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 The Wicked King by Holly Black

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The Wicked King is the second novel in the Folk of the Air series, and won the Goodreads Choice Award for Best Young Adult SFF Novel in 2019 with 48,181 votes. This is preceded by The Cruel Prince and followed by The Queen of Nothing to complete a three-novel set. The Wicked King was published by Little Brown in January of 2019, and runs 336 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of The Cruel Prince, the High King stepped down; backers of Prince Balekin slaughtered the royal family, and Jude discovered her foster brother Oak was actually an heir to the throne. In a scheme to protect him, she lured Prince Carden into a bargain that crowned him High King and left him in her power for a year and a day. In her new position as Seneschal, she sent Oak to live in the human world with Vivi and now works as the power behind the throne, pulling the strings that run the kingdom of Elfhame. Locke has abandoned Jude and is now engaged to marry her twin sister Taryn. Madoc is part of the faction that is backing Balekin, who is imprisoned in the Tower of Forgetting. The Kingdom of the Undersea offers the Queen’s daughter Nicasea as a bride for Carden, backed by the threat of war with the Land if he refuses. The night before Taryn’s wedding, Jude is attacked, and later lured to the Tower, where she is kidnapped and held hostage by the Undersea. King Carden has to make concessions to get her back. He is poisoned by Balekin in a bid for the throne, but Jude saves him and then kills Balekin. Carden offers Jude vows of marriage if she will rescind the bargain giving her control of him, and he then banishes her to the human world in punishment for the murder of Balekin. It seems she has lost control of the king, but there are still threats to her family. What can she do?

On the positive side, this story remains a gripping intrigue, and themes are now developing related to power and submission. While Taryn has submitted to her tormentors and found a way to fit in, Jude has fought her way to a position of power. Although her scheme to gain control of the kingdom succeeded brilliantly, she struggles with inexperience and makes mistakes in dealing with the challenges. The bullying has stopped, but it has been replaced by plots and attacks on a larger scale. Jude is faced with holding onto what she’s won, and she seems unable to move beyond the station of her birth as a lowly mortal. She doesn’t know how to form alliances, or how to wield power except through Carden. Court officials disrespect her and her office, and her family treats her with their usual familiarity, unable to see her as having grown into anything different. She’s still mired in a mortal worldview, unable to see the big picture, and unable to even form a new self-image.

On the not so positive side, this installment of the story is a little hectic. Jude rushes to put out one fire after another, oblivious to the fact that Carden is now the High King and showing signs of competence in using the powers that go with the position. It also looks like Elfhame has some serious issues with security, as agents of various factions seem to have easy access to the king and his court. Jude is especially blind to issues of her own safety. After barely surviving a solo fight in the forest, for example, she falls right into the Undersea’s kidnapping plot. I’m also concerned about the number of people getting killed in this story. The Fay are immortal and have a low birth-rate. This suggests they should heavily guard their lives and have strong rules for investigating and penalizing murder, but it’s just not happening.

On the whole, this remains a good read, and I finished it up fast, moving on to the series finale.

Three and a half stars.

Review of “Obsolescence” by Martha Wells

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This short story is based in the Murderbot universe, and appears in the anthology Take Us to a Better Place, released by Melcher Media on January 21, 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Jixy is an administrator at Kidland Station, somewhere in space. She is first alerted to a problem by screaming children, and finds, to her horror, that Greggy seems to have had a terrible accident. It’s a messy cleanup job, and worse, it looks like some of his components have been stolen. Greggy was a retired exploration rover, an early version of a human-machine construct, who was working at Kidland Station in a second career as a teaching assistant. Suspecting that Greggy might have been attacked by an unauthorized visitor, Jixy puts the station in emergency mode and orders a search of the module. It’s a scary situation, as everybody remembers stories of raiders that attack people to steal their prostheses and augments. Can Jixy find whoever is responsible before they strike again?

On the positive side, this story follows up on information we’ve gotten from Wells’ Murderbot Diaries series. One reason that Murderbot tries so hard to blend in with the human population is that it’s concerned about being identified as a rogue construct without any rights, which would be fair game for a chop shop gang. Murderbot also mentions the exploration rovers as an early example of human-bot constructs. Generally these were people who had suffered some highly debilitating accident and were offered the chance for reconstruction to help establish the first bases on Luna and Mars.

On the not so positive side, this suffers greatly from lack of Murderbot. Without its wry observances, the story fails to generate anything much in the way of interest. The vision of Greggy floating in his own remains is somewhat horrific, as is the perpetrator, but otherwise, I’m not sure of the point here. That transhumans will get obsolete the way an old car does? Well okay, maybe so. It’s a bit short on details, too.

Three stars.

Review of Starsight by Brandon Sanderson

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This novel is science fiction and #2 in the Skyward series, following the novel Skyward. It was released by Tor in November of 2019 and runs 461 pages. This review contains spoilers.

At the end of Skyward, Spensa Nightshade has found that reality is a long way from what she’s always believed. Humans have been imprisoned on Detritus, guarded by the Krell, and Spensa has found she has cytonic abilities to hear and teleport ships through the Nowhere—the method her ancestors used to get around in space, which can be amplified by an unknown “cytonic hyperdrive.” As the humans have made advances into space, conflict with the Krell has increased. Human techs locate a video on one of the orbiting space platforms and, watching it, Spensa has a terrifying vision of delvers (inhabitants of the Nowhere). She screams cytonically and accidentally contacts an alien pilot, who hyperjumps into Detritus space. The ship is damaged by the automated guns on the platforms. Hoping to capture its hyperdrive, Spensa and her Skyward flight try to rescue the ship, but find there’s no hyperdrive aboard. The pilot is injured in the crash landing, but gives Spensa coordinates for Skysight, the center of alien government. Spensa and her flight leader Jorgen make a quick decision, and Spensa disguises herself as the injured pilot, then uses the coordinates and her cytonic ability to hyperjump there. She is welcomed by Cuna, a representative of the Superiority, and enters a training program to provide fighter pilots for the Superiority, supposedly to defend against the delvers. With the help of her ship’s AI M-bot and Doomslug, her odd pet that has stowed away, Spensa tries to navigate the alien politics and manages to make friends with various representatives of the “inferior” races Cuna has assembled into his fighter units. Spensa builds a spy drone from a cleaning bot and finally learns the secret of the hyperdrives. She gets caught with the drone, but there’s a coup afoot in the Superiority government. Can Spensa save Detritus, rescue M-bot and Doomslug and get away?

This is a really condensed summary, of course. The novel has a great plot, full of twists, turns and revelations. The characters are very well developed, full of alien idiosyncrasies, and the action/suspense starts up right at the beginning, making this a pretty gripping read. Spensa operates by the skin of her teeth, developing into a leader herself within the assembly of misfits that makes up her new flight. The book also features a constant undercurrent of discussion about aggression versus non-aggression and how each one affects a particular society. The Superiority prides itself on non-aggression, for example, but has to draft alien pilots to do the dirty work of defense. Meanwhile, they suppress these “inferior” races, keeping hyperdrives away from them so they can’t develop economically. Humans are painted as the real bad guys in the picture for their highly aggressive and dominant tendencies. Meanwhile, M-bot is finding ways to work around the programming that keeps him confined and enslaved. Will that turn out to be dangerous?

On the not so positive side, Skysight doesn’t seem that alien of a place, and some of this seems a little over-simplistic, especially the way Spensa interacts with the aliens and the way she develops a method to deal with the terrifying delvers. M-bot comes across as immature and sulky, and we all knew Doomslug was going to figure in this somehow, right?

Highly recommended.

Four and a half 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.

Review of Reactance by Dacia M. Arnold

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This young adult dystopia novella was self-published in August of 2018. It’s listed as Book #2 of the series, a companion piece to Apparent Power, and runs 144 pages. This review contains spoilers.

Sasha Bowman is 18 and on the point of graduating from high school when disaster strikes. The awakening of a dormant gene divides society in the city of Denver into a new hierarchy of haves and have-nots. The haves can control and channel electricity, making them an asset, but also a danger to the general population. Sasha has the gene, which means people are afraid of her and the government wants to control her abilities. She and her mother are captured by the government, and put under control of DiaZems, people who can gather and use the power of people affected by the gene. The power-hungry Queen DiaZem murders everyone in the city without the gene, including Sasha’s father. Attracted by a friendly boy, Sasha writes some documents and then finds she is helping form a subversive organization, the Reactance. Can they fight against the new order and find some way to return the gene to a dormant state?

This should be well-received by the young adult age group. It’s a easy, quick read, written in journal format, that reveals Sasha’s problems and how her life suddenly changed when she became a captive of the DiaZems. Other issues investigated here include the responsibility of parents and the difference between activism and terrorism. I’m glad to see someone in young adult addressing that last topic.

On the not so positive side, this seems really soft-pedaled. I know someone wouldn’t instantly achieve wisdom when something like this happens, but Sasha has a lot of naiveté to overcome. It seems simplistic that she’s joined with a subversive group and doesn’t understand the consequences–or that the DiaZems don’t immediately come down on her in a really ugly way. If they’re murdering people, surely they’ve got means to watch, control and punish their captive population. I’ve missed the first book, so maybe I don’t quite understand the gene situation and the new political structure–a prologue to explain those would have been helpful.

Three 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.

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