Review of Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

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This novella is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Tor.com. This is the third novella in the Wayward Children series. It is preceded by Every Heart a Doorway (2016) and Down among the Sticks and Bones (2017). A fourth novella in the series, In an Absent Dream, was released in January of 2019. Every Heart a Doorway won both the 2016 Nebula Award and the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella. This review contains spoilers.

As usual for this series, this story begins in Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. This is a boarding school for children who fell into other worlds where they thought they had found their niche, but then were spit back out and have psychological problems as a result. A survivor of a similar mis-adventure, Ms. West promises their parents she can help. She surrounds the children with love and acceptance while they wait to see if their doorway will open for them again. A girl named Rini falls into the turtle pond. This is a surprise, as Rini was born in an alternate world. She is looking for her mother Sumi who died when a murderous girl killed several students at the school in the recent past. Rini is horrified to find that Sumi is dead, as this means her own existence is in danger, and pleads for help in resurrecting her mother. Ms. West’s second in command Kade and students Cora, Nadya and Christopher all volunteer to help. They manage to raise Sumi’s skeleton and her ghost, but can they make her really live?

On the positive side, this mostly takes place in the land of Confection, so it’s full of sugar and spice and is fairly light-hearted in comparison to earlier installments from this series. Rini succeeds in her efforts to change reality, and Cora comes to terms with her fatness. Nadya finds her niche world, and we visit Nancy, who has also found hers. There was a bright moment early in the story where this had the potential to be a thriller. Also on the positive side, this is very inclusive, and it continues the best feature of the series, which is to reassure misfit children that they might really be able to find a place somewhere in the universe. The characters are mostly well developed, as the land of Confection.

On the not so positive side, this still flirts with the death obsession so heavily featured in earlier installments. Christopher still pines for his Skeleton Girl, and Nancy is now firmly established as an attendant to the Lord of the Dead. Rini is disappearing a bit at a time as her reality dissolves, but there seems to have been quite a lag. Why didn’t she go all at once when Sumi died? Also, the part of this story that takes place in the illogical land of Confection is total nonsense. I know this is the point of the whole thing, but surely the evil Queen of Cakes isn’t that easy to defeat and her guards aren’t that easy to turn? And if the Baker is so powerful, why hasn’t she done something to deal with the Queen?

Three and a half stars.

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Review of “If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again” by Zen Cho

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published on the B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog in November 2018. (Maybe a bit of competition for Tor.com?) Zen Cho is Malaysian and lives in England. She is also the author of the short story collection Spirits Abroad and the novel Sorcerer to the Crown. This review contains major spoilers.

Byam is an imugi. That means he’s an ugly, earthbound worm with the potential to be a glorious dragon if he could only become elevated enough. He spends his first thousand years in a cave, studying the Way and trying to improve himself. Finally he feels ready and begins his ascent to Heaven. However, he’s been distracted by an empty belly just recently and dined on some livestock, so the farmers curse at him, which drags him back down to earth. Byam comes up with a strategy for his second attempt at ascension. Hoping to win the acclaim of humans, he creates a beautiful dragon of cloud and light in the sky. However, the sailors below fail to recognize it as a dragon, and when he’s identified as only a worm, Byam falls to earth again. On the third attempt he’s interrupted by a female hiker taking a selfie, who catches him on her phone’s camera. Angered, he disguises himself as a human female and goes to her office, where he finds she is Dr. Leslie Han, an astrophysicist. He is charmed by her research, and they strike up an acquaintance that soon becomes a serious relationship on human terms. Byam manages to learn about human ways, and supports Leslie when she fails to get tenure, encouraging her to go to work for industry instead. Finally, she confesses she knows what he really is. The end of Leslie’s life comes too soon. Can Byam fulfill her final request?

Aww. This is a really sweet story about how the way others see us either pulls us down or elevates us to reach wonderful accomplishments. It’s full of love and humor and includes a hissy cat. What else can I say?

The only complaint I can come up with is that the lead-in to the relationship with Leslie seems long. I can see the reason for this, though—it’s to clearly establish how the anger and contempt of others pulls Byam down to earth at the moments he’s ready to become something exalted. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

Review of “The Thing about Ghost Stories” by Naomi Kritzer

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This novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It is fantasy and was published by Uncanny Magazine, November-December 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Leah is working on her dissertation in folklore, and her mom helps her by critiquing and editing the manuscript. Although Leah experienced a ghost herself when she was five, she is now more interested in how people attach meaning and purpose to their ghost stories. Leah’s mom is diagnosed with dementia. She urges Leah to go on and publish the manuscript as a book, but she doesn’t live to see its publication. After successfully getting her doctorate, Leah takes a job in academia and continues with research for another book, interviewing people about ghost’s they have seen and experienced. A couple of these interviewees tell Leah her mom is sitting right there next to her. Is there’s something unresolved in her mother’s death?

On the positive side, this is well-written, warm and slightly humorous. The characters are very engaging, and you’re pretty well hooked by the third paragraph when mom puts in an appearance. This is a poignant glimpse of what it’s like to lose a family member to dementia, as mom goes from being reliable to an unreliable editor and confidant, and finally Leah starts giving her fake documents to edit and then throws them away at the end of the day. She labors to finish her doctorate, trying to balance the demands of school with neurologist appointments, and then carries on with a career after her mother dies. The situation unfolds gradually, as we find her mother is trying to communicate from beyond the grave, and then ends gently as the situation is finally resolved.

On the not so positive side, I thought the tone was offensive and disrespectful to sufferers of dementia. This condition isn’t anything at all humorous. It’s a huge tragedy, both to the victims who feel their mental capacity and independence slipping away, and to family members who have to support them and deal with often challenging mental symptoms. Phrases like, “…figured that if she wrapped herself around my ankle early, it would be that much harder for me to shake her loose later on,” and “Mom really started to lose her marbles,” show us Leah’s exasperation, but completely ignore the pain and fear that her mother must be experiencing as her mental faculties start to fail. It’s no wonder she comes back to haunt her daughter. Kritzer soft-pedals Leah’s burden, too. It’s not going to be as simple as just taking Mom to adult day-care while you continue on with your studies–this condition is a nightmare for caregivers.

Dementia seems to run a close second to endangered children as a device to create emotion in a story, but if we’re going to do that, let’s have a hard, clear look at it, please.

Four stars.

Review of “The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat” by Brooke Bolander

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This short story is a finalist for the 2019 Hugo Awards. It was published by Uncanny Magazine July-August 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Once upon a time, there were three raptor sisters named Allie, Betty and Ceecee. They are happy, but one day a fair but stupid prince totally ignores all the signs in the surrounding lands and rides into their forest, whereupon Ceecee eats the prince’s stallion. He seems unconcerned. Suspecting treachery, the three sisters confer and Ceecee volunteers to accompany the prince to his nest to find out what is going on. At the castle, she is greeted by the prince’s fiancé (who is also a witch), and lodged in the stable. At first there seems to be no treachery, but eventually Ceecee is drugged and trapped by iron shackles to become the prince’s personal plaything. Meanwhile, her two sisters set out to look for her. The princess witch comes to their rescue, casting a glamour to make two raptor sisters look like humans and unlocking the shackles so Ceecee can escape. The sisters take the witch away with them to live in their forest, and all goes well for a while. Then the four of them have occasion to ride through the prince’s lands again and encounter him on the road. The hunt is sweet.

On the positive side, the narrative here reflects the sisters’ point-of-view and unfolds like a fairy tale that a raptor parent is telling her brood. The narrator’s tone is warm and entertaining, and the humans are generally characterized as terrified and inferior; except the princess witch, of course, who is a huntress and one of their own; and the prince, who is exceptionally stupid and obnoxious besides. One interesting detail here seems taken from tiger lore: the farm workers wear masks on the back of their heads to discourage the raptors from attacking. The picture of the witch living in the forest with the raptor sisters also evokes some fairly strong archetypes.

On the not so positive side, this feels long and is easy to predict. Although the raptor sisters are an interesting take on dragons, they still end up lacking depth, and the human characters tend to be totally flat stereotypes. It’s a fairly long story, and most of the words are used in creating effect rather than revealing what this world is like. Of course, the story is quite sexist, too. The ending where they all go back to the prince’s lands seems pasted on, as if Bolander thought the story wasn’t strong enough when the women just went off and did their own thing. Instead, it has to go on to demonstrate how stupid the prince’s assumption of authority over them is. And of course, they eat him up in the end.

Three and a half stars.

Congrats to the 2019 Hugo Finalists

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Here they are. I’ll start reviews right away.

Best Novel
The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal (Tor)
Record of a Spaceborn Few, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)
Revenant Gun, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
Space Opera, by Catherynne M. Valente (Saga)
Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik (Del Rey / Macmillan)
Trail of Lightning, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)

Best Novella
Artificial Condition, by Martha Wells (Tor.com publishing)
Beneath the Sugar Sky, by Seanan McGuire (Tor.com publishing)
Binti: The Night Masquerade, by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com publishing)
The Black God’s Drums, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tor.com publishing)
Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, by Kelly Robson (Tor.com publishing)
The Tea Master and the Detective, by Aliette de Bodard (Subterranean Press / JABberwocky Literary Agency)

Best Novelette
“If at First You Don’t Succeed, Try, Try Again,” by Zen Cho (B&N Sci-Fi and Fantasy Blog, 29 November 2018)
“The Last Banquet of Temporal Confections,” by Tina Connolly (Tor.com, 11 July 2018)
“Nine Last Days on Planet Earth,” by Daryl Gregory (Tor.com, 19 September 2018)
The Only Harmless Great Thing, by Brooke Bolander (Tor.com publishing)
“The Thing About Ghost Stories,” by Naomi Kritzer (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“When We Were Starless,” by Simone Heller (Clarkesworld 145, October 2018)

Best Short Story
“The Court Magician,” by Sarah Pinsker (Lightspeed, January 2018)
“The Rose MacGregor Drinking and Admiration Society,” by T. Kingfisher (Uncanny Magazine 25, November-December 2018)
“The Secret Lives of the Nine Negro Teeth of George Washington,” by P. Djèlí Clark (Fireside Magazine, February 2018)
“STET,” by Sarah Gailey (Fireside Magazine, October 2018)
“The Tale of the Three Beautiful Raptor Sisters, and the Prince Who Was Made of Meat,” by Brooke Bolander (Uncanny Magazine 23, July-August 2018)
“A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies,” by Alix E. Harrow (Apex Magazine, February 2018)

Best Series
The Centenal Cycle, by Malka Older (Tor.com publishing)
The Laundry Files, by Charles Stross (most recently Tor.com publishing/Orbit)
Machineries of Empire, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
The October Daye Series, by Seanan McGuire (most recently DAW)
The Universe of Xuya, by Aliette de Bodard (most recently Subterranean Press)
Wayfarers, by Becky Chambers (Hodder & Stoughton / Harper Voyager)

Best Related Work
Archive of Our Own, a project of the Organization for Transformative Works
Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction, by Alec Nevala-Lee (Dey Street Books)
The Hobbit Duology (documentary in three parts), written and edited by Lindsay Ellis and Angelina Meehan (YouTube)
An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, 1953-2000, by Jo Walton (Tor)
http://www.mexicanxinitiative.com: The Mexicanx Initiative Experience at Worldcon 76 (Julia Rios, Libia Brenda, Pablo Defendini, John Picacio)
Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing, by Ursula K. Le Guin with David Naimon (Tin House Books)

Best Graphic Story
Abbott, written by Saladin Ahmed, art by Sami Kivelä, colours by Jason Wordie, letters by Jim Campbell (BOOM! Studios)
Black Panther: Long Live the King, written by Nnedi Okorafor and Aaron Covington, art by André Lima Araújo, Mario Del Pennino and Tana Ford (Marvel)
Monstress, Volume 3: Haven, written by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda (Image Comics)
On a Sunbeam, by Tillie Walden (First Second)
Paper Girls, Volume 4, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Cliff Chiang, colours by Matt Wilson, letters by Jared K. Fletcher (Image Comics)
Saga, Volume 9, written by Brian K. Vaughan, art by Fiona Staples (Image Comics)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Annihilation, directed and written for the screen by Alex Garland, based on the novel by Jeff VanderMeer (Paramount Pictures / Skydance)
Avengers: Infinity War, screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (Marvel Studios)
Black Panther, written by Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole, directed by Ryan Coogler (Marvel Studios)
A Quiet Place, screenplay by Scott Beck, John Krasinski and Bryan Woods, directed by John Krasinski (Platinum Dunes / Sunday Night)
Sorry to Bother You, written and directed by Boots Riley (Annapurna Pictures)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman, directed by Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman (Sony)

Best Dramatic Presentation, Short Form
The Expanse: “Abaddon’s Gate,” written by Daniel Abraham, Ty Franck and Naren Shankar, directed by Simon Cellan Jones (Penguin in a Parka / Alcon Entertainment)
Doctor Who: “Demons of the Punjab,” written by Vinay Patel, directed by Jamie Childs (BBC)
Dirty Computer, written by Janelle Monáe and Chuck Lightning, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning (Wondaland Arts Society / Bad Boy Records / Atlantic Records)
The Good Place: “Janet(s),” written by Josh Siegal & Dylan Morgan, directed by Morgan Sackett (NBC)
The Good Place: “Jeremy Bearimy,” written by Megan Amram, directed by Trent O’Donnell (NBC)
Doctor Who: “Rosa,” written by Malorie Blackman and Chris Chibnall, directed by Mark Tonderai (BBC)

Best Editor, Short Form
Neil Clarke
Gardner Dozois
Lee Harris
Julia Rios
Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas
E. Catherine Tobler

Best Editor, Long Form
Sheila E. Gilbert
Anne Lesley Groell
Beth Meacham
Diana Pho
Gillian Redfearn
Navah Wolfe

Best Professional Artist
Galen Dara
Jaime Jones
Victo Ngai
John Picacio
Yuko Shimizu
Charles Vess

Best Semiprozine
Beneath Ceaseless Skies, editor-in-chief and publisher Scott H. Andrews
Fireside Magazine, edited by Julia Rios, managing editor Elsa Sjunneson-Henry, copyeditor Chelle Parker, social coordinator Meg Frank, special features editor Tanya DePass, founding editor Brian White, publisher and art director Pablo Defendini
FIYAH Magazine of Black Speculative Fiction, executive editors Troy L. Wiggins and DaVaun Sanders, editors L.D. Lewis, Brandon O’Brien, Kaleb Russell, Danny Lore, and Brent Lambert
Shimmer, publisher Beth Wodzinski, senior editor E. Catherine Tobler
Strange Horizons, edited by Jane Crowley, Kate Dollarhyde, Vanessa Rose Phin, Vajra Chandrasekera, Romie Stott, Maureen Kincaid Speller, and the Strange Horizons Staff
Uncanny Magazine, publishers/editors-in-chief Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, managing editor Michi Trota, podcast producers Erika Ensign and Steven Schapansky, Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction Special Issue editors-in-chief Elsa Sjunneson-Henry and Dominik Parisien

Best Fanzine
Galactic Journey, founder Gideon Marcus, editor Janice Marcus
Journey Planet, edited by Team Journey Planet
Lady Business, editors Ira, Jodie, KJ, Renay & Susan
nerds of a feather, flock together, editors Joe Sherry, Vance Kotrla and The G
Quick Sip Reviews, editor Charles Payseur
Rocket Stack Rank, editors Greg Hullender and Eric Wong

Best Fancast
Be the Serpent, presented by Alexandra Rowland, Freya Marske and Jennifer Mace
The Coode Street Podcast, presented by Jonathan Strahan and Gary K. Wolfe
Fangirl Happy Hour, hosted by Ana Grilo and Renay Williams
Galactic Suburbia, hosted by Alisa Krasnostein, Alexandra Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts, produced by Andrew Finch
Our Opinions Are Correct, hosted by Annalee Newitz and Charlie Jane Anders
The Skiffy and Fanty Show, produced by Jen Zink and Shaun Duke, hosted by the Skiffy and Fanty Crew

Best Fan Writer
Foz Meadows
James Davis Nicoll
Charles Payseur
Elsa Sjunneson-Henry
Alasdair Stuart
Bogi Takács

Best Fan Artist
Sara Felix
Grace P. Fong
Meg Frank
Ariela Housman
Likhain (Mia Sereno)
Spring Schoenhuth

Best Art Book
Under the WSFS Constitution every Worldcon has the right to add one category to the Hugo Awards for that year only. Dublin 2019 has chosen to use this right to create an award for an art book.

The Books of Earthsea: The Complete Illustrated Edition, illustrated by Charles Vess, written by Ursula K. Le Guin (Saga Press /Gollancz)
Daydreamer’s Journey: The Art of Julie Dillon, by Julie Dillon (self-published)
Dungeons & Dragons Art & Arcana: A Visual History, by Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, Sam Witwer (Ten Speed Press)
Spectrum 25: The Best in Contemporary Fantastic Art, ed. John Fleskes (Flesk Publications)
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – The Art of the Movie, by Ramin Zahed (Titan Books)
Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, ed. Catherine McIlwaine (Bodleian Library)
There are two other Awards administered by Worldcon 76 that are not Hugo Awards:

Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book
The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton (Freeform / Gollancz)
Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi (Henry Holt / Macmillan Children’s Books)
The Cruel Prince, by Holly Black (Little, Brown / Hot Key Books)
Dread Nation, by Justina Ireland (Balzer + Bray)
The Invasion, by Peadar O’Guilin (David Fickling Books / Scholastic)
Tess of the Road, by Rachel Hartman (Random House / Penguin Teen)

John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer
Katherine Arden*
S.A. Chakraborty*
R.F. Kuang
Jeannette Ng*
Vina Jie-Min Prasad*
Rivers Solomon*

Comparing Polk’s Witchmark to Jemisin’s The Broken Earth Trilogy

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I’ve just finished reading the works on the ballot as finalists for the 2018 Nebula. Interestingly, some of the authors have used the same plotline to write their books, but expressed completely different worldviews. I thought it would be helpful to have a look at what they’ve started with, what they’ve done with it, and how this affects the message they’re sending with their books. Here’s the second comparison of works from the Nebula ballot.

C.L. Polk and last year’s winner N.K. Jemisin have used basically the same plotline: Highly talented witches are enslaved and their power used to preserve and fuel the societies where others live in relative comfort and safety. Renegade witches manage to break the system and install a new order.

Jemisin’s three-part tale should be fairly familiar, as it’s a multi-award winner. A land called the Stillness is seismically active. Stills are ordinary people and orogenes are witch talents able to control the seismic activity. Orogenes are hated and feared, and Guardians capture the children and enslave them to work for the kingdom. Besides this, nodes in an earthquake suppression system contain children who have been mutilated and lobotomized. These slaves protect the land, but live in constant agony. The orogene Essun kills her firstborn son to keep him from this kind of slavery. Angered by the system, her lover Alabaster breaks the land, and refugees stream south away from the epicenter. Essun follows the flow, searching for her daughter Nassun. She finds Alabaster dying in the settlement of Castrima, and he asks her to complete the task of destroying the world, to recapture the moon and establish a new order. Essun finds her daughter and they struggle for control of the Obelisk Gate. Nassun wins, but convinced by her mother’s sacrifice, she goes on to capture the moon and reestablish seismic order in the world.

In Polk’s book, witches who are not storm-singers are enslaved as secondaries to supply power to the storm-singers that maintain the climate of Aeland. Witches who are not bonded this way are kept in prisons/asylums and used to process souls into the aether grid used for lights and power in Aeland. Miles Hensley (a.k.a. Miles Singer) is a member of a powerful family and a witch who has faked his own death to avoid slavery and establish a career as a military doctor. He is located by his sister Grace and forcibly bonded to her as a secondary. However, he has a friend and lover in Tristan Hunter, a fay Amaranthine investigating the loss of souls from Aeland. When Grace fails in her bid to take over the elite counsel of storm-singers, she travels to a witch’s asylum with Miles and Tristan, where they find the truth about the power grid in Aeland and combine forces to destroy it.

What do the writers mean to accomplish? The plot is basically LeGuin’s “Return to Omelas” plot about righting the wrongs of slavery used to support a society, so we have to assume this is the message. What do the writers mean to accomplish with their rendition of it? Jemisin’s work is an ugly tale about hate and anger. Her characters kill and torture their own children and they abhor and abuse each other, totally debased by the system. The powerful orogenes are slowly turning to stone. Those who are already reborn as stone-eaters could probably help with the plan to rescue the world, but they stand by and do pretty much nothing. No one is heroic here, and the angry abused child Nassun really means to destroy the world with the Obelisk Gate until her mother interferes. On the other hand, Polk presents warm, likable characters who are aware of the tip of the iceberg of witch slavery and how this supports the common good. They discuss methods of improving the system, but being young, they aren’t totally aware of what’s going on. When the time comes for them to take over from the previous generation, they discover the truth about how their society consumes souls. They act immediately to end the system, putting their lives on the line to force social change. I’d have to evaluate Jemisin’s work as an angry warning about a dying society, and Polk’s as encouragement to act immediately on the injustice we see.

Which is more fun to read? Again, that depends on your reading taste. Jemisin’s work is hard to read. She disguises her characters and it takes some digestion of the whole trilogy to understand the story. It is not fun to read, and the readability problems mean that her message is probably lost to many readers. On the other hand, Polk’s work is warm and character-oriented. The message may suffer from too much subtlety; that it’s complicated by a separate subplot, and the fact that it only comes into full focus at the end of the book. However, this one is definitely more entertaining to read.

Which provides the better role models for potential saviors of the world? I could do without all the hate and anger in Jemisin’s work—that provides for very poor role models—but is that necessary to call attention to inequalities in our society? Is Polk’s work too warm and sweet to capture the necessary attention?

Review of Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It runs 466 pages and was published by Del Rey/Macmillan. This review contains spoilers.

Miryem comes from a family of moneylenders, but her father is really poor at it. He’s lent out his wife’s dowery and can’t collect payment, so the family falls into poverty. Winter seems to extend longer and longer. When her mother Panova Mandelstam gets sick, Miryem takes things into her own hands. She goes through her father’s books and begins to make collections for him. This angers the people in the village, but Miryem continues to work at it until her family is back on the road to prosperity. When one angry, alcoholic debtor says he can’t pay, she contracts for his daughter Wanda and later his son Sergey to work off the debt as servants in her family’s house. After her success, Miryem makes an unfortunate boast about being able to turn silver into gold, which attracts the fay Staryk king. He sets her three tasks as a test, and in a panic Miryam carries the Staryk’s silver to the city of Vysnia where her grandparents live. She asks her cousin’s fiancé Isaac to help, and he fashions the silver into a ring, a necklace and a tiara that he offers to the duke. The duke buys the fay works for his daughter Irina and then presents her to the young Tsar Mirnatius as a bride. Because Miryem has passed his tests, the Staryk king carries her away to his frozen kingdom to be his queen, leaving Wanda to manage the Mandelstam household and business. Mirnatius is possessed by the demon Chernobog who wants to devour Irina, but she has a strain of Staryk blood and uses the silver to pass through into the Staryk kingdom every night when the demon manifests. Miryem and Irina meet and develop a plot to be rid of their evil husbands. Can they make it work without destroying both worlds?

On the positive side, this uses Russian folklore to create a complex and suspenseful tale that’s both strongly plotted and character driven. It also provides great role models for girls. Miryem and Wanda both grow into excellent businesswomen and managers at a young age and Irina develops into the power behind the possessed tsar that will deal with politics and keep the kingdom running on an even keel. It’s clearly about women taking care of things themselves and not waiting for someone else to do it for them. There’s also a certain symbolism underneath: As Miryem becomes colder, more prideful and harder-hearted, the winter king comes for her. Also on the positive side, Novik has come out in support of capitalism for women when other authors seem to be fairly unsupportive just lately.

On the less positive side, there’s never much chemistry that develops between these characters. The secondary characters are the warmest and most caring, while the three female protagonists remain cold and hard-hearted through the whole thing. Regardless of the strength of the role models they present, I’m not sure this coldness is a great message to send to young girls. Miryem and Irina also seem fairly single-minded, coming up with their plot without actually investigating what’s going on behind the scenes, where the Staryk king is trying to balance the effects of the tsar’s demon. Irina’s father suggests this, but I thought his sudden acumen and respect for Irina at that meeting was inconsistent. He’s not been represented as highly intelligent, politically incisive or respectful of her up to this point.

Four stars.

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