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.

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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)

historical fantasy · review

Creatures of Want and Ruin, by Molly Tanzer

37570551It’s hard out there for a young woman with a bitter, disabled father who has to support her family and help pay for her polio-stricken brother’s medical college fees. Her only marketable skills are her ability to pilot a ship around Long Island and a certain disregard for being strictly legal. Fortunately, with Prohibition in place, a woman like Ellie West can make a fair amount of money running alcohol if she’s careful. And, indeed, Ellie is muddling along quite well until a storm at sea causes her to bump into a supernatural problem way above her pay grade. Creatures of Want and Ruin, by Molly Tanzer, is the sequel to Creatures of Will and Temper. When I reviewed Creatures of Will and Temper, I called it a very slow burn of a novel. Creatures of Want and Ruin starts with a bang and never slows down. This book is a fantastic ride.

Creatures of Want and Ruin takes place decades later and an ocean away from the first book in the series. The rules are the same however. Demons can be summoned in this world and, in exchange for something priceless, will grant gifts to humans. There are demons who are somewhat benign. Others are creatures of pure evil that want to destroy every living thing. At the beginning of Creatures of Want and Ruin, Ellie has the bad luck to run into one of these one night when she’s sheltering in a small bay when a storm whips up next to Long Island. She finds a fellow bootlegger apparently unconscious on his boat. When Ellie tries to help him, he attacks her. During the fight, Ellie sees strange things that she initially attributes to lack of oxygen or imagination. She only escapes when she pushes him and he breaks his neck falling. Ellie, being the pragmatic type, swaps the strange smelling alcohol in his hold—with serious consequences when she later sells it to a group of rich vacationers.

As the novel rolls on, Ellie’s father gets tangled up with a pack of throwback racist evangelists, her police friend tries to track down who is responsible for a series of violent attacks on immigrants and Black residents, and patches of evil looking mushrooms start to appear every where. Meanwhile, Fin Coulthead, the wife of a wealthy heir who has no ambitions except to have a good old Jazz Age time, grows bored with her life and annoyed at the way her husband and so-called friends pay no attention to her. After a party goes wrong due to the bad booze Ellie sold them, she starts her own investigation into what the hell is going on. By the time Ellie and Fin figure out that their problems are anything but earthly, things have built up into a terrifying fever pitch.

Creatures of Want and Ruin is packed with gripping plot lines and wonderfully drawn characters. At times, some of the secondary characters—like Ellie’s prickly friend and supplier, SJ—threaten to steal the show. This book also has the addition of Ellie and her fiancé’s interestingly semi-polyandrous relationship to make things even more interesting. All this and a spectacular ending made for a highly entertaining read. I would strongly recommend this book to readers who like their historical fiction with a strong dose of the weird.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 13 November 2018.

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.

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.