historical fantasy · review

In the House in the Dark of the Woods, by Laird Hunt

38496725All of the fairy tales warn us to stay out of the woods. But, at the outset of Laird Hunt’s unsettling novel In the House in the Dark of the Woods, a young woman walks into the woods to collect berries for her man and young son. She is never the same again.

Things start to go wrong for our protagonist shortly after she starts picking, though she won’t know just how much trouble she’s in until later. The narrator has been in the woods for a few hours when she sees one of the “first-folk,” who tries to get her to go away. She hurts herself on the way out and falls unconscious. When she wakes, she wanders and gets even more lost. Our protagonist might have made it out but for the dangerously loaded offers of help she receives from the strange inhabitants of the woods.

Hunt’s novel has hints of traditional European folklore. In addition to the “stay out of the woods” trope, there are characters I see as the maiden, mother, and crone; a character who can’t stop playing and singing; characters that might represent the devil. But unlike European folklore, which staunchly supports following the rules, the protagonist’s memories of her home and family make us wonder which world she really fits in. Her home is Puritanical. The woods are anarchic. There are dangers to both, but it becomes clear over the course of the novel (one of the few clear things) that our protagonist fits much better in one world than the other.

I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for books that play around with traditional European folklore. Most of the ones I’ve found, however, hew closer to the original characters and tropes. Perhaps they spin things a little, but they feel familiar if you know your fairy tales. In In the House in the Dark of the Woods, Hunt creates an original folkloric world and characters. Even the slightly familiar characters get original makeovers. I had no idea what these characters were after or how it would all play out and I loved it.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 16 October 2018.

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historical fantasy · review

Hag, by Kathleen Kaufman

39210859The women in Alice Grace Kyles’ family have always been considered odd. They have special talents: with healing, seeing the future, etc. The locals wherever they happen to live call them witches. We readers don’t have to wait long for the answer for all this to be revealed in Kathleen Kaufman’s Hag. All of the women, including Alice herself, are descended from the Cailleach, a powerful female creature sometimes called a hag.

In the short passages preceding each chapter about Alice, we learn a little bit more about the Cailleach. She is an ancient supernatural being who takes occasional mates and births daughters, who are then sent out into the world to lead “extraordinary lives.” The only problem is that once they leave their mother, these daughters forget what they’ve learned and what they’re capable. These short passages follow the line down to Alice, as each gets further and further away from their ancestry. Over and over, we’re told that the Cailleach’s time is coming—but it isn’t until the very end that we finally learn what this means.

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The rune Ingwaz features prominently in this book (Image via Pinterest)

In the longer chapters, we follow Alice from Glasgow to Colorado to Venezuela and back to Glasgow as she tries to figure out what she should do with her life. Alice is, because of time and her mother’s choice to take them to Colorado, the most cut off from her heritage. She has powers that manifest when she’s upset, but she does her best to keep a lid on these. She does her best to live normally to avoid accusations of witchcraft. Living normally is much easier than following the unconventional paths her ancestress’s followed. Apart from returning home to Glasgow and having a preternaturally knowledgable child, Alice doesn’t do much to reclaim her heritage. When the ending comes, the climax of her story reads more like an accident than a purposeful conclusion to a family saga.

Hag jumps from episode to episode in Alice’s life, so much so that it feels like it’s racing along. It’s only at the end of the book that the plot starts to resemble a conventional novel with a single arc. To be honest, I’m not sure what to make of the structure of this novel. There are parts where I was hooked. The parts about Alice’s great-grandmother, great-great-grandmother, and great-great-great grandmother were fascinating. Unfortunately, the time jumps and the mystery about what Alice is supposed to do with her life and what it means for the Cailleach that her time is coming made the book feel scattered and undeveloped. I wished there had been more of something in Hag make me feel more engaged in Alice’s story and that of her frankly creepy child.

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

historical fantasy · review

The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner

37854049The Leib family lives in exile, because their parents married for love. Their mother’s Christian family cast her out. Their father’s Jewish family banished him. Ever since they married, the Leibs have lived in Dubossary (Dubăsari), in relative peace and quiet—but all the secrets have caused a lot of tension. The elder Leibs have a chance to be reconciled to the Jewish side of their family at the beginning of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, by Rena Rossner, but it means leaving young Liba and Laya behind. The potential reconciliation couldn’t come at a worse time. Not only is anti-Semitism on the rise, but the girls are almost ready to confront the two families’ biggest secrets.

Liba is the sensible older sister. She studies Torah with her father. She lives within the confines of Hasidic Jewish life. Laya, on the other hand, longs for freedom and travel. When their parents take to the road, the girls begin a battle of wills. Liba tries to enforce their parents’ rules while Laya takes every opportunity to try things that were previously forbidden. Neither girl knows that their mother finally revealed the blended family’s secret: that Liba will be able to turn into a bear like their father and that Laya will be able to transform into a swan like their mother.

On top of the sisters’ squabbling over keeping the family’s Jewish rules and their blossoming magical abilities, they also have to contend with the arrival of the curiously enticing Hovlin brothers, who peddle addictive fruit and more. And then Rossner weaves in some of the history of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. It’s a lot to keep track of and, unfortunately, I think the characterization and the dialogue suffer. Where Liba is more fully realized, Laya reads very one note for most of the book. The note is willfullness. Curiously, Rossner wrote the chapters in Laya’s perspective like poetry, with very short lines that I really don’t know what to do with. Because so many of the characters are on the stubbornness spectrum, there are a lot of arguments between two or more characters who refuse to compromise. There’s a lot of shouting.

I think I would have enjoyed The Sisters of the Winter Wood a lot more if it had contained one less thing. If there had been fewer plot threads, Rossner would have more room for characterization and nuance. The book would have been less like so many other young adult novels featuring characters who are all convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong and no one has an ounce of ability to compromise. I can just picture them standing somewhere, feet planted and arms crossed, just bellowing at each other until someone backs down. All that said, I enjoyed Rossner’s world building. I love the idea of Jewish bears running around Moldova and Ukrainian swans flying overhead.

Readers who like historical fantasy might enjoy this, if they are willing to overlook this book’s flaws.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 25 September 2018.

historical fantasy · historical fiction · review

The Pasha of Cuisine, by Saygın Ersin

38330852Food is powerful. A good meal can bring people together who normally can’t stand to be together (Thanksgiving, anyone?). A favorite dish can recall lost memories of childhood (Proust made a whole career out of this). But in Saygın Ersin’s The Pasha of Cuisine (translated by Mark Wyers), a man known only as the cook attempts to use his mastery of flavor and scent to win back his lost love from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire himself.

The book opens with leeks. The Chief Sword Bearer to the Sultan loathes them, but the cocky cook serves them up anyway. It’s the opening gambit in a plan he’s been working on for years, ever since he escaped certain death at the hands of the new Sultan’s guards along with all the other children of the old Sultan. Flashbacks show us how the cook survived and learned his art, as well as how he met his great love, Kamer. Meanwhile, the action chugs along as the cook’s leek dish results in his return to the palace, albeit as a cook in service to the volatile, cruel Chief Sword Bearer.

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The restored Imperial Kitchens at Edirne Palace, where some of the action of this book takes place.
(Image via Wikicommons)

The best parts of The Pasha of Cuisine are obviously the lush descriptions of the food. There are several sections that made me wish that there was a Turkish restaurant I could rush out to so that I could try some of the things the cook made. As it turns out, the cook is not only a great cook; he also knows how to work magic with food. A whispered word can amplify the emotional impact of his dishes and inflame the eater’s passions, make them terribly ill, and more. The cook uses his creations to manipulate the people who can set Kamer free from the Odalisque Harem, where she was sent after they met and fell in love years ago. It’s a tricky process, as one might expect, and I was very entertained by the unintended consequences of the cook’s dishes.

Mark Wyer’s translation of Ersin’s book walks a careful line between making the book comprehensible, while still preserving the exotic names of some of the cook’s dishes. Wyers and Ersin use slightly archaic language throughout much of the book. I found some of the prose a little overworked until I started to think of it as a more-fleshed-out fairy tale. There’s not a lot of dialogue in the book to get in the way of the action and the cook’s apprenticeship and journeymanship struck me as something I might find in folklore.

The more I read The Pasha of Cuisine, the more I liked it. It was a treat to visit the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Most of all, I enjoyed the cook’s heroic journey. He battles all kinds of human monsters on his quest, armed only with a mighty knowledge of food and its effects on the eater. I would recommend this to readers who like a taste of the exotic, both in terms of setting and in terms of cuisine. Bon appetit!

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

historical fantasy · review

Deep Roots, by Ruthanna Emrys

36144841Deep Roots, the second novel in Ruthanna Emrys’s Innsmouth Legacy series, builds on the strange world her protagonists discovered and fought in Winter Tide. This entry in the series shows Aphra Marsh’s confluence—her magically bonded family members and friends—taking on new enemies and learning more about the creatures they didn’t know were already living on earth.

At the beginning of Deep Roots, Aphra et al. are in New York looking for distant family members who might have survived the devastating government raids of 1929. New family members could help them rebuild their species. They’ve traced a couple of distant cousins to the city, but it seems that someone else has a claim on cousin Freddy. While Aphra and the confluence try to get the measure of the Outer Ones and their bizarre, disturbing abilities to travel, they also have to contend with old frenemies: the weird stuff office of the FBI. Aphra reluctantly asks for their help because the Outer Ones have a fearsome reputation. But the problem with asking for federal help during the opening years of the Cold War is that the FBI agents will use every opportunity to find an advantage they can use against the Soviets.

While there are some great scenes in Deep Roots, notably the fight scene at the end of the book, most of this book is dialogue. Much of the dialogue is negotiation and plotting, between Aphra and the FBI, between Aphra and her much older relatives, between Aphra and the Outer Ones, between the Outer Ones and the FBI—and between Aphra and the members of the confluence. Too be honest, it was all a bit wearying. I enjoyed learning more about this revamped version of the Lovecraft mythos. The problem with this book is one I’ve seen in later series entries in urban fantasy when the various factions in the book all have immense powers. Instead of fighting or, well, any kind of action, it’s all talk.

Reader who were hooked by Winter Tide may enjoy this continuation. I suspect that it will be necessary reading for the next book in the series. I’m still curious about what will come next in the Innsmouth Legacy, since the ending of Deep Roots seems to clear the board for more adventures for the confluence. I just hope that those future adventures have more magic and action than talk.

I received a free copy of his book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

historical fantasy · review

What Blooms from Dust, by James Markert

36576181Jeremiah Goodbye could be described as a lucky guy. Jeremiah himself, however, would say that it’s fate. It’s clear from the beginning of James Markert’s What Blooms from Dust that something is looking out for Jeremiah. The novel opens just after Jeremiah escaped from prison (thanks for a tornado) after being electrocuted for five seconds at his execution. He’s got a job to do. The problem is that he doesn’t quite know what that job is.

Jeremiah is called the Coin-Flip Killer. He was caught burying bodies at the Nowhere, Oklahoma silo, but there is some question about whether or not Jeremiah actually killed four men. At the beginning of What Blooms from Dust, though, Jeremiah seems like a hardbitten man—not surprising considering it was a miracle that he escaped from his own execution in the spring of 1935. Our first hint that Jeremiah might just be misunderstood comes when he rescues a boy (described as “not right” by his parents) from being sold to a stranger. The stranger gives off a bad vibe and Jeremiah just can’t walk past. So, after intimidating the stranger, Jeremiah and the boy, Peter, walk to Nowhere.

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Black Sunday in the north Texas panhandle. (Image via Wikicommons)

Even after Jeremiah and Peter arrive in Nowhere, Jeremiah has no idea what he’s supposed to do. He can’t hide. Everyone knows who he is and his own twin brother was the one who turned him in. He’s not really trying to exonerate himself. He doesn’t have a lot of time to figure out what to do with himself when a series of dust storms, including the terrible Black Sunday storm, hits the town and strange things start to happen. The storm catches most of the town outside and the dust does weird things to almost everyone who breathed it in. It’s only in the worst days after the storm that Jeremiah and Peter learn what they’re supposed to do.

The Dust Bowl becomes a malevolent force in What Blooms from Dust. It wasn’t much different in reality, I suspect. The constant dust storms on top of a decade of drought and economic depression must have broken people. No wonder that so many people from Oklahoma, Texas, and Kansas packed up and took to the roads just to get away with it. This book is full of references to digging out from yet another storm that got tired and I was just laying on the couch.

Readers who don’t like essential coincidences might not like What Blooms from Dust. Readers like me who love watching seemingly disparate events and clues come together to create a marvelous ending or who enjoy atmospheric novels that put you right in the setting will enjoy this book. There is so much to enjoy about this unsettling tale of fate and good and evil.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.

alternate history · historical fantasy · review · thriller

Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi

27272632What would it be like to exist in a world where death doesn’t really matter? For the British Empire, it means colonizing the afterlife and continuing to play the Great Game forever. Summerland, by Hannu Rajaniemi, is a spy versus spy story set in an alternate 1938 where the Spanish Civil War might lead to another world war. Rachel White works for the Winter Court, the lively side of the British Secret Service. Peter Bloom is a Russian double agent undercover in the Summer Court, the afterlife version of the British Intelligence Service. Rachel knows there’s a mole and Peter knows that someone knows—neither of them knows that there might be a larger, deadlier conflict about to kick off.

As one of the lone women in the Secret Service on either side of the veil, Rachel is underestimated by everyone. She does not appreciate it. When she uncovers the identity of a Russian mole and is ignored, her disgruntlement blossoms into full blown fury. Rachel decides to go rogue enough to try and track down Peter Bloom. Bloom, meanwhile, is on a mission to join the Presence (a shadowy hive mind of Soviet ghosts—which is the most communist thing I have ever heard of). While the two spies chase each other around London and Summerland, they slowly learn that their governments are playing a much deeper game than Rachel or Peter could have realized.

The plot is entertaining, but what I enjoyed most about this book was the world-building. Rajaniemi put it in a lot of thought to ecto-based technology, the Presence, and the big question of what it would mean if people could look forward to a long afterlife. In Rachel and Peter’s world, medicine is a half-hearted pursuit and people (especially young college men) do stupid things because it doesn’t really matter if they die. Sure, some ghosts fade away to nothing, but if you have your Ticket, you’re in like Flint. I imagine that Peter is utterly weary of the fact that he has to keep fighting for the foreseeable future. Rachel, meanwhile, starts to have second and third thoughts about the way her superiors throw away lives. Without death, live doesn’t mean as much in this world.

Even though Summerland has a lot of dead characters and is set half in the afterlife, this is a lively read. There are spies, chases, betrayals, secrets within secrets, and sacrifice. There are parts of this book that meander, so I had to trust that the spy v. spy plots and the secrets would lead so something. I am happy to report that the ending of Summerland knocked my bookish socks. I really liked this book.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 26 June 2018.