An Excellent Duology-Ender: Jordan Ifueko – Redemptor

I adored Jordan Ifueko’s debut novel Raybearer last year, so much so that I re-read the book this year just to be able to finish the duology in one go. I have also purchased a super shiny special edition of these books (I’ll post a picture below) and looking at it just makes me happy. The re-read was well worth it even though Ifueko brings readers up to speed quickly. But the emotional impact of what happenes in this book works much better when you don’t wait too long between Raybearer and Redemptor. BIG FAT SPOILERS FOR RAYBEARER BELOW!!

REDEMPTOR
by Jordan Ifueko

Published: Hot Key Books, 2021
Hardback:
464 pages
Series:
Raybearer #2
My rating:
7.75/10

Opening line: My name was Tarisai Kunleo, and no one I loved would ever die again.

The hotly anticipated sequel to the instant New York Times bestselling YA fantasy about Tarisai’s quest to change her fate

For the first time, an Empress Redemptor sits on Aritsar’s throne. To appease the sinister spirits of the dead, Tarisai must now anoint a council of her own, coming into her full power as a Raybearer. She must then descend into the Underworld, a sacrifice to end all future atrocities.

Tarisai is determined to survive. Or at least, that’s what she tells her increasingly distant circle of friends. Months into her shaky reign as empress, child spirits haunt her, demanding that she pay for past sins of the empire.

With the lives of her loved ones on the line, assassination attempts from unknown quarters, and a handsome new stranger she can’t quite trust . . . Tarisai fears the pressure may consume her. But in this finale to the Raybearer duology, Tarisai must learn whether to die for justice . . . or to live for it.

At the end of Raybearer, Tarisay made a deal with the demons of the Underworld. They would no longer take Songland’s children as a yearly sacrifice but instead get a full Raybearer Empress in two years, when Tarisai herself plans to go dow into the Underworld and end her country’s grim reality forever. Except first she has to bond herself to all the rulers through her very own Ray and that bit might just be the tougher one of the two on her quest…

Following up a book as great as Raybearer wasn’t an easy task and Ifueko does an admirable job in showing both the aftermath of all that has happened so far, as well as bring some new tasks and characters to the table. Since the plot is a rather straight-forward quest whose milestones we know beforehand, the difficult part was creating tension and giving the story good pacing. In some parts, this worked well, in others…. not so much. It felt like Jordan Ifueko tried to cram just a little bit too much into one book, what with Tarisai dealing with her new role as Empress, the fact that she might die in two years, has to convince 11 strangers to love her (!), sees strange spirit children, deals with mental health issues and with the pressure of having to continue the line of Raybearers (meaning: having children), and then there’s also a revolutionary roaming one of the kingdoms, making life hard for the government. Oh, and let’s not forget the love triangle that just didn’t have to be there. Honestly, I thought Jordan Ifueko didn’t need that trope to be great.

But just because an author tries to tackle many themes and plot points doesn’t mean that can’t work. In the case of Redemptor, I thought some ideas were very well done. I was most surprised at how I cared for Tarisai’s new Council and its members. Many of these kings and queens were openly hostile against the idea of bonding with a young girl they didn’t know, but if there’s one thing Ifueko can do, it’s write characters in a found family whose love you can feel oozing off the page. Tarisai has a tough time convincing everyone, of course, and none as much as the arrogant, vapid, insufferable, and super handsome King Zuri who likes to flirt with Tarisai but doesn’t seem to take her seriously. The girl is trying to save the world, dude!
Equally lovely was meeting Woo In’s elder sister and ruler of Songland, Min Ja, as well as some existing characters who didn’t get to shine in the first book like Dayo and Tarisai’s council sister Ai Ling or a certain Songlander girl who made it thorugh the Underworld. Of course, there is more Dayo, Kirah and Sanjeet (although decidedly too little Sanjeet for my taste).

The plot gives you pretty much what you expect going into the story, but there are a few surprises and twists along the way and the ending is pretty epic, let me tell you. But many YA books have cool plots and killer endings. What makes Ifueko’s work so special is her characters, their diversity, and how it shows that doing the right thing isn’t alwas hard. There are some heavy topics in this book, first and foremost that of mental health and the need to ask for help. Tarisai is haunted by the spirits of (possilby) dead children who were Redemptors, asking her to avenge them, to make things right, to do more. The voices in her head are relentless and you don’t have to be super smart to read this as a metaphor for mental health.
Then there’s the recurring question of Dayo’s sexuality (or lack thereof, him being interested in people of all genders romantically, but not sexually) and how that goes with the Kunleo’s “job” of keeping their lbood line alive by making babies. If Dayo isn’t going to father children, that leaves only Tarisai. And although she is perfectly fine with sex, she is not at all sure if she wants children. Ever.

The part that was less well done tackles another important topic. The revolutionary called the Crocodile is fighting for freedom and justice for the common people and as such, something we can all get behind, even Tarisai who now lives an even more privileged life than before she was Empress. The problem with this sub-plot was less the intention behind it or the message it sends, but rather its execution. The Crocodile is mentioned in passing once early on in the book and then that side story disappears because there’s so much other stuff going on. When it is mentioned again and becomes central to the plot, it feels a little out of left field. A bit more foreshadowing would have been nice, as well as generally a bit more time spent on this subject. Revolution isn’t usually a sub-plot is all I’m saying.

I don’t believe it’s a spoiler when I tell you taht Tarisai does eventually go to the Underworld as per her bargain, but I’m not telling you anything of what happens there. Merely that it’s a well written part that holds more than one surprise in store for you. The ending of the book does this amazing trick of making everything fall into place and kind of work out, even when you thought there was no way to resolve these issues. I’m not saying this has a perfectly happy ending, but it does have a perfectly satisfying one that made me close the book with a big fat smile on my face. I may not have loved it as much as Raybearer but it has cemented my love for Jordan Ifueko’s writing in general, and her characters in particular. It’s also refreshing that this is a finished duology and I can now look forward to something completely new from a great new writer.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Very good, leaning toward excellent

Look at the gorgeous Illumicrate editions! They are even prettier in real life.

Horror for Kids: Katherine Arden – Small Spaces

I’ve been a big Katherine Arden fangirl ever since I read The Bear and the Nightingale and my author crush only grew bigger as the rest of that trilogy came out. For the Magical Readathon, I thought I’d finally pick up one of Arden’s middle grade novels which all look delightfully creepy, yet adorable. I was not disappointed. This was pretty much exactly what I had hoped for and exactly what the cover makes you expect.

SMALL SPACES
by Katherine Arden

Published by: Putnam & Sons, 2018
eBook: 224 pages
Series:
Small Spaces #1
My rating:
7/10

Opening line: October in East Evansburg, and the last warm sun of the year slanted red through the sugar maples.

After suffering a tragic loss, eleven-year-old Ollie only finds solace in books. So when she happens upon a crazed woman at the river threatening to throw a book into the water, Ollie doesn’t think—she just acts, stealing the book and running away. As she begins to read the slender volume, Ollie discovers a chilling story about a girl named Beth, the two brothers who both loved her, and a peculiar deal made with “the smiling man,” a sinister specter who grants your most tightly held wish, but only for the ultimate price. 

Ollie is captivated by the tale until her school trip the next day to Smoke Hollow, a local farm with a haunting history all its own. There she stumbles upon the graves of the very people she’s been reading about. Could it be the story about the smiling man is true? Ollie doesn’t have too long to think about the answer to that. On the way home, the school bus breaks down, sending their teacher back to the farm for help. But the strange bus driver has some advice for the kids left behind in his care: “Best get moving. At nightfall they’ll come for the rest of you.” Nightfall is, indeed, fast descending when Ollie’s previously broken digital wristwatch, a keepsake reminder of better times, begins a startling countdown and delivers a terrifying message: RUN. 

Only Ollie and two of her classmates heed the bus driver’s warning. As the trio head out into the woods–bordered by a field of scarecrows that seem to be watching them–the bus driver has just one final piece of advice for Ollie and her friends: “Avoid large places. Keep to small.” 

And with that, a deliciously creepy and hair-raising adventure begins.

11-year-old Ollie is great at math and used to be champion of her school’s chess club. But then she stopped participating about a year ago and doesn’t care much about school or grades or chess anymore. We find out the reason for that later in this book which forces Ollie to come out of her shell, realize how much life she still has left to live and how there are wonderful people out there who care for her. But I’m making this sound super tragic when in fact, the story is fast paced and fun to read.

When Ollie meets a distraught crying woman by the creek on her way home and keps her from throwing away a book (what’s wrong with people? You don’t throw books away, you donate them!) by promptly stealing it, her life takes a decidedly supernatural turn. The book called Small Spaces is a written account from a mother to her daughter about the tragic events surrounding her two sons. It’s exciting and mysterious and Ollie basically just wants to keep reading but school gets in the way. And not just regular school, but a trip to a local farm named Smoke Hollow, which definitely won’t allow her to sneak away for any reading time. Also, Smoke Hollow sounds an awful lot like the farm in Ollie’s stolen book and if it really is the same one, that means two men went missing many years ago under mysterious circumstances.

The kids spend an educational day at the farm, although people aren’t all behaving what you’d call normal and Ollie sees the occasional weird thing – like scarecrows appearing out of nowhere and a decidedly cryptic bus driver – but when they want to go back home, their bus breaks down. And that’s when the really creepy stuff begins…

I really adored this book. Ollie is a protagonist who’s easy to like even though she’s quite complicated. Ever since her mother died, she’s withdrawn into herself. We see her deal with grief in her own way, how annoyed she gets when people make the “sympathy face”, how certain things she used to love can’t be enjoyed anymore because the way her mom died makes that impossible. We also see Ollie’s relationship to her father who is really trying his best and whose delightfully unstereotypical personality made me cheer! Seriously, he knits and bakes and generally does things that cliché tells us are reserved for women and nobody bats an eye.
The side characters also show just how easy inclusion can be, how girls can be friends with each other even though the other girl might have the hair color you wish you had yourself, how you don’t have to follow tropes just because they exist. Brian is the school’s hockey star, tall and muscular and a lot of girls’ secret (or not so secret) crush. You’d expect him to run with the bullies and while some of his friends may be idiots, he himself stands out – and not just because he is the only Black kid in Ollie’s class. He’s no knight in shining armor either, but really a believable character with flaws of his own and a good heart (and no, I’m not jus tsaying that because he reads books, although yes, I do admit that it hit me in a very soft spot of my heart when I found that out).
And Coco, that tiny adorable strawberry-haired girl who cries too much, always seems to be in the middle of drama, and mostly annoys Ollie, turns out to have qualities nobody expected. I also loved that her frequent crying is shown to be a strength rather than a weakness!

As you can expect, Ollie, Coco and Brian have to team up to fight against the evil that’s lurking at Smoke Hollow and their adventure brings them closer together. Sometimes, quite literally, as the titular “small spaces” play an important role in this story. If you scare easily or don’t like reading horror, don’t worry. This is clearly a kid’s book and while I found the idea of the evil creatures cool, they’re not really scary and Katherine Arden doesn’t linger on their creepy aspects. And even if you found them scary, the chapters are so short that any danger is quickly over again and our heroes emerge victorious. I don’t think that’s a spoiler for a middle grade book. Things do get resolved, the mystery unravels, each of our heroes plays a vital role and Ollie gets to use her brain to save a whole bunch of people.

I was particularly moved by the ending, not only because these resourceful kids get out of a scary and dangerous situation alive and well, but because Ollie has grown as a character, she has learned to deal with her mother’s death a little better and she appreciates her father more. Plus, she has two new friends, whetehr she likes it or not. This ended the book on a high note for me and made me want to read the next one right away. If you like ghost stories for children and are looking for a book with a fall vibe, this is perfect!
I will definitely continue this delightful series (after the current readathon). It’s the kind of book I wish had existed when I was a kid that age. I would have loved it even more.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

A Satisfying Ending: S. A. Chakraborty – The Empire of Gold

The Daevabad Trilogy is a finalist for the Best Series Hugo Award this year, so I finally picked up the second and third book to see if they could keep up with the first. After a slow start, this book delivered pretty much everything I had hoped for and managed to stick the ending. It’s going to be very hard choosing favorites this year! SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST TWO BOOKS BELOW!

THE EMPIRE OF GOLD
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
eBook:
766 pages
Audiobook:
28 hours 37 minutes
Series:
The Daevabad Trilogy #3
My rating:
7.25/10

Opening line: Behind the battlements of the palace that had always been hers, Banu Manizheh e-Nahid gazed at her family’s city.

The final chapter in the bestselling, critically acclaimed Daevabad Trilogy, in which a con-woman and an idealistic djinn prince join forces to save a magical kingdom from a devastating civil war.

Daevabad has fallen.

After a brutal conquest stripped the city of its magic, Nahid leader Banu Manizheh and her resurrected commander, Dara, must try to repair their fraying alliance and stabilize a fractious, warring people.

But the bloodletting and loss of his beloved Nahri have unleashed the worst demons of Dara’s dark past. To vanquish them, he must face some ugly truths about his history and put himself at the mercy of those he once considered enemies.

Having narrowly escaped their murderous families and Daevabad’s deadly politics, Nahri and Ali, now safe in Cairo, face difficult choices of their own. While Nahri finds peace in the old rhythms and familiar comforts of her human home, she is haunted by the knowledge that the loved ones she left behind and the people who considered her a savior are at the mercy of a new tyrant. Ali, too, cannot help but look back, and is determined to return to rescue his city and the family that remains. Seeking support in his mother’s homeland, he discovers that his connection to the marid goes far deeper than expected and threatens not only his relationship with Nahri, but his very faith.

As peace grows more elusive and old players return, Nahri, Ali, and Dara come to understand that in order to remake the world, they may need to fight those they once loved . . . and take a stand for those they once hurt.

After the shocking events and the evil cliffhanger of The Kingdom of Copper, S. A. Chakraborty takes her sweet time getting the story going again. We meet our characters exactly where we left them in the last book and, just like us readers, they have to pick up the pieces of their lives, understand what has just happened and figure out where to go from here first. On the one hand, it’s nice to be reminded of prior events, to ease one’s way back into this world of djinn and politics and strange magic, on the other hand, it makes for somewhat slow reading during the first ahlf of this book.

Nahri and Ali find themselves in Cairo where they spend quite a bit of time before they decide to get back into the whole saving the djinn business again. Afte rall, Nahri’s mother has taken Daevabad, Ali is trying to get over his brother’s death, and Nahri still can’t believe what Menizah and Dara have done… As understandable as this quieter period in their lives is, as eager was I for the story to pick up again. I needn’t have worried, however, because when things do get going, they go crazy.

Chakraborty uses her time wisely because while the bigger plot may not be moving forward, the characters are growing quite a bit. Nahri and Ali finally open up to each other, tell the whole truth, and – who’d have thought – it turns out they make a really good team. I really enjoyed their story line, both in terms of actiony bits, new revelations about both their pasts, and in terms of their evolving feelings. I still think the love triangle is used way too much in fiction and should be put to rest, but I was okay with how things went in Empire of Gold.

There comes a point in the middle of this book when the wait is over. I remember one particular scene that made me absolutely not want to go to bed before I knew everyone was okay and it kept me reading for hours and hours. You know that childish excitement you feel when you’re reading a really good book that you are super invested in? That’s how I felt and that’s why I forgive the 350 merely “okay” pages that came before. Because from that point onwards, everything happened at once.

S. A. Chakraborty has built up many plot strings, posed a lot of questions, and set up certain situations that all wanted to be resolved. The question was whether she could do it, and do it well. Let me tell you that – while everyone probably has a different opinion on how that love triangle should have been resolved or whether it needed to be there ein the first place – I was more than happy with the ending.
It had revelations that I had expected but it also had twists that I hadn’t seen coming at all. It manages incredibly difficult moral situations in a deft manner, without taking the easy way out. No spoilers here, so I can’t go into detail, but if you’ve read this book you know several characters have done tings they’re not proud of, some of them worse than others. Whether it’s reexamining your own prejudice, being open for other people’s point of view, trying to repay a debt, or doing what’s right simply because you know you should – the character arcs in this series all reach what I would call a satisfying ending.

I really enjoyed Empire of Gold, especially its more action-packed scenes that make you fear for the characters. Chakraborty is damn great at getting my heart racing, whether it’s because a protagonist is facing their own death or holding the hand of a person they secretly love… I’d say the romance, family relationships, and action scenes were the strongest parts of this book. Now that the trilogy is finished, I am curious to see what Chakraborty comes up with next. I’m totally up for more djinn!

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Very good

A Lord of the Rings Knock-Off With Potential: Robert Jordan – The Eye of the World

It’s true. This is my very first time reading The Wheel of Time and I am a bit surprised myself that I have lived to the ripe age of 35 without catching any spoilers. With the TV show coming up in a few months’ time, I thought it would be nice to get a head start on the books and see if this beloved epic fantasy series is for me. Or if it holds up to the test of time. My impressions are pretty much as expected, although the positives outweigh the negatives. 🙂

THE EYE OF THE WORLD
by Robert Jordan

Published: Tor, 1990
eBook:
751 pages
Series:
The Wheel of Time #1
My rating:
6.25/10

Opening line: The palace still shook occasionally as the earth rumbled in memory, groaned as if it would deny what had happened.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and pass. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

The Wheel of Time turns and Ages come and go, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth returns again. In the Third Age, an Age of Prophecy, the World and Time themselves hang in the balance. What was, what will be, and what is, may yet fall under the Shadow.

When The Two Rivers is attacked by Trollocs-a savage tribe of half-men, half-beasts- five villagers flee that night into a world they barely imagined, with new dangers waiting in the shadows and in the light. 

So this is it, the beginning of a 14-book saga, planned and plotted and mostly written by one man, finished by another. I pushed this series ahead of me for so many years. The page count is intimidating to say the least, there are many mixed opinions about whether it’s just too damn long, and it’s not like I needed another fantasy series to be in the middle of. But it turns out, there’s no motivator quite like an upcoming TV adaptation to get me reading books that I should have read ages ago.
Thanks to this handy guide posted by Sensei2006 on Reddit, I knew a little of what to expect and I was prepared for the heavy Lord of the Rings influences. This made a huge difference to me, because knowing a little about the background (publishers wanting to publish nothing but LOTR copy cats because that shit sold) as well as getting an idea of what to expect in future books, those things really help me adjust my expectations. I still rolled my eyes at all the moments where I could pinpoint “Oh, so this is their Aragorn” or “Mat is just Pippin and Gollum rolled into one” or “I guess the Mountains of Dhoom are the natural barrier to the evil land” and “this place is Jordan’s version of Moria”. The parallels are really quite ridiculous but throughout the book, there is a sense of original ideas that want to come through and simply didn’t get the chance yet.

The story begins in Emond’s Field, a small village in the Two Rivers area, where Rand al’Thor and his father are going to town to prepare for a big feast. A mysterious dark, hooded rider seems to be following Rand, giving him the creeps. If you’re thinking “Bilbo’s birthday” and “nâzgul”, I don’t think anyone can fault you. And indeed, the village is attacked by monstrous Trollocs, and Rand and his companions leave on a perilous journey to Tar Volon. I’m not going to give you all the murky details here. The magic woman – an Aes Sedai named Moiraine – said the boys should go, so they go. So it’s Rand, Mat, and Perrin, Rand’s kind of love interest Egwene, Moiraine herself as well as her warder Lan, plus a travelling bard who start out on the journey. Not long after, Nynaeve, the village wisdom joins them and the fellowship is complete. Thre is a nice mi of people who already know and like each other – the boys are friends and Rand and Egwene have some unspoken love thingy going – and newcomers who can’t be trusted. Nynaeve is the most sceptical of Moiraine, not least because Egwene (who’s supposed to follow in Nynaeve’s footsteps) seems very taken with the poised and powerful woman.

What follows is a mixture of boring repetitive stuff, exciting action, hints of original world building, and a whole lot of other Lord of the Rings-esque places and people. At one point the fellowship parts ways and we get to follow the separate groups on their little side adventures, hoping they can reunite and get to where they need to go. Some of those side adventures were better than others. I really enjoyed Perrin’s story line, for example, maybe because it was the least reminiscent of Lord of the Rings. But we get a bit of everything here, including a boat voyage.
Mat and Rand’s endless series of inns dragged quite a bit, even though there’s a lot of cool stuff going on in the background. Because, let me tell you, those boys’ dreams are not normal. And Mat, being the Golpin of this group and alternating between completely idiotic Pippin behaviour and Gollum-like paranoia, is definitely nothing like Sam Gamgee…

As I read along, I got more and more into the story. Of course there are many silly tropes, certain things were super predictable, and Robert Jordan apparently only knows how to write one type of woman, but the further along I got, the more I got to see of what this world has to offer that’s not LotR-like. The magic system, although not really explained in any depth, is interesting in that it uses a gender binary and only allows women to use the One Power without danger of going insane. When men wielded that Power, they broke the world. And also went insane. It makes for interesting power dynamics despite the lack of varied female characters.
I was also quite taken with the race of the Ogier and I hope to learn much more about them in later books. Ooh, and the Waygates! And I’m super curious about the long-term outcome of Perrin’s adventure, which is all I can say without spoiling anything.

Despite its pacing issues, the blatant parallels to Tolkien, and the weak characterization, I did enjoy this book. It has been my companion for about a month and it had its ups and downs. Sometimes the plot slowed to an almost-standstill, but we got a bit of character development. Then the plot would come up with a cool revelation and I’d be hooked again for a while. I guess the best way to sum up my feelings is that I never had to force myself to read this. I was always looking forward to the book, even though I felt I knew 90% of what was going to happen. The last-minute Treebeard was just an added bonus that I admit I didn’t foresee. And the very end, although also partly predictable, left enough questions open for me to remain curious. Also, I somehow started to really like Rand and I want to make sure that boy is okay. I’m very much expecting him to not be okay, but a lot can happen in thirteen books.

What The Eye of the World does, most of all, is set things up. It lets us travel a nice chunk of the world, we get to know the major characters and even catch glimpses of what might be the big bad. We are given a very basic idea of the magic system, although I like that there are no clear instructions about “good” or “bad”. Some people fear the Aes Sedai and curse their magic, others revere them for their powers and ask their counsel. I like the fact that I don’t know exactly what to think about Moiraine, and I like it even more that there are factions among the Aes Sedai who don’t always agree. I smell politics brewing and poor innocent (although without a doubt super important prophecied hero and maybe lost prince or whatever) Rand caught in the middle. There is lore here and history, cultures, songs, royalty, and the feeling of a much bigger story than we got to see so far. I have no idea if it’s a story that should really be fourteen books long, but I’m going to at least read the next one to see what Robert Jordan does when he’s not trying to be the next Tolkien.

MY RATING: 6.25/10 – Good

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

P. Djèlí 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. Djèlí 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. Djèlí 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. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

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

Woodsy Folklore With Some Debut Problems: Ava Reid – The Wolf and the Woodsman

This was one of my most anticipated debuts of the year, alongside another wolf-titled book with a forest setting and a romance. I haven’t yet read the second book (For the Wolf by Hannah Whitten) but I liked this one a lot, despite its flaws. It’s not the right book when you want to be surprised by the plot, but it weaves layers of folklore and mythology into a fantasy story with a nice slow-burn romance. Debut problems aside, I enjoyed it.

THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN
by Ava Reid

Published: DelRey, 2021
Hardcover:
448 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: The trees have to be tied down by sunset. When the Woodsmen come, they always try to run.

In her forest-veiled pagan village, Évike is the only woman without power, making her an outcast clearly abandoned by the gods. The villagers blame her corrupted bloodline—her father was a Yehuli man, one of the much-loathed servants of the fanatical king. When soldiers arrive from the Holy Order of Woodsmen to claim a pagan girl for the king’s blood sacrifice, Évike is betrayed by her fellow villagers and surrendered.

But when monsters attack the Woodsmen and their captive en route, slaughtering everyone but Évike and the cold, one-eyed captain, they have no choice but to rely on each other. Except he’s no ordinary Woodsman—he’s the disgraced prince, Gáspár Bárány, whose father needs pagan magic to consolidate his power. Gáspár fears that his cruelly zealous brother plans to seize the throne and instigate a violent reign that would damn the pagans and the Yehuli alike. As the son of a reviled foreign queen, Gáspár understands what it’s like to be an outcast, and he and Évike make a tenuous pact to stop his brother.

As their mission takes them from the bitter northern tundra to the smog-choked capital, their mutual loathing slowly turns to affection, bound by a shared history of alienation and oppression. However, trust can easily turn to betrayal, and as Évike reconnects with her estranged father and discovers her own hidden magic, she and Gáspár need to decide whose side they’re on, and what they’re willing to give up for a nation that never cared for them at all.

Évike lives in her village as an outsider. The only girl her age who doesn’t have either of the three magic powers, she is constantly bullied and has nobody who really loves her. She lives with the village seer who treats her more like a maid than a surrogate daughter and when the Woodsmen come – as they do to take one magical girl to the capital – Évike is promptly shoved at them as a sacrifice. After all, they don’t have to know that this year’s wolf-girl isn’t actually magical…

What follows is part road movie, part romance, part folklore and mythology, and I liked parts of each of these aspects, but none of them were perfect. Évike soon has to team up with one of the Woodsmen, Gáspar, who thinkgs of her as a pagan who will go straight to hell. She, in turn, finds him uncomfortably attractive but is aware that their religious and cultural clash will never lead to anything. You see where this is going, don’t you? And I was all there for the romance, these two people who clearly have the hots for each other but are held back by convention and societal expectations and belief. There’s plenty of yearning, an excellent use of the “only one bed” trope, and some heart-stopping moments that made me ship them hard.

The plot is another matter. It starts off strong, then drfits off into an episodic travelogue, then tries itselfa t political court drama, but all of it is done a bit hamfisted. There doesn’t ever seem to be any one plot thread, the story doesn’t know what it wants to achieve. Is it a Romeo and Juliet like romance with two seemingly opposing religious groups? Is it about a mad prince who is conniving his way to the throne in a very un-subtle way? Is it about a young girl whose parents came from different cultures, learning about who she is and who she wants to be? Is it about a mythical bird that gives you immense power when you capture it? About Yehuli people being treated like dirt in the big city? It’s all of that but only ever a little of each, and only one after the other. To me, this feels like something that could have been fixed during the editing process. A bit of foreshadowing here, some world building there, less repetition and more in depth exploration of the cultures that oppose each other in this story… it would have gone a long way.

The writing was better, but also had its flaws. Ava Reid is perfectly capable of showing instead of telling and she does so a lot of the time. Except she doesn’t seem to trust her readers because after showing us something, she proceeds to also tell us, sometimes several times in a row. Both dialogue and narration were rife with repetition, sometimes using the exact same words. There’s no need to re-explain a scene we have just witnessed to us. Your writing is good enough – we got it the first time.
There were also continuity mistakes in the book concerning a missing finger. In one scene it is described as being on the left hand, but then it switches merrily back and forth between left and right throughout the book. That’s just an unnecessary mistake that took me out of the reading flow and could have easily been caught by an editor.
Lastly, I got the feeling that everything happend too fast. Our characters would get into trouble, facing some cool foe or being in danger somehow, and half a page later it would already be resolved. I enjoyed those scenes, the action-packed moments that usually meant confronting some mythological being and I would have liked actually getting into them. Maybe the author thought she should keep her word count down or maybe this is just the way she likes telling stories but it kept me from truly immersing myself in this world. I can’t believe I’m saying this but I also wouldn’t have minded more descriptions of the landscape and atmosphere, or making the world feel lived-in. I mean, the book starts with moving trees! Trees that pick up their roots and get out of there whenever Woodsmen come by. That awesome piece of world building, that really cool idea, is never mentioned again, has no impact on the world or story, and thus left me more than a little disappointed.

What was really well done – apart from the romance – was how folklore, myth, magic, religion, and culture are woven together. Whether it’s Évike telling an unwilling but taciturn Gáspar a story about her gods, or her learning about Yehuli life in the capital, I found all of these parts intriguing and magical in their own way.
I also enjoyed how Évike grows into herself. She is not particularly likeable at first. Sure, when your village sacrifices you because you’re their least valuable member, you have every right to be pissed. But she is bitchy and petty and annoying even shen she should be grateful or at least a little kinder. Then again, she’s also aware that she’s being petty and she actually reflects upon her actions and words and, you know, grows as a person! And as the story progresses and she realizes she isn’t actually all alone in this world, we get to see another side of her. One that wants nothing more than a family and a place to belong.

If I’m completely honest, this book has a lot of debut problems, there are mistakes that simply don’t need to be there. The plot is a mess, many things could have been done better, BUT it has a really great romance and a lot of heart – plus the use of Jewis folklore in fantasy is something I haen’t seen done before. For some reason, I didn’t mind the amateurish storytelling so much because the book has other strengths. And while it’s far from perfect, it makes me want to read more by this author. I have a feeling she has more stories to tell. With more experience (and a careful editor) I’m pretty sure the next book could even be a new favorite.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Brilliant or Boring? John Crowley – Little, Big

This is my favorite author’s favorite book, so to say I had high expectations is a bit of an understatement. It is also one of the most acclaimed fantasy novels ever, having won the World Fantasy Award and having been nominated for several other awards. It’s a Fantasy Masterworks title, it keeps coming up on Best Of lists and is generally one of the most beloved books out there. So, the pressure was high and maybe that’s why the story lost steam for me around the half-way point. And now, after finally having finished reading it, I honestly can’t say whether I found it brilliant or boring.

LITTLE, BIG
by John Crowley

Published: Harper Perennial, 1981
eBook: 564 pages
Standalone
My rating:
6/10

Opening line: On a certain day in June, 19—, a young man was making his way on foot northward from the great City to a town or place called Edgewood, that he had been told of but had never visited.

John Crowley’s masterful Little, Big is the epic story of Smoky Barnable, an anonymous young man who travels by foot from the City to a place called Edgewood—not found on any map—to marry Daily Alice Drinkawater, as was prophesied. It is the story of four generations of a singular family, living in a house that is many houses on the magical border of an otherworld. It is a story of fantastic love and heartrending loss; of impossible things and unshakable destinies; and of the great Tale that envelops us all. It is a wonder.

This is the story of the Drinkwater family, following them through several generations and watching, alongside them, the Tale unfold. It all begins (at least for us readers) with an anomymous and almost invisible young man named Smoky Barnable who falls in love with the slightly mysterious Daily Alice Drinkwater and goes to her even more mysterious house to marry her. Both the time and setting are kept vague, although it becomes clear that “the City” is New York and that Edgewood, the Drinkwater house, is not too far from it. So Smoky goes to marry his Alice and becomes part of a decidedly strange family. Great Aunt Cloud reads tarot cards as if they told her actual truths, Auberon’s old photographs of Alice and her sister as girls seem to show strange beings alongside them, the house itself is a crazy mixture of architectural styles, and the Drinkwaters seem to be in on a grand secret.

As an astute fantasy reader (and you don’t even need to be all that attentive), it is very clear that the Drinkwater secret has something to do with fairies. The word “fairy” isn’t mentioned until about halfway through the book, but all the descriptions and hints point in that direction. The family members also keep mentioning being part of the Tale and thus each having to play their part, although nobody seems to know quite what Tale it is, which part they’re playing, whether they will be there to witness its end, or even what the point of it all is. But it does give the book and the Drinkwater family in particular, an air of mystery, a feeling of aloofness, of being in on something us regular mortals will never understand. I quite like this Pan’s Labyrinth-esque juxtaposition of regular life with something magical. Except eventually, I’d like to actually see the fairies or at least know that they exist and the Drinkwaters aren’t just a family who’s collectively gone coocoo.

So what’s this big book actually about, you ask. Well… it starts out with something resembling a plot, with Smoky and Alice getting together, getting married and having children of their own. We get to know them and their family members, we learn about Smoky’s past, about Alice and Sophie as children and their strange connection to Edgewood and its surroundings (plus the fairies nobody calls by name). Then we go back further in time and find out how Edgewood came to be and why, exactly, the Drinkwater family seems to be the only one who knows about fairies and is somehow connected to them. I loved these bits very much, even though I can’t say that they had a lot of plot.
But then comes a sort of time jump and we focus on Smoky and Alice’s son and his adventures in the big City and those, while interesting, just dragged on too long without leading anywhere. A side plot was also introduced sometime mid-book which felt jarring to me. It’s not that the side plot doesn’t fit into the overall story (although I think it would have worked just as well without it) but throwing it in so late in the book made it feel like a lazy afterthought. This part, the third quarter of the book, took me a ridiculous amount of time to read because I was annoyed by that time at still not having received any sort of information about what the hell all of this is supposed to be about and then about having to read about a guy becoming a drunk because his girlfriend left him… It was just not my jam. Not that Crowley didn’t describe these things really well, I was just hoping for a tiny bit of fantasy in my fantasy novel. After 300 pages of realism and weirdness, it’s okay to give me more than half a chapter of magic.

So the book became work rather than fun, I put it aside for a longer period of time and when I picked it up, reading was slow going. Until I got closer and closer to the end and my hopes rose up again. You see, as the end drew near, I was hoping for this bombastic, epic, maybe twisty ending. That didn’t happen. And I am well aware that this probably just isn’t the kind of book that wants to deliver a super epic, twisty, surprising, or even particularly emotional ending. Just because you don’t mention fairies doesn’t mean they’re not obvious. And just because nobody outright says where the Tale is leading doesn’t mean you can’t have hopes for it. After all, for a plan that was several generations in the making, expecting something big isn’t too much to ask, is it? But just like this book isn’t about plot or fantasy or even relationships so much, the ending didn’t do much more for me than let me know the story is over. The Tale is done, everyone has played their part, for better or worse, and now it’s over. I think I even said out loud: This is it? That’s really all there is?

That sounds rather disappointing, so why am I so undecided about whether to love or hate this book? Well, you see, John Crowley can really write! I mean, keeping me entertained for hundreds of pages in which barely anything happens, when those fairies I was desperately waiting for refused to show up, and most characters are kept at arm’s lenght, that’s already a feat. Doing it with language that flows beautifully, that paints pictures in your mind and creates atmosphere, that’s something else. I admit, during the Auberon parts even that wasn’t enough to keep me really hooked, but there is no denying that Crowley has a gift with words.
And it’s not just that the language sounds good on a sentence level. He also manages to conjure up believable (if strange) characters seemingly without effort. I may not be particularly fond of some of the characters in this book, but I do care about them in a way. The Drinkwater family is rather large and we don’t get to know all of its members closely, but the ones we do all feel like real people. People that don’t let us, as the reader, get too close to them, but interesting specimens to watch from afar.

I am no closer to knowing how to feel about this book than I was just after I finished it. I do feel a bit disappointed at reading so many pages for this little outcome. No matter how nice the language, I feel that the author had promised certain things, certain fantasy elements, that weren’t delivered. As a work of literary fiction, this is probably a brilliant novel. As a fantasy, I don’t know. My rating isn’t particularly meaningful, it’s what I think the book deservers at this moment in time. Maybe someday I’ll re-read it, find something new to love about it, and adjust my rating accordingly. Or maybe I’ll never feel the urge to pick this book up again and change the rating to something lower? Maybe I was just not smart enough to get this book. I loved the first half, didn’t like the second, and the ending was a let-down.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good-ish

What The Hell Did I Just Read: Tamsyn Muir – Harrow the Ninth

I know I’m in the minority with my not very positive opinion about Gideon the Ninth and Tamsyn Muir’s writing style and if it had just been me, Harrow the Ninth would have existed happily without me ever picking it up. However! My fellow Hugo award nominators have spoken and as I am quite fond of them and trust their opinion, I did pick it up. And now, although it was not an easy read at all, I am kind of happy with the fact that I did. I am now pretty excited for next book, even. Huge thanks to the Tor.com Gideon the Ninth re-read which caught me up on everything I had forgotten in the most hilarious way.
No spoilers for Harrow but MASSIVE SPOILERS FOR GIDEON THE NINTH BELOW!!!

harrow the ninthHARROW THE NINTH
by Tamsyn Muir

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 512 pages
Series: The Locked Tomb #2
My rating: 7.25/10

Opening line: Your room had long ago plunged into near-complete darkness, leaving no distraction from the great rocking thump—thump—thump of body after body flinging itself onto the great mass already coating the hull. There was nothing to see—the shutters were down—but you could feel the terrible vibration, hear the groan of chitin on metal, the cataclysmic rending of steel by fungous claw.

She answered the Emperor’s call.
She arrived with her arts, her wits, and her only friend.
In victory, her world has turned to ash.

After rocking the cosmos with her deathly debut, Tamsyn Muir continues the story of the penumbral Ninth House in Harrow the Ninth, a mind-twisting puzzle box of mystery, murder, magic, and mayhem. Nothing is as it seems in the halls of the Emperor, and the fate of the galaxy rests on one woman’s shoulders.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, last necromancer of the Ninth House, has been drafted by her Emperor to fight an unwinnable war. Side-by-side with a detested rival, Harrow must perfect her skills and become an angel of undeath — but her health is failing, her sword makes her nauseous, and even her mind is threatening to betray her.

Sealed in the gothic gloom of the Emperor’s Mithraeum with three unfriendly teachers, hunted by the mad ghost of a murdered planet, Harrow must confront two unwelcome questions: is somebody trying to kill her? And if they succeeded, would the universe be better off?

Harrowhark Nonageismus is a Lyctor now. Well, a baby Lyctor who still has a lot to learn. She and Ianthe Tridentarius accompany the Emperor to the Mithraeum where they shall be initiated into Lyctorhood, learn what that’s all about, and also meet their teachers Mercymorn and Augustine, veteran Lyctors with a history. The first thing that will strike anyone picking up this book as that it’s narrated in second person, the second thing is a suspicious absence of Gideon’s name. Seriously, Gideon sacrificed herself to save Harrow and also helped her turn into a Lyctor in the first place but the narration seems to have forgotten that ever happened…

Harrow the Ninth has a huge advantage compared to its predecessor in that it gets its hooks into you right away. From the beginning, you know something is very wrong, you just don’t know why. The more you read, the more you realize that Harrow’s mind may not be in the healthiest of states, that her memories might not be trustworthy, that the story is told in second person and you don’t know who‘s telling it. But whoever they may be, this narrator could also have an agenda of their own and we have no way of knowing whether what they tell us is true…
Oh yeah, and there’s also the fact that, apparently, the Emperor is about to be assassinated, given how some chapter titles have the helpful title “x months before the Emperor’s murder”. And thirdly, Harrow left herself some letters, each to be opened only under very specific circumstances (some of which are delightfully weird, others are plain impossible) and, trust me, you want to find out what’s in those letters! Plus, there are flashback chapters which take us back to the events at Canaan House, except… let’s just say they’re not how we remember. So you see, lots of riddles to solve, mysteries to unravel, and clues to discover.

But much like its predecessor, this book takes a long time to get going. Or rather, it spends too much time on repeating things that may not tbe all that important, and drags out the revelations too long. When three quarters of your book leave you pretty much clueless as to how any of the things happpening are possible or how other things can make sense, or whether what you’re reading is even the truth, that can get frustrating. While I was reading the book, I wasn’t ever really bored, but now that I’ve finished it, I absolutely believe that it would have worked just as well if it had been 150 pages shorter.
But since Harrow had a much smaller cast than Gideon and actually gave them, you know, a personality, I didn’t struggle as much this time around. I like being left in the dark, as long as I’m also being given clues that could make me figure out what it all means. Or as long as there are characters I enjoy following and whose relationships I’m invested in.

Tamsyn Muir is really not that good describing settings or training montages – or maybe she just doesn’t want to. She chooses obscure language over pragmatic words to tell her story. I swear, if had had to read the word “nacreous” one more time, I would have exploded. THINK OF A DIFFERENT WAY TO DESCRIBE PEOPLE’S CLOTHING! And for fucks sake, when you have the urge to say “affrighted” just go with “afraid” or “frightened” – it’s much less pretentious and actually fits into the rest of the narrative.
Given that we don’t get much information about the actual surroundings people are in, I didn’t give that much of a crap about how nacreous the clothes people were wearing when they got affrighted, anyway. We’re told they’re on a spaceship and a space station, but other than the fact that some doors are automatic, there are electric lights, and there’s something called plex (like plexi glass), we really don’t know what anything looks like. Okay, fine, not every book needs to have an immersive setting. I’m much more of a character reader anyway and if you say “space ship” I’ll just make something up in my mind.

Now the characters were actually much, much better than in Gideon, mostly because there aren’t 20 personality-less ones of them but rather only a small group of people who each get to be distinct. I can’t say I liked any of them as people but at least they were all interesting. And I developed a strange fondness for some of them. Like I enjoyed reading about them but I would stay far away from them in real life. Whether it’s Ianthe, Harrow’s fellow baby Lyctor who goes through training with her, or their mentors Augustine and Mercymorn, both less than thrilled at their job of teaching the new ones the ropes. Or the Emperor himself, who appears strangely passive, sometimes like a confused old man, sometimes like a wise father-figure, sometimes like a helpless idiot… Like I say, not exactly likable but definitely interesting! And of course Harrow, our dear befuddled heroine who throws up when she touches her sword, who remembers things all wrong, who struggles to fully become a Lyctor and also has to try and survive someone trying to kill her… She grew on me. I find her and the entire Ninth House as weird as ever and I don’t think that part of the world building makes much sense, but I was definitely rooting for Harrow.

Can we all agree that Tommy Arnold’s cover art is amazeballs?

What kept me reading (and wanting to pick up the book again every day) was the mystery. Or I should rather say, mysteries, plural. First of all, my most pressing question: What the hell happened with Gideon, is she living inside Harrow somehow, is she really dead dead, can they communicate, and what about her mysterious birth/past, I want to know all the things?!? Secodly, the flashback chapters we read about the events that transpired in Gideon the Ninth are very different from what actually happened, mostly in that Harrow remembers going to Canaan House not with Gideon as her cavalier but with Ortus. Yes, the Ortus who died at the very beginning of Gideon the Ninth. So either the entire first book in this series is a lie or Harrow’s brain is seriously fried. But either way, I wanted to find out what was going on and how things could possibly fit together. Tangentially, I also wondered what the hell Lyctors do all day, and apparently, one part of that is “make soup”. 🙂 Tamsyn Muir had her claws in me but she also took on the great responsibility of delivering a satisfying ending/twist/resolution to the very myserious goings-on in this book. The build-up piled up more and more so the ending really needed to be mind-blowing!

Now about those twists and revelations and solutions. There were several super cool moments in this book, some involving intriguing uses of necromancy, others to do with epic battles, but the coolest were definitely the many (!) revelations at the end. As slow as the first three quarters of the book are, everything happens at once in that last quarter. I had to re-read a lot of lines to see whether I was still following because not only are huge things revealed, life-changing, world-shattering things, but of course they are revealed in such a way as to be maximally confusing and impossible to understand immediately. But self-congratulatory use of fancy vocabulary aside, the gist of it was pretty damn awesome! I honestly didn’t think Muir could make up for the complete and utter confusion she created but a lot of things fall into place and just… make sense!

Mind you, the very ending makes sure you’re out of your depth again. It’s not only a big cliffhanger that leaves you hanging pretty much mid-scene, it also adds a new mystery to the story that has spawned people on the internet coming up with crazy theories. Yes, I am guilty of staying up way too late to read up on some of those theories and I am invested! The thing is, reading this book felt like work as much as it was fun, but it did offer lots of clever twists and turns, it had characters that I suddenly could root and care for or at least characters I could love to hate. It made me feel things and guess things (my guesses were all way off, btw) and got me screaming “WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON” every other chapter. If Muir’s writing style were different, this owuld have been a five-star-read!
As deliberate as it may be, I just don’t jibe with her showy verbose prose. To me it always felt like the author is just trying to show off her skills using a thesaurus, but the fancy words she used didn’t build any atmosphere, they actually clashed with much of the rest of the prose, and they also didn’t fit a particular character’s style of talking. So keep your “affrighteds” and your “necrous” and just tell me what happens next, please. I’m serious, I want to know. Alecto the Ninth is on my wishlist now and if you’ve read my review of Gideon the Ninth, you know that that’s a huge accomplishment for this book.

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Damn confusing but also very good!

When The Wild Hunt Rides Things Get Tricky: Seanan McGuire – An Artificial Night

While I had expected this to be a Best Series finalists in the Hugo Awards again this year, I wanted to continue the series anyway. But the nomination gave me the necessary push to maybe start reading a bit sooner, because the more instalments I can read before the voting period is over, the better I can judge the Toby Daye books against their competition. And the competition is fierce!

artificial-nightAN ARTIFICIAL NIGHT
by Seanan McGuire

Published: DAW, 2010
eBook: 352 pages
Series: October Daye #3
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: One thing I’ve learned in my time working as a private investigator-slash-knight errant for the fae community of the San Francisco Bay Area: if something looks like it’s going to be simple, it probably won’t be.

Changeling knight in the court of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, October “Toby” Daye has survived numerous challenges that would destroy fae and mortal alike. Now Toby must take on a nightmarish new assignment.

Someone is stealing both fae and mortal children—and all signs point to Blind Michael. When the young son of Toby’s closest friends is snatched from their Northern California home, Toby has no choice but to track the villains down, even when there are only three magical roads by which to reach Blind Michael’s realm—home of the legendary Wild Hunt—and no road may be taken more than once. If she cannot escape with all the children before the candle that guides and protects her burns away, Toby herself will fall prey to Blind Michael’s inescapable power.

And it doesn’t bode well for the success of her mission that her own personal Fetch, May Daye—the harbinger of Toby’s own death—has suddenly turned up on her doorstep…

This may only be the third book in a pretty long series (14 volumes at the time I’m writing this) but after reading the first two, I felt confident enough to go into this one blindly. I didn’t read the synopsis, I didn’t check out any reviews, I simply trusted that Seanan McGuire would deliver the same or at least a very similar type of story that I had enjoyed previously. Except with new threats, of course. And maybe a start of that romance I’m hoping for?

Toby is faced with a new kind of problem, namely that kids go missing. And not just Fae kids, either, at least one human girl as well. So, in order to get back her best friends’ children, some Cait Sidhe that Tybald is missing, and Quentin’s human girlfriend, Toby sets out to first investigate and then plan a rescue mission. Which is easier said then done when the kidnapper is none other than Blind Michael who wants to use the children for his Wild Hunt!
Entering Blind Michael’s land is hard, but getting back is even harder. Toby wouldn’t be Toby, however, if she didn’t dive in headfirst anyway and do her very best to save those children and maybe, just possibly, not die herself in the process. Which would be easier to believe in if she hadn’t just received a visit from a very portentous person…

This is my first time reading through the October Daye series and as I’m only three books in, I can’t say too much about the series as a whole. But I do like its episodic nature with a dash of overarching story. Except this time, that story didn’t really advance and it’s more of a monster-of-the-week kind of instalment. Which is also fine because said monster happens to be terrifying! I really enjoyed exploring this new side of Faerie, one that is decidedly not lovely, but quite dark and with more than one horror aspect to it. There are certain scenes that are pure nightmare fuel if you think about them too long, which led to another exciting adventure with Toby as our reluctant hero jumping headfirst into danger for the greater good.

The thing is, this adventure is kind of over at the halfway point of the book. I’m trying not to spoil anything here but let’s just say the quest part of the story is done. Well okay, there are some loose ends. Sort of. But the second half of the book felt mostly like a re-hashing of what had happened before, only slightly altered, and therefore didn’t hold my interest quite as much. The plot as a whole didn’t feel as thought out as in the previous two books.

Another small gripe I have is the characters. Am I the only one who doesn’t particularly like Connor and gets annoyed when he’s there? That’s not the gripe, that’s just an aside. My problem is that this is book 3 of a series. We have met most of the side characters already. I appreciate McGuire giving us gentle reminders of who everyone is and how they relate to each other (seriously, that’s worth gold when you let some time pass between books) but I don’t like that she’s trying to evoke the same emotions she did in previous volumes with the exact same words. The Luidaeg is super powerful, we know that. We also know that, although she could have killed Toby already, she didn’t because she seems to like her and who’s to tell a Firstborn what to do? So pretending like Toby asking the Luidaeg for something is this grand dangerous endeavour just doesn’t work. We know she’s not in real danger because, unlikely as it may be, the two have become friends and the Luidaeg cares for Toby. So the attempt at a doom and gloom atmosphere when visiting the Luidaeg just feel flat.

Unfortunately, I had similar feelings about Tybalt, a big favorite of mine. I do so hope he doesn’t turn out to be an asshole or dies in the next book or something (I honestly don’t know, please no spoilers). Mysterious and brooding and helping Toby out while pretending he’s not really helping her out but only acting in his own self-interest, he’s the kind of fictional dude I can root for. Except this time, he didn’t get to shine despite appearing several times. Where there used to be tension and atmosphere in the first books, everything had kind of sizzled out at this point.
I did love the new character of May and the way her relationship with Toby and the others developed over the course of this novel.

While reading this, I constantly had the feeling like this book was rushed. Not so much because the plot happened to fast, but because it didn’t feel like McGuire put the same love and care into this particular volume like she did with the previous ones. Once you’ve finished the book, there’s actually not that much plot. There are a lot of characters but many of them were shallower versions of their previous selves. So it was a very so-so read for me, with exciting parts, characters I liked, but also with plot lines that I didn’t care for or that felt contrived, with characters I liked from earlier novels but didn’t much care for this time.

So far, this was my least favorite Toby Daye book because of its plot and character issues and the fact that, in the second half, I kept rolling my eyes at Toby’s hero complex. That woman keeps trying to kill herself in creative ways. Sure, it’s usually to save others, so you can’t even be mad at her, but damn it, Toby, have a shred of self-preservation!

Also, the Shakespeare quote titles are so pretentious, I can’t get over it. Whenever the title drops in the actual book, I can feel how badly the author and/or publisher wanted to make it fit. Sometimes that works better than others but the connection between urban fantasy stories about a Changeling and Shakespeare’s plays isn’t something I can see. Every title drop just feels like McGuire wants to let her readers know that she has read Shakespeare and we should all be impressed because random lines from his plays pop up at random moments in her books with no emotional impact or deeper meaning whatsoever. As much as I love Shakespeare, I am not impressed and I think the forced quote titles do the series a disservice. But hey, there are worse things to complain about. In the end, I only found this book okay but it will not stop me reading the rest of the series.

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

Really Good But Missing an Ending: Rebecca Roanhorse – Black Sun

This is the second book by Rebecca Roanhorse that I’ve read and although I enjoyed it more than the first (Trail of Lightning), I got the same feeling I did then. That Roanhorse is about 10 years too late for her ideas to feel fresh or new, but that she’s a great writer nontheless. And one that’s getting better over time.

black-sunBLACK SUN
by Rebecca Roanhorse

Published: Saga Press, 2020
eBook: 464 pages
Series: Between Earth and Sky #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Today he would become a god.

The first book in the Between Earth and Sky trilogy, inspired by the civilizations of the Pre-Columbian Americas and woven into a tale of celestial prophecies, political intrigue, and forbidden magic.

A god will return
When the earth and sky converge
Under the black sun

In the holy city of Tova, the winter solstice is usually a time for celebration and renewal, but this year it coincides with a solar eclipse, a rare celestial event proscribed by the Sun Priest as an unbalancing of the world.

Meanwhile, a ship launches from a distant city bound for Tova and set to arrive on the solstice. The captain of the ship, Xiala, is a disgraced Teek whose song can calm the waters around her as easily as it can warp a man’s mind. Her ship carries one passenger. Described as harmless, the passenger, Serapio, is a young man, blind, scarred, and cloaked in destiny. As Xiala well knows, when a man is described as harmless, he usually ends up being a villain.

Black Sun is an epic fantasy novel just like they used to be, except it is inspired by South and Middle American cultures and religions. We follow three main POV characters plus one side character who occasionally gets his own chapters. First is Naranpa, the Sun Priest residing in the city of Tova where the four clans of the Sky Made live. Through Naranpa’s eyes, we learn a little bit of how their religion works, the different types of priests there are (one of them is literally assassin priests and I find that so cool), and why Naranpa is an unusual choice for a Sun Priest. Because in addition to the clans living on top the mesas that make up Tova, there are the Earth Born. Essentially, they are the poor people, living further down the cliffs, in the darkness.
Our second viewpoint character is the Teek woman Xiala who clearly likes to get drunk and sleep with beautiful women. This time, her partying got her into prison (not the first time, it turns out) and the only way to get out of trouble is to take on a crazy job sailing a ship across the open sea during a season when no sensible sailor would do that. But the prize is too good to pass up and so Xiala and her crew agree to take a man to Tova. For money and cacao and a ship of her own.
That man happens to be the third POV character and he is called Serapio. We actually first meet him as a young boy when his mother does something pretty terrifying to him because he has a great destiny. What exactly that destiny is becomes clear fairly early in the novel but I don’t want to give it away here. Serapio is blind and quite strange and he makes the crew more than a little uneasy…

As a fan of epic fantasy, I liked this book a lot but I must admit the story is mostly setup. With the exception of Serapio’s tale, the plot may advance but doesn’t really lead anywhere. We’re introduced to a rich world filled with many different kinds of people who speak different langauges (something I always appreciate in SFF books) and who have different cultural sensibilities. We also learn there’s quite a bit of magic in this world although not everyone seems to believe it to the same degree. Xiala’s people, the Teek, are said to be lucky sailors. Xiala can use her Song to quiet the sea or to control the waves a little bit. But she is also met with prejudice and suspicion.
The city of Tova has a lot to offer in terms of politics and religion so I was a little disappointed that we didn’t learn as much about that as expected. Every aspect of life in Tova that we learn about was intriguing and made me want to know more. Whether for pacing reasons or to reduce the word count, Roanhorse only gives us glimpses here and there, just enough to keep me hooked but never enough to fully satisfy my need to understand this world. Whether it’s the priesthood and their jobs, the way the city is setup, the dynamics between the Sky Made clans, or especially how the Earth Born fit into the whole system – I want to know more, more, more! On the one hand, this will ensure that I pick up the next volume, on the other, it’s dissatisfying when you’re only ever fed little tidbits of information.

I had the stranges time reading this book. Maybe some of you have read books that made you feel the same. It would go like this: I would pick up the book, read a few chapters, enjoy them so much that I wouldn’t want to stop. Eventually, of course, I did stop because life and such, and then I would… not want to pick it up again. I continued reading other books in the meantime, all the while not needing to know what happened next in Black Sun. The next time I did pick it up, the same thing would happen. I kept asking myself what my problem was. Why did I not feel the urge to continue when I put the book down? It was really great, after all! Well, I don’t have a clear answer, only a theory. And the theory is that while I enjoyed reading about these characters and this world, the story went along its merry way and didn’t offer much that was new or unexpected. I do so love to be surprised or shocked or delighted with a clever turn in the plot. And because so many people had praised the book so highly, I had expected more than “just” a very good but somewhat generic epic fantasy with a cool setting.

The biggest problem with this story is that it kind of spoils itself. Or, to put it differently, it raises certain expectations for the plot and then simply delivers on them. The first chapters tell you exactly what will happen (in one case it’s a flash forward, so there are no doubts) and then those things… happen. No surprises, no twists, not a story beat that couldn’t have been predicted from early on. Because Roanhorse’s writing is immersive and her characters compelling, that didn’t make the book any less fun. Only less of a standout in the genre. In the acknowledgements, Roanhorse writes that she was sick and tired of the endless quasi-European settings in Epic Fantasy and thus wanted to write something more diverse that shows how ancient peoples weren’t “primitive” at all but rich in culture, science, and religion. I’d say she succeded in that but I disagree with her assessment that Epic Fantasy is still mostly European-inspired. In the last decade, we have been blessed with so many diverse stories and interesting settings! SFF publishing has gone to many different places all over the world (not that there isn’t always room for more exploration) and Black Sun is simply joining what is already a vast selection of newer diverse epic fantasies. So I don’t consider it groudnbreaking – it would have been ten years ago! – but I do think it is a very good book.

My second gripe with the book, even though it’s a lesser one because I’m a seasoned fantasy reader, is that it doesn’t really have an ending. It feels very much like the first part of a bigger story and can not stand on its own. Serapio’s story is the only one that offers a proper arc, with some flashbacks, a capital-D Destiny, and a conclusion of a sort. Naranpa’s and Xiala’s stories simply stop smack dab in the middle with things having been set up but no satisfying ending, not even much advancement of plot, in sight. Again, I don’t mind that so much because (a) I am used to reading longer series and waiting (sometimes for years) for the next volume and (b) I am going to pick up the next part when it comes out either way. Despite my weird not-wanting-to-pick-the-book-back-up thing, I finished it with mostly positive feelings. There could have been a bit more world building, a bit more story for Xiala and Naranpa, more time spent on flashbacks or characters’ back stories, but I feel confident that I will get all of that in the next book.
If you feel like the comfort of good old epic fantasy but you want a more diverse cast and a non-European setting, pick this up.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!