Review of The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It’s listed as the author’s debut novel, published 10 September 2019 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 385 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the early 1900s, and the wealthy William Cornelius Locke is the founder of an amateur archaeological society that collects ancient artifacts. When he runs across Julian Scaller, a needy black man with a baby girl, he employs Scaller to find artifacts for him and takes in the girl as his ward. January Scaller grows up with wealth and privilege, but also carefully protected, as her nursemaid works to turn her into a fine young lady acceptable for polite society. Scaller sends Jane, an African companion for January, and Locke takes her in, too, plus a big, protective dog named Bad. January finds a magical chest in Locke’s study that presents her with messages and gifts from her father, including a book about another girl and Doors to other worlds. After her father disappears and is presumed dead, January gets drunk at one of Locke’s parties and rejects his birthday gift, embarrassing him. Her wealthy, sheltered life comes crashing down then, as he fires Jane and has January sent to the local asylum. Is he really a monster, and has she been a hostage to ensure her father’s cooperation all this time?

This has the feel of young adult. On the positive side, Harrow’s style has been described as “lyrical” and the sweet love story between January’s parents evokes childhood’s wonder at the wide possibilities in the world. The timeline catches the end of the imperialist Victorian period when polite young ladies were carefully controlled and expected to be seen and not heard, and the resulting themes are about what you’d expect from this period, including repression, personal freedom, racism, cultural appropriation, wealth, and power. At one point, Locke comes right out and equates whiteness with power and influence, and later an epiphany dawns on January that it’s dangerous to be quiet for too long. The Doors represent diversity and opportunities for change.

On the less positive side, the plot doesn’t really get moving until the second half of the book, and then it seems to get seriously confused. The fact that almost all the principal characters turn out to come from other worlds undermines the racist statements Locke has made. We’re expected to automatically condemn the man and his strange friends because they’re wealthy, powerful and racist, but when you look at the situation critically, Locke is offering the talented January a chance at high station, privilege and power herself. At this point she has a choice: 1) go with it, become wealthy and powerful and try to destroy his organization from within, or 2) get drunk, publicly rebel, get her dog hurt, herself tortured in the asylum and her friends Samuel and Jane injured and nearly killed. January takes choice #2 and suffers the consequences. Meanwhile, she has no idea how to survive in the world without Locke’s protection. Jane even has to warn her that she has no skills and needs to be smarter. In the end, January commits fraud, forging documents in order to take over Locke’s wealth and position herself. Are we supposed to applaud? What are young readers expected to take from this story?

Two and a half stars.

Review of Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

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This fantasy novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 27 July 2019 by Del Rey and runs 367 pages. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the 1920s in Mexico, but the Jazz Age hasn’t come to the small town of Uukumil, where Casiopea Tun and her mother, as poor relations, work as near-servants in her wealthy grandfather’s house. Casiopea is especially annoyed by her cousin Martin, who constantly demands she run errands for him and polish his boots. He gets her in trouble with their grandfather, and Casiopea is left at home while the family goes to a nearby spa. Casiopea goes to her grandfather’s room to mend his shirts and notices he has left the key he normally wears on a chain around his neck. She uses it to open his old chest, expecting to find treasure, but instead she finds a pile of old bones. She gets a shard of one stuck in her hand, and suddenly Hun-Kamé, the Mayan God of Death, assembles from the bones. He explains that she is now his captive, and that she must help him regain the throne in Xibalba, the Underworld, stolen by his brother Vukub-Kamé. He buys her a new, modern wardrobe and they set off on an adventure that passes through Mérida, Veracruz, Mexico City, El Paso, and ends in Baja California. The two are linked by the bone shard, and as they travel, Casiopea is slowly dying, while Hun-Kamé absorbs her life-force and becomes constantly more human. When the contest comes with Vukub-Kamé, Casiopea finds he has recruited Martin to help him. Can she successfully outwit her cousin and place Hun-Kamé back on the throne? Or should she look after herself, instead?

This is basically a dream-come-true romance with the feel of young adult, as Casiopea transforms from a Cinderella figure in a small town to a grand adventurer traveling with a handsome prince. Along the way, they meet various supernatural entities who call Casiopea “Stone Maiden” (another figure from Mayan tradition, associated with an archaeological site at Xunantunich, Mexico). The subtle and gradually shifting relationship between the two main characters stands out as the best feature of the narrative. This has a strong Latin flavor, a slight tongue-in-cheek quality, and regardless of the romantic content, avoids a trite ending.

On the less positive side, Martin is pretty much the stereotype of an evil stepsister, and other characters are hardly present. Most of the text is about Casiopea’s journey, and somehow there never seems to be a real threat of failure. Hun-Kamé fills the shoes of a handsome prince fairly blandly, and I’d have preferred a little more darkness from the God of Death.

Four stars.

Review of Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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This dark fantasy/science fiction novel is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published 10 September 2019 by Tor.com and runs 437 pages. This is Book #1 of The Locked Tomb Trilogy. The second installment, Harrow the Ninth, is scheduled for release in June of 2020, to be followed by the third, Alecto the Ninth. This review contains spoilers.

The God Emperor has the need of new Lyctors for his service. As a result, he has called on each of the Nine Houses to send a necromancer heir with their cavalier to the First House for evaluation. The decrepit Ninth House that guards the Tomb only has one necromancer, Harrowhark Nonagesimus, and no available cavalier, so they draft the only possible candidate, Gideon the Ninth. She was a foundling that somehow survived a pestilence that killed all the other children of her generation before Harrowhark was born, and the two hate each other’s guts. Harrowhark swears Gideon to silence to keep her mouth shut, provides her with appropriate black robes and skull face paint, and they arrive at the First House as expected, along with the other candidates. Gideon has no experience outside the decaying Ninth, but she starts to make tentative friends. There are no instructions on what they’re to do. Harrowhark thinks it’s a matter of research through the forgotten labs of the First House to learn talents and abilities that make one a Lyctor, but maybe it’s a competition instead, as some of the candidates start to die in horrific ways. As the field of candidates narrows, Gideon and Harrowhark start to wonder why anyone would want to be a Lyctor anyhow. Is there a way to avoid it?

This is absolutely brilliant as far as style, world-building, plotting and characterization go. The story has a science-fictional setting, as the Nine Houses circle the sun Dominicus, and are presumably planets or space habitats. The Ninth House is furthest from the sun, darkest and coldest. The God Emperor sealed the Tomb there and apparently thought the caretakers he left behind would die off, but instead they have managed to maintain a small, desperate population. It took a huge magical sacrifice to produce the brilliant Harrrowhark, which leaves her warped and burdened by guilt that spills over on Gideon. Otherwise, this is basically a mystery plot, with a final twist ending as the path to Lyctorhood is revealed. Muir credits Lissa Harris for the sword work, which stands out for detail and authenticity.

On the less positive side, I’m wondering where Gideon gets her porn magazines if Ninth is so desolate. Also, I expect the author watches a lot of horror flics, as the imagery has the feel of slightly cliché special effects. The array of characters is also somewhat stereotypical, and as a long time mystery reader, I didn’t have much trouble picking out the perp—she was just too sweet. I didn’t see the twist coming, though.

Five stars.

Review of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

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This fantasy novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 19 February 2019 and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Agents Hamed Nasr and Onsi Youssef of the Ministry of Alchemy in 1912 Cairo are called into action to investigate reports of a ghost on Tram Car 015 that is attacking women. After investigating, they decide the car is possessed by a djinn instead of a ghost. The fee for a consultant is high, so they decide to try a Soudanese woman, Sheikha Nadiyaa, who has a reputation for successfully dealing with recalcitrant djinn. She is involved with the suffrage movement in Cairo, where the women are organizing to win the right to vote. Nadiyaa agrees to try to contact the spirit, but when she does, it attacks her. She identifies it as a Turkish spirit, and further investigation reveals a smuggling plot gone wrong. Is there any way the agents can get rid of the spirit?

This story returns to the busy fantasy universe of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” and the cross-dressing Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of that work makes a cameo appearance in this book’s epilogue. The narrative features an #OwnVoices authenticity and is based on historic, early 20th century Cairo. This universe also has steampunk elements, as we encounter machine persons called boilerplate eunuchs, along with the djinn-driven tramcars. We also get a look at a movement determined to obtain voting rights for women, actually written into the Egyptian constitution by 1956.

On the less positive side, these characters don’t really come alive for me, and the slight tongue-in-cheek humor of the narrative reduces the importance of what they’re trying to do. The way the suffrage movement is featured seems forced, as it’s not really integral to the story. I was also slightly offended that Hamed and Onsi try to undercut the usual djinn consultant by going to an (unlicensed?) woman. Gratifyingly, she did send them a big bill.

Three stars.

Review of The Deep, Rivers Solomon, with Daveed Diggs, William Hutson & Jonathan Snipes

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This sort of science fictional novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Saga on November 5, 2019, and runs 175 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The wajinru are the descendants of pregnant African slaves thrown overboard to drown during the slaving years. Their young were taken in and nurtured by whales, and these children evolved into water-breathing apex predators with scales, fish tails, intersex genitalia, massive jaws and sharp teeth. They live serene lives without the distractions of history. This burden is currently carried solely by the Historian. The time of Remembering is at hand, and the wajinru assemble and build an artificial womb for the ceremony. Yetu, the current Historian, invokes the trance and starts the Remembering, but she is weak and the memories are painful. She abandons the ceremony without finishing and flees, leaving the wajinru in limbo. Yetu ends up injured and exhausted in a tidal pool, where she is discovered by land dwellers. It has been many years since the wajinru destroyed the civilization on land with massive storms. Yetu is cautious, but establishes a close relationship with Oori, one of the land dwellers. Is there some way she can bring the land and the sea back together?

First, the credits: This novella was inspired by the Hugo Award-nominated song “The Deep” by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future.” Solomon is the author of the novella, and Diggs, Hutson and Snipes are members of the rap ensemble.

The novella is another of the currently popular imaginative, absurdist narratives that have very little in the way of plot, characterization, or world building, but do coalesce into eventual meaning. In this case, the interesting point is that these undersea people have no memory for history, nor do they seem to want it. It’s painful after all. So they have arranged for one person to carry the burden, and only have a brief Remembering ceremony now and then, after which they’re rid of the memories again. Part of the question here is whether Yetu should permanently give them back their racial memories. I’ve found this issue of erasing history to rewrite the future in a couple of other recent cases from Millennial writers, suggesting it’s an emerging question of the current Zeitgeist.

On the not so positive side, there’s a lot of bad science here. How is it that mammals have evolved to breathe water and developed fish scales and fish tails? And how do babies born into the ocean live on whale milk? Plus, these people are carefree because they don’t remember anything. How will that translate to nuclear bombs, for example? Or the Holocaust? Sure, these things can cause depression and anxiety, but is it really safe to erase them?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “A Strange Uncertain Light” by G.V. Anderson

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This dark fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by F&SF Magazine 7-8/2019. This review contains spoilers.

Anne is a chime baby, which means she was born during the ringing of church bells. This gives her the ability to see spirits, but everyone thinks she’s just crazy. She works in her father’s clinic, but wants to escape the small southern town where she lives. She connects with Merritt, an older man wanting to recapture his youth lost during WWI, and the two marry. They intend to spend their honeymoon at Rannings, a nice hotel in Yorkshire, but Anne starts seeing ghosts right away. It turns out the building was an asylum in the last century. Is there anything Anne can do for these spirits? And is it already too late to save her marriage?

This is a smooth traditional narrative, faintly gothic, with the point-of-view/timeline varying between Anne and Mary, a servant girl who stormed the asylum in search of her lost friend Benjamin. The characterizations and world building are excellent. It rains a lot. While Merritt drowns his PTSD in alcohol, sleeping through most of the honeymoon, Anne meets ghosts who need her help and a spirit rector who gives her guidance. There’s mention of Anne’s treatments for hallucinations, and the state of the asylum inmates is fairly horrific, giving us an ugly window into past methods of mental health care. There’s a moment when Merritt and Anne come clean with one another, suggesting they might save the marriage after all, and a nice twist at the end that leaves a warm feeling.

On the not so positive side, I had some issues with the timeline here. I was under the impression that the asylum was well in the past, maybe a hundred years, but Benjamin still turns out to be alive and ambulatory? Maybe this is his special talent as a chime baby? It’s not clear.

Four and a half stars.

Review of “For He Can Creep” by Siobhan Carroll

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Tor.com on 10 July 2019. This review contains spoilers.

It’s the eighteenth century, and poet Christopher Smart thinks God has commissioned him to write The Divine Poem. As a result, he’s been committed to St. Luke’s Hospital for Lunatics. He works away at his poem, writing it in blood on the walls when he’s short of pen and paper. Meanwhile, the poet’s cat Jeoffry and his friends protect the inmates, fighting off the imps and demons that plague the halls. When he devil himself comes around, demanding an evil poem from Christopher that’s due from an old bargain, it seems Jeoffry will have to stave off the apocalypse, too. Is he up to the task? Or is he over matched this time?

This story seems to be a tribute to real poet Christopher Smart (11 April 1722 – 21 May 1771), best known for religious works and for serving stints in both an asylum and a debtors’ prison. We know he had a cat named Jeoffry, because the cat appears in his poem Jubilate Agno. This story is written from Jeoffry’s point of view, and is highly entertaining. I have to give special mention to the style and imagery, and also the devil’s wig gets a special shout out.

On the less positive side, this was way too short. I’d love to follow more of Jeoffry’s adventures in the defense of his poet. Highly recommended.

Five stars.

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