Middle Book Syndrome: S. A. Chakraborty – The Kingdom of Copper

I was looking forward to the sequel to The City of Brass very much, especially because the first book had a few evil twists at the end. While Chakraborty proves once more that she is a great storyteller and can spin tales of political intrigue really well, this book does very little to move the overall plot forward. It’s got classic middle book syndrome, which doesn’t mean it’s boring. Just… not as exciting as it could have been. But again, it delivers an ending that makes it hard not to pick up the next book right away.

SPOILERS FOR CITY OF BRASS BELOW!

kingdom of copperTHE KINGDOM OF COPPER
by S. A. Chakraborty

Published: Harper Voyager, 2019
eBook: 640 pages
Audiobook: 23 hours 14 minutes
Series: The Daevabad Trilogy #2
My rating: 6.5/10

Opening line: Alizayd al Qahtani didn’t make it a month with his caravan.

Nahri’s life changed forever the moment she accidentally summoned Dara, a formidable, mysterious djinn, during one of her schemes. Whisked from her home in Cairo, she was thrust into the dazzling royal court of Daevabad—and quickly discovered she would need all her grifter instincts to survive there.
Now, with Daevabad entrenched in the dark aftermath of the battle that saw Dara slain at Prince Ali’s hand, Nahri must forge a new path for herself, without the protection of the guardian who stole her heart or the counsel of the prince she considered a friend. But even as she embraces her heritage and the power it holds, she knows she’s been trapped in a gilded cage, watched by a king who rules from the throne that once belonged to her family—and one misstep will doom her tribe.
Meanwhile, Ali has been exiled for daring to defy his father. Hunted by assassins, adrift on the unforgiving copper sands of his ancestral land, he is forced to rely on the frightening abilities the marid—the unpredictable water spirits—have gifted him. But in doing so, he threatens to unearth a terrible secret his family has long kept buried.
And as a new century approaches and the djinn gather within Daevabad’s towering brass walls for celebrations, a threat brews unseen in the desolate north. It’s a force that would bring a storm of fire straight to the city’s gates . . . and one that seeks the aid of a warrior trapped between worlds, torn between a violent duty he can never escape and a peace he fears he will never deserve.

After a short prologue, we jump five years into the future with our protagonists scattered over different places and established in very different roles than in the first book. Nahri, now married to Muntadhir, has become an acoomplished healer unter the tutelage of Nisreen, although she is anything but free. With her two closest relationships gone for years (Ali exiled into the desert and Dara killed), Nahri has become friends with Nisreen and also got to like her sister-in-law Zaynab a lot more.
Ali, meanwhile, now has some crazy superpowers. He can detect water, even in the middle of the desert. He now lives in Bir Nabat, an oasis, and his life is pretty okay. That is, until the plot calls for him to return to Daevabad, of course.
Dara…. well, nobody really thought he was dead, did we? Dara is returned to his body by none other than Menizheh, Nahri’s mother. And the people he hangs around with are planning a full attack on Daevabad so Menizheh can take back Suleiman’s ring and the power the Geziri have stolen from her people.

That’s the setup for Kingdom of Copper and although there are some sub-plots that keep things interesting – such as Nahri wanting to re-build a former Nahid hospital and also start healing shafit – the main story this book tells is of these three characters starting out in different places and with opposing factions of djinn, coming together again. As you can imagine, the reunion isn’t exactly a party…

What I liked about this book, much like in the first one, was the characters and the nuanced political situation. It took me a bit to remember who all the factions were, who was hating whom for what reason, and who had stolen power from which bloodline. The great thing is that there are no real good guys here. There are some pretty bad people, come to think of it, killing others for being shafit (djinn and human mixed blood). But I couldn’t say that any one character or group has completely good motives and even if they do, their methods are… ethically questionable, to say the least.
Menizheh, Nahri’s mother, interested me the most. Because Nahri has no idea her mother is still alive and one of the most powerful people at that, I was excited to learn more about her and of course see the two of them meet. Menizheh wasn’t the likable lost mother type I was hoping for, however. And while that means I didn’t like her very much, I appreciated that her character felt so real. She’s been living without her daughter for years, after all, and she is following her own plans. Why should she suddenly get teary-eyed at the thought of meeting her kid again?
I particularly loved the dynamic between the Geziri princess and princes and how we got to know them better. Ali is a well-established character but Muntadhir and Zaynab got to shine in this book. They each interact with Nahri and with each other and every scene shows a new aspect of their personality and their hopes for the future. I won’t spoil anything but it’s fairly obvious that Muntadhir has a little more than feelings of friendship for Jamshid. And Zaynab has more depth than what we got to see in the first book.
There was entirely too little Dara in this book for my taste and what we do get to see of him didn’t feel like the Dara from the first book. He’s suddenly turned into this naive, gullible guy who sets himself up to repeat the mistakes of the past.

It’s hard to say much without spoiling, but there’s quite a bit of violence in this book. What with Menizheh’s people planning a large scale attack on Daevabad, traitors at court, and tempers running high among the Daevabad population, there are terrorist attacks, brutal killings, poison, assassination attempts, and more. While these scenes were all exciting to read and not all characters are safe, they did very little to push the plot forward. Much like the rest of this book.

Things really get started at the end of this book when secrets that were revealed reach their climax, when plans are executed, when Nahri has to make quick decisions to save the people she loves. A lot of stuff happens and it’s big stuff that will have big consequences. I suspect the next book will lead us to yet another completely new situation for our characters. Oh yes, and let’s not forget the huge twist at the very end. As much fun as I had reading this book, I don’t know why this little plot needed over 600 pages. Everything this volume did was set up things for a hopefully super exciting, fast paced climax. I’ll find out soon.

MY RATING: 6.5/10 – Good

Irish Gothic Meets Mythology: A. G. Slatter – All the Murmuring Bones

In case you haven’t heard me gush about Angela Slatter (writing here as A.G. Slatter), let me remind you of how the mosaic novels/short story collections Sourdough and The Bitterwood Bible blew my mind, tore out my heart, and made me want to just bathe in their beautiful language. Okay, now that’s out of the way, you know why I had to pick up Slatter’s newest book, set in the same world as the two mentioned above, with lots of Irish mythology and fairy tale vibes but which is also a gothic novel?! Does that work? Yeah, totally!

all the murmuring bonesALL THE MURMURING BONES
by A. G. Slatter

Published: Titan Books, 2021
eBook: 368 pages
audiobook: 10 hours 46 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: See this house perched not so far from the granite cliffs of Hob’s Head?

Long ago Miren O’Malley’s family prospered due to a deal struck with the Mer: safety for their ships in return for a child of each generation. But for many years the family have been unable to keep their side of the bargain and have fallen into decline. Miren’s grandmother is determined to restore their glory, even at the price of Miren’s freedom.

A spellbinding tale of dark family secrets, magic and witches, and creatures of myth and the sea; of strong women and the men who seek to control them.

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Sometimes it takes a little while to find your way into a story, to figure out what kind it is, how to feel about it. This was the case for me with All the Murmuring Bones. Its cover design and my knowledge of the author’s previous work led me to believe I would get some sort of a fairy tale, a whimsical story of a young girl breaking away from her family’s strict rules. And while that isn’t totally wrong, it’s also really not right.

We begin this story not with a person but with a place. The O’Malley’s home by the sea, the grand old house that young Miren is to inherit some day. With her grandfather Oísin just dead, her grandmother Aoife is her closest living relative and she is a strict, cold woman. But family nonetheless. Not that the O’Malleys don’t have quite a bit of extended family, but none of the many cousins however many times removed have the purity of blood to be considered rightful heirs of the mansion and all that comes with it. Because you see, the O’Malleys have been so successful because they struck a bargain with the Mer – merpeople of legend and myth – but some years ago, their luck ran out. Grandmother Aoife plans to return the family to prosperity at any cost. The first step is marrying Miren off to her cousin Aidan Fitzpatrick. Miren is not pleased and makes plans of her own…

The first part of this book wasn’t what I had imagined. Granted, I had missed that this is a gothic tale and with that bit of knowledge I would have been much better prepared, but even knowing that it was a dark, mysterious tale with empty rooms in vast mansions, family secrets that go back generations, and greedy scheming cousins, it takes this book a while to find its footing.
Once Miren is off on her way to find her own place and life to live, that’s when things started kicking off for me. That’s when I sunk into this book, enjoying every page, soaking up every mention of mythological beasties, making every connection between the fairy tales Miren reads and her own life. It was so much fun, despite (or maybe because of) all the murder and death and terrifying monsters…

I don’t spoil books here, so let’s keep things vague but still give you an idea of what to expect. Miren’s journey is marked by dangerous encounters but also unexpected friendships, but it doesn’t last forever. Eventually, she arrives at a place that is a whole new mystery and it was at that place that I felt the gothic elements of this novel got to shine. Sure, the O’Malley mansion may be creepy but since you know pretty much from the start what the O’Malley’s deal is, there’s nothing mysterious about it anymore. The thing that makes the second half of this book so delightfully creepy is the not knowing. What is really going on? Is it mythological creatures? Witch’s magic? Or just regular humans being awful to each other? What happened in the past? Did someone strike a deal with a devil? You see, it could be either or none of those, you just get this sense that someting is wrong and you have no idea who you can trust. As bad as that situation is for Miren, I revelled in it. It’s exactly the kind of creepy mystery that makes me cuddle up with a blanket and read for hours and hours.

But it’s not just the mixture of gothic elements with Irish mythology and fairy tales (some of which reference Angela Slatter’s other works, by the way, which made me squeal like a crazy person because that’s just brilliant), it’s also the first person protagonist Miren. At first, she doesn’t seem like there’s much to her. She’s obedient, knows her place in the strict and strange O’Malley family tree, she doesn’t talk back, she just nods and agrees. But inside, oh, inside is a different story. And over the course of this book, the way she has always felt inside comes out more and more. The way her life is controlled by others, how her voice isn’t heard. She breaks free of those restraints, sometimes violently, sometimes through kindness. It happened quite sneakily, but by the end of the book, I found I really cared about her!

If, like me, you find yourself struggling a bit at the beginning of this book, you’re unsure what atmosphere is supposed to be created or which character you should root for, don’t stop reading. You’d miss out on a fantastic novel that grows better and better with every chapter. It has twists and turns in store, it has plenty of good stuff for lovers of mythology or ghost stories, murder and mayhem, and of course very pretty writing. I’m happy Angela Slatter shows no signs of running out of ideas and I hope many people pick this book up. If you liked Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia, why not go for this Irish-inspired gothic story? And if the Irish names throw you, I can recommend the audiobook – that’s how I consumed this book – which is read masterfully by Aoife McMahon who knows how to say all the names.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Shockingly Timely: John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell – March Vol. 1-3

I’m not a big reader of non-fiction but I gave this graphic novel trilogy to my boyfriend last Christmas so it was at the house. The Black Lives Matter protests as well as John Lewis’ death in July of this year kept bringing me back to these books and so I finally picked them up myself and devoured them in just a couple of days.

MARCH VOL. 1-3
by John Lewis & Andrew Aydin
art by Nate Powell

Published: Top Shelf Productions, 2013-2016
Paperback: 560 pages
Series: March #1-#3
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “Can you swim?” “No.” “Well. neither can I. But we might have to.”

March is the story of John Lewis. It is the story of the Civil Rights movement, of how Black people protested peacefully in order to gain basic human rights. As a reader of (mostly) fantasy, this is not the kind of story I usually pounce on, but the year 2020 has done a lot of things, one of which is me trying to read more diversely and educate myself on topics that I find important. And as these books were already in my home and my boyfriend said they were really good, I picked them up, thinking I’d know mostly what to expect.

I did not know what to expect. Sure, when you hear “Civil Rights Movement”, certain images come to mind. People marching in the street, King’s famous “I have a dream” speech, and so on. But John Lewis did much more in this trilogy than rehash a history lesson we all had in school. He tells his story, beginning with his childhood and ending with the inauguration of Barack Obama. The frame story takes place just before and during Obama’s inauguration speech, but it’s the flashbacks that tell the real story.

We learn about segregation in the South, how John Lewis came to the SNCC, how people trained and practiced in order to stay peaceful even when faced with physical violence and to say that these scenes were harrowing is an understatement. Imagine letting a friend shout vile things at you, slap you, pour drinks over your head, and you have to stand there calmly, not even defending yourself… That’s just one of the things that got to me and, frankly. it’s the least terrifying one. Sit-in protests in Whites only establishments turn ugly pretty quickly but the protesters persevere and slowly – ever so slowly – gain a little bit of the rights that any human should have. There is paperwork, there are meetings with state officials, there are marches and the attempt to register to vote. There is a lot of jail time.

At one point, I actually laughed (in a desperate sort of way) when I read “This was the first time I was sent to prison in Selma. It would not be the last.” because John Lewis had said the same thing before about prison in general… He was arrested so often that he had to specify his first arrest in a certain place. And while reading about his time in various jails wasn’t exactly fun, it was still not the worst of what’s in this book.
No, what really stuck with me, was the violence with which all these peaceful protests were met. I shouldn’t have been surprised, really, given what we now see on the internet all the time. But it goes to show how well this graphic novel is done. When every other page a church is blown up, or people are beaten bloody simply for standing in line, waiting to register to vote, or people are murdered by police… you don’t really know what to say to that. We all know these things happened and they still do (even if the racism isn’t quite as overt anymore) and yet I found it shocking and terrible and I cried more than once reading these books.

You can also expect a fair amount of politics in these comics. There are grand speeches, corrupt politicians, other politicians who give the people hope, even more paperwork, endless hours of travel between places, organizing protests, politics within the organizations fighting for Black people’s rights, and so on and so forth. Those parts should have been boring because, come on, paperwork as such is a tedious job, but reading about someone else doing paperwork should be mind-numbing, right? Well, John Lewis wasn’t just a man with a vision who dedicated his life to civil rights but he also was a damn good storyteller!

I admit I didn’t remember all the names of the people involved in the protests, who led which organization at what time, or who held what speech in which church, but that’s not important for the story to work. This book, although it is John Lewis’ story, also doesn’t present him to be the one true hero who saved his country by being the best – no, he’s part of something much bigger, of a group of people, most of whose names aren’t even mentioned because there were so many of them. I loved how he never lifts himself above his fellow Americans but stands side by side with them, sometimes in the face of great violence.

The book ends – beautifully – with Barack Obama officially becoming the President of the United States and thus fulfilling a dream many Black people didn’t think would ever become a reality. But despite this enormous achievement, March also makes it clear that the journey isn’t finished, that there’s a lot left to be done. But it’s a trilogy that leaves you with a sense of hope and a smile on your face.

It feels strange and even wrong to “rate” a book like this. After all, it’s someone’s life we’re talking about here and it’s not like I’m going to judge it by its plot. So I’d like to stress here that my rating is purely about how the story is told. The artwork, the pacing choices, etc. but not the actual events or the characters – because there is no way for me to judge any of that and I don’t feel that things like likability  (who are REAL PEOPLE in this case) should figure into it. But this also happens to be a very well told story, an important story, and one that’s more fitting our current times than it should be.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Sisterhood and the Fight for Freedom: Alix E. Harrow – The Once and Future Witches

I was so worried I wouldn’t like this book. Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January was good, but not nearly as immersive or emotionally impactful as I had hoped. So I went into her second novel with a bit of scepticism. It took a little while to get going but then it turned into everything I had hoped and more.

THE ONCE AND FUTURE WITCHES
by Alix E. Harrow

Published: Orbit, 2020
eBook: 525 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: There’s no such thing as witches, but there used to be.

In 1893, there’s no such thing as witches. There used to be, in the wild, dark days before the burnings began, but now witching is nothing but tidy charms and nursery rhymes. If the modern woman wants any measure of power, she must find it at the ballot box.
But when the Eastwood sisters–James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna–join the suffragists of New Salem, they begin to pursue the forgotten words and ways that might turn the women’s movement into the witch’s movement. Stalked by shadows and sickness, hunted by forces who will not suffer a witch to vote-and perhaps not even to live-the sisters will need to delve into the oldest magics, draw new alliances, and heal the bond between them if they want to survive.
There’s no such thing as witches. But there will be.

Three sisters – James Juniper, Agnes Amaranth, and Beatrice Belladonna – meet again after seven years of being apart, in the city of New Salem. Through coincidence, or maybe fate. Their relationship is fraught, each feeling the betrayal of the others as keenly as if it happened yesterday. In their past lies a childhood spent with a violent, abusive father and only a loving grandmother and each other for comfort. Juniper, the youngest, was the last to finally escape and is determined to make it on her own. Her sisters, the ones who left her all alone with their father, don’t have to be in her life. After all, they left, didn’t they? And if the three Eastwoods are thrown together again through the suffragist movement, that doesn’t mean they have to love each other, right?

For a long time, maybe a third of the book, I felt that it would have been better served if we followed only one protagonist – June – instead of head hopping between the three Eastwood sisters. Because during the beginning of the novel, none of them ever got to shine fully due to the frequent switches between them. Whenever I’d feel like I was getting to know one sister, we’d jump to one of the others. Juniper was the only one who was intriguing from the start, but both Agnes and Bella stayed rather bland for quite some time. Bella, the mopey, quiet librarian who just wants to stay out of everyone’s way didn’t have much to interest me (except being a lesbian in a time when that was considered shameful). Whenever we’d see glimpses of her hopes and dreams and things got interesting, however, we’d promptly move on to Agnes. Her defining characterstic (at least at the beginning) is her pregnancy and the fact that she works in a mill under terribel conditions. She stays away from people and doesn’t want to bond with anyone because that means she could get hurt. Again, not much to aspire to and thus, not much of interest to me as the reader.

But things improve over the course of the novel, and they improve greatly! By the second half of the book, I felt like I knew the Eastwood sisters much better. It was mostly the bond between the three that helped them come to life. But their seperate story lines also started to shine. Bella’s infatuation with the Cleopatra Quinn leads her to discover a whole different part of New Salem, the Black community, which also has its own witchy ways and words and is fighting its own fight for freedom.
Agnes meets August Lee, a man who doesn’t just see her as a beautiful object but who acutally admires her spirit and capabilities. And Juniper grows up a whole lot throughout this novel. Her wild spirit doesn’t get dampened so much as she learns that her first impulse is not necessarily always the best course of action. Watching these three grow, each as her own person as well as in their role as sisters, was a thing of pure beauty!

Harrow also did a magificent job showing the utter unfairness of the time and setting. The Sisters of Avalon – an organisation of suffragist witches – want to gain voting rights for women with the help of a little witchcraft – which sounds nice and all, but becomes all the more tangible when you see what they’re up against. It’s not just that they have no rights currently, it’s how the system is rigged against them, how any grasp for the tiniest bit of power is immediately thwarted – and sometimes by the very people they are fighting for!
Gideon Hill is running for mayor of New Salem and while he is a bit of an overdrawn villain, his methods aren’t fantastical at all but all too realistic. Discrediting the opposition wherever possible, making them out to be sinful, evil, and deserving of severe punishment makes it harder for the Sisters to gain traction. They’re fighting for all women, yet women stand against them just the same as powerful men do. Out of fear, out of conviction… it doesn’t really matter. Hill’s blatant disregard for the law for his own personal gain reminded me a bit too much of our current situation. This book is set in the 1890s…

I also quite enjoyed the magic system if you want to call it that. In order to work a spell, you need the words and the ways (and the will but that one’s easy). The words could be a rhyme or a little song, the way may involve an item or a strong emotion – it may not be a strict magic system, but it felt real, and the words and ways always made sense and fit the respective spell.
What was so fascinating about it, though, was how these spells have been handed down through generations of women. Witch hunts happened and many of the spell books were burned alongside their witches, but that doesn’t mean witchcraft has died altogether. Women just had to become cleverer in the way they handed down their knowledge to the next generation. They hid it in plain sight. Discovering some of these witchy words and ways alongside the Eastwood sisters gave me so much joy!

One thing that could have been done better was the side characters. It was lovely to have a Black side character who shows us the time and setting from a different perspective – one even less privileged than our three white protagonists. But Cleopatra Quinn never quite makes it out of the sidelines, she’s always just hovering there in her function as love interest and as a mouthpiece for the Black community of New Salem.
What I found a real shame, however, was the last minute transgender character. That really felt like it was just thrown in for added diversity. And while I do appreciate that Harrow shows us all sorts of different women, this could have been done better or at least integrated into the story somehow. The way it was done is just that a character randomly announces that they’re a trans woman at the end of the book.

All that said, I love how diverse the cast of characters was. I did at times question that everyone is so immediately accepting of people who were not, at that time, generally accepted. Of course I want my protagonists to be good people without biases but I found it very strange that Bella was incredibly ashamed about her being a lesbian, yet had not a moment of doubt about falling for a Black woman. You could argue that the group of women thrown together in this story are all fighting for the same thing – for their rights and their freedom – and that racial differences, sexual preferences, or assigned genders don’t matter. Because they really don’t! But this book is set in 1893 and that made the unquestioning acceptance a little anachronistic to me.
The same goes for the gender swapping of famous story tellers and collectors. In this universe, it was the Sisters Grimm and Andrea Lang who are renowned collectors of stories. Which is cute and all but not really believable. Who would publish books by women in a time when women had next to no rights? I mean, the whole book is about this issue, yet we’re supposed to believe that women authors are just as respected as men and would even have been published? I don’t know…
But all of that said, in the end, I reminded myself that this was a fictional story that also hat magic in it, set in a made-up place with more than one liberty when it comes to actual history. So I rolled with it and simply enjoyed reading about these women all working together in a beautiful way.

The story itself takes a while to get going and at least in the beginning, I wasn’t sure what to focus on. Harrow sets up several plot strings right from the start but her focus shifts throughout the book. You have the difficult relationship between June, Bella, and Agnes and you have the suffragist movement – which teaches June that there’s a lot more paperwork involved than she would like. But then something weird is going on with people’s shadows, Agnes is pregnant and not sure if she wants to be, and Bella is falling in love with a Black woman who may not be completely trustworthy. It’s a lot!
Give the book some time, it finds its pace and it definitely finds its heart. It’s a pretty long book so I’m surprised that I’m saying this, but it wouldn’t have hurt if the first half of it had been even longer. Instead of rushing through the set-up for all those plot strings, we could have spent more time with the protagonists, getting to know them a bit earlier, and getting a feel for this world. But no harm done. As I said, after a while, I was completely in the story, feverishly turning the pages, needing to know what happened next and if things would turn out okay.

By the end, Alix E. Harrow had me near tears on several occasions. I can’t tell you any of the specific moments without spoiling them but I can explain why they gave me such warm feelings. You see all sorts of women working together as a group for the greater good, despite terrible odds, despite enormous danger to themselves and their loved ones. There are no petty fights, there’s no jealousy, there’s simply weighing the cost against the potential gains. There’s loyalty and friendship and love. And magic, of course!
It’s not a spoiler to say that the Eastwood sisters do resolve their problems and grow together more and more over the course of this story, and this was another thing that brought me to tears several times. Harrow describes their bond in such a beautiful way and she doesn’t need flowery declarations of sisters love to do it. She lets her characters’ actions speak for themselves and I think that’s what made this book so powerful.

I started out with trepidation, slowly found my way into this story, and by the end I was all aglow and want to push all of you guys to read it too. So although The Ten Thousand Doors of January didn’t work for me 100%, I’m glad to say that Alix E. Harrow is still one of my favorite authors and that I’ll be watching closely for her next book. She’s going to spiderverse a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty) with two Tordotcom novellas and I AM THERE FOR IT! But for now, I’ll simply enjoy that feeling after you’ve finished reading a truly great book that warms your heart and makes you feel like magic hasn’t completly gone from the world after all.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!

 

Gloriously sinister and wonderful: Alexis Henderson – The Year of the Witching

This is one of those books that managed to keep showing up on social media  without a big marketing campaign. I didn’t see this advertised a lot but people kept talking about it and all of them seemed to love the book. So, in time for witchy season, I decided to pick this up as well. I tend to like books that generate their own buzz because of their quality rather than books that are talked about because the publishers shove them in your face wherever you go. So I wasn’t exactly surprised when this turned out to be a really good, witchy book that thoroughly entertained me.

THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING
by Alexis Henderson

Published: Ace, 2020
Hardcover: 368 pages
Audiobook: 11 hours 37 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: She was born breech, in the deep of night. 

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.

In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law, Immanuelle Moore’s very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.

Immanuelle lives in Bethel, a rigid society ruled by the Prophet. Being a mixed-raced illegitimate child, Immanuelle has learned to keep her head down, adhere to the rules, and not dream too big. Through her eyes, we are introduced to this rather dystopian place of strict religion and basically no rights for women. In fact, men can marry several women, yet for a woman the greatest achievement she can hope for is becoming the Prophet’s wife… or rather one of his wives. Immanuelle has no such dreams. She just wants to live quietly with her remaining family and take care of her sheep.

When one day, one of her sheep runs away, she finds herself in the Darkwood, face to face with what can only be a witch! The four fabled witches who were defeated by the very first Prophet give Immanuelle a gift – her mother’s journal, which tells of terrible curses. “Blood, Blight, Darkness, Slaughter” – a line so often repeated, yet so well used in this story that it still gives me goosebumps as I write this. I won’t spoil how these curses manifest or even if they do but if you’re a reluctant reader of horror, let me assure you that while bad things happen, the worst of it is not supernatural. There are no jump scares (yes, that is totally possible in a book) and what really shocked me were things done by humans to other humans, no witchcraft needed.

I’m always fascinated by the differences between books that are called (or marketed as) feminist and books (usually older ones) that put male characters front and center and can be called sexist (I don’t want a big discussion here. Product of their time, blahblah, such books exist and the reasons don’t matter). Because this is clearly a feminist work, the women in this story are their own people, some happy with their life of submission, others not so much. But that doesn’t mean that there are no male characters or, indeed, that all male characters are bad or only there to be handsome love interests. No, the men in this story come in equally varied shapes and sizes and not just because the plot demands it. They were who they were before this story started – it’s just that now Immanuelle interacts with them and we get to see these men for who they are. That’s not the experience I’ve had with those “classic” fantasy novels with hardly any female characters in them. Other than queen, wife, whore, or witch, there isn’t much for a woman to be in those tales. And so I enjoyed this book all the more because it has lots of fantastic female characters and it also gives the men distinct personalities without reducing them to the standards that female characters were held to for so long.

The reason I’m even pondering this is Ezra, the Prophet’s son and heir who will one day become the new Prophet of Bethel and hold all the power. I came into this story with my own biases and expectations, so I immediately thought Ezra would be a spoiled brat who thinks humans are disposable playthings, women especially. But from the very beginning, he is… not. It took only a few chapters for me to utterly love this boy and the way he treats Immanuelle – not as an outcast, not as someone else’s mistake, not as someone to be avoided or feared, but simply as another person who’s doing her best. Their friendship was by far my favorite thing in this whole book, and because this book has many great things to offer, that’s saying something.

Through Immanuelle’s mother Miriam’s journal, Immanuelle learns more and more about the past and accidentally also more about witchcraft and the dark powers at work in her world. I really enjoyed the magic system – if it can be called that – and the way Immanuelle researches how to lift the curses and save her home. I really shouldn’t call it magic system because although there are certain signs that can be used and words that can be spoken, magic in this book is a wild thing, something that can’t really be controlled, something that just is. Immanuelle is also deeply aware that by even researching these things, she is committing sins herself. But she’s willing to sacrifice her own soul for the good of her people because that’s just who Immanuelle is. The people who disregard her, look down on her for her skin color or things her mother did, for her father who was burned on the pyre… she wants to save them nonetheless because she knows they are as stuck in this society as she is.

I picked this book up because it goes well with the Halloween season and I wasn’t disappointed at all. But as mentioned above, the true horror does not lie in a curse where all water suddenly turns to blood, but rather in the people holding power and how they decide to use it. It won’t come as a surprise to learn certain truths about the Prophet, the witches, and the wider world that are unsettling to Immanuelle. But although some things are a bit predictable (don’t worry, others aren’t) I can’t recall a moment in this book when I didn’t feel completely entertained, happily reading along and hoping for Immanuelle and Ezra to not only find a way to lift this curse but also to find a place in this world where they can just be happy.

The Year of the Witching is Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, so I have to say a few words about how amazing that is. Not that debut novels are always bad or incompetent, but many debut novelists make rookie mistakes, like overdrawn characters, or plot threads that you know should be working but somehow don’t. Not so in this book. The villains shift around, you can never be quite sure whom to trust, there’s so much to explore and discover that the story never gets boring, and it’s all carried by an amazing protagonist who is a Good Person but also clearly tired of being treated the way she is and watching other women treated only slightly better.
I will be on the lookout for Henderson’s next book. If she manages to deliver another beautiful slow burn friendship/romance like she did here, I’ll already be happy. But I suspect, just like in this book, she’ll have way more than that in store for us.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!

Monster Hunters, Racism, and Humanity: P. Djèlí Clark – Ring Shout

What a ride! I am always amazed when an author manages to accomplish in a novella what others fail to do in a big, chunky novel. P. Djèlí Clark is definitely one to watch (if you’ve somehow missed him until now) and I can’t wait to gobble up whatever he decides to write next. I hear there’s a full length novel in the Djinn universe coming up…

RING SHOUT
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom, 2020
eBook: 192 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: You ever seen a Klan march?

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns with Ring Shout, a dark fantasy historical novella that gives a supernatural twist to the Ku Klux Klan’s reign of terror.

D. W. Griffith is a sorcerer, and The Birth of a Nation is a spell that drew upon the darkest thoughts and wishes from the heart of America. Now, rising in power and prominence, the Klan has a plot to unleash Hell on Earth.

Luckily, Maryse Boudreaux has a magic sword and a head full of tales. When she’s not running bootleg whiskey through Prohibition Georgia, she’s fighting monsters she calls “Ku Kluxes.” She’s damn good at it, too. But to confront this ongoing evil, she must journey between worlds to face nightmares made flesh–and her own demons. Together with a foul-mouthed sharpshooter and a Harlem Hellfighter, Maryse sets out to save a world from the hate that would consume it.

I don’t even know where to start gushing about this book because it was so damn good! From the very first chapter I knew I would love it but then it kept getting better and better.
We follow a group of three women who hunt monsters. Maryse, our protagonist, Sadie (my favorite) and Chef – three badass Black women doing their best to rid the world of the monsters that invade it. The premise of the book and one of the coolest ideas ever is that the members of the Ku Klux Klan aren’t exactly all human. You wait long enough, and some of them start turning into what our heroines call Ku Kluxes – these monsters with the pointy heads need to be killed and that’s what Maryse and her friends do. But something big seems to be coming and it has to do with the planned showing of The Birth of a Nation on Stone Mountain…

I want to tell you as little about the plot as possible, not because there are many huge twists but simply because this novella is so well crafted that I think you should experience it for yourself in all its glory. But I can tell you why it worked so well for me, starting with the characters. In the very first chapter, Clark introduces us to our protagonist Maryse and her two friends Sadie and Chef while they’re on a job, and over the course of just those few pages, they each became real people with histories and hopes and dreams. It’s something that many full-length novels don’t manage to do in 500 pages and Clark just gives us a handful of lines, some banter, and – wham! – we have three women who are interesting and amazing and whom we immediately root for. I have a special soft spot for Sadie and her gun, Winnie. She is loud-mouthed and direct, loyal and funny, and I just wanted to be friends with her.

I may be a character focused reader but there’s plenty for people who enjoy a killer plot. Not only do Maryse and her friends hunt monsters which leads to crazy cool action sequences, but there’s a lot of world building going on as well. Again, no spoilers, but Maryse can summon a sword out of thin air (how cool is that?) and sort of dreamwalks into another world where she talks to three Aunties who help her along the way. We also get a sort of magic system when it comes to the Ku Kluxes and how the evolve (if you want to call it that) plus some folklore interwoven with science fictional ideas. It’s really awesome, you guys!

Another intriguing aspect of this book is, of course, the Ring Shouts. I had no idea what a ring shout even was before I picked this up but even without looking it up, you get the idea and the meaning behind it. These shouts are incorporated into the story, not just as window dressing or a world building vehicle, but as something important to the plot. Music plays a big role in general and I loved how the scenes with shouts were also used as a chance to give the side characters more depth. While Maryse is the character we follow most closely, this being a first person narrative, the other characters were all fleshed out, even if they only show up a few times and don’t get to say much. Clark paints a picture of an entire community, a close-knit group, a found family. I’m a sucker for found families, especially when they are done so well.

What else makes this book so great? Well, there’s the language. Almost all the  major characters are Black, the story takes place in 1920, and the language reflects all of that. I could totally hear Sadie’s voice in my head and while I had to read Nana Jean’s lines several times to make sure I understood (English being my second language does not exactly make it easier to read her dialect) but I wouldn’t have changed a thing about it. The narration adds atmosphere to the story and gets us closer to Maryse and the demons she carries with her.
And she’s got some demons to deal with… Finding out just what exactly happened in Maryse’s past and led her to become a sword-fighting monster huntress was just another layer to an already great story. It’s clear from the start that she was orphaned a while ago and dealing with her grief makes her just as much who she is as the friendships she’s found along the way.

Most of all, I am impressed with how much Clark managed to put into this novella without ever making it feel overloaded. There’s explorations of trauma, racism, purpose, and friendship. But it’s also a great fantasy story with cool monsters and action  and a magic system. And to top it all of, it taught me things about the real world, things about history I didn’t know much about. I’m no editor and no writer, but I’ll be damned if this isn’t a perfect example for a novella done right. Everything you could hope for is right there, it’s all delivered beautifully, and it leaves a lasting impression. This is definitely going on my favorites of the year list an onto next year’s Hugo ballot!

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

The Original Vampire Story: Bram Stoker – Dracula

I finally did it! I picked up this big old classic and read all the way through it and it was both more fun and more boring than expected. But all things considered, I’m happy I finally read this and it will certainly give me a new perspective on any vampire books or movies I read/watch in the future.

DRACULA
by Bram Stoker

Published: Penguin Classics, 1879
eBook: 454 pages
Standalone
My rating: 6/10

Opening line: 3 May. Bistritz.—Left Munich at 8.35 P.M. on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6.46, but train was an hour late. 

Within the pages of this book can be found one of the most terrifying creatures in all of literature.

This classic of horror writing is composed of diary entries, letters and newspaper clippings that piece together the depraved story of the ultimate predator. A young lawyer on an assignment finds himself imprisoned in a Transylvanian castle by his mysterious host. Back at home his fiancée and friends are menaced by a malevolent force which seems intent on imposing suffering and destruction. Can the devil really have arrived on England’s shores? And what is it that he hungers for so desperately?

Whether you’ve read Dracula or not, there are certain things we all know about it, simply from picking up bits of knowledge from popular culture, works inspired by this book, or vampire movies. Everyone knows Dracula is a vampire who turns into a bat, who sucks the blood out of (preferably) young women, who sleeps in a coffin and is repelled by garlic. We also know how to kill a vampire – stake through the heart, cut off the head… seven seasons of Buffy give you pretty creative ideas on how to get the job done. So why even pick up this book, when I already knew the gist, the big reveal, and at least suspected the ending? Well… going back to the beginning is interesting, if nothing else. And while Dracula was certainly not the first story about vampires, it is the most famous one.

The book is told entirely thorugh journal entires, letters, telegrams and the occasional newspaper clipping. We start with Jonathan Harker’s journal as he travels to Transylvania to meet Count Dracula who wishes to purchase a mansion in London. Things are fairly odd right from the start. On his journey to the castle, Harker meets several locals, all of whom seem terrified when they learn where he is travelling. They cross themselves, hand him a crucifix to carry with him, and mutter prayers under their breath.
Once Jonathan arrives at the castle, things only get stranger and stranger. Starting with the Count, an older gentleman with a white moustache – something that surprised me, as I’ve always imagined Dracula somewhat younger and definitely not with grey hair – plus the lack of servants, and the fact that many doors, including the main gate, are locked…

I read through this first part pretty quickly because it was nice and creepy, it had interesting bits of information about Dracula that I hadn’t expected (not just his looks) and because Jonathan Harker’s journal was simply exciting to read. But then we cut to Jonathan’s fiancée Mina Murray in London and her exchange of letters with her best friend Lucy. While I also quite enjoyed their letter writing and discussions of how wonderful it is to be engaged, I kept wondering what was happening with Jonathan in the meantime. As strange and unusual things start happening with Mina and Lucy as well, I was quickly distracted again.
Plus, the narrative adds Dr. Seward’s diary entries. The doctor himself is connected via Lucy (having been one of her suitors) but his work is much more interesting than his love life, if you ask me. He works at an “insane asylum” where he tracks the behaviour of Renfield, probably his most interesting patient. Even if there hadn’t been a connection the the main story (and for a long time, it feels like there isn’t), I really liked these parts and how Dr. Seward tries to help Renfield with science and (mostly) kindness.

You may guess that at least one more major character will add his accounts to this tale and that is, of course, Dr. Van Helsing. And here’s where I was a bit disappointed, if rather by the writing of his character than his character himself. Van Helsing is a very smart man who believes in science and goes about his business with method and brains. He figures out pretty early what’s going on, or at least suspects it, yet decides not to tell anyone because reasons, I guess. Other than that, the way his accent was written bothered me. Van Helsing is Dutch, so it felt fine to write his dialogue with a grammar mistake here or there, but the way he spoke didn’t feal in the least related to Dutch, nor was it consistent. He’d say things like “he like what he see” but in the next sentence he’d be perfectly capable of adding that “s” for third person singular… His tenses were all over the place, his syntax switched about happily, and it made him quite hard to read. To me, it had the effect of making him sound stupid, which he decidedly wasn’t. Oh well.

As for the story itself – it has great bones but takes entirely too long for everything. The beginning is the exception, because that slowish build-up with Jonathan visiting Castle Dracula worked quite well. But after that, after we already know something supernatural is going on and the Count is EVIL, there’s no more need to beat around the bush so much. More than that, anything that happens, happens so slowly. When Mina’s friend Lucy gets sick – pale, restless, sleeping badly, somehow lacking blood… – we spend sooooo many pages going over her symptoms of every single day. Van Helsing’s treatment of her is repeated several times and unfortunately, every one of those times is described in minute detail. Again, I didn’t dislike what happened or how the characters wrote these events down, I just didn’t need to read it in quite so much detail so many times over.

Around the middle of the book, Van Helsing finally reveals to his companions what it is they are fighting against. The stakes have grown higher and higher until then, so the newly formed group of friends makes a plan. We watch them make the plan, then execute the plan, then hear them tell about the plan and its execution to someone else. When I say “the plan” it sounds like this is about one great scheme, but it’s really a series of mini-plans and if you read about each of them before, during, and after the event, it takes a lot of tension out of it. I actually found myself hoping something would go wrong during the plan execution just so I could get interested again. Otherwise, I’d already know everything because I had read the entire plan before…
There is at least one wrench thrown into the cogs of Van Helsing’s great scheme to rid the world of Dracula but I can’t say that it was enough to create any real excitement in me at all.

This being a book of its time, I also didn’t expect women to play a major role in it and was surprised that both Lucy and Mina felt like real, fleshed out people. They are kept in the dark a lot, treated like helpless little flowers who should leave the real brain work to the men, but Mina especially saves the day several times by being smart and proactive. Look, she’s not exactly an example of a great female character but I had expected really, really bad things and was happy to find out that Bram Stoker gave his female characters some proper good qualities, even if they are also used as the convenient victims who make the men pick up their courage and fight the big baddie.

Overall, I don’t regret reading this book, even though its pacing was not great. It had nice and creepy parts, there were several things about Dracula that I hadn’t known beforehand, and I like epistolary novels in general. And while it makes me want to read some of the works that were inspired by it directly (like The Historian), I don’t think I’ll reread Dracula ever again. There’s no denying that it is a classic of horror literature and it does mention my home town right in the first line, so it’s got that going for it. 🙂

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good

The Horrors of Slavery Through Modern Eyes: Octavia E. Butler – Kindred

I’m participating in the Octavia Butler Slow Readalong, a two-year project where a group of people read thorugh the works of the late great Octavia E. Butler. Having read only one of her books before (Wild Seed), I had certain expectations for this one. I expected a tough, slow read with heavy topics and a focus on character development. And while the topics are definitely tough to read about – this is about slavery – I found myself flying thorugh the pages of this book in no time at all.

KINDRED
by Octavia E. Butler

Published: Headline, 2014 (1979)
eBook: 306 pages
Audiobook: 10 hours 55 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 9/10

Opening line: I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.

On her 26th birthday, Dana and her husband are moving into their apartment when she starts to feel dizzy. She falls to her knees, nauseous. Then the world falls away.
She finds herself at the edge of a green wood by a vast river. A child is screaming. Wading into the water, she pulls him to safety, only to find herself face to face with a very old looking rifle, in the hands of the boy’s father. She’s terrified. The next thing she knows she’s back in her apartment, soaking wet. It’s the most terrifying experience of her life … until it happens again.
The longer Dana spends in 19th century Maryland—a very dangerous place for a black woman—the more aware she is that her life might be over before it’s even begun.

This is such an amazing book! I don’t expect to be forming a lot of coherent sentences in this review, not least because my perspective is that of a White woman living in Europe and slavery, while taught at schools, has never been a topic that’s been much discussed in my life. We have our own dark history here in Austria that’s featured much more prominently in schools but this doesn’t keep me from wanting to educate myself and learn more about humanity’s past as a whole. And because fiction has always been my best teacher, I picked up Kindred.

Octavia Butler doesn’t waste much time before beginning with the story that’s promised in the synopsis. Dana, a young Black woman, lives in 1976 with her White husband Kevin, and is suddenly yanked back in time, only to find herself in an unknown place where a little White boy is in the process of drowning. Naturally, she helps him and saves his life. Then she just reappears in her own apartment where her husband says she vanished for a few seconds and randomly popped up in a different part of their home. Neither of them can quite believe what has happened, but these strange events are far from over. Dana jumps through time again, this time to meet a slightly older version of Rufus, the boy she saved. It doesn’t take her long to figure out that this boy is her own ancestor and while his father is a slave owner and exactly the kind of despicable you’d expect, Rufus is still young and can maybe be taught kindness yet. It is also his fault Dana is being drawn back in time whenever his life is in danger. Not that he knows how he’s doing it, but whenever his life is threatened, Dana appears and does her best to save him.

Things start going really wrong when Dana takes her husband Kevin with her on one of those time jumps. On the one hand, having a White man by her side to protect her from a decidedly hostile society is a good thing. On the other hand, her and Kevin have to integrate enough into that society so as not to be suspicious. So they pretend to be slave and slave owner and although it’s just make-believe, that doesn’t keep Dana from being treated like a slave, or Kevin from pretend-talking like a slave owner… And then there’s the problem that Dana never knows when (or if) she is going to return to her own time. All she knows is that she has to touch Kevin in order to take him back with her.

That’s all I’m willing to tell you about the plot, but there is much more to come after that. I found this book incredibly fascinating for many different reasons. The most obvious one is of course the way Butler talks about and has her characters deal with slavery. Dana is a modern woman who knows about slavery but of course, it’s quite different when you’re suddenly living it, seeing it firsthand, watching people you’ve come to befriend suffer terrible hardships without a chance at ever gaining their freedom. Which leads me to the other thing I found so impressive.
While you could call this an “issue book”, one that deals with Black pain, Butler’s use of language almost works against that classification. Neither the words she chooses to tell the story nor her protagonist ever feel like they’re falling down into a depressed spiral, lingering on the suffering of of the people in this book, or using the terrible things that happen for shock value. If you’re looking for torture porn, you’ll have to find a different book.

I loved Dana, who goes from knowing in theory what slavery was like to actually understanding it over the course of this book. Compared to the other slaves on the Weylin’s plantation, Dana has it pretty easy. With Kevin as her companion, she doesn’t have to do hard physical labor but is rather employed as a teacher for young Rufus. But that doesn’t keep her from seeing how the other slaves are treated, how they bear the scars of endless whippings and beatings, how they are hunched over from a lifetime of gruelling work. Again, Octavia Butler doesn’t deliver these facts with particularly shocking language. She just lets the story talk for itself and it is utterly heartbreaking. This book comes with trigger warnings for racism (many uses of the n-word), violence, and rape so it’s not exactly an easy book to read when it comes to its content.

But the language itself flows so beautifully that I couldn’t stop reading. Actually, I listened to the audiobook, but you know what I mean. Having read only one other of Butler’s books before, I had expected the language to be more difficult, the atmosphere to be more sinister, but somehow it wasn’t. It was Dana’s narration, her calmness throughout all the horror, that turned this into a book which only unfolds completely in your own mind. We may experience being whipped alongside Dana and while these descriptions are chilling and Dana’s in great pain, she doesn’t linger on it as an event. Instead, her experiences in the past slowly change Dana’s character from a rather carefree young woman to someone always on the lookout for someone who might mean her harm. She watches what she says, she doggedly does her work in order not to stand out, rather than risk another beating – and she comes to understand that it’s not as simple as “just band together and rise up against the White slavers”.

Another interesting aspect is Dana’s relationship with her husband. Due to the circumstances of their time travels, their marriage has to deal with way more than they had planned. Racism from their own families they can deal with, racism in the past they’ve expected. But how spending time in the past, living alongside its people, changes them is something they don’t know how to handle. And let’s not forget that these time jumps don’t happen parallel to the present. When Dana is in the past for a few hours, a few minutes may have passed in her time. She may spend months in the past, only to appear in 1976 again, just a day after she disappeared. This complicates matters even more when she and Kevin are separated, one waiting for the other, with no means of contact or knowing when (or if) they will ever be reunited.

I’ve rambled on about this book for a while now but I still don’t think I got across just what an emotional impact it had on me. I found myself crying quietly to myself several times, not even necessarily during the scenes that were the most brutal, but rather during the quiet conversations Dana has with other slaves, who tell her matter of fact that their children were sold away and they haven’t seen them since they were babies, or how two Black people in love can’t get married and if their master doesn’t like their love, they can just separate them and sell one of them off. These things are mentioned almost by the way but they have lingered in my mind, as much as the brutal phyiscal treatment of Dana and the other slaves.

It feels strange to say I enjoyed this book. But I did! I enjoyed how it made me think, how it showed a period of history through the eyes of a fictional heroine I can feel with, how it made history that much more real, even though the characters are all invented. I may not have enjoyed the plot because I came to care for the characters and wanted them all to be okay and happy, and of course that’s not a realistic hope for slaves during slavery. But I loved how Octavia Butler nudged my mind to look at this topic from different angles, how she included multi-layered White people, how she showed that slaves don’t all agree with each other, that there is envy among them as well as love. I wish I had the ability to express properly how amazing this book really is. For now, you’ll just have to take my word for it. This one will stick with you!

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

Blurring Good and Evil: Kacen Callender – Queen of the Conquered

As I’ve been on holiday (thus the hiatus this past week), I had the pleasure of reading Kacen Callender’s adult fantasy debut by a lovely blue lake in between sessions of trekking up mountains, trying Stand Up Paddlel for the first time (it rocks!), and steaming in the sauna… That may have colored my experience a bit, but even if I’d read this at home during rainy days, this book would have left me deeply impressed.

Queen of the ConqueredQUEEN OF THE CONQUERED
by Kacen Callender

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 401 pages
Series: Islands of Blood and Storm #1
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: My mother kissed my forehead with a smile when I cried, upset that the party would carry on as I was sent away to sleep, and while I lay awake in my bed of lace, huddled beneath my covers and shivering in the cool trade-winds breeze, I heard when the tinkling piano stopped and when the laughter turned to screams.

An ambitious young woman with the power to control minds seeks vengeance against the royals who murdered her family, in a Caribbean-inspired fantasy world embattled by colonial oppression.
Sigourney Rose is the only surviving daughter of a noble lineage on the islands of Hans Lollik. When she was a child, her family was murdered by the islands’ colonizers, who have massacred and enslaved generations of her people—and now, Sigourney is ready to exact her revenge.
When the childless king of the islands declares that he will choose his successor from amongst eligible noble families, Sigourney uses her ability to read and control minds to manipulate her way onto the royal island and into the ranks of the ruling colonizers. But when she arrives, prepared to fight for control of all the islands, Sigourney finds herself the target of a dangerous, unknown magic.
Someone is killing off the ruling families to clear a path to the throne. As the bodies pile up and all eyes regard her with suspicion, Sigourney must find allies among her prey and the murderer among her peers… lest she become the next victim.

There is a lot to unpack in this book. We first meet Sigourney Rose as a young child on the night her entire family is murdered during a party by the White people inhabiting the islands of Hans Lollik because a dark-skinned prosperous family just doesn’t fit into their world view. Sigourney survives, however, and grows up with one thing on her mind: vengeance! She has a plan to take over the Caribbean-inspired islands as ruler, free all of her people, and kill everyone who had a hand in murdering her family.

Whew! That premise alone tells you that this is not a particularly enjoyable book, but there’s more. Kacen Callender added magic, and while it’s not the most original type of magic, it makes the story just so much cooler. Sigourney can read minds, kind of go into someone else’s brain and look at their memories, but she can also kind of possess someone else’s body and make them do things… Yeah, it’s exactly as terrifying as it sounds and the first few chapters illustrate this horrible power very well. Sigourney is dealing with a slave uprising by entering the minds of some of the rebels and making them kill themselves in brutal ways. She is not an easy character to like.

Which brings me to the aspect that most intrigued me. Sigourney is dark-skinned herself, she sees that her people are enslaved and she desperately wants to free them, to give them back a life of their own. She hates the kongelig (the ruling colonizers of her islands) deeply and has no qualms about killing them all to reach her goal. But at the same time, when we meet her, she herself is a slave owner who plays by the questionable rules of the White slave owners. We learn early on that she only does this to reach her ultimate goal – which is essentially good – but it constantly raises the question whether the means justify the end and whether doing “a few” bad things for the greater good is okay. Sigourney questions herself many times but even though she hates herself for executing her own, for making them work for her, for owning slaves, her mission remains her number one focus.

Through intrigue and by using her kraft of mind reading, she manages to marry into one of the ruling families, becoming a candidate for the next king of Hans Lollik. It is only when she meets a young slave whose mind she just can’t seem to enter that things stop going according to her plan. This slave Loren is biracial and easily the most interesting character in this book. Sigourney is equally intrigued by him and decides to keep him as her personal guard – despite the fact that he was sent to assassinate her.
Speaking of assassination. When all the kongelig are called to the island of Hans Lollik Helle where the king resides and plans to pick his successor, the death rate goes up rapidly. This is not surprising because apparently, it’s normal for potential successors to kill off the competition in order to give them a better shot at the throne. But to me, it felt like what Gideon the Ninth tried to do, but more successful, with a bigger impact when someone dies.

We get to know the other kongelig and while it’s easy to dismiss them all as villains who came to these islands, eslaved its people, and live in luxury while slaves work their plantations, there is more nuance to them. Sure, none of them grows particularly sympathetic, but some of them are definitely more evil than others and I even caught myself feeling sorry for some of them. Even as members of the ruling class, they deal with sexism and suffer under the rules of their own society and while that doesn’t make their actions any less terrible, it makes them feel like real people. A good villain should always act in a way that, while I wouldn’t condone it in any way, at least makes sense when you put yourself i their shoes. And Kacen Callender created a whole cast of such villains. Not all of them are bad people, they are simply caught in the world they were born into and they don’t have the courage or strength to do something about it. Other are just despicably but even they have something that humanises them to a degree.

I haven’t even touched upon the way race is dealt with in this book because it’s another complex topic that Callender tackles in amazing ways. Sigourney’s character is perfect for that because although she has dark skin and it’s her own people that have been enslaved by the colonizers, she herself is a noblewoman. The other (White) nobles don’t like her and what she represents – a dark-skinned woman rising up to power – but she is equally hated by the slaves of Hans Lollik. And that hate weighs heavily on Sigourney, not just because she wishes she could tell all the slaves that she’s only doing what she’s doing to free them but also because she is so utterly lonely. She has one friend (ironically the only one of her slaves that she actually freed but who stayed of her own volition) but is otherwise completely alone in this hostile world where most other people want to see her dead. This made it easier to like her but her actions throughout the story also never really let me connect with her emotionally.

When it comes to the writing style, I have some small nitpicks. Callender uses the phrase “skin as dark as mine” entirely too often. There are other ways to describe someone as dark-skinned. Simply call them dark-skinned or “with brown skin” or anything else. But the exact words “skin as dark as mine/ours” is thrown around way too often and actually took me out of the reading flow. It does get better as the novel progresses but at the beginning especially, you’ll see it on every page. Other than that, I quite liked the writing. Callender doesn’t shy away from describing terrible things but they never felt gratuitous. I particularly liked how quickly characters came to life and how the world building was down almost exclusively thorugh showing instead of telling. It does mean the book has a bit of a learning curve, especially if (like me) you didn’t know that the real Caribbean was colonized not just by the British and French, but also the Dutch and Danish – which explains all the very Danish sounding names. But a quick trip to Wikipedia will give you some context and even if you don’t feel like reading up on our own history, you can easily follow the events of this book. I just personally like a bit of context when a story I read is based or inspired by the real world.

It goes without saying that this is a rather dark book. The story takes place in a time and place where slavery existed, it has characters with incredible powers, it goes on to a “And Then There Were None” sub plot and there is quite a bit of violence and abuse, both physical and emotional. By a certain point, I kept asking myself how this book could possibly end. Even if Sigourney reached her goal and became the new Queen of the islands, would she really do what she set out to do? Would she free her people or would she find a new goal that made it “necessary” for her to keep slaves just a bit longer? Well, Kacen Callender surprised and delighted me with the ending they chose. It not only resolves Sigourney’s story in a satisfying, believable way, but it also adds a twist that hit me in the gut and made me re-examine my own way of thinking. That’s all I can say without spoiling but trust me on this: If you pick up this book, you will get a satisfying ending.

Although this could well stand on its own, I look forward to the sequel King of the Rising, which is set to come out in December 2020. Although with the Covid-19 pandemic still going strong in certain parts of the world, I don’t know if that date will be pushed back. Either way, when the book comes out and I have enough brain power and emotional strength I will definitely pick it up. Queen of the Conquered has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award – deservedly so – and it’s currently super cheap on Kobo. Just sayin’…
The only reason I’m not giving it 8/10 points is that while Sigourney was a super intriguing protagonist, I couldn’t fully root for her and always remained just a bit distant from her emotionally. And the way dark-skinned characters are constantly described the same way. But this was still a fantastic book, an important book, and one that was well worth the long time it took me to read.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

History Through the Eyes of Women of Color: Nalo Hopkinson – The Salt Roads

Have I mentioned how much I adore Nalo Hopkinson’s books? When I discovered her writing through Midnight Robber, it felt like a revelation. Brown Girl in the Ring and Sister Mine didn’t work quite so well for me (but were still very good books!) but I knew right from the start that Hopkinson was a writer I would follow forever. It’s been a while since I picked up one of her books and maybe that’s why this one hit me so hard. I loved every single page, every character, every word of prose and I cannot recommend this highly enough.

THE SALT ROADS
by Nalo Hopkinson

Published: Grand Central Publishing, 2004
eBook: 410 pages
Audiobook: 13 hours 14 minutes
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: “It went in white, but it will come out a mulatto in a few months’ time, yes?”

In 1804, shortly before the Caribbean island of Saint Domingue is renamed Haiti, a group of women gather to bury a stillborn baby. Led by a lesbian healer and midwife named Mer, the women’s lamentations inadvertently release the dead infant’s “unused vitality” to draw Ezili—the Afro-Caribbean goddess of sexual desire and love—into the physical world.
As Ezili explores her newfound powers, she travels across time and space to inhabit the midwife’s body—as well as those of Jeanne, a mixed-race dancer and the mistress of Charles Baudelaire living in 1880s Paris, and Meritet, an enslaved Greek-Nubian prostitute in ancient Alexandria.
Bound together by Ezili and “the salt road” of their sweat, blood, and tears, the three women struggle against a hostile world, unaware of the goddess’s presence in their lives. Despite her magic, Mer suffers as a slave on a sugar plantation until Ezili plants the seeds of uprising in her mind. Jeanne slowly succumbs to the ravages of age and syphilis when her lover is unable to escape his mother’s control. And Meritet, inspired by Ezili, flees her enslavement and makes a pilgrimage to Egypt, where she becomes known as Saint Mary.

If you’ve read anything by Nalo Hopkinson, you know she has a gift with language. And I don’t just mean in the sense that any writer has to be skilled in the ways of using words to create stories. It’s more than that. It’s using language not only for conveying information on a sentence level but for creating atmosphere, for making characters come to life, for building an entire world. In The Salt Roads, Hopkinson did all of this times three. We get to read three seperate (but connected) story lines involving three different female protagonists during three eras of history.

In 1804, we follow  Mer, a slave woman and healer, as she delivers a stillborn baby. When Mer, the baby’s mother Georgine, and Tipingee (whom Mer appears to be in love with) bury the child, they inadvertently release the goddess Ezili who “inhabits” Mer’s mind and so follows her story. One of the other Haitian slaves, Makandal, has a plan for an uprising, for defeating the White slave owners, for making the island their own and living in freedom. It is this story that unfolds through Mer’s eyes. But Ezili also spends time in the mind of Jeanne Duval, Charles Beaudelaire’s mistress and muse, as well as Saint Mary of Egypt. In the novel we get to see these three women during their daily lives and their three different periods of history, all through the eyes of Women of Color.

When I started reading this book, I wasn’t aware that Jeanne Duval was a real woman and that her relationship to Charles Baudelaire was based on facts. It’s not knowledge you need to enjoy this book but I was interested enough to at least look at the Wikipedia page and see how well Hopkinson wrapped real-life events into her fictional tale. She gave Jeanne a voice and mind of her own, she gave her agency, and she made everything feel so much more real than reading about someone in a text book could ever be. I found that I cared about this mixed-race dancer/prostitute more and more. Her story deals with racism but it also touches on other issues, such as class differences, disability, and romantic relationships.

Makandal is also based on a real man but I only learned that after I had finished the book. If you’re intersted to learn a little bit about the real life basis for this novel, you can look him up. But beware of “spoilers” – is it a spoiler if it’s based on history? Well, his and Jeanne’s Wikipedia page will definitely spoil some of the story, so be warned. I was equally unaware that St. Mary of Egypt was real, who is first introduced as Meritet in this book and whose story takes a while to get going. For a long time, we follow Jeanne and Mer in loosely alternating chapters and only get a few short glimpses into Meritet’s life. Later on, Meritet takes center stage. Meritet is a prostitue who enjoys her job but dreams of more. She wants to see the world, learn what else is out there, and if she can have lots of sex on the way, that’s even better. As a prostitute, her view of sex is both pragmatic and passionate. I also really enjoyed her friendship with a gay male prostitute.

With two out of three protagonists being prostitutes, you can imagine that there’s a lot of sex in this book but I found it was used in interesting ways. First of all, there’s quite a bit of detailed description of various sexual acts – so if that’s not for you, maybe skip those parts. Secondly, and this is the important part, every sex scene felt real and honest. These characters are real women with real desires. Sometimes they use sex to their advantage because that’s the only power they have to take control of their lives, sometimes they simply rejoice in the pleasure of it. But it never felt gratuitous or used for shock value like it happens in some other books. Since the protagonists sometimes share a body/mind with the goddess of sexual desire, it also makes perfect sense to show these aspects of their lives.
Although the stories take place in three very different time periods, in different places, and with varying degrees of racism/sexism present, each story felt incredibly sex positive and there is some LGBTQIA+ representation. But please don’t think this book is all sex all the time. There is plenty of story and many other themes but if reading about sex makes you uncomfortable, you will probably not be too happy with this book.

Now let’s not forget the fourth protagonist, the goddess Ezili. We see her point of view (if you can call it that) in between the main chapters. And just like her own aetherial state, these mini chapters read a bit like snippets from a dream, like floating through the aether. They gave this otherwise realistic novel a sense of magic and puts it firmly in the realm of speculative fiction. Ezili is mostly just along for the ride in whomever’s head she currently occupies but sometimes, she can take over the reigns and influence what happens in our world. Ezili is the glue that holds the book together.
I found that idea really striking because on the one hand, Ezili embodies the lack of control all these women feel to a certain degree. Mer is a slave, so she literally cannot control her life, Jeanne relies on Baudelaire for money that she needs to survive and keep her mother alive as well. And Meritet is a prostitute who, while enjoying sex, does not get to pick her own partners and cannot go out and travel as she would like to.
And yet, each of these women is proactive; they take ahold of their life to the extent that they are able and they grasp on to any joy they possibly can. Considering the terrible situations all three women are in, this was a surprisingly empowering story.

This book was enjoyable from the beginning, but it grew on me more and more. For a long time, I couldn’t have told you what the actual plot is about but with a little patience (and reading up on the historical figures present in the novel), things became clearer. But even if there hadn’t beena story to follow, even if all there had been was glimpses into these three women’s lives, that would have been enough. Because the writing is just so damn good! Nalo Hopkinson weaves mythology, history, and sexuality into something new and wonderful. All her characters are vibrant, and even side characters who don’t appear all that often feel like real, proper people. The fact that real historical events and people are mixed into this fantastic narrative just makes this an even greater achievement.

I listened to this on audiobook, so of course I have to say a bit about the wonderful narration done by Bahni Turpin. She gave each character their own voice but she also managed to give each story line its own atmosphere. Where Mer and Jeanne are most distinguishable by their accents (although I wasn’t a fan of Turpin’s French accent), there is also a difference in how she reads each chapter. The pronunciation of French words was not great but because everything else about the narration was so fantastic, I would definitely recommend the audiobook.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Truly excellent!