Review of Bloodwitch by Susan Dennard

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This book is fantasy and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Young Adult Novel. It is billed as #3 in the Witchland series, which I gather is fairly popular. It was published by Tor Teen in February of 2019 and runs 459 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Threadwitch Iseult (half the Cahr Awen), bloodwitch Aeduan and the child earthwitch Dirdra/Owl are traveling together, along with Owl’s giant bat Blueberry. They find a lot of dead people, and Aeduan is struck by arrows carrying a curse that saps his magic. They go to the city Tirla, hoping to find a healer. Aeduan visits the monastery and finds his father, the Raider King, now has a price on his head. Iseult encounters Prince Leopold, and Aeduan sends her and Owl with Leopold to the monastery, then goes to find his father, who is seeking the Cahr Awen. Unfortunately, the monastery is under siege from rebel insurgents. Iseult is taken prisoner, but escapes with Leopold and Owl as Aeduan is mortally wounded in the conflict. She rescues him and they escape into magical underground passageways. He stays behind to cover her escape and then finds he’s lost her. Iseult’s sister, truthwitch Safiya (the other half of the Cahr Awen), is a prisoner of Marstok Empress Vaness, who is trying to use her to uncover plots against the crown. She is guarded by Adders and asked to pronounce whether various officials are lying. When they are, they’re immediately slaughtered by the Empress. Habim comes to the court, and Safi thinks he’s come for her so doesn’t reveal his deceit, but he seems to have another plot afoot. Vivia’s brother, the missing Prince Malik, is taken prisoner by Esme. She tortures him and makes him collect threadstones that will allow her to build a better loom to weave lifethreads. He confronts Kullen and sacrifices himself to trap the Fury. Vivia is currently Queen-in-Waiting to the Nubrevnan throne, and she’s trying to develop the underground city so residents can move into it. Her father, the former king, is taking over the reins of government again as he recuperates, taking credit for her efforts and pushing her aside. Her favorite Captain Stacia disappears and Vivia is concerned. She travels to Marstok to meet with Empress Vaness, who gives her a magical scroll they can use to communicate with. When an attack seems to be coming to the city from the underground, Vivia makes an effort to rescue her people. Habim’s plot seems to be assassination of the Empress. A glamour covers a simultaneous naval assault, but Safi manages to rescue Vaness. They escape in a boat and go to the Origin Well where they enter into the underground and find Vivia and Iseult.

There are also some other characters I haven’t mentioned. If this sounds complex, that’s because it is. Part of the problem here is that I’ve dropped into the series pretty far into it, and I’m missing the background on the characters and situations that was developed in previous novels. On the positive side, these are all attractive people, and the world building seems pretty solid. The Witchlands map resembles Europe with the various kingdoms laid out around an inland sea, and the political and magical systems seem well defined. There’s a reasonable amount of text devoted to description, so readers can visualize what the world looks like and how the scenes take place.

On the not so positive side, there’s a reason you don’t see summaries in most of the reviews of this. It’s messy and feels hugely padded, with very little in the way of action lines or plot advancement. There’s no glossary or summary of what’s gone before, so some things just go unexplained. The narrative skips from character to character, and the internal dialog for the characters comes across like ADHD, skipping from childhood events to what they’re doing now to what they’re planning to do next, to what people are doing to them, to all the pain they’re suffering, to what they think might be happening, et cetra. About half way through, all this started to feel unpleasant to read.

Two and a half stars.

Review of The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson

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This novella one goes back a ways. It is billed as Elantris, Book II, was released by Brandon Sanderson’s self-publishing company Dragonsteel Entertainment in 2012 and won the Hugo Award for Best Novella in 2013. It runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Shai is a forger. She is caught in the palace trying to replace the Moon Scepter with her own forgery, and is offered a bargain by the Emperor’s councilor Gaotona. The Empress has been killed by an assassin and Emperor Ashravan left brain dead. If he doesn’t emerge from his chambers at the end of the mourning period and take control of the government, the empire will dissolve into chaos. Imprisoned in a decrepit chamber, Shai is charged with forging a new soul for the Emperor while the nobles who know of his condition maneuver for position. She starts to research the emperor’s life, seriously doubting whether she can create a soul. Shouldn’t she concentrate on a workable escape plan instead?

As usual, Sanderson provides a mysterious, talented protagonist who has her own failings, puts her in major jeopardy and lets the story play out to a satisfying resolution. The world building and details about how the magic works give this an extra layer of quality. Shai is in conflict with Gaotona and with others of the Emperor’s entourage, imprisoned with dark blood magic and under pressure from her own ambitions as well as those of the nobles and staff. Besides that, doesn’t she have an obligation to the empire to give them an effective ruler, as well?

On the not so positive side, I was a little disappointed that Gaotona’s character didn’t take on more depth here. There was also an opportunity to expand on the lives of other characters, including Frava, leader of the opposition, and the Bloodsealer who keeps Shai imprisoned. This would have given us better character dynamics, but maybe the length of the work affected the character developments. Regardless, this accomplishes what it needs to and gives us a positive upbeat ending. Recommended.

Four and a half stars.

The Privilege of the Happy Ending by Kij Johnson

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This novella is dark fantasy and a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published in Clarkesworld in August of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

Ada is six years old when her parents die and she goes to live with her aunt and uncle. There isn’t any place to sleep in the cottage, so she has to sleep in the chicken coop. She doesn’t have much to eat, but she grows to love the hens, especially Blanche, an old, white hen past laying that Ada protects. The two are in the woods looking for something to eat when a boy runs by and warns them of approaching wastoures, ravenous reptilian creatures that eat every living thing in their path. Blanche tells Ada to climb a tree and the two of them survive, while the village is razed. The two set off, looking for another family to stay with, and follow the sound of church bells to the Unlucky Village, where a man takes them in. They have to flee when the people learn Blanche can talk. The two go on to find the Lucky Village where a family takes them in, but again, they have to flee when a magical, talking hen is pronounced the Devil’s work. Wastoures overtake them on the road, and Blanche directs Ada to climb a fragment of wall. The creatures try to jump up and bring them down, and Blanche finds she has the power to send them away. Can she actually control the wastoures? Does that mean she can also destroy them?

This has the feel of a middle-grades children’s story. Although the narration begins with Ada, Blanche turns out to be the real protagonist. Mostly she just talks to Ada, but when prompted, she will also talk to other people—something not well accepted in the medieval village setting. The theme here seems to be the certainty of death, and how helpless, backward, scared and undependable adults really are. The children we see are abandoned and un-cared for, and at six years old, Ada is already on her own with just a chicken to look after her. Others aren’t so lucky, but Blanche does come through for everyone in the end.

On the not so positive side, the metafiction in this story (where the author comments) seems condescending to the reader. The title sounds like this will be social commentary, but I’m not really seeing that in the text. Plus, I’m having issues with suspension of disbelief. The scenario seems simplistic, where everyone but a chicken is totally clueless, and somehow none of the armed camps of villages are able to track down the source of the wastoure hatches. Where is the government here? Civil defense? Shouldn’t they be able to produce a hero at least as smart as a chicken?

Three and a half stars.

Review of Gallows Black by Sam Sykes

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This is a standalone epic fantasy novella from Sykes’ Grave of Empires universe. It’s published by Orbit and is supposed to be 140 pages, but a lot of this turned out to be taken up by advertising, so I’d guess it’s more like 100 pages. This review contains spoilers.

The Freehold city of Last Word in the Scar is about to become the latest flash point in a war between the Imperial forces and the Revolution. Sal the Cacophony is there to attend an execution where Zanze, one of the people on her revenge list, is scheduled to have his head cut off. Sal waits for Zanze’s turn and a clear shot, meanwhile loading her magical gun Cacophony. She is interrupted by an Imperial Mage, who continues to chat while the next victim, the infamous and powerful freemaker Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, is escorted onto the scaffold. All attention is on the woman, and Sal sees Zanze is about to slip away. She starts to head him off, but the mage grabs her, exposing her scars, her tattoos—and the magical gun. He raises the alarm and she shoots him. Chaos ensues. After a brief battle with Imperial Judge Olithria, Sal gets away with Twenty-Two Dead Roses in a Chipped Vase, who confides that her real name is Liette. Can Sal fulfil her quest to find and kill Zanze? What should she do about Liette?

This is grimdark, heavily atmospheric and action-oriented. It launches with a spray of blood from the execution and moves right on to the destructive effects of Cacophony, a magical, blood-thirsty, black and brass pistol with dragon eyes and a gaping, blood-thirsty maw. Besides that, Liette is working on necromancy. All the heavy-weights in this story are women except for Zanze, presumably the villain, that we only glimpse from a distance. Despite the heavy action orientation, the characters are well developed and interesting, while alluding to a backstory that I expect we might find in other books. This novella ought to suit fans of the grimdark sub-genre well.

On the not so positive side, this basically consists of a lot of explosions connected by brief conversations that reveal the political factions and how they hate each other. In the brief lulls, Sal and Liette manage to build a quick relationship and have sex. The plot is simple, but adequate for something this length. Still, I got exhausted well before the end. I’d rather have learned more about the world and about the people who live there. The magical system is also unexplained, and everyone just seems to have amazing powers that they pit against each other while the common people flee. The end result is that it didn’t hook me, regardless of the early promise.

Three and a half stars.

Review of The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang

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This novel is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Award. It is fantasy, Kuang’s debut novel, runs 527 pages and was published by Harper Voyager. This review contains spoilers.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is a dark-skinned peasant girl, orphaned as a toddler and taken in by a family of opium dealers. They plan to give her in marriage to the disgusting, old village import inspector to improve their business opportunities. Rin frantically studies for the Keju test and scores high enough for admittance to the elite Sinegard military academy. With her tutor’s help, she leaves the village and travels to the school. As a backward peasant girl, she has to work harder than most, and she makes both enemies and friends among her new classmates. After the first year, she finds a master in the strange lore master Jiang, who teaches her meditation and tells her she has the ability to channel the gods and become a great shaman. Her studies come to an abrupt end as war breaks out between the Nikara empire and the nearby Mugen Federation. Students at the academy are conscripted and given posts within the military, and because of her studies, Rin is sent to the Cike, a small, disrespected division of warriors with shamanistic powers. The commander of the unit dies, and Altan Trengsin, a recent graduate of the academy, moves into his place. Can this motley crew of shamans save the empire? Or will Rin lose her soul instead?

This story is written in two parts. Part I starts off as a great adventure story set against some excellent world-building. Rin overcomes prejudice because of her complexion, her gender and her poverty, and through hard work and determination gets on track for a successful military career. She makes a non-traditional choice for a master, and with Jiang’s help, goes on to explore her heritage and her unusual talent for channeling magic. Then in Part II, the Third Poppy War and a lot of bad politics interferes in Rin’s life, leaving her struggling in a world she doesn’t understand. For anyone familiar with Asian language, there are some interesting associations in the names Kuang chooses. There are also some good descriptions of the military strategy and martial arts study. In Part I, I thought the theme was going to be success against adversity, but later in the story it’s trending more to ignorant misuse of power.

On the not so great side, Part II is full of gross inconsistencies in the characters, their powers and the progress of the war. The story degenerates into a Disneyesque state where Rin, instead of applying discipline and intelligence, screams at everyone, can’t carry her weight as a shaman because she’s blocked by a ghost, and makes a series of emotion-driven choices in defiance of all warnings. What happened to all that study at the academy? Didn’t she learn anything at all? The action line starts off well in Part I, but in Part II the author tries to raise the ante through detailed descriptions of torture and atrocities committed in the war. This book got really unpleasant, and the ending didn’t resolve anything at all. Presumably all the hate and self-destruction will continue into an upcoming sequel.

Two and a half stars for the gross inconsistencies.

Review of “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” by Alix E. Harrow

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This short story is a finalist for the 2018 Nebula Awards. It is fantasy and was published in Apex magazine in February of 2018. This review contains spoilers.

A librarian watches as a skinny black child discovers the library. The boy clearly loves escapist fantasies and chooses books like The Runaway Prince. He turns out to be a foster child. The librarian feeds him a compendium of fantasy books, but keeps away the book that he really needs. When he tries to hide in the library overnight, she decided not to notice. When he starts to smell of futility and the death of yearning, she begins to wonder: What should she do?

This is another character-driven story without anything much in the way of plot. The boy comes into the library over a period of time and the witchy librarian watches him. This is an allegory, I expect, of what actual librarians see in rural counties when disadvantaged children come in and discover a different world outside their own circumscribed place. It has an upbeat feel at the end, as we can assume the boy uses the magic book to build a successful life somewhere else.

On the negative side, this feels long and relies on mechanics that are a little too visible. It’s clearly aimed at avid fantasy readers who will love the books the boy reads. It uses pity to make an emotional impact as the poor kid spirals deeper into depression. The story has a couple of digressions about other disadvantaged children that make the social justice topic clear, but I thought this detracted some from this particular boy’s story. The narrator doesn’t tell us what the magic book is that she gives the boy to rescue him. Of course, this is symbolic, but it leaves something of a gap in the narrative. Actually, why aren’t they passing out magic books for everybody?

Three and a half stars.

Review of “The Court Magician” by Sarah Pinsker

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This short story is a 2018 Nebula finalist and runs to dark fantasy/horror. It was published in Lightspeed magazine in January of 2018. Full disclosure: Pinsker is on the Board of Directors of SFWA, the organization that runs the Nebula Awards. This review contains spoilers.

A street child is interested in magic. At the narrator’s request, the boy is taught magic sleight-of-hand tricks. Because he shows genuine talent for the work, he is taken in by the Palace for tutoring. He starts to wonder if everything is a trick and asks about real magic, so it is granted to him in the form of a word. He becomes the Court Magician and handles things for the Regent. Real magic has a cost, though. What is the boy willing to pay for his position?

On the good side, this is a pretty creepy story. It’s character-driven, and there’s no real plot, but the narrative unfolds well enough that I stayed interested all the way to the end. This is clearly a system that eats people, so they have to have a constant stream of willing novices to handle the Regent’s dirty work for them. The kind of people who need to be handled suggest dissent in the kingdom; we gather the Regent is not an empathetic ruler. Pinsker seems to always write thoughtful stories, and this one is about the cost of serving someone else and how this can compromise ourselves, making us less than the person we were–especially when there are morality issues involved.

On the not so great side, this is also very much about being a victim. The boy is represented as being needy, hungry for knowledge and swayed by the tutoring and luxury he’s offered. He’s attracted and groomed for victimhood, and becomes complicit in it. He never really makes any effort to change the system, and just sort of fades away at the end. Also, we never learn who the narrator is. Maybe this is supposed to be mysterious, but it leaves a loose end.

Four and a half stars.

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