Review of Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr by John Crowley

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This book is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award. It’s published by Saga and runs 465 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The narrator has recently lost his wife to illness and is dying himself. He finds a sick crow and nurses it back to health. They become friends and it tells him its history. The crow Dar Oakley calls the realm of the crows Ka, and that of humans Ymr. He also knows a realm of Other. Dar Oakley receives his name from a human girl he calls Fox Cap. The two of them go into Other to find Nothing, and Dar Oakley finds it but hides it for himself. Fox Cap cries and afterward dies, but then Dar Oakley finds he is immortal, always reborn. Humans have battles that provide carrion, and crows find they can encourage them to kill each other. Following a Saint, Dar Oakley is caught by a storm and blown to a New World, where the people are killed by a mass sickness brought from the Old World. There is a great War where the dead in blue and gray provide a huge feast, and crows become numerous because of the growing bounty. Dar Oakley becomes friends with poet Anna Kuhn, and later her son becomes a great crow hunter. Dar Oakley encourages the crow flock to attack him, and they are eventually successful against him. The narrator wants Dar Oakley to lead him and his housekeeper to the Other place of the dead. Will this plan be successful?

So, this book is about death. Crowley is a well-known stylist, and he gets points for creating meaning in the narrative. Still, I found this really hard reading. Because Dar Oakley is a bird, he is light-minded and in general all his observations are surface level. That means we get a lot about flocks and mating and chicks, and the meaning takes shape from the carrion events and from what the humans say.

It’s clear that Crowley did a lot of research on the topic of crows and their status as death birds. The lore in this narrative is sort of scary, and I think humans are lucky that crows aren’t any bigger than they are. On the other hand, the events that feed the crows don’t say anything much good about humans, either.

This one isn’t for the faint of heart.

Four stars.

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Review of The Teardrop Method by Simon Avery

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This novella is a finalist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award, and the title piece for Book 4 of the TTA Novellas series, published in 2017. The British press TTA also publishes Interzone and Black Static. The book is dark fantasy and also contains the short story “Going Back to the World.” The novella is about 111 pages and the short story runs about 40. This review contains spoilers.

Krisztina Ligetti is a cult artist, a singer/songwriter living in Budapest who produced one hit album years ago and then had nothing else to follow up with. After her lover Alice dies, Krisztina begins hearing elusive music that turns out to be the songs of mortality from people around her. She collects songs for a new album one-by-one that become complete as people die. She reconnects with her father, a 60s pop star who has been diagnosed with cancer, and hears his song. The story darkens as Krisztina finds she’s being followed by a man in a porcelain mask. Tracing the song of a ballerina, she encounters the writer Rebeka, a serial killer with a similar gift who has no compunction about killing people to complete their stories. Rebeka wants her story. Can Krisztina find a way to survive?

This narrative has something of a sick feel, as it’s about winter and death and the extreme depths that people plumb to feed their creativity. The title refers to the method Krisztina uses to produce her songs, detailing the grief and pain that go into each one. It lingers over relationships, failures and bitter coffee. The imagery seems foremost, as it’s all about bright futures declining into eventual decay and death. There’s nothing left at the end but the songs.

On the not so great side, the narrative jumps around a bit and seems fixated on Alice’s death, while her character remains undeveloped and peripheral to the main story. The whole thing is about depressed people who need some joy in their lives. I’m also left wondering how Rebeka gets away with her murders. Although Krisztina sees her commit a murder and the man in the mask knows who she is, nobody reports this to the police. But then, I guess it’s not about the reality.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The End of the Day by Claire North

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I really liked Claire North’s WFA winner, so am looking at more of her books. This novel is fantasy. It was published in 2017 by Redhook/Orbit and runs 403 pages.

Charlie is humble and unassuming. He’s just taken a job as the Harbinger of Death, who mysteriously goes before, as a warning, a courtesy—we don’t know which. He often takes small gifts to particular people, chosen to have special meaning just for them. A few assignments are heartwarming. He meets an old woman, the last speaker of her language, helps a father and daughter who have lost their housing. Sometimes his experiences are more jolting and dangerous. He visits Lagos and finds that not only is Death rampaging through the world, but also the other figures of the Apocalypse—Famine, War and Pestilence. Meanwhile profit reigns and the Doomsday Clock ticks toward midnight. Can Charlie keep his sanity and his relationship with Emmi intact?

I really liked North’s last couple of novels. The thriller plot line kept things moving through a lot of bad stuff, and an upbeat ending made it all worthwhile. I can’t say that about this book. It moves slowly, has no structure and gets bogged down in depressing scenes of torture and death.

This is well-written; the characters and settings are well-developed. The book had something important to say—humanity is self-destructive, we’re all just a step away from oblivion, we need to be more thoughtful. However, I can’t say I enjoyed it. It presented warnings but no solutions, and not much in the way of hope.

Three and a half stars.

In Memoriam: Mattie K.

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Mattie

We had a death in the family yesterday. Please spare a thought to help lift her over the Rainbow Bridge and into heaven. RIP sweet Mattie.

Review of They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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This book is near future science fiction and was published by Harper Teen in 2017. It runs about 384 pages. Silvera is of Puerto Rican heritage and lives in New York City.

Mateo Torrez is eighteen. He’s reading the CountDowners blog at 12:22 a.m. when he receives his final alert from Death-Cast. His dad is in the hospital in a coma and Mateo doesn’t want to spend his End Day alone, so he brings up the Last Friend app and looks for someone to spend the day with. Rufus Emeterio is seventeen. He’s beating up his ex-girlfriend’s new boyfriend Peck when his phone sounds the Death-Cast alert. His gang the Plutos plans a great funeral for him, but Peck spoils it by calling the police. Rufus escapes and looks on the Last Friend app to find someone to spend his End Day with. The two boys find each other and set out to live adventures they’ve not tried before. Is there a way they can escape death at the end?

Good points: This story is very positive and life-affirming. Mateo is shy and reclusive and Rufus is assertive and slipping into bad behavior. The two boys influence each other to change in a single day, where Mateo comes out of his shell and Rufus takes up a lot of his new friend’s kindness. They end up with a relationship that’s more than just “friends” by the time evening rolls around. The story also touches other people’s lives on their End Day that cross the boys’ path. Of course, there’s a philosophical thread to all this, about how we should live our lives every day, but Silvera spends most of his time with the characters, leaving the philosophy subtle.

Not so good points: Silvera is very focused on the characters and their interactions and tends to neglects the action line. I can’t really complain about the plotting. There’s a sequence of events, subplots that include other characters, and a suitable finale. These provide little peaks of interest, but without the rising action line, the story fails to develop much drama. Slivera may be working to make the story gentle and encouraging for teens instead, but some authors would have made this a real heart-breaker.

Silvera gets extra points for having such fresh ideas.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Wicked Weeds by Pedro Cabiya

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This book is translated by Jessica Powell and published by Mandel Vilar Press in 2016. It won’t be eligible for the next awards cycle, but I thought it was worth reviewing, as it’s a little different for a zombie novel. It runs about 184 pages.

The setting is the area between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Isadore Bellamy’s scrapbook provides us with personal experiences and includes the upsetting circumstances that surround the executive vice president of the R&D division of the local branch of Eli Lilly where she works as a researcher. The material she has collected includes police interviews of herself and her co-workers Patricia Cesares and Mathilde Álverez, plus the diary of the doctor, who is convinced he is a zombie and constantly in search of some method to reinstate his soul. The narrative reveals the different realities people live, and cuts off suddenly as…

On the one hand, this is a philosophical work, as it’s about the nature of existence and the search for the self. On the other hand, it presents an amusing picture of the doctor who is either totally wacko or a zombie—because of his lack of emotions, he totally fails to understand the women he works with. The book also provides a compendium of zombie lore, and has an appendix of wicked weeds for preparation of the powder used in witchcraft rituals to create a zombie. Unfortunately, it doesn’t provide Isadore’s recipe.

This is a bit messy, and won’t suit fans of the usual zombie apocalypse.

Four stars.

Review of “Touring with the Alien” by Carolyn Ives Gilman

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This novelette is a Hugo finalist published by Clarkesworld Magazine in April 2016.

Aliens have arrived. The people of Earth can tell because pearly domes have appeared out of nowhere. The domes sit there for a while, and then open to release translators, apparently abducted children, who assure the authorities that the aliens don’t want anything. Avery is a driver who gets a call from her boss asking if she will drive an alien and his translator from D.C. to St. Louis on a converted tour bus. She takes the job and picks the two of them up. There’s no rush, so she takes the scenic route, stopping here and there and getting to know Lionel, the translator. He’s strange, as is his connection with the alien. When the alien turns out to be dying, they make a stop at a cemetery outside St. Louis.

On the pro side, this story is really science fiction, as it wouldn’t work if the alien wasn’t there. Plus, it’s thoughtful and absorbing. This is a real alien, not some anthropomorphic creature that’s sort of like humans, and its alien quality leaves Avery investigating the very nature of consciousness. The story moves smoothly through the Eastern US, trailing men in black, and ends with an interesting twist.

On the con side, the characters don’t quite ring true. We meet Avery’s brother at the beginning, but he doesn’t give me the impression of Avery that her bio later reveals. For that matter, Avery as revealed by her thoughts and actions doesn’t match the bio. Gilman’s effort for an emotional outpouring at the end doesn’t quite ring true for me, and I don’t see any motivation for Avery’s final decision. This is also a bit low on description—I ended up without much idea of what Avery looks like, for example, or the layout of the bus. Regardless of these drawbacks, I like this one because of the central question about consciousness.

Four and a half stars.

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