Review of Down among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s fantasy and a second book in the authors Wayward Children series, a prequel to Every Heart a Doorway. Beneath the Sugar Sky was also published this year. This runs 190 pages and was published by Tor.com.

Jack and Jill are twin girls born to indifferent parents that only want children for their prestige value. The two of them are forced into obedience and limited roles, Jack a princess and Jill an athlete, but they sometimes yearn to be something else. One day they open their grandmother’s old trunk in the attic and find steps inside that run down through darkness into another world. Taking the stairs, they emerge onto a moor with a red moon and find there’s a castle, its vampire master and a village protected by a palisade. The other power in this place is Dr. Bleak, a mad scientist who lives in a windmill out on the moor. The girls are given a choice of which to serve and how to live. How will they choose? Is there any way they can get home?

Good points: This book falls into the young adult category because of the age of the protagonists, who grow from 12 to 17 during their time in the alternate world. It’s presented as a fairy tale about Jack and Jill, with chapter headings that refer back to the nursery rhyme. McGuire uses a narrator to tell the story, who addresses the reader directly and makes comments on how the tale relates to real life choices as it unfolds. There’s an artful contrast between the vampire master, obsessed with death, and Dr. Bleak, obsessed with life. This is inclusive, touching on the different roles women can choose, including STEM. Jack’s lover Alexis allows the author to comment on the question of weight and body image. The rest of the world is adequately sketched in for the scope of the story. Although it starts out with a magical feel, this descends into a faintly horrific vibe as the story moves forward.

Not so good points: This moves very slowly and nothing much happens. It’s another one of those expansions that could have been written as a short story with about as much impact—although in that case it would have likely reached a much more limited audience than the novella. It’s clear this is written as instructional material for 12-year old girls. However, I thought the choices were too black and white–the development doesn’t account for the insidiousness of evil. Although I notice other reviewers have called this magical, I didn’t think it was uplifting or empowering. I was left with something of a depressed feel. You have to enjoy McGuire’s writing style to get the most out of it.

Four stars.

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Review of The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

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This novel is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. As best I can figure, it’s steampunk, and it’s published by Saga. The sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club), was published in 2018.

After years of declining health, Mary Jekyll’s mother dies, leaving her alone and without any means of support. Among her papers, Mary finds payment of a monthly charity allowance that supports “Hyde.” Knowing there is still a reward for information leading to the capture and conviction of her father’s associate Edward Hyde, Mary contacts detective Sherlock Holmes, who is working on a murder case. Mary follows up and finds she has a sister raised by the charity, Diana Hyde. As Holmes and Watson continue their investigation, it seems that Edward Hyde could be a prime suspect. Assisting with their case, Mary and Diana discover other women created by unscrupulous scientists in a secret society, including Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini. Can the women band together to help solve the mystery of who’s murdering girls in the streets of London?

This is a very fun and readable mashup of vintage mad scientist tales, including both historical and fictional characters from the 19th century, along with the wonderful addition of Holmes and Watson to handle the murder investigation. It also has the feel and flow of these old novels, without being too weighty. The text includes asides where the characters discuss the writing of the manuscript, which is supposedly handled by Catherine Moreau. There are also messages about sexism during this period, especially having to do with women’s fashion.

Not so good points: The story avoids the obvious questions like the ethics of scientific experiments on live subjects, and on humans especially. The messages about women’s fashion were interesting, and reinforced a couple of times, but Goss didn’t manage to tie this to current issues. Women reading it will think “oh, it’s great that we don’t have to wear all those old corsets and long skirts anymore,” but miss the pressures for children to wear sexy clothes and for adult women to look like film stars when the fashion industry is built on the backs of third world labor.

Four and a half stars. Not deep, but very creative and fun to read.

Review of The Black Tides of Heaven by JY Yang

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It was released by Tor.com Publishing and is described as one of two stand-alone introductions to the fantasy Tensorate Series. The other book referenced is The Red Threads of Fortune.

Akeha is an extra child, an unexpected twin born to the Protector. Along with their twin, they are promised to the Grand Monastery, but as Mokoya develops a gift of prophesy, their mother wants them back, so Akeha comes, too. When their confirmation date arrives, Mokoya decides to become a woman and marry the new high priest of the Monastery, but Akeha decides to become a man. This further alienates him as his mother’s only son. He leaves the palace, and eventually finds himself aligned with the Machinist rebels fighting against the evils of the Protectorate. As events progress, the conflict begins to threaten Mokoya and her child. How can Akeha reconcile the demands of ideology with the family he loves?

There’s a clash here between the Monastery and the Protectorate on the one hand, and between the old order of magic and the new order of technology on the other. As this is only an introduction, there’s not much that happens in the way of development. We follow the children as they grow up together and then weather the rocky coming-of-age when they make the choice at confirmation that separates them. This process is not well explained. Apparently children in this world are born genderless, and their bodies are manipulated at confirmation to correspond to their choice. At least one character we meet did not undergo manipulation, but their sexual functioning isn’t addressed. As the novel ends, it feels like conflict is starting to heat up between the rebels and the Protectorate.

The plotting, prose, characterization and world-building here are adequate for a short novella. Even though the conflicts didn’t develop very far in this book, the tensions seem to be pretty well set up, and presumably the plot will thicken as we move into full length novels. The lack of a fully developed conflict is the biggest drawback to this story, as there’s not a lot at stake so far. People are just choosing up sides, which means there’s not much of a satisfying ending, either.

Three and a half stars.

Review of River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey

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This novella is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award and for the 2018 Hugo Award. It’s an alternate history and was published by Tor.com Publishing.

In 1909 Louisiana Congressman Robert F. Broussard’s American Hippo Bill passes, and hippos are imported to clear hyacinth weeds out of the Mississippi River and to serve as livestock. The result is that feral hippos become a dangerous pest in the Harriet, a section of the dammed up river. Winslow Houndstooth, failed rancher, wins a commission from the US government to clear the feral animals out. He assembles a team of hard-edged outcasts and makes up a plan of action. However, he’s opposed by Travers, a man who has bought up most of the real estate in the area through the underhanded methods that put Houndstooth out of business, and has exclusive rights to riverboat business in the Harriet. Can Houndstooth and his team succeed in clearing the swamp? Can Houndstooth carry out a successful romance with the non-binary Hero Shackleby? Can he get his revenge on Travers?

This is a very creative idea that uses an obscure bill (which did not pass, in case you’re wondering) as a branching point in US history, and projects what might have happened if hippos were actually imported into the Mississippi River. It uses the Seven Samurai Old West plotline to put together a diverse team of outcasts that ride hippos instead of horses and are generally armed with knives instead of guns. Members of the team also seem to have convoluted motives. The result has the feel of absurdist fiction.

On the negative side, this is pretty much a parody of an Old West story. There’s a lot of casual violence as people carve each other up with minimal provocation, and some messy deaths due to the apparently carnivorous hippos. Presumably they have evolved to behave this way, perhaps due to questionable stock breeding programs. I didn’t connect with any of the characters, even though they were described in fine detail, and I wasn’t convinced by the love affair.

Three stars.

Review of “A Human Stain” by Kelly Robson

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award. It falls into the horror genre and was published by Tor.com. This review contains spoilers.

Helen York is an English expatriate and down on her luck, so she is happy to take a position as governess when her friend Bärchen offers it. The position is to teach Bärchen’s orphaned nephew Peter, who stays at a beautiful castle overlooking a lake in Germany. Although beautiful, the place is clearly neglected, with dust everywhere and small bones scattered through the rooms. Peter’s nursemaid Mimi is young and looks attractive as a potential lover, but she allows Peter to wander at will. Helen finds him in the cellar trying to open the crypt door. The cellar is crusted with salt and smells like a meat larder, but she is happy to find a good store of wine as well. Can she ignore those seductive smells from the cellar? What are those things floating in the lake? And why does everyone at the castle have bad teeth?

Good points: The narrative here is third person from Helen’s point of view, and very well crafted. Helen’s responses and her conversations with Bärchen and the other servants quickly reveal her playgirl character and unsuitability for the job as governess. There’s a foreboding as Helen gradually discovers the strangeness of the castle, and the story rises to a horrific climax that was hard to forecast. There’s enough description of the setting to make it creepy, and a lot of sensory imagery as the scents from the cellar start to get to Helen.

Not so good points: This doesn’t quite hang together. It appears the family isn’t really human, and that they go through a life cycle from larvae to humanoid to sea serpent. So, I gather the crypt is where they hang corpses for the larvae to feed on, but how the scents accomplish this is a huge stretch. If you can create hallucinations, there are easier ways to get people into the lake.

Two and a half stars for the failure to make good sense.

Review of “Small Changes over Long Periods of Time” by K.M. Szpara

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula Award, and was published by Uncanny Magazine. This review contains spoilers.

Finley is drunk and gets bitten by a vampire. He wakes up the next morning in Andreas’ apartment and the vampire tells him he’s dying. Finley is angry that he’s been bitten without his consent, but his only options now are dying and illegally changing to a vampire. The only question is, how will changing affect his trans body?

So, readers will need to know this is fairly explicit vampire erotica. I guess adding the trans element is what it takes to make this subgenre attractive to pro SFF magazines and respected awards—or maybe Vox Day has somehow managed to infiltrate the SFWA. 🙂

Good points: The trans element does add an element of interest, plus there are parallels to rape, and between transgender transitioning and rebirth as a vampire. We get clues in the narrative about how hard it is to live as trans, even with modern medical assistance. However, Finley can now get his revenge–he encounters a gay suitor, and bites the guy when he rejects Findley’s obviously trans body.

Not so good points: The high erotica content is a little much for a mainstream magazine. (Does Uncanny have controls to keep little kids from reading this?) Andreas is completely irresponsible, and is apparently indulging a fetish for illegal biting. If this were a thoughtful story, I’d expect more world-building and more discussion of the consent and morality issues it presents. Finley is a fairly well-developed character, but Andreas seems two-dimensional. There are plot elements, but no real Earth-shattering conflicts—just Finley trying to deal with ongoing hungers and changes.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Clearly Lettered in a Mostly Steady Hand” by Fran Wilde

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This short story is a finalist for the 2017 Nebula and the 2018 Hugo Awards, and was published in Uncanny Magazine.

The doorperson takes the dime of curious patrons. If she determines you are worthy, she will tell you how to open the panel and let you have a look and a souvenir. Past the Entrance is A Hallway of Things People Have Swallowed, A Radium Room, A Room of Objects That Are Really People, Our Curator’s Special Collection, A Room of Objects That Are Very Sharp, The Hall of Criminals and Saints and then the Exit. Can you get out of the exhibit whole and in once piece?

Nothing is clear in this story. The scenario sounds like Ripley’s Believe It or Not, a collection of the bizarre and unusual. There are whispers and giggles in the shadows, a few clues in the narrator’s account. She isn’t especially reliable, but we gather that the curator is missing and the freaks are now running the show and looking for revenge. Enter at your own risk.

Good points: I would guess this falls into the category of experimental lit. You have to study it, something like a puzzle, to put together things like comments about beautiful hands, sticky carpets and the taste of brine. It’s also very surreal and atmospheric, the prose creating images and sensory experiences something like an art installation.

Not so good point: This is pretty much just an experience, like an art installation. There’s not really a story here—no characterization, no setting, no plot, no conflict—only revelation. Because of the puzzle quality, it’s pretty opaque, too. There are a couple of events/situations in there that I can guarantee as pretty likely, but I’m not really sure.

Most likely appreciated by literary horror fans.

Three stars. It’s very literary, but I can’t recommend it as a story.

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