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 Catfish Lullaby by A.C. Wise

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This horror novella is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Awards. It was published by Broken Eye on September 3, 2019, and runs 118 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Caleb is the biracial son of the Lewis town sheriff, and his grandparents’ house is just through the woods from the Royce property. There are rumors that Archie Royce coerces women into some kind of weird religious cult. The house burns one night, and Caleb goes with his dad to try to help out. It seems too late to save anyone but a girl named Cere. While they’re waiting to find her a foster family, Caleb’s dad takes her in. She becomes like a sister to Caleb, and he learns that her evil father taught her magic and expected her to end the world. A woman is murdered, and it starts to look like Cere might not be the only survivor of the fire. Years later when Caleb becomes town sheriff himself, the murders start up again. Is there any way he and Cere can stop Archie’s plan?

On the positive side, this includes some good imagery and manages to capture a faint flavor of the South. It’s based on a legendary figure called Catfish John, a sort of gator bigfoot of the swamp, and the creature makes several appearances, both in dreams and in real life. There’s also a faint flavor of cults, and how charismatic men can twist reality for their followers. On the diversity side, it features a biracial, gay sheriff, someone you wouldn’t exactly expect in a small Southern town.

On the less positive side, this has a disjointed feel, and fails to produce much in the way of plot, theme or meaning. It’s clear early on that Cere is a powerful witch, but we don’t see much of the battle she carries on against her father and brothers. Instead, we get confused dreams from Caleb, unsolved murders and cases of rot that are never explained. There’s no description of the town or any feel for town life, only a few ugly bullies that plague Caleb when he’s a kid. Nobody seems to have any plan to deal with the Royces’ evil cult except to call on Catfish John.

Two and a half stars.

Review of “Carpe Glitter” by Cat Rambo

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This fantasy novelette is a finalist for the 2019 Nebula Award. It was published by Meerkat in October 2019 and runs 62 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Grandmother Gloria’s motto was always carpe glitter (seize the glitter). She was a glamourous Vegas performer at the Sparkle, but a hoarder in her old age. After she dies, her granddaughter Persephone starts to clean out the house and finds a magical Nazi artifact from World War II, an automaton named Heinrich that seems to be currently disassembled but still alive. Her mother makes a desperate attempt to get control of it, and Persephone also finds that mysterious men in black have an interest. The automaton could be dangerous. What should Persephone do about it?

On the positive side, this is an interesting little mystery that emerges slowly out of Persephone’s efforts to clear away the mess left by her grandmother. (Hoarders out there, are you listening?) She works through piles of family history and moldering sequins, trying to sort out anything of worth, and eventually happens on the still-working parts of the evil automaton. Along the way, we start to get a feel for how Persephone relates to her grandmother and her mother, and reconnect with Eterno, who might be Persephone’s grandfather.

On the not so positive side, Heinrich doesn’t seem to be evil enough for all the fuss and the climax isn’t climactic enough—there’s not enough at stake. Heinrich turns out to be relatively easy to deactivate, so why didn’t somebody do that a long time ago instead of dissembling the parts as an attempt to disable it? If the parts can move around, why haven’t they crawled to one another and put themselves together? Also, some of the events that shape this feel like afterthoughts, not really significant enough to drive the story. Why didn’t Gloria have some bigger investment in the automaton? She could have been a spy during the war, for example. Or it could have been her lover. And if Eterno is Persaphone’s grandfather, why hasn’t he been a guiding presence in her life before now?

Three stars.

Review of “How the Trick Is Done” by A.C. Wise

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This short story is a 2019 Nebula finalist. It was published in Uncanny Magazine on 7-8/19. This review may contain spoilers.

The Magician had an act involved a young assistant named Meg (who was in love with him) and a rabbit named Gus. When Gus bit the Magician, he fired Meg and she jumped off the Hoover Dam. Gus got out of his cage and got flattened in traffic, and the Magician met a girl named Angie in the diner who resurrected the rabbit for him. Now he has a show in Vegas where he does a trick called Bullet-Catch-Death-Cheat. His new assistant shoots him, and he dies and then reappears alive at the back of the theater. It’s really Angie, the Resurrectionist, who accomplishes the trick. Meg’s ghost comes back to talk to Angie, who is always exhausted these days from pulling off the nightly resurrection. Does the Magician really deserve all these second chances at life?

On the positive side, this builds up a picture of a man from his actions and his relationships with the people around him. The Magician seems to be focused on his own success, the money he makes from his act and the applause and adulation of the audience. He fails to appreciate the people who support him, including Meg, Gus, Angie and his stage manager Rory. The rabbit bite is a nice touch that sums up the Magician—Gus is way smarter than the humans. At this, the author adds a bit of social commentary that only humans expect a second chance at life. There’s more commentary on death here, but the theme seems more complex, about how unfeeling, ambitious men trample on the people who love them, and how these people take their revenge.

On the not so positive side, this is heavily biased, as the Magician isn’t really developed as a character, and remains only a cut-out stereotype. We don’t get his point of view, and he’s pretty much summed up by that rabbit bite and the way he lets Gus die (eventually) of neglect. Instead of just quitting, of course, all these people stay on and endure the abuse because they love the Magician so much. Why? Angie eventually disposes of him and takes over his place, getting revenge for everybody. It’s getting to be a tiring social message, but at least in this case, Angie does get a glimpse of her own fall.

Three and a half stars.

Review of Made Things by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novella is a sequel to Tchaikovsky’s novelette Precious Little Things. It was released by Tor.com in November 2019, and runs 192 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Coppelia lives in the Fountains Parish barrio of the city of Loretz, where she works as a puppeteer, con-artist and thief. She tries hard to stay clear of the Broadcaps police, who have been after her since she escaped from the orphanage. Coppelia has some unusual friends that help her in her work, tiny manikins originally created by the mage Arcantel. They don’t entirely trust her, but they have established a good working relationship and she helps them by using her small magical ability to carve bodies that they can animate to make more of their kind. Coppelia is getting along fairly well with this state of affairs, but then she captures the attention of the local crime lord, who sends her with a crew to rob the Mages’ palace. The plan goes wrong fairly quickly, and they encounter the powerful, life-sized, manikin Archmagister in the palace. Can Coppelis engineer some way escape with her life?

This is a quick, easy read, fairly upbeat and entertaining. The characterizations here are attractive and the manikins very strange and magical. Tchaikovsky sketches in a believable world with its hierarchies of power, and gives us the view from the bottom where Coppelia struggles along in the shadow of the crime lords and city mages, where wealth buys magic and magic buys wealth. The story is fairly whimsical, but it’s not all sugar and spice. People do get killed as the stakes get more desperate. There’s a slightly ironic touch in the dealings of the nobles.

On the not so positive side, this comes across like a children’s tale, while, as an adult, I would have preferred darker and more serious themes. Conflict is actually low, and Coppelia never has to make any really difficult choices. She is supposed to be struggling along through this world, driven by others with more power, but somehow the situation never feels really desperate. People seem to pick her up as a protégé, offering advantages, and with all the support she has, I never felt she was truly at risk. The power structure is sketched in, but this is just observations, and we don’t get into the fine points of how power can be employed for both good and evil purposes.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Precious Little Things” by Adrian Tchaikovsky

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This novelette is prequel to Tchaikovsky’s Made Things. It was released by Tor Books in November of 2019. This review contains spoilers.

Tam is a rough-cut homunculus, a common laborer, but he has ambitions for the daughter he is working on. He climbs the shelves to ask the Folded Ones of the Tower for gold to add to her form, so she will have greater rank and opportunity. They agree, but only if he will give them his daughter after her birth. Liat is successfully born at the feet of the Maker Arcantel, the great frozen mage in the center of the Tower, and afterward Tam sends her to study with the Ones of the Shelf so she becomes a mage herself. The tribes of the Tower have been getting bolder, and in recent years, raven riders have gone forth from the windows, so they know something of the world outside. One of the riders brings a report of three giants like the Maker Arcantel arriving at the door of the Tower. Liat is elected to go and see what they want, and is transported outside by one of the raven riders. The giants seem to have only rough magic, but Liat realizes they will eventually breach the Tower. She needs to make a decision about their intentions. Will they welcome knowledge that the homunculi exist, or will they only destroy the tribes and loot the Tower? What should Liat recommend?

This is an entertaining little story with the feel of young adult. The characters seem very real, and the world takes shape as the story moves along. We see the Tower from the eyes of tiny dolls made of paper, wood, metal and bone, as they work at their goal to reproduce and create more of their kind. We gather the mage Arcantel is frozen in the working of some arcane spell, and the tiny creatures are most likely an unexpected side-effect. That doesn’t matter to them, of course. They’re taking the world as they find it. There’s a serious discussion of poverty versus wealth at the end of this that emerges as the main theme.

There are only a couple of negatives I can see here: The first is that the story is too short to really develop this into a serious drama, and the second is that we’ve just left Arcantel stuck there in the Tower with only the accidental little homunculi to defend him. Maybe these manikins are too limited to have full lives, but since there’s already a sequel, it looks like Tchaikovsky means to keep writing stories about them.

This is a very intriguing story, a great lead in to a possible future novel.

Four stars.

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.

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