#WyrdandWonder Review: Heather Fawcett – Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries

Ah, those cozy fantasies, how I do love them. This one was a particular favorite and one of the few cases where I jumped with joy upon learning that it is only the first in a series. Give me more Emily Wilde, more Wendell, more found families, exploring cultures and their view on faeries. I hope we’ll get at least ten volumes.

EMILY WILDE’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FAERIES
by Heather Fawcett

Published: Orbit, 2023
Hardback: 336 pages
Series: Emily Wilde #1
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Shadow is not at all happy with me. 

A curmudgeonly professor journeys to a small town in the far north to study faerie folklore and discovers dark fae magic, friendship, and love in the start of a heartwarming and enchanting new fantasy series.

Cambridge professor Emily Wilde is good at many things: She is the foremost expert on the study of faeries. She is a genius scholar and a meticulous researcher who is writing the world’s first encyclopaedia of faerie lore. But Emily Wilde is not good at people. She could never make small talk at a party–or even get invited to one. And she prefers the company of her books, her dog, Shadow, and the Fair Folk to other people.

So when she arrives in the hardscrabble village of Hrafnsvik, Emily has no intention of befriending the gruff townsfolk. Nor does she care to spend time with another new arrival: her dashing and insufferably handsome academic rival Wendell Bambleby, who manages to charm the townsfolk, get in the middle of Emily’s research, and utterly confound and frustrate her.

But as Emily gets closer and closer to uncovering the secrets of the Hidden Ones–the most elusive of all faeries–lurking in the shadowy forest outside the town, she also finds herself on the trail of another mystery: Who is Wendell Bambleby, and what does he really want? To find the answer, she’ll have to unlock the greatest mystery of all–her own heart.

Written as a journal by the eponymous Emily Wilde, this story begins with her journey to Hrafnsvik, a very northern village that has some interesting tales and locations to offer when it comes to studying faeries. And that’s just what Emily is here to do. She is creating the first Encyclopaedia of Faeries, writing down in a scholarly fashion, all that there is to know about the various kinds of fae, how to interact with them, what tricks they may play on nearby villagers, what gifts the villagers leave for the folk, and so on. Emily is thus working on establishing herself as the brilliant scholar that she is in the minds of her colleagues – who don’t all love her personality. Along this trip that is to last several months she brings her loyal dog, Shadow, and all she needs to do her work.

I immediately adored the writing style of this story because not only is Emily a somewhat unusual woman for the time period, but she is also so clearly enamoured with her work that she forgets all social niceties. Or, indeed, how one interacts with humans at all, rather than fae and/or books. It felt a bit like an inversion of a trope, having the female character be a little gruff and not caring about her hair, while the male counterpart is all about proper attire and charming the people around him. But I’m getting ahead of myself. So… Emily arrives, manages to do some studying and stake out the area, looking for faerie activity, but she has trouble getting along with the locals. Something or other she has done or said must have made her into a pariah of sorts, but she cannot for the life of her figure out what is wrong or how to fix it.

Wendell Bambleby to the rescue! Her colleague and suspected fae (although she has never told him of this suspicion) is her exact opposite in many ways. Charming, quick with the banter, sensitive to others’ feelings, he complements Emily perfectly. When it comes to their scholarly efforts, he happens to be a little less meticulous, not to say lazy… Can you see why I love these two? It may be another trope (the messy roommate and the clean one) but, boy, does it work ever so well. Together, Emily and Wendell navigate life in a very frosty village (both when it comes to the climate and its inhabitants), try to learn about the local faeries, listen to legends, and, almost by accident, solve some ancient problems. To tell you the details of their adventures would be spoiling the fun, so you’ll just have to trust me that there are several kinds of faeries and other mythological folk, encounters with neighbors and mayors and shop keepers, and of course: science!

The plot offers many lovely twists and turns, but although I enjoyed them, it was a variety of other little things that lifted this book above similar cozy fantasies. First, I love the liberties Heather Fawcett has taken with the setting and time period. Women scholars may have it harder than their male colleagues, but they are not unheard of; queer folk are simply there and accepted, and I can not stress enough what a difference that makes. Imagine a Jane Austen novel, but the neighbors are a lesbian couple. It’s so refreshing and makes me want to spend a lot more time in this world.
Then there is the faerie lore, of which we get just enough to keep this book interesting and new, but also to whet my appetite for more. The legends and local stories are intriguing, especially the ones Emily follows up in more detail, and I can’t remember a single dull moment in this book. Plus, all the plot strings come together really nicely at the end.

And lastly, let’s not forget the relationship between Emily and Wendell. It feels kind of romancy early on, but again, the author takes it in unexpected directions. Most remarkable is probably that we learn about Emily’s suspicion about Wendell being a secret Fae in one of the first chapters. The author could have tried to milk this “revelation” and turn it into a cheap twist, but Emily is really rather good at what she does, and spotting Fae is one of those things. Wendell indeed being a Faerie, it wouldn’t have fit to have Emily ignorant of the fact when she spends so much time with him (because she has no other friends and most other people would rather spend time away from her).
No spoilers about any potential romance subplots, but I’ll just say I loved the character development, the pacing, and the conclusion reached – or not reached – at the end of this first book. More than anything it made me want to go back and follow these two scatterbrains on many more trips. What a wonderful, at times thrilling, tale of a woman who just wants to study in peace.
I hear the next book, Emily Wilde’s Map of the Underwolds, takes place in Austria (that’s where I live, yay!), and now I only have to wait for my pre-order to be delivered.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Really excellent

Women of Tooth and Claw: Kelly Barnhill – When Women Were Dragons (#WyrdandWonder)

This is the second time this year (and ever) that Kelly Barnhill managed to blow me away. I have only discovered her recently through her novella The Crane Husband, and while it seems like she’s working through some of the same things in this novel, I felt that it even surpassed the novella in skill. When you expect a certain thing from the synopsis and end up both getting what was promised but also so much more, that means the book is a winner. I won’t be able to get this out of my head for a long time and I wish I had read it in time for Hugo nominations. Because, boy, does this one deserve an award or three!

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS
by Kelly Barnhill

Published: Hot Key Books, 2022
eBook: 430 pages
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I was four years old when I first met a dragon. 

Learn about the Mass Dragoning of 1955 in which 300,000 women spontaneously transform into dragons…and change the world.

Alex Green is a young girl in a world much like ours. But this version of 1950’s America is characterized by a significant event: The Mass Dragoning of 1955, when hundreds of thousands of ordinary wives and mothers sprouted wings, scales and talons, left a trail of fiery destruction in their path, and took to the skies. Seemingly for good. Was it their choice? What will become of those left behind? Why did Alex’s beloved Aunt Marla transform but her mother did not? Alex doesn’t know. It’s taboo to speak of, even more so than her crush on Sonja, her schoolmate.

Forced into silence, Alex nevertheless must face the consequences of dragons: a mother more protective than ever; a father growing increasingly distant; the upsetting insistence that her aunt never even existed; and a new “sister” obsessed with dragons far beyond propriety. Through loss, rage, and self-discovery, this story follows Alex’s journey as she deals with the events leading up to and beyond the Mass Dragoning, and her connection with the phenomenon itself.

I sometimes find it entertaining to read only negative reviews of books that I really, really like. Not only because it’s interesting to see how people can receive one and the same thing in such different ways, but also to see if I’m perhaps wearing pink-tinted glasses and missing something about the novel that isn’t quite as perfect. When the book holds up, despite me reading what other people criticize, that is a clear indicator that I’ve got a new favorite on my hands. If I end up agreeing with the critiques or if I notice that I’ve glossed over some things I should have caught, I’ll obviously still like the book but my feelings will be more temperate. This book, dear readers, goes in the first category and here is why.

The main story follows a girl named Alex Green from a very early age, told in first person looking back at her life as a (presumably) adult or even old woman. It begins when she is four and has neither words nor concepts to understand or express the things she witnesses and feels. In between the Alex chapters, we get snippets of scientific papers, about this thing called dragoning, and the Mass Dragoning of 1955, in particular. Alex tells us her life story, leading up to the fateful events of that day in the mid-fifties, when all of a sudden, thousands and thousands of wives and mothers stopped whatever they were doing, shed their skin and turned into literal dragons. Some ate their husbands, some incinerated the building they were in, others just flew away. But what they all have in common is that they leave a gaping hole where a woman used to be, one that the remaining family and friends are ill-equipped to handle. Add to that the government’s efforts to suppress any mention of the Mass Dragoning. It becomes an unmentionable thing, something that makes people blush, something everyone would rather pretend didn’t happen.
And that’s how Alex ends up with a sister that used to be her cousing, but now has always been her sister. And what do you mean, her aunt? She’s never had an aunt, certainly not one called Aunt Marla, who fixes cars like a pro, flew planes during the War, and was a solid rock in Alex’s life when her own mother got very sick and went away for a while… No, no, there are no aunts and Beatrice has always been Alex’s little sister.

I love so many things about this book, it’s hard to choose where to start. But I suppose as it’s her story, I’ll begin with Alex Green, that wonderful, self-aware, and yet so flawed but loveable protagonist. Not only do we see her grow up during eventful times, but she manages to live through some serious hardships, and mostly without the help of others. The way she cares about her cousin/sister Beatrice and the unfair way the world (though mostly her father) treats them, was so well written that I felt every word viscerally. I admit this book made me cry on several occasions, but most of all when I thought about all the ways Alex wasn’t allowed to be a regular child, wasn’t allowed to be herself – re: her friendship with Sonja that she definitely wants to be more than just friendship – and was constantly told where people like her (women) belonged. Who cares that she’s a genius in school, like her mother was before her? A university degree isn’t going to help her get a husband, and what good does a maths degree do her when it comes to folding laundry and cooking dinners? Ah right, the good old 1950ies…

Which leads me to the next thing that was brilliantly done. Mind you, this is what several other readers didn’t like, as they found it over the top. To me, the descriptions of casual everyday sexism, both systemic and on a smaller scale social level, felt all too believable and realistic. There are several characters in this book that I read as lesbian and in all such cases, they were treated as abnormal and “why can’t you just marry a nice guy like everyone else” seemed to be the “solution” to their “problem”. But you don’t have to be part of the LGBTQIA+ community to have a hard time in this story. Simply being a girl is enough too. Like when the teachers hide the fact that you scored highest in a school-wide test, in order not to dampen the boys’ spirits when they see they were beaten by a girl. That and myriad other ways of sexism, oppression, even phyiscal violance, made the setting and era of this book so compelling, but also so painful to read.
I also adored the scientific asides we get to read about dragonings, as they shed a light on what may have caused such a thing in all these women. I don’t want to give too much away, but there were a million little ways that made me love Kelly Barnhill’s writing here. Whether it’s the fact that not only AFAB people could dragon but also what is here called “women by choice”, very young girls, and post-menopausal women; or the fact that the longer we follow Alex, the more we learn about the biological and psychological backgrounds of dragoning; the way we learn that earlier knowledge was only partially correct or just plain wrong. It lends and air of realism to this frankly bizarre idea that makes it feel completely normal to imagine a prom where a girl just grows wings and scales and takes off into the freedome she would otherwise be denied.

What starts out as a bonkers idea, a thinly-veiled metaphor for female rage, turns into a quite beautiful story. The reviewers who complained that “they’re feminists but this is just too much” may have disliked how Kelly Barnhill (at first!) describes these women literally breaking free from the constraints of their lives. It’s not a coincidence that in the Mass Dragoning, many of the dead or left behind husbands had been cheating, physically violent, or both. But Barnhill also shows us that there’s much more to her metaphor than simple rage.

While it is true that there is a freedom in forgetting – and this country has made great use of that freedom – there is a tremendous power in remembrance. Indeed, it is memory that teaches us, and reminds us, again and again, who we truly are and who we have always been.

The suppression of knowledge is another big theme in this book, because without it, the country wouldn’t have been in half as much trouble as it ended up in. Much like sex or anything to do with the menstrual cycle, people in this book would rather pretend that these things don’t exist or at least aren’t talked about. Which obviously leads to people being shocked and surprised by what their own bodies can (and will) do.
Later in the book comes a point where it becomes impossible to pretend dragonings don’t happen, and what the world does instead of pretending they don’t exist, is treat dragons as outcasts, as dirty, dangerous, sick or something to be endured but certainly not accepted. I don’t know if that was Kelly Barnhill’s intention, but I kept thinking of the queer community when I read certain scenes and how small-minded people talked about dragons. Lesson: knowledge is good. Let’s not suppress it.
My notes on this book also say Librarians are the best and I’ll just leave that here without further explanation. 🙂

It all comes together beautifully in the end, and it does so while endearing these characters to us in a slow burn way that I didn’t see coming. I cried at the end because, although it’s not sugarcoated in any way, it is the perfect way for this story to go. And although in our universe, people can’t turn into dragons, I would wish for us to learn a little bit from this one.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Edwardian Magic, But Steamy and Gay: Freya Marske – A Marvellous Light

You guys, this book came at just the right time and I unabashedly loved it! Depending on what you’re looking for, this is a real treat. It’s heavier on the romance than the magic but all the elements come together so well that I’m already excited for the sequel. And this book is still brand new so we’ll all have to practice some patience.

A MARVELLOUS LIGHT
by Freya Marske

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
Hardback:
384 pages
Series:
The Last Binding #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: Reginald Gatling’s doom found him beneath an oak tree, on the last Sunday of a fast-fading summer.

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

Robin Blyth has a new job and it’s not what he thinks. On his very first day at the new office, in his very first meeting, he gets Unbusheled – which is what magical folks call it when us non-magical people find out that, yes, magic exists alongside the world we knew, and there’s this whole secret world of magicians, including magical police and government and all that jazz. But what starts out with a well-used trope (one I’m personally not tired of yet, btw) soon shows its original ideas.

Magic in this version of Edwardian England is done by something called cradling and that means moving your hands and fingers in specific patterns, as if playing Cat’s Cradle. I loved this idea so so much because it may sound simple – magicians waving their hands about – but it has interesting implications. You need both hands to do magic so any situation where one hand is incapacitated could bee interesting; your movements need to be precise so using an actual physical string can help. But if, like second protagonist Edwin Courcey, you always need to use that string, other, stronger, magicians may look down on you for your lack of power and confidence…
You see, a small idea spun in interesting directions can go a long way toward making a fantasy book exciting.

So Robin’s first day is pretty crazy because after finding out about magic, he promptly gets cursed by a man with fog instead of a face. Edwin, who mostly just wants to make Robin forget about magic and find someone competent for the job, is now stuck. You can’t just send a man out into the world of humans with a curse attached to him, especially when said curse gives him debilitating pain every once in a while. And so the two team up and try to lift the curse on Robin, while also researching whatever happened to Robin’s predecessor. Murder, magic, and mayhem ensue.

We are man’s marvellous light

We hold the gifts of the dawn

From those now passed and gone

And carry them into the night

I loved this so much! The writing is superb, mixing vivid descriptions with wonderful humor, great dialogue, and characters one can root for. The heart of the novel are its mystery and its romance. Man, did I want those two to get their act together and just kiss! And because Freya Marske decided to burst onto the SFF scene with this bomb of a debut, I got my wish eventually. Plus some seriously steamy sex scenes! If that’s something you enjoy, then do yourself a favor and get youself a copy of this book. If sex scenes make you uncomfortable, you can still read the book but you’ll have to skip over some delicious pages.

This book really has everything I needed at the moment. An exciting plot, a great mystery at the heart of it, a killer romance, and characters that you think you know right away, but who reveal layers upon layers of personality the more you read. The one thing I might have criticized was the lack of female characters, especially ones with agency, but Marske adresses this in the coolest, most hilarious way! First of all, it’s a man’s world we’re reading about and even so, women are always present in some way (mostly not very flattering ways, but okay). There are some parts that show just how poweful women can be, though. And towards the end, some female characters get more involved in the story and kick some serious ass. They even make fun of the way the world looks at them as useless ornaments and use society’s prejudices to their own advantage. I’m pretty sure I cheered out loud at that part. 🙂

I was also delighted to find out that this is part one in a trilogy because, although this book ends on a satisfying note, there is a pretty big problem/mystery still to solve and I am here for it! Seriously, if the second book was out already I wouldn’t even have stopped to write this review before picking it up. This book was a delicous romp with a bit of everything I love. It managed to drag some giggles and ooh lalas out of me when I was feeling mostly depressed about the whole Covid situation, and for that it gets extra brownie points. Now, dear Freya Marske, please write many more books like this. I cannot wait to eat them up.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

I Love the Lady Astronauts: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon

Oh, Mary Robinette Kowal, you brilliant wonderful writer! With every instalment in the Lady Astronaut series, I am more and more convinced that Kowal has found her “thing”. Writing hard sci-fi about humanity exploring the solar system, but with a social angle and deeply human characters that one can’t help but root for. I am so happy that next year (hopefully) we’ll get the fourth volume titled The Martian Contingency. I really wouldn’t mind if this series kept going for a long, long time.

THE RELENTLESS MOON
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
538 pages
Series:
Lady Astronaut #3
My rating:
8.25/10

Opening line: How many places do you call home?

Mary Robinette Kowal continues her award-winning Lady Astronaut series, which began with The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon.

The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and sabotage plague the space program. The IAC’s goal of getting as many people as possible off Earth before it becomes uninhabitable is being threatened.

Elma York is on her way to Mars, but the Moon colony is still being established. Her friend and fellow Lady Astronaut Nicole Wargin is thrilled to be one of those pioneer settlers, using her considerable flight and political skills to keep the program on track. But she is less happy that her husband, the Governor of Kansas, is considering a run for President.

Did you ever wonder, while reading The Fated Sky and following Elma York and Stetson Parker on their way to Mars, what exactly has been going on on Earth and the Moon colony in the meantime? Well here’s your answer because Nicole Wargin, Lady Astronaut and wife of the governor of Kansas, lets us follow her during her everyday life which is… let’s just say slightly more exciting than the average person’s.

I admit I had a hard time adjusting to this new protagonist, the new voice, and the new circumstances presented in this book. I had really grown to like Elma and after two books, I felt like I knew her. Her work, her marriage, her anxiety, opening the book always felt like meeting an old friend. Now suddenly I’m supposed to care about one of Elma’s old friends and fellow astronette Nicole Wargin? Was she even that important in the first book? I barely remembered her at all. So although I swear I went into this book open-minded, I needed a while before I really found my way into this story and learned to enjoy Nicole’s narration.

The beginning is a tad slow and not just because Kowal has to set up Nicole as her new protagonist, but also because the book starts on Earth. But worry not, Nicole goes to the Moon soon enough, as is her job, and that’s when shit really starts hitting the fan. In The Relentless Moon, the plot revolves mostly around sabotage of the IAC and the mission to get humanity off Earth. You know, because the planet is dying and all that. What starts with riots by Earth Firsters soon turns even more dangerous as rockets misfire, various systems on the Moon colony have hiccups, and things go more and more wrong over time. Nicole’s job on this particular visit to the Moon is as much to do her usual job as working to find out who the saboteur(s) might be. While keeping what little she knows top secret, of course.

What follows is an exciting mix of everything that Kowal has done before, but still somehow new and interesting. We’ve spent time with Elma working hard for women’s rights to even be astronauts, we’ve accompanied her on the first ever mission to Mars and got to know the joys of toilets on space ships. We’ve actually been on the Moon in this series as well, but not like this. Nicole is a senior astronaut and really knows her way around both space ships and the Moon colony. And there is so much cool stuff to explore! Whether it’s the way every system has a safety net, there are redundancies for everything, sayings like “Slow is fast” (because doing anything in 1/6 Earth gravity takes practice), or how they’ve set up a little museum on the Moon to make it less about pure survival and more about living – it’s a joy simply walking around with Nicole as a guide.

Then again, we decidedly don’t just walk around because there is a saboteur on the loose and nobody knows when something so awful will happen that the 300 odd people currently on the Moon may not survive. Mary Robinette Kowal does such a great job at pacing her story, mixing more action-packed scenes with quieter ones, showing us the characters excelling at being sciency as well as their more vulnerable, emotional sides. It all comes together beautifully and in no time at all, I found myself not just rooting for but really caring about our brave and smart Moon residents.
Kowal also makes sure these people feel real by including discussions of mental health, in this case anorexia nervosa. The way it is talked about and presented in this book was incredibly refreshing. That sounds terrible – of course, the anorexia itself isn’t refreshing but it’s usually depicted as something that’s always triggered by the wish to look thinner for beauty reasons. And even though we know it has little to do with aesthetics and much more with control, pop culture still depicts anorexia in one particular way. Usually that’s a young girl wanting to be pretty. Nicole is a middle-aged woman and she really doesn’t care if other people think she’s skinny enough. I’m truly grateful for this nuanced depiction and Kowal even mentions in the afterword that she made sure not to include behaviours or triggers that people suffering from anorexia might use as “thinspiration”.

I was even more taken with the characters and their development overall. That’s right, the ones I wanted to get away from so I could be with Elma instead. It was lovely to watch Helen kick ass on the Moon, seeing as she got bumped off the Mars mission in order to make space for Elma. Myrtle and Eugene’s relationship, although they are side characters, truly shone and made me believe even more firmly that Mary Robinette Kowal must have a great marriage herself. Seriously, she writes the best married couples (Elma and Nathaniel’s embarrassing rocket metaphors aside). There’s also some development in terms of the blatant racism of the first book. It’s still there, to some degree, but you can see things changing. Slowly, oh so slowly, but still.

And then there’s Nicole, this brilliant astronaut and politician’s wife, who knows how to fly as well as how to manipulate a conversation in a desired direction, who loves her husband and their ancient cat but who also loves the Moon. Who almost forgets to take care of herself because she is spreading herself so thin and trying to solve every problem at once. It’s not often that I develop this kind of respect for a fictional character but, damn, do I want to shake Nicole’s hand. And then hug her really tight and cry on her shoulder because she is so amazing.

I cried during several occasions in this book, none of which I’m going to spoil here (and it’s not all sad occasions, mind you). The way grief is described, as this thing that you can almost push away only for it to hit you unexpectedly and even harder, felt incredibly real to me. But then, I also cry when humanity gets its act together in order to solve a problem, forgetting their differences and instead working as a unit. The ending of this book both made me cry and smile delightedly. So far, every book in this series has been brilliant, but the way it all comes together makes it clear that the series is so much more than the sum of its parts. I wholeheartedly recommend every science fiction fan pick it up!

MY RATING: 8.25/10 – Truly excellent!

Not Pleasant, but Very Good: Colson Whitehead – The Underground Railroad

It doesn’t happen often that a Pulitzer Prize winner is also a genre novel, but Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad is just that, and winner/nominee for many other awards at that. I can see why and I look forward to reading more of his fiction, but I can’t say that this book was in any way fun to read. It doesn’t take a genius to guess why.

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
by Colson Whitehead

Published: Doubleday, 2016
eBook:
322 pages
Standalone
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: The first time Caesar approached Cora about running north, she said no.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, the #1 New York Times bestseller from Colson Whitehead, a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hell for all the slaves, but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood—where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned—Cora kills a young white boy who tries to capture her. Though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
     In Whitehead’s ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor—engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar’s first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven. But the city’s placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. And even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
     Like the protagonist of Gulliver’s Travels, Cora encounters different worlds at each stage of her journey—hers is an odyssey through time as well as space. As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre–Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman’s ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

This is such a hard book to talk about, not only because of its subject matter but also because it always feels a little strange to me discussing a book that has won so many prizes and so much acclaim. You know the feeling when you think you aren’t really allowed to dislike something because the Pulitzer and the National Book Award and Oprah all say this is great, so surely, it must be great. Well, in this case, I have it easy because I did find the book very, very good, albeit not really enjoyable.

The story follows Cora, a slave on a Georgia cotton plantation, but Whitehead introduces us to her through her grandmother Ajarry, who was taken by white men from her home, put on a ship, and made to work hard physical labor. This opening chapter may seem like a fast forward through one of the most terrible times in history but it also does an amazing job of creating a character – Ajarry – without any effort. This woman, who was sold and re-sold, beaten and hurt, nevertheless held fast to her strength and went on to have a daughter, Mabel, and eventually a granddaughter, Cora. The only thing they can be said to own is a tiny little plot next to the slaves’ quarters, where they can plant their own vegetables.

When the book opens, Ajarry is long dead, and Cora is alone. Her mother Mabel isn’t dead, however, but rather the only slave to ever successfully escape from the plantation! Even slave catchers couldn’t find her. While Cora hasn’t ever really forgiven her for leaving her only child behind to fend for herself, she has also made her own place in this world, among the outcasts. So when Caesar approaches her and asks her to run away with him, her first instinct is to say no. But, as you can guess from the book’s title, eventually she agrees. Caesar considers her his lucky charm, the girl whose mother made it, and off they run toward a life of freedom.

The fantastical element of this book is the Underground Railroad being an actual railroad that actually runs underground. Cora and Caesar take it to ride north and what follows are several chapters that each chronicle different stations on the Railroad. To say too much about those would be spoiling the book, but I do want to mention how well Whitehead managed to build entire worlds in just a few pages. This isn’t a very long and it covers a lot of places, times, and people. Yet the author managed to make each of them feel real. Cora meets all sorts of people, both good and not-so-good. There are some that get away, others who get caught, yet others whose fate Cora never learns. There was something utterly realistic about this not knowing.

While I don’t want to talk about the different Railway stations or what Cora finds there in detail, I do want to warn readers. You can imagine that a book set on a plantation and with a slave catcher character, no less, will have some scenes of violence. But trust me when I say this, even if you think you’re prepared, it hits you right in the guts! I have read some pretty violent books in my life and I fully expected to read about whippings and maybe lynchings in this novel. But still, Colson Whitehead managed to describe truly horrible things that people do to other people, and he also managed to sneak them in there when they weren’t all that expected. He doesn’t linger on the violence and it’s not like this is all the book is about, but still: be prepared when you pick this up.

Overall, I was very impressed with both the world Colson Whitehead is painting in this slim volume as well as the characters and how real they all feel. There is a constant sense of unease, even when Cora has reached a place that seems to be safe (at least for a while), and then there are harrowing sequences that have stuck in my mind and probably won’t go away very soon. I see why this has won so many awards. It is an incredibly well written book that shows different aspects of a time we’d rather not look at too closely. It made me uncomfortable, it made me incredibly sad, but it also does that magical thing that books can do: It gave me hope.

Reading this was not what I’d call a fun experience, but it was a rewarding one. I recommend this book to anyone who’d like to take a glimpse into this dark chapter of humanity’s past. If you have the stomach for it.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

Magic, Egypt, and Bowler Hats: P. DjèlĂ­ Clark – A Master of Djinn

P. DjèlĂ­ Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. DjèlĂ­ Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. DjèlĂ­ Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. DjèlĂ­ Clark publisheds next.

MY RATING: 6.75/10 – Good to very good… I guess.

What it Says on the Tin: Ahmed Saadawi – Frankenstein in Baghdad

I was thrilled when I saw that the 2020 Retellings Challenge had a bingo square for a retelling of Frankenstein. Not only did I enjoy the original Frankenstein way more than I expected but it’s a very different kind of retelling from the ones I usually read – which, let’s be honest, is mostly fairy tales. Plus, this is a translated book, it is set in Baghdad, and it was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. Those are all things of which I read way too few books, so instead of picking one of the YA Frankenstein retellings, I picked this one and I’m glad I did.

FRANKENSTEIN IN BAGHDAD
by Ahmed Saadawi
translated by Jonathan Wright

Published: Penguin, 2018 (2013 in Arabic)
Ebook: 287 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: With regard to the activities of the Tracking and Pursuit Department, which is partially affiliated with the civil administration of the international coalition forces in Iraq, the special committee of inquiry set up under my chairmanship, with representatives of the Iraqi security and intelligence agencies and observers from U.S. military intelligence, has come to the following conclusions:

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi–a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local cafĂ©–collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he’s created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive–first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by “Baghdad’s new literary star” (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.

I had no idea what I was getting myself into when I started this book. The very long list of characters at the beginning worried me a little, especially considering that this isn’t a very big book. But there was no need to worry and if you pick up this book, you don’t have to study the character list too closely. Like any good writer, Ahmed Saadawi manages to introduce his cast to the readers with ease, making each character distinct and believable, and I only once had to check back with the character list because I had two similarly-named characters confused.

This is a story told through several viewpoints. First, Saadawi paints a picture of Baghdad that makes what we read in the news feel way more real. Suicide bombers are a weekly occurence, bombs exploding, people dying… these things happen so often that people have come accept them as part of their daily lives. They are still terrible, of course, but nobody breaks into the kind of panic I would expect of myself if that happened in my city. So these first introductory chapters served not only to show us the first characters but also to set up the place for this story. As a fantasy reader, I usually don’t have trouble imagining crazy things, impossible places, or alien species. But to imagine living in a place where you or your loved ones could be killed in an explosion at any time was really tough.

We follow a cast of characters, among them the elderly Elishva who simply can’t deal with the grief of having lost her son during the war and still holds fast to the hope that he will just return one day. Her neighbor, the junkdealer Hadi, is probably the closest character to the original Victor Frankenstein – he collects body parts from the various explosions and stitches them together. Why? He’s not sure himself but after a while, he’s got a whole entire body made up of different people’s parts. Mahmoud is a young journalist with a secret past who admires his boss and discovers the story of Hadi’s creation. There are quite a few other characters that help flesh out the story but they aren’t what I’d call protagonists. And of course there’s the Whatsitsname itself.

Once the Whatsitsname (this book’s Frankenstein’s monster) comes to life, he follows a mission. That mission seems clear enough at first, but after being mistaken by Elishva for her long dead son and after witnessing certain events, the “monster” asks itself many questions about morality, good and bad, about when killing is justified. We don’t get too many chapters from the Whatsitsname’s point of view but the ones we do get are powerful!

While we follow each of the main characters on their own personal journey, they do intertwine every so often, making the story feel like a big whole rather than jumbled up short stories. I was quite taken with the writing style, so props to the translator as well as the author. I can’t quite describe it because it’s not particularly flowery, nor particularly stark, but it was unlike most books I’d read before. The prose flowed nicely so, despite the heavy subject matter, I read this book pretty quickly.

On the one hand, this book is exactly what you’d expect. It is Frankenstein in Baghdad. But you can’t just take a story set in Europe and place it in a different part of the world without changing anything. Where Shelley’s creature deals mostly with abandonment and loneliness, Saadawi’s Whatsitsname has the added burden of being made up of innocent terrorism victims’ parts and wanting to avenge them. So much happens between the lines that I still can’t put into words, but it was fascinating to read.

When all is said and done, I am quite happy to have picked up this book. Sure, it was tough to read at times because of its setting and subject matter, but it gave me a glimpse into a real place in our world, peopled with fictional characters who are as lovable as they are flawed, varied and interesting to follow. From now on, I will be on the lookout for more translated books and more settings I usually neglect.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Gentleman Magicians: C. L. Polk – Witchmark

As someone who has never found their way into Urban Fantasy, I am more than delighted to see the different directions this sub-genre is going. Rebecca Roanhorse’s Trail of Lightning set familiar story tropes in a new and original setting, and this book here – while set in an alternate Edwardian England – also puts its own and rather wonderful spin on it. Go, Urban Fantasy! You may turn me into a fan just yet.

WITCHMARK
by C. L. Polk

Published by: Tor.com, 2018
Ebook: 318 pages
Series: The Kingston Cycle #1
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The memo stank of barrel-printing ink and bad news.

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.
Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.
When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Doctor Miles Singer is in hiding. He works at a veterans’ hospital, trying to help his suffering patients as best he can and without the use of the magic he secretly possesses. When a dying man arrives at the hospital and knows about Miles’ magic as well as the cause of his own death (poison, he says), things get a little out of control. Together with the enigmatic Tristan Hunter, who brought the poisoned man to the hospital, Miles has to set out and figure out the mystery of this murder. But that also means he has to go out into the world, confront his estranged family, and discover secrets that range far wider than he would have thought.

Discovering the world of Witchmark was fun from the very beginning. The author doesn’t present everything on a silver plate but rather lets you figure everything out for yourself from context, from dialogue and description, from the way the characters act. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea but I love it when authors trust their readers to put things together for themselves. While set in an alternate Edwardian England, there are things that immediately stand out as fantastical, first among them the fact that there is magic. We learn early on that Miles possesses a magical gift and that he can use it to heal people. But it is only later that we find out how Miles fits into the larger world of magic and why he ran away from his family and his duties.

The plot starts out as a murder mystery and sticks to the tropes most of the time. Tristan and Miles investagate places and interview people, you know the deal. It could have been boring but with added bicycle chases and a wonderfully engaging sub-plot about Miles and his family, the book was exciting all the way. There are also two rather important plot twists, one of which I kind of saw coming (although not its details), the other of which made me gasp out loud. The only thing I didn’t really buy was the romance. I really liked where things where going but I felt there wasn’t enough there to base a relationship on. We should have seen more conversations, more moments between the two characters to understand why they fell for each other.

Polk also created some wonderful characters, not just in Miles and Tristan (who has his own secrets which I will not spill but you should totally read the book because it’s super cool), but also in Miles’ sister Grace. She is one of those characters that you think you’ve figured out from the first meeting but then she shows unknown depths. Her relationship with Miles is a very, very difficult one because of the way this society works and the way it deals with mages. Without spoilers, it’s impossible to talk about details, but rest assured that there is more to Grace than meets the eye and that she truly does love her brother.

What made the book work for me was mostly Miles as a character and finding out why he ran away to fight in the war rather than stay with his wealthy, respected family. He is yearning for freedom, for agency, for a place of his own even if it is tiny and he could afford something much larger and better. Understanding why he chooses a life that at first appears so much worse than what he could have had, was a lot of fun to discover and made both Miles and the world he lives in more interesting. There are also plenty of things that I want to explore more so I’m more than happy that this is the first book of a series.

Overall, I really enjoyed this read. It was charming and original, it sets up many things that will have repercussions in the sequel, and it made me really like the characters. While maybe not award-worthy (it’s nominated for a Nebula), this was a fun read that got better as it went along.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very good!

Great but not perfect: Naomi Novik – Spinning Silver

Like many other readers, I adored Naomi Novik’s first foray into fairy tale territory in the shape of her novel Uprooted. While not an actual sequel, Spinning Silver is the spiritual successor to that book and so had quite a lot to live up to. It wasn’t as amazing as Uprooted and there were some problems for me that could easily have been fixed, but it was still a great book overall. Not-so-good for Naomi Novik still means worlds above many other authors, after all.

SPINNING SILVER
by Naomi Novik

Published by: Del Rey, 2018
Hardcover: 466 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: The real story isn’t half as pretty as the one you’ve heard.

Miryem is the daughter and granddaughter of moneylenders, but her father’s inability to collect his debts has left his family on the edge of poverty—until Miryem takes matters into her own hands. Hardening her heart, the young woman sets out to claim what is owed and soon gains a reputation for being able to turn silver into gold.
When an ill-advised boast draws the attention of the king of the Staryk—grim fey creatures who seem more ice than flesh—Miryem’s fate, and that of two kingdoms, will be forever altered. Set an impossible challenge by the nameless king, Miryem unwittingly spins a web that draws in a peasant girl, Wanda, and the unhappy daughter of a local lord who plots to wed his child to the dashing young tsar.
But Tsar Mirnatius is not what he seems. And the secret he hides threatens to consume the lands of humans and Staryk alike. Torn between deadly choices, Miryem and her two unlikely allies embark on a desperate quest that will take them to the limits of sacrifice, power, and love.
Channeling the vibrant heart of myth and fairy tale, Spinning Silver weaves a multilayered, magical tapestry that readers will want to return to again and again.

If you’ve read the short story of the same name, collected in The Starlit Wood, then you’ll know exactly how this novel begins. Miryem, the daughter of a rather useless moneylender, takes matters into her own hands. After all, her father may be very good at lending money, but he is rubbish at collecting it – which leaves him and his family in poverty while others thrive with the money he lent them. Miryem will not stand for this unfairness, especially since her mother has taken sick. The way she hardens her heart to the people who owe her father money, the way she gets better and better at her job, it was just so incredibly fun to read. Because you know, as the reader, that although Miryem grows cold and hard, she is still a loving person.

The character I liked even better – although she was completely unnecessary for the entire plot – was Wanda though. She lives with her brothers and their abusive father who, as so many do, owes Miryem’s father money. Wanda sees her chance to get away from her father and starts working for Miryem. She even manages to save up some money for herself without letting her father know. This first act of friendship between Wanda and Miryem (who understands quite well what is going on but doesn’t always say so) made me think this book could actually be as good as Uprooted.

However, there is a third protagonist, Irina, who is also set on her path by her father’s actions. Come to think of it, every one of these girls has to fix things their fathers have broken. Miryem needs to do her father’s job properly, Wanda needs to work to pay her father’s debts, and Irina… well Irina needs to marry the tsar, a man who terrifies her and who may be way more than just an arrogant man – because of her father’s greed.  I liked all three of these girls very, very much. They are quite different but they share resolve and cleverness, something I appreciate much more in a protagonist than pretty looks. None of them are fooled by magic or tricks, and while they may not immediately find a way out of their predicaments, they at least work out a plan and fight for what’s important.

As it turns out, this important thing may be way more than just their individual freedoms. Miryem – who accidentally entered into a bargain with this world’s Rumpelstistkin, a Staryk, a creature of winter and cold, wants to return to the human world. Wanda wants to be free of her father and live a normal life with her brothers, Irina wants to survive whatever lives inside the tsar. Irina and Miryem have to work together to – drumroll – probably save the entire world. What started as a clever retelling of Rumpelstiltskin turns into an epic battle of fire and ice, evil and probably-mostly-evil. It was awesome and the way things are resolved made me cheer!

What I didn’t like and what really diminished the entire story for me were the randomly added viewpoint characters. It starts out with Miryem, Wanda, and Irina alternating chapters. Then suddenly, Irina’s old maid has a viewpoint, Wanda’s brother gets one, but in the middle of chapters so you often don’t know whose head you’re in. These added perspectives unfortunately don’t do anything to further the story and these characters (except maybe Wanda’s brother) are so unimportant that adding their view doesn’t make sense. It really took me out of the book a lot of times and made me almost angry. I don’t care what Irina’s nurse thinks and does – the action is somewhere else, the characters I care for are somewhere else. Get back to Irina and Miryem already!

Another thing I’m unsure about was the romances. There are several, yes, and I kind of really liked one of them (not telling which, though) but I’m unsure about the other. Both relationships start out rather abusive or at least unfriendly. While I could see a slow coming together and growing to know each other with one pair of characters, I felt that the other pair just stayed together for convenience. Don’t get me wrong, I really liked the ending, but I’m just not sure if I should like it.

All things considered, this was a very good book that shows the strength of women fixing problems men created, that puts female friendships front and center, and that has a wonderful layer of epic fantasy world building that I didn’t expect. I hope there will be more fairy tale retellings by Naomi Novik, even though I didn’t love this as much as Uprooted.

MY RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

Tansy Rayner Roberts – Love and Romanpunk

I’ve been wanting to read this ever since I heard it mentioned on the SF Squeecast. Oh, if only those guys knew how many recommendations of theirs I went out and bought. Seriously, I’m super sad the Squeecast is on hiatus for now. I hope they come back some day with more books and author guests and lots of squeeing.

love and romanpunkLOVE AND ROMANPUNK
by Tansy Rayner Roberts

Published by: Twelfth Planet Press, 2011
Ebook: 105 pages
Short story collection
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: Let us begin with the issue of most interest to future historians: I did not poison my uncle and husband, the Emperor Claudius.

Thousands of years ago, Julia Agrippina wrote the true history of her family, the Caesars. The document was lost, or destroyed, almost immediately. (It included more monsters than you might think.)
Hundreds of years ago, Fanny and Mary ran away from London with a debauched poet and his sister. (If it was the poet you are thinking of, the story would have ended far more happily, and with fewer people having their throats bitten out.)
Sometime in the near future, a community will live in a replica Roman city built in the Australian bush. It’s a sight to behold. (Shame about the manticores.)
Further in the future, the last man who guards the secret history of the world will discover that the past has a way of coming around to bite you. (He didn’t even know she had a thing for pointy teeth.)
The world is in greater danger than you ever suspected. Women named Julia are stronger than they appear. Don’t let your little brother make out with silver-eyed blondes. Immortal heroes really don’t fancy teenage girls. When love dies, there’s still opera. Family is everything. Monsters are everywhere. Yes, you do have to wear the damned toga.
History is not what you think it is.

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This story collection contains four stories that are all connected to each other, more like a small mosaic novel than a regular author collection you might find elsewhere. This is a thing I like, as I have recently discovered through Angela Slatter’s books. However, reading Love and Romanpunk so soon after falling hard for another short story writer may have been bad for Tansy Rayner Roberts. Because as charming as her stories are, as cute as her ideas may be, they pale in comparison to Angela Slatter. But that’s just me.

In the first story, “Julia Agrippina’s Secret Family Bestiary”, we meet said Julia – one of many – and  encounter many Roman emperors. Julia tells the story of her family, of their demise, and how not all (or many) of their deaths can be attributed to such mundane means as poisons or old age. No, in fact, her family is haunted by mythological creatures. I find the idea of manticores, lamia, griffins, and harpies wonderful but in a short story, this was a bit much. This story disguised as a bestiary still tells a nice tale, but there was simply an overload of monsters and instead of being terrifying or even very interesting, it became ridiculous pretty quickly. Also, if you’re not too familiar with Roman history (most of what I know, I have learned from the TV show Rome), the names and relations can get seriously confusing because people are born and die rather quickly. Before you get to remember this guy’s name, he’s already dead or married his own niece, or poisoned his mother or whatever… This was my least favorite story of the bunch.

The second story focuses on one creature, the lamia, and features a poet, his mistress, his sister, and mistress’ sister. This is a vampire story, but a pretty good one. There is a nice twist about who the characters really are that I won’t spoil here, and I was surprised by my attachment to them at the end of the story. They’re not exactly supposed to be sympathetic, feeding on the blood of the innocent and all, but I kind of liked them anyway.

My favorite story by far was “The Patrician” which features an immortal monster-killer named Julius who hunts down the last of whatever monster species is still around. Coincidence throws him in the path of Clea, a young girl, who gets tangled up in his monster slaying. Throughout her life, they meet again and again, forming a special friendship that was beautifully described. The monsters fade into the background in this character-driven, almost philosophical piece, whose ending was both beautiful and a little heartbreaking.

The last story which gives the book part of its title, “Romanpunk”, was just pure fun. A man gets stuck on an airship at a party with his ex-girlfriend that he really, really, really wanted to avoid. She’s not your typical crazy ex-girlfriend, though. Nope, she wants immortality at any price. Enter more lamias, more monster-slaying, and a fair amount of sass. The story even features another Julia – and Julias are powerful in Tansy Rayner Roberts’ world.

I started out not liking this collection too much, then it kind of grew on me, and now thinking back on it, it’s actually quite lovely the way it moves through time, ties one story to the next, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Apart from Julia Agrippina’s mess of a bestiary, all the stories had good pacing, intriguing characters, and a plot I was happy to follow along. Maybe a few more pages to flesh out certain parts wouldn’t have hurt but I’ll definitely try more books by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Aside from reading more short story collections than ever before, I also seem to be developing a thing for Australian authors.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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Second opinions: