British Empire and sent to Oxford University, to take part in the multilingual machine that fuels the whole operation. Word nerds will love this highly original historical fantasy.

Robin Swift was rescued from death by cholera (which killed his family) in Canton by a wealthy Oxford don. His early fluency in Cantonese and English gave Professor Lovell enough confidence in Robin’s talents to take him to England, teach him Latin, Greek, and Mandarin, and eventually send him to the Royal Institute of Translation at Oxford University. The Royal Institute controls the silver-work trade. In this version of history, silver has the ability to transform the inherent instability* of translations to make ships go faster, heal the sick, ensure the safety of roads, and do so many of the things that keep the British Empire ahead of the rest of the world. At the Royal Institute, Robin and the rest of his cohort—Ramy, from Bengal; Victoire, from Haiti via France; and Letty, the sole British student in their group—learn to trace etymologies along with studying the vocabulary and grammar of their designated languages to create the powerful match-pairs of words that fuel the silver.

Robin has had doubts about the British Empire and his role in it almost since he met Lovell. These doubts grow in the face of the casual racism he and, later, the brown members of his cohort experience constantly in England. Robin also grows up starved of love in Lovell’s house. There are strong hints that Lovell is Robin’s biological father and yet the man is incapable of praising Robin or showing him any sign of affection whatsoever. Worse, Lovell firmly believes in the superiority of the white race and is violently prejudiced against Asians. The only reason he learned Mandarin and Cantonese—and fathered children with Chinese women—was because the Royal Institute required increasingly diverse match-pairs because the English language notoriously adds new vocabulary whenever its speakers meet a new language. Robin’s questions about the injustice he sees everywhere around him only grow louder as he learns more about what the Royal Institute and the British government have done and are doing to preserve their preeminence.

As Robin and his cohort get closer to graduation, the novel shifts from Babel to The Necessity of Violence. More people than just Robin, Ramy, and Victoire are unhappy about the status quo. They are contacted by members of the Hermes Society, a group of disgruntled students and former students of the Royal Institute who want to change the world. They want justice. They want equality. The problem is that they are tackling entrenched, systemic inequality and they can’t decide if the best way to affect change is by persuasion or through violence. Robin et al. waver between peaceful protest and violent acts of sabotage for much of the book, until betrayal and events that look an awful lot like the start of the Opium Wars kick off. They can’t go on among Oxford’s dreaming spires with clear consciences. Something has to be done.

Some readers might find Babel a little preachy at times. Even though I agree with a lot of the arguments made here about redistribution of wealth, anti-racism, gender equality, and dismantling monopolies, there were some sections of dialogue I skimmed over. That said, there was a lot I loved in this book. I loved the tricky character development and psychological realism. I adored Kuang’s reimagined Oxford and magical system. I was absolutely hooked by the sections that discussed with relish the intricacies of language. As I said, word nerds are going to enjoy the hell out of this book. I also think that readers who see injustice in the real world around them will find a lot to relate to here and, maybe, find some of the gumption Robin finds to make a stand and foster change for the better.

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

Panorama of Oxford University, 2016 (Image via Wikicommons)

* While it is possible to translate words one-for-one between languages, something is always lost in terms of nuance and context. Translators often wrestle with fidelity (perfectly capturing the original language) and making something flow in another langauge. For example, German word order often kicks a verb to the end of a sentence. For example, if I were to faithfully translate the sentence “Ich würde lieber Kaffee trinken” in English, I would end up with the ungrammatical “I would prefer coffee to drink.” It’s easy with this simple example to re-render the sentence into “I would prefer to drink coffee” without losing much, if anything. But this small example doesn’t involve untranslatable terms like Schadenfreude**, idioms, complex tenses, etc. When that happens, translators have to make choices about what’s essential and what’s grammatically/lexically possible.

** One of my absolute favorite words and I’m glad English stole it from the Germans.

Kaikeyi, by Vaishnavi Patel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina, by Zoraida Córdova

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

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

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

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

I really enjoyed this magical book.

A Marvellous Light, by Freya Marske

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

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

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

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

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

The Peculiarities, by David Liss

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She Who Became the Sun, by Shelley Parker-Chan

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

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

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

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

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

The Hidden Palace, by Helene Wecker

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

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

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

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

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

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

Within Without, by Jeff Noon

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

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

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

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