A Book Like a Warm Hug: T.J. Klune – The House in the Cerulean Sea

Isn’t it lovely when you find a book that everybody seems to love, you open the book with trepidation because your expectations are super high, you start reading, and then the book ends up being exactly as great as everbody had said? This is such a book and I’m adding my voice to the many others recommending it, especially when you need a bit of escapism, something that will make you feel good, and give you hope for the future.

house in the cerulean seaTHE HOUSE IN THE CERULEAN SEA
by T. J. Klune

Published: Tor, 2020
eBook: 394 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line:  “Oh dear,” Linus Baker said, wiping the sweat from his brow. “This is most unusual.”

A magical island. A dangerous task. A burning secret.

Linus Baker leads a quiet, solitary life. At forty, he lives in a tiny house with a devious cat and his old records. As a Case Worker at the Department in Charge Of Magical Youth, he spends his days overseeing the well-being of children in government-sanctioned orphanages.

When Linus is unexpectedly summoned by Extremely Upper Management he’s given a curious and highly classified assignment: travel to Marsyas Island Orphanage, where six dangerous children reside: a gnome, a sprite, a wyvern, an unidentifiable green blob, a were-Pomeranian, and the Antichrist. Linus must set aside his fears and determine whether or not they’re likely to bring about the end of days.

But the children aren’t the only secret the island keeps. Their caretaker is the charming and enigmatic Arthur Parnassus, who will do anything to keep his wards safe. As Arthur and Linus grow closer, long-held secrets are exposed, and Linus must make a choice: destroy a home or watch the world burn.

An enchanting story, masterfully told, The House in the Cerulean Sea is about the profound experience of discovering an unlikely family in an unexpected place—and realizing that family is yours.

Never would I have thought that this book would get to me the way it did. After all, I had read some reviews, I had heard all the raving and squeeing about it, I knew what it was about and how it would try to push my emotional buttons. But the truth is, knowing what you’re going to get doesn’t keep you from feeling it. And, oh how I felt it!

Linus Baker is all about rules. He works for DICOMY, the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, and his job is visiting orphanages where magical kids live to see if everything is fine, if the RULES AND REGULATIONS are being adhered to or if, in some unfortunate cases, the orphanage should rather be shut down. Linus’ life is simple and straight forward. He has no dreams, no ambitions, he just has a cat named Callipe who doesn’t like him very much, a few sunfowers, and a super annoying nosy neighbor who wants to set him up with her grandson. But as Linus also has the ability to be extremely objective and doesn’t let his job get to him emotionally, Extremely Upper Management takes notice and sends him on a special, super secret investigation of an orphanage on Maryas Island.

As I write this, I am once again amazed that a book that is kind of predictable, can work so beautifully and make me so happy. Because we all know what’s coming. Linus will investigated that place, the kids (and the master of the orphanage) will steak Linus’ heart and we well all have learned a lesson about acceptance and the evils of prejudice. And yeah, it’s kind of that, butthere’s so much more to this book than that.

Starting with the writing style which I immediately fell into and just soaked up because it was everything I wanted, over the characters who not only show Linus that they are deserving of love, no matter how monstrous they may look, but who also totally carved out a spot in my heart, over the world building which reveals itself more and more over the course of the book, to the absolute delight of the found family and the real connections between them. I honestly can’t think of any comparison that would do this book justice. A warm blanket, a much-needed hug, someone holding your hand when you thought you were all alone – it’s kind of like all of those but none of them tell you all that the book is.

Every chapter brought new delights, showed a new aspect of this magical world that has its own problems, or a new side to a character, so even when there isn’t much action going on, it’s never boring. Watching Linus grow and come out of his shell a little, seeing alongside him that there can be more to life than RULES AND REGULATIONS (always in capital letters!) gave me so much joy. There were times when I wanted to crawl into this book and spend a week at the orphanage.

But this book is also really funny. I chuckled every time I read “Extremely Upper Management” or basically anytime Talia or Lucy opened theirmouths, but there are also some hilarious moments where Linus just feels out of place or accidentally shows an emotion that got me to smile.

Around his neck hanging on a chain was an orante silver cross. “He tried to shove that in my face.” Lucy laughed as he shook his head. “What does he think I am, a vampire? That’s silly. I like crosses. They’re just two sticks put together, but they mean so much to so many. I tried making a symbol out of Popsicle sticks that I could sell and get rich, but Arthur said it wasn’t right. […]”

The close I got to the end, the more I wanted to draw things out. But you know how it is with really engaging books. You can’t stop reading so the dreaded end keeps coming closer and closer. I thought I was prepared for things to come. I thought I had it all figured out. And, as far as the plot goes, I had a pretty good idea of how everything would turn out. There was a lovely twist there at the end, which I appreciated, but even without that, it would have been a great ending. I cried like a baby and then I cried some more. But it was the good kind of crying, the kind that reminds you why you love to read, why you immerse yourself in imaginary worlds, why fiction characters can feel so real.
The House In the Cerulean Sea may not have a super original premise or the most surprising plot but it does what it’s trying to do with perfection! I put all of T J Klune’s books on my wishlist immediately after reading this and I will save them up for a time when I need a reminder that there’s still good the world and that home is the people you choose to surround yourself with.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Damn excellent!

A Story For Every SFF Mood: Marjorie Liu – The Tangleroot Palace

If you know Marjorie Liu through her acclaimed graphic novel series Monstress and you happen to like said graphic novel series, then this collection is a treat you don’t want to miss. I went into it with no particular expectations – I admit the Sana Takeda cover is what made me request a review copy and I don’t regret a thing. This collection has something for everyone, there are science fiction stories, secondary world fantasies, military stories, a post apocalyptic tale, and a retold fairy tale. It is seriously good, you guys!
Thanks to Tachyon Publications for providing an e-ARC of this collection. It is much appreciated, especially since it turned out to be such a great book. 😉

tangleroot palaceTHE TANGLEROOT PALACE
by Marjorie Liu

Published: Tachyon Publications, 15th June 2021
eBook: 256 pages
Collection
My rating: 8/10

Opening line: The funeral was in a bad place, but Martha Bromes never did much care about such things, and so she put her husband into a hole at Cutter’s, and we as her family had to march up the long stone track into the hills to find the damn spot, because the only decent bits of earth in all that place were far deep in the forest, high into the darkness.

New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.

Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.

Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.


It’s a given with any short fiction collection that some stories will appeal more to certain readers than others, and this was the case with The Tangleroot Palace as well. But I have to say right away that there was only one story that didn’t work for me whereas all the others were at least very good. Maybe it’s because I didn’t know what to expect that I was so very impressed with this collection but I think it’s just the fact that Marjorie Liu is incredibly talented and this book gives a taste of all the things she’s capable of.
She easily goes from horror to fairy tale to post-apocalyptic paranormal, and why not throw in some superhero-inspired story, a handful of zobies and a defiant princess in there. All of these stories have been published before elsewhere but I highly recommend this collection, even if you’ve read one or two of its tales before.

Sympathy for the Bones (4/5 stars)

The opening story took me completely by surprise and proceded to knock my socks off. Although it’s really not long, from the very beginning, there is this dark atmosphere, this feeling that there is more underneath the surface. It’s about a young girl who has lost her parents a while ago and now lives with and is sort of apprenticed to a witch woman. This woman sews dolls which she uses to hurt or kill people, depending on what the job demands. But there are rules to this magic which are fun to learn about. And there is also a lot more to our protagonist than first meets the eye. I loved this story so much!

Briar and Rose (3.5/5 stars)

This was the only story I had read previously in the anthology The Starlit Wood although I didn’t remember any details. It’s a spin on Sleeping Beauty, one that puts women center stage, and not only in the role of the villain. The two eponymous protagonists are great characters that defy stereotypes and although the ending wasn’t as surprising or epic as I would have liked, it’s a great story that incorporates some of the darker aspects of the original tale without drifting off into grimdark territory.

Call Her Savage (2/5 stars)

This is the story that didn’t work for me, mostly because I found it confusing and felt its plot just didn’t fit into this short format. There is a whole lot of world building here but, unfortunately, by the time I had figured everything out enough to understand what was going on, the story was over. Not knowing for a long time who the characters are, what war they are fighting in, who is allied to whom, didn’t help. It’s possible I missed some clues early on, but I just felt lost for the majority of the story. When I did start to enjoy it, I had reached the end.

The Last Dignity of Man (4.5/5 stars)

Gaaah, I loved this so much! It’s about a man named Alexander Lutheran who is the genius billionaire owner of a tech company and thus identifies with Lex Luthor of Superman fame a little too much. The company’s latest experiment is creating worms that eat waste, to be put into the sewers and literally deal with the shit the city can’t handle. I don’t want to tell you any more about this story because it is so very excellent, you should enjoy it for yourselves. But let’s just say there are layers to it. On the one hand, there is the plot with the worms which is super cool. But on the other hand, it’s about Alexander’s inner life, his personal struggles, about morality and power, about love and true friendship. I just adored this!

Where the Heart Lives (4/5 stars)

This was a lovely, atmospheric ghost story turned fairy tale. It’s about people who are outsiders because they are different from the others, it’s about a girl finding a new family away from a home that doesn’t want her. It’s got some of the greatest romantic tension I’ve read in a story this short. And it turns out, it’s a sort of prequel to Liu’s series of paranormal Dirk & Steele novels which I didn’t know about but am now very interested in. Despite those covers.

After the Blood (3.5/5 stars)

This one started out a bit confusing because it seems to take place in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by zombies/vampires. The Amish are now the most powerful people in America (or at least the ones that survived the easiest because they can do without techonlogy, they know how to farm, and so on) and this is the story of a young woman with a strange gift and a large amount of cats, trying to make a life for herself. Her and two male protagonists, one of which is decidedly not human anymore, are made to feel more than unwelcome in their home. To me, this felt like a great beginning to a novel. It has a creepy, mysterious atmosphere, you want to find out what is going on, how the protagonists came to be who and where they are, and what happens next. As a story on its own, it worked okay, but I honestly would have loved to read a full novel where this was just one chapter.

Tangelroot Palace (4.5/5 stars)

The final piece of this collection is a novella that is part feminist fairy tale, part love story, and part the perfect story for my younger self. Sally is a princess but she prefers planting flowers to needlepoint. She doesn’t care that she smells of manure, she has no interest in being lady-like, she’d rather be useful. However, when her father the king finds himself in the precarious situation of almost losing his kingdom, an alliance with the feared Warlord is in order. And what better way than marrying off your only daughter to the reputed brute?
Sally is having none of it and promptly runs away on a quest to the Tangleroot Forest, a dangerous, mysterious, and feared forest that none dare enter. It is said to return people changed or not at all. But Sally’s mother – before she died – went into that forest, so there must be answers to Sally’s problems in there.
I loved every part of this story. The plucky princess, the dangerous, creepy feeling of Tangleroot, the mystery behind its magic, and especially the friendship and love story that happens along the way.

Overall, this is an excellent collection that convinced me that I have to read more by Marjorie M. Liu. The way she writes romance especially vibed with me. Understated without any cheesy declarations, the feelings between her characters usually come across through glances or gestures, through people saving each other’s lives, or making sacrifices for the person they love. It also helps that many of these tales have this fairy tale feeling to them, whether they specifically retell a certain tale – as “Briar and Rose” does – or are simply set in a world with magic in it, like in Tangleroot Palace.

I was also impressed with the writing itself. Liu can do fairy tale-esque really well, but her more horror/gothic style stories also conveyed atmosphere so easily, it felt like I was in these creepy places, seeing the knarled trees, hearing those ravens caw. The only critique I have is that some stories don’t give enough information at the start to be fully enjoyed. It takes a few pages to understand the world we’re in and by that time, the story is almost over. In a novel, it’s okay to throw your readers straight into the action and let them figure out the background information later. A short story simply doesn’t offer enough time to fill in all the blanks in time to enjoy the rest of the story. But that’s really a minor point and it only happened in a couple of stories. All things considered, I would put this collection into any SFF fan’s hands.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

The Hilarious Proof that Bread is Magic: T. Kingfisher – A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking

The fact that T. Kingfisher (aka Ursula Vernon) is a treasure to the SFF community is no secret. Having been a fan of her fairy tale retellings for many years, I am so glad that she is finally getting the acclaim she deserves. This book is not only a Lodestar finalist but, at the time I’m writing this, already an Andre Norton winner! Congratulations T. Kingfisher on a well-deserved award win! May you write many more of these hilarious books, whether for adults or children, with or without magic. I’ll read them all.

defensive bakingA WIZARD’S GUIDE TO DEFENSIVE BAKING
by T. Kingfisher

Published: Argyll Productions, 2020
eBook: 318 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7.75/10

Opening line: There was a dead girl in my aunt’s bakery.

Fourteen-year-old Mona isn’t like the wizards charged with defending the city. She can’t control lightning or speak to water. Her familiar is a sourdough starter and her magic only works on bread. She has a comfortable life in her aunt’s bakery making gingerbread men dance.

But Mona’s life is turned upside down when she finds a dead body on the bakery floor. An assassin is stalking the streets of Mona’s city, preying on magic folk, and it appears that Mona is his next target. And in an embattled city suddenly bereft of wizards, the assassin may be the least of Mona’s worries…

Mona is a 14-year-old baker who also happens to be a magician. While in this world, there are magicians who can do awesome stuff like control the weather, have super strength, call down lightning from the sky, or wield fire as a weapon, Mona’s skills are… not quite as impressive . Her magical abilities are limited to dough. Since she’s been orphaned, she’s been working in her aunt and uncle’s bakery. She makes sure the bread dough rises evenly, occasionally makes the gingerbread cookies dance for the shoppers, and generally enjoys her job. Oh, she also accidentally made a sourdough starter come to life somehow. He’s called Bob and lives in the cellar. They feed him flour but that doesn’t mean he can’t snatch a rat or two when he feels like it. Bob is great!

Mona’s life is upset when she finds the dead body of a young girl in the bakery and is promptly suspected of killing her herself. She is whisked off to the palace to be tried and from there slithers into a way bigger barrel of shenanigans than she could have suspected. Adventure, magic, conspiracies, and lots of danger ensue. After all, Mona didn’t kill that girl but the person who did seems to be assassinating magical folks exclusively.

As with anything T. Kingfisher writes, you’ll immediately notice the charming style in which this story is told. I dare you to read two pages and not love Mona! She is a sensible 14-year-old girl who makes for a great protagonist, not only because she is relatable (as much as a wizard can be, I guess) but because her concerns are so very normal. Are you one of the people who wonder why in the Lord of the Rings nobody ever has to pee? Well, Mona has a whole lot to say about that because when your bladder is full, it’s pretty tough thinking about anything other than finding a place to relieve yourself, no matter how vehemently you are accused of murder…
Her relationship to her family and her doughy familiars – namely, sourdough starter Bob and one very protective gingerbread man – are as adorable as they are funny. Seriously, this entire book manages to combine hilarious humor with serious events and believable emotional connections between characters. Even if one of them rides a dead horse skeleton.

You won’t find world building on the scale of an epic fantasy here, but what you will get is a surprisingly touching and exciting plot in which the magic system plays a vital role. Mona’s bread magic may not seem like it’s good for much but the message here is that, no matter how insignificant you may feel, there is greatness in everyone. All it takes is a bit of creativity, working together, and a quick mind. And T. Kingfisher’s characters have that in spades. They also have the uncanny ability to sneak their way into your heart. For the most part while I read this book I thought I only really cared about Mona, but woe the day when somebody threatens Bob or Mona’s aunt Tabitha. I caught myself holding my breath during moments of danger, I found myself smiling at the Duchess, fearing for Spindle (Mona’s new friend from the more unsavory parts of town), and almost crying when Mona was faced with decisions and responsibilities no 14-year-old girl should have to face. I can’t tell you how Kingfisher does it, but she is really good at making you love her characters without even realizing it.

I had so much fun reading this book, especially because the plot started out as one thing (a murder mystery with magic) and then grew and grew and ended up being rather epic. And although it is definitely a very funny book, it also has a lot of heart. I’m quite happy the story is finished and offered a satisfying ending but I would definitely not be opposed to the further adventures of Mona or her friends. Hell, I’d read a whole book about Bob if it was written by T. Kingfisher. I am so happy she got the Andre Norton Award for this. I will be gifting it to many people, especially when they look like they need a smile.

MY RATING: 7.75/10 – Excellent

More Aliens, More Politics, More Fun: Tade Thompson – The Rosewater Insurrection

One of the joys of literary awards is that they can lead you to new and interesting books. Books you would otherwise have overlooked, books you weren’t aware of, books you thought were about something completely different. Thanks to the 2020 Best Series Hugo Award, I finally picked up Rosewater by Tade Thompson and was so mesmerized that I had to continue the trilogy in what, for me, is actually a pretty prompt manner.

rosewater insurrectionTHE ROSEWATER INSURRECTION
by Tade Thompson

Published: Orbit, 2019
eBook: 400 pages
audiobook: 13 hours 13 minutes
Series: The Wormwood Trilogy #2
My rating: 7.5/10

Opening line: I am not an assassin. I’d like that to be clear, yet I am cleaning my gun as I start this telling, having already stripped and cleaned my rifle, with the intention of killing a man. Orders.

 

All is quiet in the city of Rosewater as it expands on the back of the gargantuan alien Wormwood. Those who know the truth of the invasion keep the secret.

The government agent Aminat, the lover of the retired sensitive Kaaro, is at the forefront of the cold, silent conflict. She must capture a woman who is the key to the survival of the human race. But Aminat is stymied by the machinations of the Mayor of Rosewater and the emergence of an old enemy of Wormwood…


Where Rosewater was told solely from the point of view of Kaaro, a sensitive and an agent for the secret government branch S45, this second book only spares a few chapters for him. Instead, we get alternating chapters from the POV of Aminat whom we’ve met in the first book and who works for S45 under Femi Alaagomeji, the mayor of Rosewater, Jack Jacques, Antony, and some more new characters. So this is a clear departure from the storytelling style of the first book but if anything, it made this volume easier to breeze through, much easier to follow (no multiple time lines), and it helped show new aspects of Rosewater and its particular style of alien invasion.

As we learned in the first book, aliens have already successfully invaded Earth using fungi which live inside humans with very little effect on us. Except some, like Kaaro, have been turned into so-called sensitives and can enter the xenosphere. Every human is a certain percentace fungus at this point, and Femi, Aminat’s S45 boss, is trying to find a way to reverse this. Aminat’s job is to find people with a particularly low percentage of fungus, when she stumbles across a woman who appears to be more alien than human, something unheard of. This woman, Alyssa, is actually experiencing severe amnesia. She doesn’t know who she is, only that she’s not the wife and mother her husband and child seem to think she is…

Meanwhile, Jack Jacques, the mayor of Rosewater, declares the city’s independence which leads to a whole shit show of conflict, both within Rosewater and in Nigeria. The president gest involved, there’s unrest in the streets, and something is happening in the alien biodome. So you could say, things get a little out of hand.

I loved Rosewater for its fresh ideas and its complicated and not super likable protagonist, but I have to say, I appreciated the multiple POVs here a lot. Not only did it give me characters to like as well as dislike, but it also offered different perspectives for the same event. When things go down in Rosewater andthe mayor is secure, watching things from a safe distance, Aminat is right in the middle of the action. It was a lot of fun reading about the same events unfolding from different points of view.
It also helps establishing the female characters as more than how Kaaro sees them. If you felt that the first book was a bit misogynistic in tone, I can’t really disagree, but I interpreted is as Kaaro being Kaaro. And Kaaro is a little fixated on women’s looks, especially boobs. Since Kaaro only gets a few chapters in The Rosewater Insurrection, women aren’t described in quite so much male gaze-y detail here, although Thompson still makes a point of letting us know how gorgeous Femi is and how everyone either wants her or wants to look like her. However, these mentions weren’t nearly as frequent as in the first book and women are the ones carrying this story forward for the most part, so I was okay with it.

As for the world building and the science ficitonal ideas – they were still great, but for a while I thought the trilogy had run out of steam. The xenosphere had already been introduced in Rosewater, a cool twist about the alien Wormwood had been revealed, and it didn’t feel like Thompson could come up with something intriguing enough to keep the world building fresh in this middle volume. Well, it may not be a completely new idea but I did love where he took this story. The type of alien and its plans in particular are a refreshing change to what we usually see in TV or the movies. Without giving things away, I can’t really tell you more details, but there’s new conflict and the alien situation becomes way more difficult than it was already.

Another thing I appreciate is how Thompson not only throws cool ideas into his story for the sake of having them there, but he incorporates them so that they each are improtant for the story he wants to tell. The xenosphere, for example, isn’t just there. It plays a vital part in the plot of this trilogy, as do the fungus, the reanimates, S45, and of course Wormwood’s own agenda. It all comes together really nicely and, in the case of Insurrecion, also quite violently, which gives us an exciting ending, filled with action. The ending, like in some of the best books, is also filled with hope. After I finished this book, I was pretty sure that the protagonists I was rooting for were doing the right thing, but if I’m completely honest, I can’t really know. In the third books, it could turn out that humanity has made a huge mistake. I just don’t know yet. Endings I can’t predict are my very favorites, so I’m super excited to read The Rosewater Redemption and see how things end for Aminat, Kaaro, and humanity in general. Seriously, it could go either way.

#Wyrd and Wonder Day 12: Desert Island Reads

I’ve always hated when people ask me about my one favorite book or which 10 reads I’d bring to a desert island. Why are you putting me thorugh the stress of even thinking about this?! I’m not making you choose your favorite child, am I?
Well, for Wyrd and Wonder, I’m embracing the anxiety and I know that, whatever I post here, I will immediately regret at least half of my choices and think of different, better ones. Let’s do it anyway. Because this is fun. Right?

You can find the rules here. The very basic summary is: Choose 8 books, 1 movie/TV show and 1 luxury item/whatever you want to bring to bring on a desert island with you. TV shows include all episodes, movies include all volumes if part of a fanchise. Book series count as individual books unless there’s a bindup version (Lord of the Rings would count as one book, for example).

IMAGE CREDIT: pegasus image by Svetlana Alyuk on 123RF.com

MY DESERT ISLAND READS… I’m not taking any chances here. Nothing that I haven’t read, unless it’s by one of my favorite authors.

  • The Tiffany Aching Series by Terry Pratchett
    Yes, there actually is an omnibus edition of these five books and you can imagine how happy I was that I didn’t have to choose just one Discworld book for my desert island. Although I would have loved to take all the Witch books.
  • Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine
    I’ve been meaning to re-read this book forever. It’s rather short but Valentine creates a whole world within its pages. It’s got steampunk elements, complex character dynamics, secrets and mysteries, and it’s about a wandering circus in a strangely broken world.
  • Flora’s Dare by Ysabeau S. Wilce
    Choosing the middle book of a trilogy may seem weird but it’s my favorite. It has some really great twists, the characters have grown up a bit from the first book and I just adore Wilce’s world building and writing style. Her alternate California and clever protagonist Flora are just amazing.
  • The Tallow-Wife and Other Tales Angela Slatter
    I have read the first two story collections in this loosely connected series and they are both favorites of mine. This new one is probably just as amazing so I’m bringing it even though I haven’t read it yet.
  • Nation by Terry Pratchett
    Well, you can’t have too many Pratchett books and this one especially fits the island setting. It’s a non-Discworld book but it has made me laugh and cry and fall in love with its characters. Pratchett’s deep understanding of and compassion for humanity gets to truly shine here.
  • Bone Swans by C. S. E. Cooney
    For someone who doesn’t read many collections, I sure do love a lot of them. Cooney is a poet and it shows in her prose writing as well. Her tales are fantastical, bizarre, creepy, atmospheric, inspired by fairy tales but utterly original. I adore her!
  • The Fairyland Series 1-3 by Catherynne M. Valente
    Unfortunately, only the first three books exist in a collected format but I’ll take what I can get. I don’t think I’ll ever grow tired of Cat Valente, her writing, her ideas, and especially what she did in this series. Infinitely re-readable.
  • In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
    Yeah, it kills me that there’s no edition with both volumes of The Orphan’s Tales but, fine, I’ll take the first and that’s that. Unless I should take Deathless instead?! Have I mentioned that I hate this game?

TV, MOVIE OR PODCAST… This is just mean. I want to go with a TV show, simply because more episodes means more hours of entertainment. But leaving Willow off the island? Or The Neverending Story? I guess the smart choice would be Friends but that’s not fantasy and I’m not that smart anyway. Battlestar Galactica (2003) and Deep Space Nine also aren’t fantasy so I guess I’ll just have to choose my perennial favorite Labyrinth. I’ve loved this movie since I was a child and I’m still not tired of it.

I CAN’T DO WITHOUT… I wanted to bring my boyfriend but he is far from inanimate and the rules say to bring only things. Favorite foods will only last until they’re eaten, so I think I’ll pick something more useful. How about one of those Swiss Army knives that can do practically anything? I can open coconuts, cut some wood, gut all the fish I’m catching… Yeah, I’ll go with that. 🙂

A Latinx Love Story With Ghosts: Aiden Thomas – Cemetery Boys

I had had Aiden Thomas on my radar because their newest book is a Peter Pan retelling with a gorgeous cover and I just can’t resist Peter Pan retellings that look like they do something new and interesting with one of my favorite stories. But then Thomas’ first book, Cemetery Boys, became a finalist for the Lodestar Award (not-a-Hugo but really totally a YA Hugo), so I picked that one up first. It won’t make ranking the finalists easier but it was a great reading experience.

cemetery boysCEMETERY BOYS
by Aiden Thomas

Published: Swoon Reads, 2020
eBook: 352 pages
Standalone
My rating: 7/10

Opening line: Yadriel wasn’t technically trespassing because he’d lived in the cemetery his whole life.

A trans boy determined to prove his gender to his conservative Latinx family summons a ghost who refuses to leave in Aiden Thomas’s paranormal YA debut.
Yadriel has summoned a ghost, and now he can’t get rid of him.
When his traditional Latinx family has problems accepting his true gender, Yadriel becomes determined to prove himself a real brujo. With the help of his cousin and best friend Maritza, he performs the ritual himself, and then sets out to find the ghost of his murdered cousin and set it free.
However, the ghost he summons is actually Julian Diaz, the school’s resident bad boy, and Julian is not about to go quietly into death. He’s determined to find out what happened and tie off some loose ends before he leaves. Left with no choice, Yadriel agrees to help Julian, so that they can both get what they want. But the longer Yadriel spends with Julian, the less he wants to let him leave.

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Yadriel is a young trans boy living in a brujx family. What he wants most in the world is to be accepted for who he is, and that includes being a brujo (rather than a bruja), one of the men of his community who can summon spirits and send them on to the afterlife. The only people who seem to undertand him and take him seriously are his cousin Maritza – who, as a vegan, refuses to become a bruja because they use animal blood for their healing rituals – and his tío Catriz who has no magical powers at all, despite being born into a brujx family.
Right from the start, this book has so much to offer! The first few chapters may be heavy on the exposition, but it’s exposition about interesting stuff, so I didn’t mind all that much. Getting to know how the whole brujx thing works and why Yadriel lives on a cemetery (!), as well as meeting the protagonists is important. Not every book needs a steep learning curve. Sometimes, it’s really nice to have things explained to you first, and then go and have adventures in that world.

The plot kicks off with Yadriel and Maritza secretly performing a ritual which will grant Yadriel his brujo powers – if, indeed Lady Death, sees and accepts him as the young man he is, rather than the young woman some of his family think of him. The ritual works out – YAY! – but almost at the same moment, something terrible happens. Yadriel’s cousin, Miguel, dies and because brujx are all connected somehow, every brujx feels it. The problem is, there is no body and nobody knows what happened to Miguel. Sure, they can wait for Día de Muertos, which is only a few days away, for his spirit to return and tell them how he died and where his body is, but if something went wrong and he hasn’t crossed over into the afterlife, they need to find his body and help him.

In an attempt to help his cousin’s spirit and prove to his family (and himself, a bit) that he truly is a brujo, Yadriel summons a spirit, thinking it’s Miguel. It turns out that it’s a boy from Yadriel’s school (although he isn’t there very often) named Julian Díaz. And Julian, although definitely dead, has no idea where he is, why he’s a spirit, or how he died. Bewilderment ensues.

I enjoyed this book so very much and despite the fact that I had guessed the solution to the murder mystery at pretty much the halfway mark. I guessed both the villain and the reason for Miguel’s missing body as well as Julian’s death, and my guess turned out to be exactly right. Like, not even a detail missing… You’d think that would take the fun out of this book but it really didn’t. That, to me, proves that this is about much more than just an exciting plot or solving a murder case. It’s about a wonderful cast of characters and the pretty tough things they have to go through.

I immediately liked Yadriel. The fact that he is trans is a big part of his life, mostly because his family are super traditional and don’t really take him seriously. His mother did, buying him a proper binder and making sure the rest of the family called him by his name, didn’t misgender him, etc. But his mother died not long ago in a car accident, so now Yadriel only has Maritza to truly support him and his uncle to understand what it’s like feeling like an outsider. As I have only occasionally read books with trans characters, many aspects of Yadriel’s daily life were interesting to me. I admit, I get annoyed when my boobs get in the way sometimes, but I have never thought about what it’s like to bind them up every day and how that affects your life. Yadriel’s binder isn’t mentioned all that often, but it is part of his life and if you’ve ever worn tight clothing, you know that when it doesn’t fit, it can get uncomfortable fast. When you’re running around the city, trying to find out who killed your new ghost friend, these things are important. Just as controlling what you wear or how you cut your hair can make a huge difference for your identity.

But as much as I liked Yadriel, I freaking loved Julian. I was super bummed out that, when we first meet him, he’s already a spirit. His life is officially over and all he can do now is convince Yadriel to help him check on his friends and his brother and make sure everyone’s okay. Julian has a reputation as a bad boy, a guy who never goes to school but rather hangs out with dangerous gang kids on the street. In reality, Julian is the kindest, sweetest boy you can imagine, even if he does have anger management issues. Discovering, alongside Yadriel and Maritza, what this dead boy was really like and how, even after dying, he is still trying to look out for others, is the heart of this book.
You may guess that Yadriel develops feelings for Julian, but this book isn’t super heavy on the romance. There is way too much going on for sappy moments or big declarations of love. No, what feelings there are, they are shown in small ways, through gestures or little moments. It’s my favorite kind so I don’t need to tell you that I was close to tears several times while reading this.

All things considered, this is a very good debut novel. The important (and I suspect hardest) bits are well done, the characters all feel real and fleshed out. They have agency, they are individuals but they aren’t defined by their character traits – Maritza isn’t only vegan, just the way Yadriel isn’t only trans – they are people and these things are part of what makes them, them. I also adored the world building. Sure, there are probably more elegant ways of explaining the magic and intricacies of brujx culture, but for a book aimed at a young audience, I don’t think it’s terrible to just straigh up tell your readers how things work. I loved how Thomas conveyed the feeling of Latinx families. Without ever really saying it, you totally get the feeling of large families with lots of siblings and cousins and grandparents, all living close together and watching out for each other. And cooking. Lots of cooking. 🙂

Was this a perfect book? Probably not. Or at least not for me. I don’t know what it’s like to be a trans boy out there, looking for stories with someone like themselves and coming across this book. I can only imagine that it must be delightful and wonderful, especially because it’s #ownvoices. To me, an adult, cis woman, this book was just beautiful and made me want to pick up Thomas’ next one even more. And I have to say, after guessing the solution the the biggest mystery, I was more than happy that the ending still held a few surprises in store. But that’s all I’m willing to say because you should really pick this book up and enjoy it for yourselves.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

Vonda N. McIntyre – Dreamsnake

Catching up with the winners (and finalists) of the Hugo Awards is a long-term project of mine. It’s been going mostly well, with some works that I disliked. Mostly I see the appeal, though, even if a book is not to my taste. Dreamsnake has won not only the 1979 Hugo but also the Nebula and Locus Award and so it was high up on my list of books I should really check out. It was one of the good ones. 🙂

DREAMSNAKE
by Vonda N. McIntyre

Published: Jo Fletcher Books, 1978
eBook: 288 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

Snake travels the land with her serpents, the rattlesnake Sand, the cobra Mist and the rare alien dreamsnake called Grass, whose bite can ease the fear and pain of death. But the blasted landscape of a far-future post-holocaust Earth is a dangerous place, even for such a highly regarded elite healer . . . especially when an unexpected death sends her on a desperate quest to reclaim her healing powers.

A haunting story of an extraordinary woman on a dangerous quest in a far-future post-apocalyptic world.

This is one of those books that starts as one thing and then turns into quite another. We first meet Snake when she is with a desert people with a very sick young boy. Snake’s work – and part of her character – are revealed to us through the healing of this boy. She uses her three snakes, Mist, Sand, and Grass to create a special kind of poison that will heal the boy. The dreamsnake Grass doesn’t deliver an antidote to Snake’s patients, however, but is rather there to calm them, to help them sleep, and – if the person is going to die – to ensure a serene end. Although Snake makes a friend during her stay with the desert people, she loses a snake! Without Grass, Snake isn’t a proper healer anymore so she decides to return to her people, confess the loss of her snake and hope for the best.

Dreamsnakes being incredibly rare – cloning doesn’t always yield results and breeding them just won’t work – Snake starts her journey in shame and worry. There are already too few dreamsnakes to provide every healer with one, and there are too few healers to deal with all the pain in the world. As we follow Snake on her trip, we encounter not only groups of people from vastly different backgrounds and cultures, but also get to explore this post-apocalyptic world and what has become of it.

This was such a cool book! It starts out reading almost like fantasy with Snake going through the process of making her snake produce an anti-venom to the little boy’s disease, and no mention of technology or modern living anywhere. But as soon as Snake leaves and travels from the desert to the mountains, we realize that this is not a medieval-ish setting but rather a futuristic one where alien contact has happened at least once. Because it’s the aliens who have brought, among other things, dreamsnakes.

Snake’s journey, and this book, was almost episodic but never actually felt like it. Sure, the chapters can be summed up as “where Snake meets that person” or “when Snake stays in Mountainside for a while” but she is always working towards her goal of somehow making the loss of her dreamsnake right. What she doesn’t know is that Arevin, the handsome man from the desert tribe who helped Snake with her healing treatments, is following her.
This was the first thing that impressed me in this book. Snake’s time in the desert with Arevin’s people is very short and the scene they share is even shorter. But McIntyre somehow manages to make the tension between them tangible. It doesn’t make sense but I immediately wanted these two to get together!

I was also surprised with the themes that came up in this book and how they were handled. Reminding myself that this book came out in 1978, I was happy to see diverse relationships depicted here. The sick boy from the beginning has several fathers, Snake meets a polyamorous trio on the road, and enjoys some casual sex herself.
Equally, through the lens of science fiction, the topic of euthanasia is raised. Snake states from the start that she wants to heal people, but even she knows that some diseases or wounds are too terrible to heal. And for those cases, Grass is supposed to help people die. It is never even questioned to deny a patient this treatment, which is why Snake feels so broken after losing Grass.

Until about the second third, this isn’t a particularly exciting book, plot-wise. But it is so intriguing to find out new tidbits about the world in every chapter, all organically through the plot and characters, that I was never bored. Snake is a great protagonist with a sense of responsibility, a good heart, and a strong mind. I enjoyed spending time with her, even though the mood of the book is mostly very bleak. Vonda N. McIntyre ramps up the excitement levels towards the end and delivers a pretty thrilling final “episode” that manages to bring everything together beautifully. I may have a ton of unanswered questions about this world and its history but those things aren’t important for this story to make sense and so they aren’t explained.

In the end, this is one of the books where I can’t really put my finger on why I liked it so much, I just did. The setting, characters, story, and writing all worked for me. It may be a quieter science fiction book but it gave me so much food for thought that I prefer it to an action-packed but ultimately empty sci-fi romp. Easily one of my higher up Hugo winner recommendations.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

First Contact With an Empire: Arkady Martine – A Desolation Called Peace

Arkady Martine had the hellish job of following her Hugo Award winning A Memory Called Empire with a book that was, somehow, supposed to keep up. To me, this second book set in the Teixcalaanli Empire didn’t quite live up to its predecessor but rather suffered from middle book syndrome. Nonetheless, I would still recommend it because although it fails to come up with much that’s new, it is still a very entertaining story told through fantastic characters.

A DESOLATION CALLED PEACE
by Arkady Martine

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
496 pages
Series:
Teixcalaan #2
My rating:
7.5/10

Opening line: To think—not language. To not think language.

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options.

In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity.

Whether they succeed or fail could change the fate of Teixcalaan forever.

Mahit Dzmare is back on Lsel station and people there are not happy with her. After the events of the first book, it was clear that the leaders of her home wouldn’t receiver her with open arms. For one, Mahit’s imago machine has been tampered with, leading to the tumultous events of the first book, and secondly, the secret of Lsel Station is now out as the Empire knows about imago technology and might want to use it for their own gain. So, needless to say, Mahit’s mission counts as failed. The question is, though, what they will do with her. Send her back to the Empire as an embassador? Unlikely. Have her disappear conveniently? Maybe. But thankfully, Three Seagrass and the alien fleet knocking on the Empire’s doors come to the rescue. Sort of.

I loved the introduction of some new viewpoint characters, especially Eight Antidote, the former Emperor’s 90% clone, currently an 11-year-old boy. His exploration of his city, the way he learns about the Empire, about politics, about how people work and how manipulative they can be, was just so much fun to read. Eight Antidote felt like a child but at the same time brought this immense wisdom with him. Most importantly, however, he has a good heart and quickly makes up his mind about what’s right and what’s wrong and everything in between. Through his eyes, we get to see what’s happening in the city of Teixcalaan and what’s up with Nineteen Adze.
But we also get to meet Nine Hibiscus, woh is commanding the Teixcalaanli Fleet currently fighting the aliens. Although I wouldn’t consider her a major character, her relationship with her most trusted friend Twenty Cicada carried most of the emotional impact of this book for me. Mahit and Three Seagrass, in the meantime, join up with the fleet in order to make contact with those aliens. If you ask yourself whether these two are truly the most qualified people in Teixcalaan to do that, you are right. But Arkady Martine explains that away pretty quickly. They soon figure out that, although it’s really nothing like human language and has… interesting effects on them, the aliens do communicate. As soon as they’ve worked out a way to communicate back (at least they think that’s what they’re doing), they go on a mission to see if they can bring peace to the Empire without having to engage in huge battles and losing thousands of Teixcalaanli lives.

“She hadn’t been doing nothing. She’d been trying to recover her balance, her sense of herself, the shape of a life—any life—that could encompass both Lsel Station and Teixcalaan, two Yskandrs and one of her and whoever they were going to be.”

Now here’s the thing. I had certain expectations for this book and I know that is completely unfair and the author must have felt a ton of pressure anyway. I understand that and I acknowledge it. But that doesn’t change that I had those expectations and many of them were left unfulfilled. You see, they weren’t even crazy expectations. What I wanted the most was deeper world building. I wanted to learn more about all those small aspects of Teixcalaan that we only got to see a little in the first book. It was fine to just get snippets of information in Memory because that book had its own plot and didn’t need to go off on a tangent about the Sunlit, for example. But this second book, with a much less straightforward plot, with multiple POVs and settings, was the perfect chance to tell us more about that.
We learn very, very little new stuff about the Teixcalaanli Empire in this book, and most of it has to do with how the military operates. I found that interesting, don’t get me wrong, especially the part about the Shards (no spoilers!). So there are new ideas here that fit well into this galactic empire but, compared to the first book, there’s not much to dsicover. The feeling of that sprawling, well thought-out world Martine gave us in the first promised more to come and gave the impression that the author knows much more about that world and just didn’t tell us yet. Well, she’s still not telling us I guess. Not everyone needs to be Tolkien and actually have an answer to every single world-building question a reader could have. But in a 500 page book, I would expect a bit more than just one science-fictional idea (and one that isn’t new, at that). That’s not too much to ask, is it?

But the Teixcalaan novels aren’t really about the sci-fi technology or the aliens. They are about culture and identity, about belonging somewhere and maybe wanting to belong somewhere else. And in that aspect, Arkady Martine excels yet again! Mahit Dzmare is still utterly in love with the culture that’s trying to suppress and even erase her own. She knows that’s not quite right but she can’t help herself. And her relationship with Three Seagrass doesn’t make things easier. The dynamic between these two has changed considerably since the first book. Where they used to be embassador and cultural liaison – a pair with a clear hierarchy and power structure – they are now more than that. Things got personal but that also means they are more complicated. Does Three Seagrass still think of Mahit as a barbarian? Even if she thinks this lovingly (“my barbarian”), can such a relationship really ever work out? Shouldn’t both people involved feel that the other is their equal? It’s questions like this that the book tackles and handles really well. Without giving any straight answers – because there aren’t any – Martine makes you think and ponder for yourself.

But in this book, another culture (or even species) enters the floor. And although these aliens aren’t super original either, they pose an interesting question for Mahit and the Teixcalaanli Empire. Because we know what the Empire does – it conquers and takes and grows. And, as is the case with Mahit herself, it makes its citizens love it for that. But what if you can’t even communicate with the beings you are fighting? Seeing them as animals or lesser beings is easy when you don’t share a language, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t living beings who deserve respect.

The weakest part of this was the plot. Spread out between multiple POVs, nothing much really happens. Because Arkady Martine is an amazing writer, I enjoyed the book and was never bored, but looking back at it, I can’t say it brought the story that much forward. This is very much a middle book that advances a handful of aspects but leaves us mostly where we started. And if it weren’t so damn well written I would have rated it much lower but the author already made me care fo these characters in the first book and I still care about them now. So although I think it isn’t anywhere as good or original as A Memory Called Empire, I am looking froward to the next book in the series and will continue to recommend it to everyone who likes science fiction that makes you think.

MY RATING: 7.5/10 – Very, very good

Religion on the Discworld: Terry Pratchett – Small Gods

Ah, Discworld! Going back for another adventure is like coming home to a comfortable bed after a long trip. I’m still saving up my unread Discworld novels but after one year of pandemic, various lockdowns, vaccination frustration (mainly because I’m still unvaccinated and the world is a corrupt shithole that would rather save rich people than the ones most vulnerable), it was time for a comfort read. A book I knew would make me smile and give me back some hope in humanity. Enter Terry Pratchett.

SMALL GODS
by Terry Pratchett

Published: Corgi, 1992
Paperback: 400 pages
Series: Discworld #13
My rating: 8.5/10

Opening line: Now consider the tortoise and the eagle.

‘Just because you can’t explain it, doesn’t mean it’s a miracle.’

In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was: ‘Hey, you!’ This is the Discworld, after all, and religion is a controversial business. Everyone has their own opinion, and indeed their own gods, of every shape and size, and all elbowing for space at the top. In such a competitive environment, shape and size can be pretty crucial to make one’s presence felt. So it’s certainly not helpful to be reduced to appearing in the form of a tortoise, a manifestation far below god-like status in anyone’s book.

In such instances, you need an acolyte, and fast: for the Great God Om, Brutha the novice is the Chosen One – or at least the only One available. He wants peace and justice and brotherly love. He also wants the Inquisition to stop torturing him now, please…

Terry Pratchett’s writing always gives me warm and fuzzy feelings and somehow manages to regrow my hope in humanity. I have read just over half of the Discworld novels and with every one I finish, I get a bit sadder that there are fewer left I haven’t discovered yet. Then again, Discworld is not only re-readable but practically begging to be re-read because there are always references and jokes and little asides that you don’t get on your first read. What I’m saying is I am so grateful for Terry Pratchett and his books and this one is giving me a major book hangover and I want to just continue reading Discworld for the forseeable future.

As the title suggests, this book deals with religion on the Disc, specifically with Omnianism (at least at the beginning). We follow young Brutha, a novice at the Citadel, who has no aspirations to become anything higher than that because he has no aspirations at all. He is perfectly happy doing the jobs nobody else wants to do because he is secure in his faith and knows that somebody’s got to sweep the floor and pull out the weeds in the garden. People think he is slow or even stupid when in reality, Brutha is just quite and not particularly eloquent. He is alsounbearbly honest and people just don’t know how to handle that. When, one day, an eagle drops a tortoise into the Citadel garden where Brutha is working, and said tortoise turns out to be the Great God Om who immediately curses Brutha and everyone else who comes near him, things change. Brutha is the only one who can hear the tortoise-who-says-he’s-a-god and Om realizes that his mighty smiting powers aren’t what they used to be. In fact, no smiting is happening at all, no matter how hard Om tries.

Om, Brutha, and we readers are confronted with a mystery. Omnia is, after all, an entire country built on Omnianism, the belief in the One True God Om and his Teachings. Everybody prays to Om, there are priests and high priests and even a Quisition that takes care of non-believers in their own way (you have one guess). And since gods get their strength from the number of people who believe in them, Om should be perfectly able to do all the smiting he wants. And also to take a more elegant animal shape. Bulls or swans come to mind, so why is he stuck as a tortoise, the least dignified creature imaginable?
You’ve got to love Terry Pratchett for putting complex Roundworld ideas and concepts onto the Discworld and making them not only interesting but also funny. It becomes obvious very quickly that belonging to the church in some way does not equal believing in Om. Whether it’s fear of the Quisition and its terrifying leader Vorbis, or simply not thinking about it too hard and just doing what everyone else is doing (saying the prayer but not feeling it, and so on) – rituals and words may have originated from belief but they can very well exist without belief.

As with any Discworld novel, there are myriad little jokes and references, many of which I surely missed. But I did giggle at “Fedecks, the Messenger of the Gods” and the very familiar but slightly different Cut-Me-Own-Hand-Off Dhblah. Brutha and Om form a sort of friendship by necessity. Om realizes that he better hold on to the one true believer he has and Brutha is just a good guy who’s always willing to help. I came to care about Brutha so damn much and it goes to show again what a masterful storyteller Terry Pratchett was. Here you have a character who is presented as slow, whom others consider unintelligent, but who has the purest of hearts! And as is often the case with people who are underestimated, there is more to him than meets the eye. Because although he may not be able to read or write, Brutha has an excellent memory and can recite any of the great books written by Om’s prophets.
Brutha’s abilities are soon noticed by Vorbis, head of the Quisition, and he decides to take Brutha on a trip to Ephebe, the neighbouring country where many gods are worshipped. On this journey, we don’t just see the relationhip between Brutha and Om grow, we see a lot of charachter growth in general. Om is coming to terms with his own past actions and his frail existence as a (now) small god, Brutha is learning that church and belief aren’t the same thing, and Vorbis… well, Vorbis is the type of villain who is easy to hate and even easier to fear, mostly because he is so realistic!

[…]That on the whole, and by and large, if a man lived properly, not according to what any priests said, but according to what seemed decent and honest inside, then it would, at the end, more or less, turn out all right.

Humor is super subjective, we all know that. But there must be something about Terry Pratchett that almost everyone likes. Maybe it’s that he does so many different types of humor. There’s puns, there’s situational humor, there are funny lines and jokes, and there’s the comparison to our world that can make you laugh. So even if you hate puns, there’s still plenty of other funny stuff for you to enjoy. I’m someone who can be left quite cold when authors try their hand at quippy banter (or let’s say I only like a very particular type of quippy banter) but I giggled a lot throughout this book! I did laugh at the puns, I grinned at the references I got (someone shouting “Eureka!” and someone else asking if they’re going to take a bath), I laughed at Om’s outrage at being a tortoise

Bishops move diagonally. That’s why they often turn up where the kings don’t expect them to be.

The theme of this book is religion, or rather organized religion versus true faith, and how the two are not the same thing. But dealing only with religion, corrupt priests, in/exquisitors, and misguided novices, isn’t enough for Terry Pratchett. In Ephebe, things get rather philosophical. Meeting Didactylos (the Discworld’s Diogenes) and Urn was so much fun. Through these two, something that looks a lot like our Greek philosphy turns up on the Discworld, and through Urn’s interest in mechanics and playing around with steam, you can see the first hints of an industrial revolution. And adding the atheist soldier Simony into the mix gives a nice rounded picture of the diversity of belief. Because although this book is very funny, Terry Pratchett never makes fun of religion or people who believe. He doesn’t judge faith, he only judges those who misuse it for their own personal gain, who pretend to believe in order to have power over others.

But the thing that always, always gets me most with Terry Pratchett is his characters and his deep insight into humanity. I cannot tell you how much I love Brutha and how he grew on me over the course of this story. I’ve made this book sound like it’s full of talk about religion and gods and philosophy, but don’t worry, there is also a rather exciting plot. Apart from Brutha’s journey to Ephebe (on a ship!), there is also a trip through the desert – as befits the theme of the novel – and a thrilling climax. There’s lots of danger and moments that made me hold my breath, mostly because I feared for Brutha and, occasionally, for Om.
I held back tears on several occiasions, especially when Brutha realizes something ugly about the world. Because what he does after that realization is understand that, while other people may be greedy and ruthless, that’s now what he is like. So even when he has the chance to let a properly evil person die, he won’t do it. Why? Because it’s not right!

I think every reader of the Discworld novels has their favorite sub-series (mine is the Witches). This book is a standalone, meaning there will be no more stories about Brutha or the other characters. That doesn’t mean that some familiar characters don’t show up. Some of you may remember a certain History Monk named Lu-Tze and – of course – Death himself. I am a little sad that this is the only book with Brutha I’ll ever get to read but it was so impactful and so much fun that I don’t doubt I will re-read it someday. And now I’ll curl up and nurse my book hangover while poring over my Discworld Mapp and maybe cooking something from Nanny Ogg’s cook book.

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Bloody excellent!