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.

Cover Reveal

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So, I’ve been traveling. Here’s a shout-out to Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, both great SFF writers and poets. We had lunch on Friday in Ocala under the shadow of Hurricane Barry.

Meanwhile I’m home for a couple of days, so I guess this is a good time for a cover reveal. I’ve had some older short stories available in different e-book collections for a while, but now these will be combined in trade paperback format so they’ll be available in bookstores. Watch for it August 1! Also, keep an eye out for future works.

Moonshadows Small

Review of Storm Cursed by Patricia Briggs

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This novel is urban fantasy, and number 11 in Briggs’ highly successful Mercy Thompson series. It’s published by Ace and runs 368 pages. Briggs also writes the Alpha and Omega series which is set in the same universe and uses some of the same characters. Although Briggs works mainly with these two series now, early in her career she also wrote more traditional fantasy novels which remain good bets for fantasy fans. This review contains spoilers.

Mercy Thompson is a Native American car mechanic, a shapeshifter and Coyote’s daughter. She has fallen for and gotten married to Adam Hauptman, previously her neighbor and alpha of the Columbia Basin werewolf pack. A few months back, Mercy made a public declaration that the pack would defend everybody within their territory. This made the Tri-cities seem like safe, neutral ground, and now there is a plan in work to set up meetings there so the government can negotiate with the dangerous Grey Lords of the fae, who have previously been sequestered on reservations. Adam’s security company is chosen to deal with preparations. Mercy gets a call from a local farmer and takes some of the pack out to deal with his goats that have turned zombie. After interviewing the farmer, she suspects the zombies were created by a black witch who first tried to lure the man’s son. Investigating, Mercy finds the witch is from the Hardesty family, a group who has also targeted the local witch Elizaveta, torturing and killing her family in an effort to create a coven. The investigation reveals that Elizaveta has also been practicing black magic. Can Mercy deal with the witches? The zombies? The government officials? And what is Coyote up to now?

Briggs is highly reliable, and this is more on the adventures of familiar characters her readers know and love. It’s warm, safe and inclusive. For all her tough exterior, Mercy has a lot of friends that are willing to step up and defend her, or even to help out when she gets into something over her head. Briggs creates strong characters, plus sticky relations and ongoing intrigues between the different factions, the werewolves, vampires, goblins, witches, Native American walkers, etc., etc. that inhabit the Tri-cities area. There’s always a strong element of romance, too, as Mercy and Adam are pretty taken with each other.

On the not so positive side, this was a little hard to get into. There’s no hook at all. It’s an ongoing narrative, and Briggs seems to pick up one novel where the last left off. But, for her readers, there’s a gap of a year or so where details of what happened in the last novel can get lost. Mercy eventually gets around to filling us in on recent events for her, but until we meet the goats, there’s only conversation to get us started on this story.

It’s another successful adventure for Mercy. Highly recommended for fans of urban fantasy.

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.

Review of Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin

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This novel is translated from Spanish by Megan McDowell. It was published by Riverhead Press in January 2017 and runs about 189 pages. Schweblin is from Argentina and currently lives in Germany.

Amanda is dying. In her last moments, she reviews the last weeks, speaking to a boy named David. Amanda and her daughter Nina are staying at a rented house for the summer while her husband works in the city. Amanda strikes up a friendship with her neighbor Carla, an elegant, beautiful woman who tells her a strange story about her son David. Carla’s husband raises race horses, and Carla looked out the window one day and missed the stallion. She took her son David to the pasture to search and found the stallion dying of poison. Too late, she realized her son was contaminated, too. He sickened quickly, and Carla took him to the woman in the green house who promised to cure him through transmigration. Amanda is frightened by the story and resolves to leave. She packs and looks for Carla to say good-bye, finds her in the pasture. Amanda and Nina immediately fall ill from sitting in the poisoned dew. Is there a way to save Nina?

I wouldn’t quite classify this story as horror—maybe the right word is “chilling.” It starts off innocently enough, but soon we understand that Amanda is dying. There’s no exposition, but we pick up clues about the death of the local stock, the deformity of children in the area. Inevitably Amanda and Nina blunder into the poison, and Carla makes every effort to save them. “Keep her close,” Amanda says to Carla, about the imminent transmigration of Nina’s soul.

It’s hard to find anything negative to say about this book, just that it probably won’t suit people looking for clear plots and strong action. It’s subtle and dreamlike. The horror is slowly constructed, so it takes a bit of patience, thought and observation to put together what’s really happening. On the other hand, these are its good points, too. It’s short, but it gets extra points for use of environmental pollution as the antagonist.

Four stars.

Review of Kingdom Cons by Yuri Herrera

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As part of my effort to review more diverse works, here’s a short novel by Mexican writer Yuri Herrera and published by And Other Stories. It’s translated by Lisa Dillman, and it’s a quick read at about 112 pages.

The Artist’s songs find favor with the King, who offers the Artist a position within his court. There he meets the Jeweler, the Journalist, the Heir, the Witch and the Girl. A beautiful woman catches his eye, the Commoner, who turns out to be daughter of the Witch. The Artist sees the benevolence of the King, but as time goes on, he realizes that all is not well within the kingdom and that there might be a Traitor within the court. Frightened by threats and a sudden vision of the King as only a sad, defeated man, the Artist and the Commoner attempt to flee. Can they avoid the coming war?

I’m thinking this is an example of surreal fiction, as it includes images here and there that are strange and unexplained. I’m sure a lot of the beauty of the language is lost in translation, but the story still flows well. Through the Artist’s eyes, we see the transience of wealth and power, and investigate patronage and integrity.

Although this is billed as a “fairy tale,” I thought the truth of the situation was a little too obvious for this, and that it read more like metaphor instead. Because of this transparency, it may be more literary than SFF. Still, it was an interesting read.

Three stars.

Review of “An Unimaginable Light” by John C. Wright

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This story is the Rabid Puppies’ recommendation for the Hugo Best Short Story Award. It was published in the themed anthology God, Robot from Castalia House. The blurb calls it “a collection of intertwined stories from some of the best known names in superversive science fiction. Written in the tradition of Isaac Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics and edited by Anthony Marchetta, the book contains stories by John C. Wright, Steve Rzasa, Joshua Young, L. Jagi Lamplighter and others.” The theme is theobots, programmed to love both God and man.

A human and a theobot are in the midst of a questioning session within a glass box, high above the world. The woman is naked and beautiful and the man calls her a whorebot. He is a robopsychologist, tall and florid with a double chin and big belly, known for the number of robots he has maimed or destroyed by flaying. He questions her regarding the Three Laws and about her beliefs. He calls her answers inappropriate, beats her and then demands sex. She refuses. He orders her punished for her heresy.

Pros: John C. Wright is actually an awesome writer. The number of levels this story works on is pretty amazing. 1) It invokes the Inquisition, i.e. the uppity, beautiful woman accused as a witch and the powerful, degenerate man questioning her. 2) It pays homage to the Asimov robot stories, referring to the Three Laws and similar philosophical issues. 3) It outlines questions in the dialog that fall out from the current conflict between conservative and neo-left politics. 4) It’s pretty erotic. Wright doesn’t fall short on the character descriptions, and the BDSM elements are obvious.

Cons: Wright’s big fault is in overdoing his stories. He has a huge command of meaning and subtext, but more isn’t always better—this ends up being very dense and hard to digest. The story could have been improved by thinning it out some, and Wright could have written a couple of other stories (or a novel) instead to expand on the material. There was a twist ending, but it wasn’t hard to predict. I’m not sure if this was because of subtle foreshadowing or clues in the dialog. Regardless, I’m a little surprised that the story ended up being so cynical. Isn’t superversive SF supposed to be upbeat and affirming?

Three and a half stars.

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