Performing Girlhood Incorrectly: Seanan McGuire – Across the Green Grass Fields

McGuire’s Wayward Children series is so hit or miss for me that, with almost comical certainty, I will like and dislike alternating titles. That meant this one was supposed to be a good one and the rule still holds up. It was not only a good one but I’d say one of my top two favorites of the series so far.

ACROSS THE GREEN GRASS FIELDS
by Seanan McGuire

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
208 pages
Series:
Wayward Children #6
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: At seven, Regan Lewis was perfectly normal according to every measurement she knew, which meant she was normal in every way that counted.

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire’s Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.

“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”

Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.

When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to “Be Sure” before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.

But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

Damn, the beginning of this novella hits hard! It’s about young Regan Lewis, a girl as average as they come. She loves running around, riding horses, and playing with her two best friends, Heather and Laurel. But when one day, Heather brings a snake to school and clearly adores it rather than be scared or disgusted by it, Regan learns that there are apparently rules on how to be a girl and those rules are set by society. In their little circle of friends society is represented by Laurel – who will not accept any aberrations from what she considers the norm.

She knew even without asking that Heather was no longer part of the trusted inner circle: she had performed girlhood incorrectly and hadn’t instantly mended her ways when confronted with Laurel’s anger. She was out.

This broke my heart in so many ways, not only because it is told excellently but also because McGuire either remembers her own childhood days or takes seriously the problems and feuds and intricacies of girl friendships at that age. When bringing the wrong kind of candy can make you ostracized, when liking football instead of dolls turns you into a pariah. Heather is out of the group but Regan has learned to keep things to herself until she is sure that Laurel approves.

When puberty starts hitting and Regan seems to be the last one left out, no hint of boobs or a period in sight, she talks to her parents about it and learns something about herself that, generally, isn’t a problem for her. The problems appear only once she confides in Laurel because it turns out, Regan is performing girlhood even more “incorrectly” than Heather ever did and also never should have trusted someone like Laurel, who is unaccepting of anyone the slightest bit different than herself. So ten-year-old Regan runs away and promptly stumbles through a door that asks her to “Be sure”.

What follows is the portal fantasy we all signed up for when pickin gup this book but I must say, it’s one of the more enjoyable ones. Regan is found by a centaur who takes her home to the herd with her where Regan makes friends with a young centaur named Chicory and is taken in as if she were family. She also learns a thing or two about the Hooflands and its hinhabitants. I absolutely adored the idea of unicorns – that revered species of mythical being – turning out to be beautiful, sure, but also completely dumb! Seriously, this made me giggle so hard, I’m still not over it.

Take unicorns. They’re as beautiful as it gets, and they don’t have the brains to come in out of the rain. They’ll just stand there trying to figure out why they’re getting wet and wait for someone to come along and fix it for them.

I mean:

More of Regan’s awe died during the first storm. It was hard to be dazzled by a wet, muddy unicorn that was attempting to eat your mattress.

But even though Regan’s time in the Hooflands is mostly harmonious and gives her the freedom of just being who she is without any strict rules on how to be a girl the right way, there is conflict on the horizon. Because humans come to the Hooflands only when something big is about to happen. Humans are heroes and have to do some heroing eventually and Regan kknows she will have to present herself to the queen someday.
I won’t spoil any of it but I really enjoyed that part. Both the fact that we get to go along on Regan’s quest and not just witness the aftermath, and the way McGuire even adds a twist at the end.

The world building for the Hooflands may not be stellar but it has everything that’s needed to tell this story and make me feel like I’m in a believable world filled with sympathetic characters. Just like all the Wayward Children stories, we know how this one will end ahead of time but that doesn’t mean it’s always impactful. This time, it absolutely was, and I’m counting this instalment among my top two (In an Absent Dream is the seocond).

I don’t know why bigger fans of McGuire and the Wayward Children series seem to not have liked this volume as much. It has the lowest rating of all the volumes on Goodreads (not that that’s saying much, really) so I feel like I have to come to its defense. I’m also grateful that this year’s Hugo nominated McGuire work truly deserves its spot on the ballot, even if it makes ranking my ballot that much harder.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Damn good!

Meandering, But Still Charming: Jessica Townsend – Hollowpox

The world of Nevermoor is such a comforting place. First of all, Middle Grade can be a source of strength during reading slumps or after reading about heavy or dark themes. Secondly, Jessica Townsend is still full of creative ideas and shows us new bits of her lovely world with every book. 500 pages feel like nothing when they’re about Nevermoor.

HOLLOWPOX
by Jessica Townsend

Published: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 2020
eBook: 560 pages
Audiobook: 14 hours 27 minutes
Series: Nevermoor #3
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On a glossy black door inside a well-lit wardrobe, a tiny circle of gold pulsed with light, and at its centre was a small, glowing W.

The captivating and heart-pounding third book in the instant New York Times bestselling Nevermoor series, as heroine Morrigan battles a new evil.Morrigan Crow and her friends have survived their first year as proud scholars of the elite Wundrous Society, helped bring down the nefarious Ghastly Market, and proven themselves loyal to Unit 919. Now Morrigan faces a new, exciting challenge: to master the mysterious Wretched Arts of the Accomplished Wundersmith, and control the power that threatens to consume her.

Meanwhile, a strange and frightening illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning infected Wunimals into mindless, vicious Unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. There are whispers – growing louder every day – that this catastrophe can only be the work of the Wundersmith, Ezra Squall.

But inside the walls of Wunsoc, everyone knows there is a new Wundersmith – one who’s much closer to home. With Nevermoor in a state of fear and the truth about Morrigan threatening to get out, the city she loves becomes the most perilous place in the world. Morrigan must try to find a cure for the Hollowpox, but it will put her – and everyone in Nevermoor – in more danger than she could have imagined.

Morrigan Crow is back and we get to follow her during her third year in Nevermoor, meet old friends and make new ones, explore interesting new corners of the Wundrous Society, and learn a bit of Wundersmithing with our young heroine.

Going back to Nevermoor is just lovely. There’s all the (by now) known little wonders of this world, there’s Morrigan’s established group of friends and the little found family at the Hotel Deucalion, but there is, of course, also new conflict and danger. The biggest threat to Nevermoor is surely the disease called Hollowpox which affects Wunimals, turning them into seemingly mindless beasts before they fall into a coma. The second, and far less severe, conflict is that Morrigan has gained access to a new type of lesson at Wunsoc, one that takes her away from her classmates and turns her into a little bit of an outsider.

I’ll be honest, this book took a while before it found its footing. It felt somewhat overloaded and didn’t focus enough on its individual aspects, like Townsend tried to cram just a bit too much into its pages. Generally, I love stories with several subplots going on at the same time as the main plot, and this is definitely the case here, but the pacing and the way the puzzle pieces fit together didn’t feel quite right. We get to spend time with most of the important side characters, such as Hawthorn and Jack, Jupiter and Fenestra, Cadence and – as evil as he may be – Ezra Squall, but most of these episodes felt like quick pit stops, just so we could check “funny banter with Hawthorn” off the list of things to do while in Nevermoor. This is a small quibble, but to me, the presence of those side characters wasn’t felt enough during scenes when they weren’t center stage.

As for the plot, that also needs time to find its path. At first, it seems like there’s no one plot to follow at all, just random Nevermoor things like celebrations, school classes, and so on. But as soon as the Hollowpox becomes the clear threat of this story, the plot gets streamlined as well. It’s not like Morrigan has any idea how to stop the spread of this terrifying disease but for some reason, that’s when the book flowed more easily for me and I felt like I was truly in it. There are still frequent side adventures, taking up open questions from previous books or advancing the world building, but it felt like at least we had a goal to work toward. Save the Wunimals, cure the Hollowpox. Also, don’t let Ezra Squall manipulate us emotionally into doing something stupid…

Apart from Townsend’s continuing originality and her wild ideas about all the things that make Nevermoor, Nevermoor, there isn’t all that much that’s new to this instalment. It’s “a Morrigan Crow adventure” and that’s a perfectly fine thing for a book to be. Except toward the end, when during one scene I was reminded that it’s not just a cute Middle Grade book but that I actually care a lot for the characters in it. No spoilers here, but as you can imagine, some characters are in danger at certain times during this book, and some other characters find it worthwile to try and save them. And even though I complained about the side characters not getting enough page time, this moment worked so very well emotionally that Townsend must have done something right.

The ending has one more surprise in store that will make the next book in the series very interesting indeed! Morrigan has grown during her adventures and it shows in her more mature behaviour, her careful handling of difficult situations, but she’s still only thirteen years old. I am super curious to see where her journey will take her and what consequences she’ll have to bear for her decisions…
The audibook narrator, Gemma Whelan, does a great job reading the story and giving the characters distinct voices and/or accents. I wasn’t too happy about Cadence’s way of speaking (she sounds like she’s talking through a pillow, mumbling, mouth full of marbles…) but in general, the audiobook experience was lovely and I think I might go this way with the next book as well. Silverborn: The Mystery of Morrigan Crow is supposed to come out in October 2022 but I guess I’ll save it up again for a time when I need a book that is guaranteed to be a quick read that gives me all sorts of happy feelings.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

I Want All The Alien Hugs: Becky Chambers – The Galaxy And the Ground Within

I read the Wayfarers series completely out of order and after my second book (and the third in the series), I thought that maybe they weren’t for me after all. Then A Closed and Common Orbit completely messed with my emotions and I just needed to read this final instalment in a series that has changed Science Fiction forever. It has cemented my love for these books and I’m sad this loosely connecte series is now over.

THE GALAXY AND THE GROUND WITHIN
by Becky Chambers

Published: Hodder & Stoughton, 2021
eBook:
336 pages
Audiobook:
9 hours 55 minutes
Series:
Wayfarers #4
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: In the Linkings, the system was listed as Tren.

With no water, no air, and no native life, the planet Gora is unremarkable. The only thing it has going for it is a chance proximity to more popular worlds, making it a decent stopover for ships traveling between the wormholes that keep the Galactic Commons connected. If deep space is a highway, Gora is just your average truck stop.

At the Five-Hop One-Stop, long-haul spacers can stretch their legs (if they have legs, that is), and get fuel, transit permits, and assorted supplies. The Five-Hop is run by an enterprising alien and her sometimes helpful child, who work hard to provide a little piece of home to everyone passing through.

When a freak technological failure halts all traffic to and from Gora, three strangers—all different species with different aims—are thrown together at the Five-Hop. Grounded, with nothing to do but wait, the trio—an exiled artist with an appointment to keep, a cargo runner at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual doing her best to help those on the fringes—are compelled to confront where they’ve been, where they might go, and what they are, or could be, to each other. 

Ah, the balm for the soul that is a Becky Chambers novel! Don’t expect epic battles or life-shattering discoveries. Come instead for the exploration of differences and similarities between people of different cultures, species, and origins, and then stay for the warmhearted friendships, the obstacles that are overcome, the feeling of belonging somewhere even though you might look and feel different from everyone else. The magic that Chambers creates is its very own kind and whether you call it hopepunk, social science fiction, or something else entirely, it’s something I don’t want to miss from my reading ever again.

This story takes place on the planet Gora which has very little to offer, as it is only a stop between bigger, more important planets. However, when several strangers get stranded on the planet, even though very little happens in terms of big events, things get decidedly interesting as cultures and opinions clash.

Ouloo and her child Tupo run the Five-Hop One-Stop and they take that job seriously! It becomes clear only over the course of the book how much care Ouloo puts into her place, how proud she is of accommodating all species and taking care of their special needs and requirements. It seems like a small thing and it may sound like it’s not exciting to read about but it absolutely is! I can’t explain it to you, I just adored learning every new little tidbit that Ouloo had thought up to make what is essentially a quick stop between destinations into a welcoming, loving place for everyone. I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it. She’s the kind of character that reminds you that purpose can be found in seemingly little things, that it is you who decide whether your job is worthwile and whether you are happy with it.
Ouloo’s child Tupo has not decided on xyr gender yet, as is customary for their species once a certain age is reached. That just goes to show how effortlessly diversity of gender can be incorporated into a story without making a big fuss. I personally don’t mind (in fact, I quite enjoy) reading about characters with all sorts of pronouns and genders, but I know some people can be put off by the idea of having to “learn” pronouns. Tupo goes by xe/xyr and is deserving of all the hugs. That’s all you need to know. Pretty easy, right?

As for the strangers that get stuck on Gora, they are a diverse and intriguing lot and it takes a while before they warm to each other – if indeed they do so at all… Roveg has been exiled from his home but he’s pressed for time a nd getting stuck makes him really nervous and unhappy. Pei technically isn’t all that bothered by the delay but she’s pondering prombels that have been with her for a while – she is also the one that connects this book very loosely to The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet. And then there’s Speaker, possibly my favorite, who came to Gora with her sister Tracker who stayed behind on the ship when Speaker gets stranded planetside. They are each different alien species, not just with different physiological requirements (Speaker can’t be in the planet’s atmosphere without her suit) but also from different cultures and with very different plans.

Strangers forced into proximity is a great trope but Becky Chambers makes something truly special out of it. Most of her characters are respectful of each other, some even become friends easily, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an underlying tension between others. Again, there are no big battles of fisticuffs but opinions clash on occasion and, honestly, that was enough tension for me.
At first, it’s just fun getting to know these characters, finding out their backstories, where they were headed when they got stuck on Gora, and what their lives are like. Then it became lovely to watch them grow into a sort of force-upon-each-other found family, at least for alittle while. Chambers shows us new and interesting aspects of the universe she has invented, all without stepping off this one lousy planet.

I’m quite sad that this series is now over because it is truly special, but my heart leaps at the thought of Becky Chambers being as beloved and successful as she is. Because that means she can write many more stories filled with loving characters who show us that diversity is something to be celebrated, that kindness is a strength, and that family doesn’t have to be connected by blood. Congratulations on being a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo Award. This book is at the top of my ballot for now.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Fun, Light, Romantic: Laini Taylor – Night of Cake and Puppets

It may have taken me two tries to see and appreciate the genius that is Laini Taylor but when I did read the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series, it was like falling in love with a book and a world and a set of characters. There’s something so special about that feeling and so I kept this little novella that comprises part 2.5 in the series for a reainy day. This rainy day has come.

NIGHT OF CAKE & PUPPETS
by Laini Taylor

illustrated by Jim Di Bartolo

Published: Little, Brown, 2013
eBook:
218 pages
Series: Daughter of Smoke & Bone #2.5
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: On top of the cabinet in the back of my father’s workshop – which was my gradnfather’s workshop and will one day be mine, if I want it – there is a puppet.

In this stand-alone companion to the New York Times bestselling Daughter of Smoke & Bone series comes the story of Mik and Zuzana’s fantastical first date–as a gorgeously illustrated gift edition with bonus content included.

Petite though she may be, Zuzana is not known for timidity. Her best friend, Karou, calls her “rabid fairy,” her “voodoo eyes” are said to freeze blood, and even her older brother fears her wrath. But when it comes to the simple matter of talking to Mik, or “Violin Boy,” her courage deserts her. Now, enough is enough. Zuzana is determined to make the first move, and she has a fistful of magic and a plan. It’s a wonderfully elaborate treasure hunt of a plan that will take Mik all over Prague on a cold winter’s night before leading him to the treasure: herself! Violin Boy is not going to know what hit him.

Oh Zuzana, you tiny wonderful menace in need of a kiss! It may be mentioned in the main series how Mik and Zuzana met and, eventually, became a couple, but because that story sounds crazy and wild, I am glad we get the slightly longer and more detailed version with this book.

Zuzana had had her eyes on violinist Mik for a while and, as is only natural, has thus devised a plan to send him on a hunt through Prague, equipped with a hand-drawn treasure map, riddles, and – of course – puppets! What she doesn’t know is that Mik has equally noticed the girl they call “rabid fairy”. He is fascinated by her but also terrified of having her killer eyes turn on him. Two shy teenagers admiring each other from afar… it could have ended as nothing, it could have just fizzled out. But thank Zuzana’s bravery (and Karou’s scuppies) it didn’t because then we wouldn’t get to read this funny, lighthearted, romantic story.

There’s really not that much to tell about the plot. The story alternates between Zuzana’s point of view and Mik’s and even when you forget whose POV chapter you’re in, it’s always very clear from the voice because Laini Taylor knows what she’s doing and Zuzana is… let’s say pretty distinct. 🙂
The roaring teenage hormones come across very realistic but both protagonists are aware, right from the start, that this may be something special. They may be desperate to be kissed (or more) but neither of them wants to mess this up because it turns out there might be real, deeper feelings involved.

What gives the book an extra special vibe are the numerous illustrations by Jim Di Bartolo, who is not only brilliant, but also happens to be Laini Taylor’s husband. So you know he probably got things right. Whether it’s diabolical puppets, Zuzana’s deadly eyes, or Mik’s violin case, there’s always something to see that makes this book more than just a “filler novella” as they exist in so many popular trilogies.

It may not have the extremely high stakes that Karou’s story has but it’s no less special. Because taking the first step to meet someone you have a crush on is momentous and brave and I just love Zuzana and Mik even more now.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Orilium Gear-Up Readathon – Wrap-Up

I did it! And with time to spare. What a fun way to get hyped up for G’s amazing Orilium Readathon. I am amazed every single time she comes up with one of these at how much effort and love she puts into every single detail. It’s not every day that someone invents an entire fantasy world, with its own peoples, abilities, and magic systems just so readers like us can play around in it.

Books read: 2
Pages read: 528

The Orilium Gear Up was just the right kind of mini readathon with low enough expectations that I could finish it easily and feel a sense of accomplishment. 500 pages may not be much for a week but looking at how my Fabruary went, it’s a pretty big step forward for me at the moment and I am damn proud. Plus, I still love the character building aspects of these readathons. It makes me feel like every book I read helps my character grow and become a more interesting and better person.


Conduit

I chose the staff as my conduit, mostly for practical reasons. The reading prompt was easy to fulfill (fantasy readers everywhere rejoice) and I can see my character not misplacing a staff as easily as, say, a wand or a feather. My second choice was the spellbook but that simply didn’t feel as cool and also my book of coice, C.S.E. Cooney’s Saint Death’s Daughter, was way too long for this mini readathon. I have started reading it yesterday and love it so far but it’s 480 pages so…

In order to fulfill the reading prompt – read a book from a series – I instead treated myself to Night of Cake & Puppets by Laini Taylor. My review is going live on Tuesday but I can spoil the fact that I really enjoyed it and it makes me want to go back into the world of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone series and spend some more time with these lovely characters.

Other than the main series, this didn’t have the weight of destiny and world shattering decisions on it. It is just a lovely, clever, funny romance with beautiful illustrations.


Legacy

As an Archivist, for my Guild Legacy, I got to pair up with a god! At first I thought this isn’t quite as cool as having an animal famliar or being able to go to a different plane like the Mind Walkers, but look at what it says about my goddess of choice:

Sneaky (and, okay, temporary) familiar for the win! Again, the choice was surprsingly easy. Not only do I identify with someone whose power are tripled int he early hours – I am most productive in the morning – but I also love starting new book series. And I find the idea of temples made of white marble really beautiful, so there’s that.

For this reading prompt – read the first book in a series – I finally picked up Tithe by Holly Black. I didn’t find it unreservedly good but despite its debut problems, I was completely hooked an didn’t want to put it down. Holly Black has come a long way since that book and I am going to read the rest of the trilogy as well, even if it’s not quite as good as Black’s newer works.


I would call this mini readathon a great success. Not only am I finally out of that slump that early pregnancy put me in, but I also read two books that I enjoyed a great deal and I equipped my character Sistani with the necessary tools she’ll need for the big month-long readathon. I can hardly wait!

Kill the Gods, Hide the Past: Robert Jackson Bennett – City of Stairs

I may be almost a decade behind on this one but better late than never, right? The Divine Cities Trilogy by Robert Jackson Bennett keeps getting recommended although the first book came out in 2014. In our fast internet world, this is quite remarkable. Such an enduring low-buzz love for a series can’t be explained with a good marketing campaign or hype, it must be because the books actually touched a nerve. And now that I’ve finally read the first of them, I can understand why they are still talked about.

CITY OF STAIRS
by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published: Broadway Books, 2014
eBook:
464 pages
Series: The Divine Cities #1
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: “I believe the question, then,” says Vasily Yaroslav, “is one of intent.”

An atmospheric and intrigue-filled novel of dead gods, buried histories, and a mysterious, protean city–from one of America’s most acclaimed young fantasy writers.

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world’s new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov’s oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country’s most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov’s cruel reign may not yet be over.

The city of Bulikov is one hell of a place to explore. It took me a few chapters to get really intrigued and to find my way into what this story was trying to be, but once the ground rules were established, this book is a thrill ride filled with fun, great complex relationships, kick-ass characters, and awesome twists. The most baffling aspect of Bulikov and the Continent on which it stands is that there used to be gods – six of them, in fact – who had made all sorts of miraculous things happen, set up rules for their followers to live by, and kept the Continent going economically. Except then the Kaj came and straight up killed the gods, thus turning the suppressed island of Saypur into the new power wielders. The Continent lost all its gods, its magic (and with that, parts of buildings or even entire cities), and its right to even mention the existence of Divinities. Things aren’t pretty in Bulikov when protagonist Shara Thivani arrives in order to solve a murder case.

What starts out as a more or less straight forward murder mystery, with questioning and investigations and all that jazz, soon turns into something much bigger (and may I say cooler!) than that. To be completely honest, at first I wasn’t all that interested in solving the murder case but there was so much other stuff to explore and learn about that I also wasn’t ever bored. I wanted to know more about the gods and the city of Bulikov, about how Shara had met her bodyguard/assistant/friend Sigrud (Sigrud is fantastic!) and why the hell one would forbid a nation to even acknowledge its past.
There are a lot of questions of culture and oppression and about the role of religion for both a country and the individual who follows it.

The one thing that sealed the deal for me, however, was when we are introduced to a character named Vohannes Votrov, a childhood friend of Shara’s. I can’t fully explain to you why I’m such a sucker for those two except maybe that I like nerds and people who are clever and these two outsmarted everyone else during their school days and continued to be highly intelligent people navigating the intricate world of politics. There’s a lot more to them individually as well as them as a pair but I don’t want to spoil things for those of you who have yet to read this book. Let’s just say this was the part that got me hooked on the characters even more than the world building.

As the plot progresses and Shara figures out more and more secrets – some to do directly with the murder of historian Pangyui, some tangentially related but no less shocking – Bennett ramps up the action. The final third of this book was pretty much non-stop crowning moments of awesome, alternating between the characters. Sigrud steals the show on several occasions and I can’t put into words how much that one-eyed giant of a man grew on me. Shara may be small and unassuming but, damn, does she have an A+ brain that gets people out of tricky situations more than once. Even governor Mulaghesh, who doesn’t feature quite as prominently, shows how brilliant she is when the time calls for it. This is one of those books where you don’t even notice how much you care about the characters until later when they are in serious danger. I even caught myself cheering out loud when Sigrud did something particularly cool.

At the end, we get a few more twists and a surprisingly satisfying conclusion. If – for some unfathomable reason – you’d wish to stop reading the series after this book, you absolutely could. The ending is well-rounded, you could leave this world where it is and not feel like you’re missing out on something important. But why the hell would you not want to return to this magical, mysterious place? I, for one, can’t wait to see how the world advances and what Robert Jackson Bennett has in store for Shara and the others.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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!

Messing With the Veil Between Worlds: C.S.E. Cooney – Dark Breakers

Claire Cooney stole my heart with her collection Bone Swans and other Stories and I have bought everything of hers I could find since then. For those of you who have read the Tordoctom novella Desdemona and the Deep, this collection of very connected novellas and stories is your way back into that magical world of gentry and goblins and art.

DARK BREAKERS
by C.S.E. Cooney

Published: Mythic Delirium Boks, February 15th, 2022
eBook:
292 pages
Collection
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: Elliot Howell considered the glittering company about to assemble in the dining room below, and sighed.

A young human painter and an ageless gentry queen fall in love over spilled wine—at the risk of his life and her immortality. Pulled into the Veil Between Worlds, two feuding neighbors (and a living statue) get swept up in a brutal war of succession. An investigative reporter infiltrates the Seafall City Laundries to write the exposé of a lifetime, and uncovers secrets she never believed possible. Returning to an oak grove to scatter her husband’s ashes, an elderly widow meets an otherworldly friend, who offers her a momentous choice. Two gentry queens of the Valwode plot to hijack a human rocketship and steal the moon out of the sky.

DARK BREAKERS gathers three new and two previously uncollected tales from World Fantasy Award-winning writer C. S. E. Cooney that expand on the thrice-enfolded worlds first introduced in her Locus and World Fantasy award-nominated novella DESDEMONA AND THE DEEP. In her introduction to DARK BREAKERS, Crawford Award-winning author Sharon Shinn advises those who pick up this book to “settle in for a fantastical read” full of “vivid world-building, with layer upon layer of detail; prose so dense and gorgeous you can scoop up the words like handfuls of jewels; a mischievous sense of humor; and a warm and hopeful heart.”

Oh, how I have missed reading Cooney’s words! This collection may be complied of separate novellas and stories but the tell one larger tale of a place and a group of friends and how the world changes to adjust to unexpected magic.

The book begins with Dark Breakers which follows Elliot Howell, a gifted painter, as he tries to navigate the world of his rich friends. Bright and bubbly Desdemona Mannering has decided that Elliot is the New Great Painter of the age and so he finds himself suddenly famous and completely unequipped to handle it. The story tells of a party at Breaker House where Elliot encountres a decidedly otherworldly creature – who happens to be the Queen of the Valwode, the Veil Between Worlds – and they promptly fall in love. But being queen of a rather important part of the three worlds, things aren’t as easy as one would hope…

My favorite tale by far was the second one that focuses on two of Elliot’s friends, Ana Fields (penniless but warm-hearted writer) and Gideon Alderwood (sculptor and super rich cousin to Desdemona Mannering). In The Two Paupers, we get to know these two a little bit better. They already made an impressive appearance in the first story but this one is really all about them and everything about it ticked the boxes I love when reading a story. Gideon and Ana aren’t on the best of terms, at the moment, because Gideon is a big jerk. But as they live as something like flatmates – sharing a garret with only one toilet, being separated by nothing but a thin wall – they can’t quite escape on e another, no matter how often Gideon elittles Ana and her work, no matter how many times she complains about him using up all the toilet paper and never replacing it.
What sounds like your basic romcom actually turns into something a lot more magical once you read it. Gideon creates beautiful statues only to destroy them the moment they are completed. He is responsible for Ana’s manuscript having found its way into the hands of a capable and utterly delighted agentand even though Gideon would never admit why he did it, we know that he actually really likes Ana. Theirs is a weird relationship that can only find a way to work once the secrets are out, once the magic that has been part of their lives gets revelaed. Oh, and once one of them saves the other from certain doom.

The other stories int his collection were quite nice as well, but they felt more like additional material to the first two novellas, rather than something that can stand on its own. Salissay’s Laundries was charming insofar as it is written by an investigative jorunalist who infiltrates a place that is said to “disappear” women and/or their unborn children. The Valwolde is supposed to be involved, but we all know that’s just fairy stories…
In Longergreen, we jump forward in time and learn how the world (and some characters we’ve met earlier) have changed. I really can’t say much about it without spoiling, but I found it a very touching, quiet tale that would have rounded up the collection beautifully.
But Cooney ends things on a lighter note with Susurra to the Moon. Here, we meet a character from the first story again as well as someone from Desdemona and the Deep. Things haven’t only changed in our world, but the Valwode has evolved as well. And so we meet two queens of that Kingdom Below as they enjoy each other and make silly plans about how they want to go to the moon. It’s a cute little story but it didn’t touch me nearly as much as the ones about Elliot, Gideon, and Ana.

I love how interconnected Cooney’s work is (a play called Bone Swans is mentioned in this collection, which happens to be a real book in our word) and how she writes about artists. Whether it’s Elliot and his paintings, Gideon and his statues, or Ana and her writing – Cooney manages to make them all feel like real artists, she makes their work come vibrantly alive thorugh her own art, and she made them all real, multi-faceted people. I adored both the friendship between these three as well as the strange love/hate relationship that Ana and Gideon have going on. The otherworldly characters were also amazingly done. A fairy queen who is thousands of years old shouldn’t behave like a regular homan and Cooney did a fantastic job making Nyx strange but still relatable enough for me to care about her.

If you like fairy stories, pretending to walk through walls between worlds, to meet magical beings at the chime of midnight, if you like art and beautiful words, then pick this up. It’s truly lovely and makes me all the more excited for Cooney’s second 2022 book (a big fat novel!) Saint Death’s Daughter.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Saving the World With Science: Andy Weird – Project Hail Mary

I skipped Andy Weir’s Artemis because opinions were less than enthused and I had wondered anyway if the success of The Martian could be topped. With Project Hail Mary, however, reviews were mostly positive an it sounded cool, so I gave it a try. And I can only join most other readers in saying: Yes, it’s a great book and if you liked The Martian you will probably also enjoy this.
Also, it was one of the few books that could hold my attention at a time when my brain was in a very specific “I can’t concentrate” mode and that’s saying something.

PROJECT HAIL MARY
by Andy Weir

Published: Ballantine Books, 2021
eBook:
481 pages
Audiobook:
16 hours 10 minutes
Standalone
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: “What’s two plus two?”

Ryland Grace is the sole survivor on a desperate, last-chance mission—and if he fails, humanity and the Earth itself will perish.

Except that right now, he doesn’t know that. He can’t even remember his own name, let alone the nature of his assignment or how to complete it.

All he knows is that he’s been asleep for a very, very long time. And he’s just been awakened to find himself millions of miles from home, with nothing but two corpses for company.

His crewmates dead, his memories fuzzily returning, he realizes that an impossible task now confronts him. Alone on this tiny ship that’s been cobbled together by every government and space agency on the planet and hurled into the depths of space, it’s up to him to conquer an extinction-level threat to our species.

And thanks to an unexpected ally, he just might have a chance.

Part scientific mystery, part dazzling interstellar journey, Project Hail Mary is a tale of discovery, speculation, and survival to rival The Martian–while taking us to places it never dreamed of going

This book was a great mix of the expected and the unexpected. Andy Weir’s name is known to most SFF readers, even some people who don’t read but have seen the movie adaptation of The Martian and so certain expectations were impossible to dismiss. I was hopeing for humor, for science explained in ways that made me feel like I got it without actually understanding the deeper science (because I am not a scientist), and I expected a story with lots of dangerous situations where the protagonist MacGuyvers himself out of harm’s way last second. No spoiler: all of that can be found in this book. But there’s also more. Weir didn’t just do the exact same trick again in a different setting, he came up with both a new and compelling protagonist as well as a cool world-threatening problem to solve.

Ryland Grace wakes up in a sort of tank in a room that he doesn’t recognize and with two dead bodies lying in similar tanks. He has no memory of who excactly he is, where he is, what the hell is going on or why he knows all sorts of scientific facts when he doesn’t even know his name. It soon becomes clear that he is, in fact, on a space ship and that he has some sort of mission. Probably. It’s hazy. But it’s coming back to him in convenient flashback chapters.

The story follows Grace in the present as he figures out what the hell he’s doing in outer space and it follows the events leading up to this mission, where we learn who he is and what prompted this interstellar journey. Without giving away too much, I can tell you that a serious threat to Life on Earth is discovered and Ryland gets drawn into it as a respected scientist who gave up academia for a life of teaching. The plot on Earth was surprisingly exciting, considering that it should be the space travel bits that really get the heartrate going, but Ryland is such an easy protagonist to identify with, with his too human fears and worries, but an essentially good heart. I especially liked that he’s not the perfect cookie cutter hero. He’s not super brave. He’s just a smart man who got dragged into the most important thing to happen to humanity in forever.
We see how humanity bands together – well, they kind of have to because the entire mission is spearheaded by one absolutely bonkers but equally brilliant lady by the name of Eva Stratt. A woman with so much power, it makes for some gloriously funny moments just by itself. It’s not every day that one person can pick and choose among the armies of the world and command them around like little kids.

Just as interesting is the story that unfolds aboard the Hail Mary, which is the name of the space ship that Ryland finds himself on. As he figures out the basic premise of his space travels as well as the goal humanity hopes him to achieve, he is not only confronted with truly hard-to-face truths, but also with all sorts of obstacles. Because this wouldn’t be an Andy Weir novel if something didn’t go wrong every other chapter.
Now I went into this book pretty blank, but I think it’s okay to say that there is a little more alien life in this book than one first expects and that life varies in threat level. That’s about as vague as I can remain without outright saying it. But because it’s such an essential part of the novel and – to me – the emotional core of the story, I do have to mention that Ryland makes first contact and sciences the shit out of this encounter. In the best of ways!

What surprised me the most was that the book kept me guessing. When reading The Martian, I never, for one second, doubted that Mark Watney would make it back home to Earth because it was just that kind of book. But in this one, I kept swinging back and forth on how things could end. Will Weir deliver a properly tragic ending with Ryland saving humanity but dying in the process? Will he somehow defeat all odds and make it back home alive? Will he sacrifice himself for others or will he go into survival mode and look out for himself first? It all could have happened, and it all would have somehow fit the tone of the story. It’s still humerous and Ryland has no problem laughing at himself or the situations he finds himself in, but overall, I found this a bit more serious than The Martian and the stakes are much, much higher – as terrible as that sounds because Mark Watney was awesome but he was only one guy stranded on Mars – this is all of humanity we’re talking about here.

I honestly had no clue how things would end until I actually reached the end. And then I was surprised again! I was pretty damn happy with how the story turned out but I admit, I did not see this particular ending coming. In retrospect, it’s spot on and fitting and ties things up emotionally as well. I’m getting a little teary-eyed thinking about it. And this, my friends, is why this highly entertaining science-filled alien-encountering humanity-saving book gets a very high rating from me. Making me enjoy myself for 16 hours and getting me to cry a little is my idea of a great novel.

Speaking of 16 hours: I highly recommend the audiobook. Ray Porter reads Ryland Grace like an actor and gives the whole story an added layer of immersion. But even cooler is that, for that alien life I was alluding to not very subtly before, certain sound effects are used that made me feel like I was really listening to different creatures, not one narrator reading their lines. Otherwise, this is your standard one-person narration without any gimmicks or background music. But that little bit of added sound made a whole lot of difference to me.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

A Wonderfully Creepy Winter Ghost Story: Katherine Arden – Dead Voices

Sorry for the surprise hiatus, guys. I caught a nasty cold in early January and it’s taken a while for me to get well and then work up the gumption to write a review again. But I’m all better now and I have read quite a few books I look forward to sharing with you. 🙂

I admit, it took me way too long to get that each of Katherine Arden’s middle grade horror novels is set during a different season but once I knew that, I planned on reading the books during the “right” time. And the time for this wintery ghost-filled creepiness was now!

DEAD VOICES
by Katherine Arden

Published: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers, 2019
eBook:
256 pages
Series:
Small Spaces #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: Winter in East Evansburg, and just after dusk, five people in a beat-up old Subaru peeled out of town in a snowstorm.

Having survived sinister scarecrows and the malevolent smiling man in Small Spaces, newly minted best friends Ollie, Coco, and Brian are ready to spend a relaxing winter break skiing together with their parents at Mount Hemlock Resort. But when a snowstorm sets in, causing the power to flicker out and the cold to creep closer and closer, the three are forced to settle for hot chocolate and board games by the fire.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are determined to make the best of being snowed in, but odd things keep happening. Coco is convinced she has seen a ghost, and Ollie is having nightmares about frostbitten girls pleading for help. Then Mr. Voland, a mysterious ghost hunter, arrives in the midst of the storm to investigate the hauntings at Hemlock Lodge. Ollie, Coco, and Brian want to trust him, but Ollie’s watch, which once saved them from the smiling man, has a new cautionary message: BEWARE.

With Mr. Voland’s help, Ollie, Coco, and Brian reach out to the dead voices at Mount Hemlock. Maybe the ghosts need their help–or maybe not all ghosts can or should be trusted.

Dead Voices is a terrifying follow-up to Small Spaces with thrills and chills galore and the captive foreboding of a classic ghost story.

Ollie, Coco, and Brian are going on a ski trip with Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom and some of them are happier about this than others. Brian is all aglow dreaming of going down fast, Ollie is excited as well, and Coco… well, Coco is mostly scared but doesn’t want to be a spoilsport. She much prefers quiet games of chess to sporty outdoor activities. And oh how she hates it when Brian calls her Tiny!

I loved that this second book in Arden’s creepy quartet focuses more on Coco. The first book was all about Ollie (whom I still adore) but now that this trio of friends has formed, it was lovely to learn a bit more about the small and constantly underestimated Coco. The short girl with the pinkish blond hair who is great at climbing and has an A+ brain. I don’t read a lot of Middle Grade books and, just like with the first one in the series, I wish this would have existed when I was little. But I can still appreciate certain aspects of it as an adult.

First of all, the characters are lovely and different from each other and there’s so much to like about each one of them. And not just our three protagonists but the recurring side characters as well. I’ve been a fan of Ollie’s cooking, baking superdad since the get go and the way he takes care of everyone while they are snowed in was just as wonderful as expected. It’s still rare to read about a father figure who behaves in stereotypically mother-like ways. Being a caregiver, loving to feed people and play around in the kitchen. How refreshing! And it was equally refreshing and important how the other characters react to Ollie’s dad. Nobody finds his behavior strange, they mostly just adore his kitchen creations. 🙂

The series plot also moves forward as it looks like Ollie’s dad and Coco’s mom have formed at least a friendship, maybe more. Both Coco and Ollie have feelings about that, very different feelings. But the fact that they are best friends gives the potential pairing a different perspective and you can watch how Ollie is growing and handling the loss of her mother. The absolute loyalty between the three friends gave me endless amounts of joy, especially when they’re each dealing with complicated and new situations that they’re not sure how to handle emotionally.

But let’s not forget that this is actually a horror book. I loved Small Spaces but didn’t find it particularly scary from my adult point of view. This one started out similarly tame – characters think they see ghosts, they have strange dreams, and so on – but oh boy, does Katherine Arden turn it up by the middle! I don’t want to spoil anything for you guys, but even though I knew things would end well for our three kids, there were several moments that gave me chills and where I wasn’t certain at all how they would get out of it. If I had read this as a kid, I would have been creeped out in the best of ways.

I don’t know if each book will focus on a different character (if so, who will be the center of the last one, I wonder), but I really enjoyed getting to know Coco a bit better and especially having her be the one who does the work and saves the day. To be honest, I even got a little emotional at the end there. My instinct was to immediately pick up the next book in the series, but then I decided to stick with my plan of reading each book during the right season. So just a few more months, then I’ll dive into Arden’s springtime novel and hopefully get to see Brian as the hero.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very good!