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

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

EMILY WILDE’S ENCYCLOPAEDIA OF FAERIES
by Heather Fawcett

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Really excellent

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

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

WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS
by Kelly Barnhill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 9/10 – Close to perfection!

I’m Not Crying, You’re Crying: R. F. Kuang – The Burning God

I’ve drawn it out as long as I could, both reading the book and writing this review, but it’s finally time to say goodbye to an amazing world filled with even more amazing characters. The one thing that makes me cheerful is that we’ll get a brand new Rebecca Kuang novel this year and I have pre-ordered a shiny hardback edition because, damn, Kuang catapulted herself onto my list of top favorite authors of all time with her debut trilogy.

THE BURNING GOD
by R. F. Kuang

Published: Harper Voyager, 2020
eBook: 640 pages
Series:
The Poppy War #3
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: “We shouldn’t be doing this,” Daji said.

The exciting end to The Poppy War trilogy, R.F. Kuang’s acclaimed, award-winning epic fantasy that combines the history of 20th-century China with a gripping world of gods and monsters, to devastating, enthralling effect.

After saving her nation of Nikan from foreign invaders and battling the evil Empress Su Daji in a brutal civil war, Fang Runin was betrayed by allies and left for dead.

Despite her losses, Rin hasn’t given up on those for whom she has sacrificed so much – the people of the southern provinces and especially Tikany, the village that is her home. Returning to her roots, Rin meets difficult challenges – and unexpected opportunities. While her new allies in the Southern Coalition leadership are sly and untrustworthy, Rin quickly realizes that the real power in Nikan lies with the millions of common people who thirst for vengeance and revere her as a goddess of salvation.

Backed by the masses and her Southern Army, Rin will use every weapon to defeat the Dragon Republic, the colonizing Hesperians, and all who threaten the shamanic arts and their practitioners. As her power and influence grows, though, will she be strong enough to resist the Phoenix’s intoxicating voice urging her to burn the world and everything in it?

My thoughs on this book will be mostly incoherent, have little to say about the plot as such, and probably won’t do much to convince you to pick up the trilogy if you haven’t already. If, however, you have made it this far, have read and suffered alongside Rin through the first two books, then you already know some of what’s coming. As did I. Thus the drawing things out to the last possible moment.

We’ve left Rin and Kitay fleeing from what was supposed to become the Dragon Republic, with Rin severely injured and heartbroken about the betrayal she’s suffered. In book three, she not only goes through even more pain and suffering, but the stakes of this seemingly neverending war get higher and higher. And along with the stakes, Rin’s tolerance for bending her (already loose) moral code gets stronger and stronger. After all, what are 100 lives when it means saving hundreds of thousands of others? Is sacrificing one civilian village really that bad when it means gaining an important victory in the war and taking one more step towards freeing the country? It’s questions like these that accompany you throughout the book and while Kuang doesn’t offer easy answers, she lets her characters take different stances and her readers make up their own minds. The brightly shining star that is Kitay is clearly the one who retains his sense of right and wrong the most but he also happens to be a brilliant strategist. And everyone who’s ever played a game of chess knows that, sometimes, you need to sacrifice one precious piece in order to win the game.

As the plot goes, you get more of the same, except even on a higher level. Where book one was mostly “learning how to war” at Sinegard and book two was putting some of those lessons into practice, this time, Rin is fighting the war more top down. She may have commanded a small group of people before, but now she’s working to have whole armies at her command. The transition from being part of actual battles and seeing the killing first hand to sending nameless, faceless soldiers to a place to die for you is well done and makes Rin’s character arc all the more believable. Without Kitay by her side, she probably would have turned tyrant very quickly…

There were a few surprising moments in this book, however, and I’m not only talking about the ending. If you’re read this far, you know the ending could go either way. Everyone could die (literally everyone) or some people could die or all main characters could survive – not likely, but you never know. The war could be won with minimal casualties or it could be won at a terrible cost. Or the war could be lost and any dreams of republics or empires could be smashed to pieces. Anything could happen and that’s what makes this book so compelling throughout its rather large page count. As is often the case, my heart was with the characters more than with the plot, but they are so closely linked that that’s almost the same thing. Rin’s actions have direct consequences on people’s lives and in this volume, more than anything, these consequences are made more visible. Actions that were taken in the very first book, for example, show their effects now, when people are starving because there was no harvest because of some military assault that absolutely had to happen to defeat the Mugenese. Except now the population is fighting famine and it’s not only bloody battles that threaten people’s lives…

Although this book made me more and more depressed the longer I read, it also cemented my respect for Rebecca Kuang’s talent, not just as a storyteller, but as an observer of humanity. The way she describes war, on the one hand from a very personal point of view, driven by emotion and not just strategy, is so impressive. But she also shows the bigger picture, leaving personal sensibilities behind. It doesn’t matter who leads Nikan – the Empress, Rin, Nezha, or someone entirely different – when an outside threat is coming to destroy everything this culture has ever held dear.

I guess what I’m trying to say in so many words is that I loved and hated this book, but in the best of ways. I hated that it deals with such dark, tough themes, that it puts these characters that I’ve grown to lovet into the worst situations, that it poses moral questions that aren’t just hard but impossible to answer. But I also love that it’s an exciting adventure which throws beloved characters into terrible situations, I love that the writing flows beautifully while relating atrocious things, I love that this trilogy made me feel so deeply for fictional people in a (mostly) fictional setting that I can’t stop thinking about them even months after leaving these books behind.

I’m still quite sad that this didn’t win the Hugo Award for Best Series but it definitely won my personal award for Series That Wrecked Me Emotionally And That I Will Never Forget.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

Not For Me: Alaya Dawn Johnson – Trouble the Saints

It pains me to say that I just didn’t like this book very much. Alaya Dawn Johnson has written one of my favorite YA novels that is criminally underrated – The Summer Prince – but what she was trying to do in this World Fantasy Award winning new novel just didn’t work for me.

TROUBLE THE SAINTS
by Alaya Dawn Johnson

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook:
320 pages
Audiobook:
13 hours 4 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: Seven. That’s what we’re starting with.

The dangerous magic of The Night Circus meets the powerful historical exploration of The Underground Railroad in this timely and unsettling novel, set against the darkly glamorous backdrop of New York City at the dawn of WWII.

Amidst the whir of city life, a girl from Harlem is drawn into the glittering underworld of Manhattan, where she’s hired to use her knives to strike fear amongst its most dangerous denizens.

But the ghosts from her past are always by her side—and history has appeared on her doorstep to threaten the people she loves most.

Can one woman ever sacrifice enough to save an entire community?

Trouble the Saints is a dazzling, daring novel—a magical love story, a compelling chronicle of interracial tension, and an altogether brilliant and deeply American saga.

This is going to be a rather short review because I have very little to say about this book. First off, though, it’s not bad. This is most definitely one of those cases where a novel is just not for me and I knew that the entire time I listened to the audiobook. It’s split into three parts, each focusing on a different protagonist.

First off, we meet Phyllis, who works for a crime boss and has killed quite a few people in her time. We learn a little bit about her roots in Harlem, how her “new” life in Manhattan creates tension in her family (don’t forget where you came from) and why she is so gifted with the knives she uses to kill. Because she, like some other non-white people, has Saints’ hands. They are considered a gift and bestow a type of superpower on whoever has them, Phyllis also passes for white which creates interesting situations but, unfortunately, wasn’t focused on enough for me. The same goes for the Hands. The author kept everything super vague and I’m sure that was on purpose but to me, it all felt too intangible, too handwavey to truly immerse myself in this world and its magic.

The second protagonist is Dev, an undercover cop working for the same crime syndicate as Phyllis. He’s also her ex-lover and apparently they are still in love but both pretend not to be because reasons… Again, the way this idea was handled just wasn’t for me. Because the “secret” of Dev being an undercover cop isn’t used to create tension at all. The former relationship between Dev and Phyillis, as so many other things in this book, are simply stated as a fact, without much emotion. I suppose this gives the book a more noir-ish feel but it fell flat for me and kept me from ever connecting with the characters. Which is a shame when they are in danger or get hurt because all I did in those cases was shrug and move on.

Lastly, we follow Tamara, who is gifted with seeing the future or laying Tarot cards or something of the sort. This, too, is kept vague. I couldn’t tell you why but I did like Tamara.

As for plot, I honestly couldn’t tell you what exactly happens in this book. I remember some plot beats but not quite how they are connected, how we got from point A to B to C, or what the point of it all is. And I only read this book a few weeks ago! I debated whether I should even write something about it because there’s so little that stuck in my mind. But I also think that just because this wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it’s not the perfect book for someone else. It did win a World Fantasy Award and I don’t believe that was undeserved.

The writing was good and Johnson did create atmosphere – although the audiobook narration might have helped with that. The fact that said atmosphere didn’t reach me is not the author’s fault. So maybe this book wasn’t for me but if you’re okay with a slow-moving plot and a story that leaves things unexplained oftentimes, then go for it. Johnson has a lot to say about race and guilt and whether some people are more deserving of magic than others. It didn’t reach me but it may just be someone else’s new favorite book.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Meh

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

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

THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
by Colson Whitehead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good!

The Long Way to the Red Planet: Mary Robinette Kowal – The Fated Sky

Mary Robinette Kowal took home a well-deserved Hugo Award for her novel The Calculating Stars which put humanity into the uncomfortable position of having to look to the stars for habitable places, because Earth wasn’t going to last much longer. I both loved and hated that book – I loved it because it was really, really good, but it was also damn uncomfortable to read. The amount of sexism and racism displayed by some characters was staggering and the protagonist suffers from an anxiety disorder and gets kind of addicted to a drug… so yeah, a great book, but not exactly a comfort read. This second one starts out similar, but was much more fun to read. Prepare for lots of love and admiration for Mary Robinette.

THE FATED SKY
by Mary Robinette Kowal

Published: Tor, 2018
eBook:
416 pages
Series:
The Lady Astronaut #2
My rating:
8.5/10

Opening line: Do you remember where you were when the Friendship probe reached Mars?

THE SECOND IN THE NEBULA AND LOCUS AWARD-WINNING SERIES

One large step for humankind…
It’s 1961, and the Earth’s gaze is turning to Mars. The Moon colony is well established, but tensions are rising on Earth—both from those who see themselves being left behind on a disaster-laden planet, and those who don’t believe in equality for all.
But even with personal sacrifices and political tensions, Elma York, the Lady Astronaut, dearly wants to go on the first mission to Mars—despite everything that stands in her way.

Elma York has reached a major goal. She has not only become an astronaut – the Lady Astronaut, in fact – but she actually spends part of her year living on the moon! Piloting a shuffle from space station to the moon and back is great and all, but Elma yearns for the stars. So when the opportunity arises for her to join the first manned Mars mission, she can’t believe her luck. Except it also means at least three years away from Earth, away from her family and her husband Nathaniel. But this strain on the relationship is only one difficulty. The Mars team has been training for months already when Elma gets asked to join them. And entering an established team of people as “the new one” is not good for Elma’s anxiety. The fact that the mission commander is none other than Stetson Parker doesn’t help either…

I adored this story! It goes through several phases, all of which have different layers to offer for readers. On the one hand, there is the very straight forward story of a woman joining the mission to Mars. She goes through training, she gets on the ship with the rest of her team, she lives on that ship with the team for a long, long time. There’s maintenance work, lots of mathematics, space ship mumbo jumbo, and of course interpersonal tensions when people are crammed into limited space for such a long period of time.
But this wouldn’t be a Lady Astronaut novel if it didn’t also have lots of social commentary. Kowal did such a fantastic job of showing how far humanity has come since the last book – women astronauts are almost not noteworthy anymore – but how much there is still to do. Here, this means mostly fighting against racism, both overt and more subtle in nature. It’s one thing for Mission Control to send the best people up into space and “the best people” happens to include men and women of color, but it’s quite another to also show these people in ads and to put them center stage when reporting on the IAC’s work. Nobody on the crew is unaware of these issues but they also don’t have an easy fix for it. Watching these people – who are all, in a way, good people who sometimes make mistakes – felt incredibly real to me.

So you can expect a story similar to The Calculating Stars but also something new. Everybody’s reading experience is different, of course, but for me TCS was a tough read, one that made me angry with all the injustice it showed, and even angrier for reminding me how realistic it all is. As brilliant as the novel may have been, it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience watching a protagonist you care for sliding deeper into anxiety, becoming dependent on a dangerous drug, facing sexism every single day, and all of that still made her one of the luckier ones in the book. The Fated Sky still shows plenty of sexism and racism, but with the mission crews being rather diverse and living together very closely, even the strongest biases start to crumble a little. Things aren’t perfect by any means but it warmed my heart to see how these people went toward each other, tried to empathize and take care of each other, appreciated the others’ work and abilities, and didn’t care all that much about race or gender. Even sexuality is a topic, albeit one that only comes up a little, but I also thought Kowal handled it really well. As much as we’d like to think of Elma as a super progressive woman, she is still living in the early 1960s and gay or transgender people aren’t all that visible. So even though it’s not a big plot point, I liked the inclusion of it and the reminder that there have always been gay people.

Mary Robinette Kowal does another pretty amazing thing in this book. She manages to take a character that I absolutely loathed and turn them into someone sympathetic, someone who may be far from perfect, with lots of ingrained sexism, but someone who feels like a human who is actually trying to better themselves. I wouldn’t have thought that I could ever end up liking this character but by the end of the book, I was really quite fond of them.
But as this development robs us of a sort of antagonist, Kowal steps up and delivers a character we can hate with a passion in DeBeers, the South African who is so overtly racist that it almost feels like a joke. The guy goes out of his way to be hurtful to his BIPOC colleagues, people he knows are just as capable as he is (if not more so) because otherwise they would not be on this mission. Maybe DeBeers is a bit overdrawn but I was perfectly fine hating him throughout this book and hoping the others would just lock him up somewhere during the trip…

I don’t want to spoil any of the plot, but it’s a nice mixture of character focused parts and action-y bits. They are traveling through space, after all, and let’s just say there are a lot of things that can go wrong with a space ship. Some may be more serious than others but that doesn’t make it any less exciting. Have you ever thought about a toilet misfunction in zero G? Neither have I but it was fascinating (and a little bit gross) to read about.
I loved the little Hunger Games reference the author managed to sneak into the book. 🙂 It has no impact on the plot whatsoever, it’s really just a tiny little aside, but it made me giggle and give the book an imaginary bonus point.

I’m a quite surprised that this “middle volume” of what is currently a trilogy didn’t get more love when it came out. The third book in the series, one that deals with a different protagonist in a different setting (the moon), is nominated for a Best Novel Hugo and the entire trilogy made it onto the Best Series shortlist but somehow, I didn’t see lots of mentions of The Fated Sky when it was new. I actually liked it more than the first book, even though the first one is probably objectively a better book. But while I don’t particularly want to revisit Elma’s struggles from The Calculating Stars, I can easily see myself re-reading this one. It definitely made my ranking of Best Series much harder. We’ll see how I like the doubly Hugo-nominated The Relentless Moon.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

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 OĂ­sin 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!