Just A Bit of Light Murder (With Clones): Sarah Gailey – The Echo Wife

If the last few years have taught me anything, it’s that Sarah Gailey reliably publishes original and cool SFF. I have yet to read their American Hippo novellas, I wasn’t a huge fan of Upright Women Wanted but I have adored all their novels so far, even the one where people try to get away with murder and you’re rooting for them to succeed…
The Echo Wife has a bit of murder as well, although it’s much more about when is a person a person and what does that even mean.

THE ECHO WIFE
by Sarah Gailey

Published: Tor, 2021
eBook:
256 pages
Standalone
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: My gown was beautiful.

“When they said all happy families are alike, I don’t think this is what they meant…”

Evelyn Caldwell’s husband Nathan has been having an affair — with Evelyn Caldwell. Or, to be exact, with a genetically cloned replica.

After a morning that begins with a confrontation and ends with Nathan’s body bleeding out on the kitchen floor, the two Caldwell wives will have to think fast—before sharing everything includes sharing a jail cell.

The Echo Wife is a non-stop thrill ride of lies, betrayal, and identity, perfect for fans of Big Little Lies and Killing Eve.

Evelyn Caldwell is a highly driven, super successful scientist who has just been awarded a prize for her work creating clones. As much as she enjoys her success, she also has a secret. Her very freshly divorced ex-husband has been cheating on her (thus the divorce) but he isn’t just your average cheating dude. No, he was apparently almost happy with Evelyn as his wife. She just wasn’t quite perfect enough for him. So it only makes sense that the woman he’s been cheating with is a clone of Evelyn, slightly altered to be just a bit nicer, a bit more of a family person, a bit more accommodating and friendlier, a bit better than the original Evelyn…

With a premise such as this you can only imagine what kind of a story Sarah Gailey can weave. I simply adored this book because, like all of the best novels, it has layers than can each be enjoyed individually or as a whole that comes together beautifully. On the surface level, this book is a thriller. Nathan’s new-and-improved (maybe, maybe not really?) wife Martine ends up stabbing the guy and being a big secret herself – obviously you can’t just clone people willy-nilly – she calls th eonly person who knows of her existence and is still alive: Evelyn. Evelyn really, really doesn’t want to help Martine. The fact that she exists and is such a blatant image of everything that Nathan felt was wrong with Evelyn is just too much! But if Martine gets found out, it will cause a scandal which might threaten Evelyn’s further research and besmirch her reputation… So the two team up and try to get away with murder. Which is exactly as difficult as you think, and then some.

But on a deeper level, Gailey explores so many themes that make this more than “just” an SF thriller. Starting with Evelyn herself, who doesn’t at all fit the clichéd gender norms people might still have for women. First of all, she’s a scientist and she burns with passion for her job, although that passion may not look the way you’d think. She doesn’t hold great speeches, but she simply adores what she does, she’s exact, she’s strict with herself, she sticks to the rules (always double up on the gloves) and she doesn’t accept mistakes. Which is why her lab assistants usually flee after a few weeks… Except for Seyed who seems completely resilient to her moods and does the work admirably. Their relationship isn’t exactly warm, but it is a great partnership that works for the job they’re trying to accomplish.
Then there’s the fact that Evelyn, unlike her husband Nathan, has no desire to have children. Ever. I’m seeing this more and more in fiction and I love that it is represented as a simple choice, not something wrong with a woman. Evelyn is rocking her career and has never felt particularly motherly, so why should she feel the need to have a child simply because she is female?

Possibly the most intriguing character, though, is Evelyn’s clone Martine. The fairly obvious question of whether Martine “counts” as a human or not is only one of many that I asked myself while reading this book. Since Evelyn isn’t a very likeable character, Martine is represented more as a product or a thing rather than a human woman, even though – for all intents and purposes – she is exactly like Evelyn, if Evelyn had had different influences in her life. And perfect skin because it was only made last year…
But Martine’s character is about much more than just her human-ness or inhuman-ness. I had no problem seeing her as a person with her own wishes and desires, but then comes the question of where those desires came from. Are they something that she simply wants, like some of us simply want to pursue our hobby, be taht playing a musical instrument or, say, reading. Or are her desires simply what has been programmed into her brain. And how does that make her different from any of us, who may not have been programmed by another human but who are also influenced and guided by the world and people that surround us, by our experiences?

I have no answers for those questions and The Echo Wife also doesn’t try to give you one either. Rather, it nudges you to think for yourself, to ponder these ideas, to look at humans and science for what it can achieve and whether just because you can, you should (yes, I totally have the Jurassic Park line in my head right now).

Sarah Gailey has once more proved that they can write a damn good book about whichever topic takes their fancy. The tension arcs work really well here and whenever you think one mystery has been solved or one problem gotten rid off, there’s something new waiting to be excited about. I loved this book on every level. The storytelling, the plot, the characters, and the twists. The writing flows as it should in a thriller and makes it hard to put the book down. I am still unsure about the ending. On the one hand, I find it perfect, on the other hand, it leaves some things about the future open. I’ll have to think about that some more, but my overall reading experience was fantastic!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

Horror for Kids: Katherine Arden – Small Spaces

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

SMALL SPACES
by Katherine Arden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Third Time’s The Same Old Boring Stuff: Isaac Asimov – Second Foundation

My opinion of Isaac Asimov, his writing abilities, and his position as one of the greats of science fiction, wasn’t that great to begin with. But reading the Foundation Trilogy (which was later turned into a longer series) pretty much makes me question earlier generations and their taste in fiction. I also don’t get how publishers let Asimov get away with writing the same story three times and publishing it as if it’s something new…

SECOND FOUNDATION
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1953
eBook:
227 pages
Series:
Foundation #3
My rating:
3.5/10

Opening line: The First Galactic Empire had endured for tens of thousands of years.

When the First Foundation was conquered by a force Seldon had not foreseen – the overwhelming power of a single individual, a mutant called the Mule – the second Foundation was forced to reveal its existence and, infinitely worse, a portion of its power. One man understood the shifting patterns of the inhabited cosmos. This was Hari Seldon, the last great scientist of the First Empire.

The mathematics of psychohistory enabled Seldon to predict the collapse of the Empire and the onset of an era of chaos and war. To restore civilization in the shortest possible time, Seldon set up two Foundations. The First was established on Terminus in the full daylight of publicity. But the Second, at the other end of the galaxy , took shape behind a veil of total silence.

Because the Second Foundation guards the laws of psychohistory, which are valid only so long as they remain secret. So far the second Foundation’s location, its most closely guarded secret of all, has been kept hidden. The Mule and the remnants of the First Foundation will do anything to discover it. This is the story of the Second Foundation.

Wow, I can’t believe this got published the way it did and that people actually ate that shit up… I have rarely read such an overhyped, totally undeserveing of its acclaim, classic as this.
Asimov spends pages upon pages re-explaining the same thing to us, over and over again. That thing is the Foundation, how it came to be, and its purpose. So basically the first chapter of the first book. You’ll get to read that crap in every single Foundation book and also have every character explain it to another character several times throughout that book. Which doesn’t leave all that many pages for, you know, an actual new story. And that’s because Asimov really doesn’t have a new story to tell, he just wanted to milk this idea he had for all it was worth.

This impression is only strenghtened by the fact that each book ends with a sort of cliffhanger. The follow-up book then adresses the rest of this story and only then starts a new larger story arc. Which, again, is finished only in the next book. So I guess Asimov wasn’t lying in his introduction, when he said he wanted to make sure they’d publish another book by him. He pulled the same trick (how very clever) several times to get book deals. Now if only he were a proper storyteller. Alas, all he can do is repeat himself.

So Second Foundation begins with the finale to the Mule story arc which made me angry in so many ways, and only then begins a new story, which actually has to do with the Second Fondation that Hari Seldon said he would set up “at the other end of the galaxy”. At this point, it really wasn’t clear whether Second Foundation was good because its people are a safety net for the first Foundation working the way it should, or whether Second Foundation was the enemy and needed to be defeated by the first Foundation so the first Foundation can take over the galaxy. And ultimately, as the goal is always and exclusively world domination, I couldn’t care either way and I hated the premise. I don’t want to root for anyone in these books because the characters all have the same personality anyway and nothing they do makes any difference.

The problem is that Asimov was so in love with this trope one of his that he turned it up to eleven making anything that happens essentially worthless. You see, when every chapter is one person being secretly so much cleverer than the other person and then, in the end, explaining how they tricked the other person, that can be fun once or maybe twice. That’s all the first book was, chapter after chapter. But if every chapter works that way, it gets old fast. And if – like in Second Foundation – you do this Batman Gambit within a Batman Gambit three times in a row, it really loses all value. What was the point of reading this story if none of what happened, none of the character actions, mean anything?Because it turns out, everyone who outsmarted someone else was in turn outsmarted by yet another player in the endless game that doesn’t even have stakes. Because remind me what the point of all this is? Building a Galactic Empire again in 1000 instead of 30000 years. In the meantime, people are living on various planets, science and technology are evolving, politics are politicking, and so on… And because Hari Seldon’s plan is basically infallible, nothing any one person does can change the course of history anyway. So WHAT’S THE POINT of telling meaningless “stories” set in this world??

Speaking of the world. I had to think of a certain Sad Puppy argument from a few years ago that, back then, science fiction still used to be about science and epic space battles, and sense of wonder and ideas. And I can now definitely say that they can’t have meant Asimov with that. Because there is no world building whatsoever. People are said to live on different planets but there is neither any difference between these planets (other than the fucking weather), nor is there anything much to travelling between them. Who needs science, after all? Distances in the galaxy? Just say “parsec” and “lightyear” a lot and it will sound spacey and sciencey… And then the whole premise of this book is a group of magicians threatening the Foundations. I’m serious, the Second Foundation, which is supposed to consist of nothing but psychologists, can basically mind-control people… with “science”. Don’t make me laugh!
And that doesn’t even take into account the convenient ease with which new inventions are brought about just when needed. Any character either just has had a magical gimmick all along or just quickly invents it because he needs it to defeat the current bad guy. Who will turn out to have been a good guy after all, controlled by the real bad guy. Who then turns out to have been outwitted by someone else. Does it seem like I’m a bit tired of the trope? Because I really am.

Seriously, the more I think about this series, the stupider it is. Asimov’s one cool idea basically ruined any story told within that world because it preempts the outcome. Just for a moment, when he actually made a 14-year-old girl named Arcadia one of the main characters, a proper protagonist in her own right, I got interested again. But the casual mysogyny and ultimate meaninglessness of Arcadia’s cleverness destroyed all pleasure I might have felt.
Oh and it’s not just mysogyny here. There is a tremendous amount of hate directed at all sorts of people. Old people, young people, and especially people with physical deformities. Neurodiverse people are called names and completely disregarded as if they’re not even human. I mean, the whole idea behind the Mule is that he’s too skinny and has a large nose and that’s why he was bullied and now wants to take over the Galaxy… And it’s equally terrifying that being physically unattractive is apparently bad enough in Asimov’s world to make someone a “monster” and a “freak” in everyone’s eyes.

So yeah, I have very little to say about this that’s good. I did honestly enjoy a part in the middle of this book when Arcadia went on an adventure, but as all that happened to her, turned out to have been for nothing, that doesn’t really save the book. And as in his third book, Asimov still hasn’t learned how to write a story, how to create characters or an interesting world, I don’t see much reason to continue this series. That said, the next book did win a Best Novel Hugo Award and it was written 30 years later. So I have the tiniest glimmer of hope that even someone as full of himself as Asimov may have learned a thing or two in that time. The hope is slim, however, so if I ever do read that fourth book, it will be a long time until I find the motivation for that…

MY RATING: 3.5/10 – Bad

The Beginning of a Beautiful Friendship: Becky Chambers – A Psalm for the Wild-Built

Although I’ve only read two of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer novels plus her fantastic novella To Be Taught if Fortunate, I was as excited as the rest of the SFF community for the first volume in her new novella series about a tea monk and a robot. Chambers’ trademark hopeful writing, delightful and diverse characters, and original world building are something I’m always in the mood for.

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT
by Becky Chambers

Published: Tordotcom, 2021
eBook:
160 pages
Series:
Monk & Robot #1
My rating:
8/10

Opening line: If you ask six different monks the question of which godly domain robot consciousness belongs to, you’ll get seven different answers.

In A Psalm for the Wild-Built, Hugo Award-winner Becky Chambers’s delightful new Monk & Robot series gives us hope for the future.

It’s been centuries since the robots of Panga gained self-awareness and laid down their tools; centuries since they wandered, en masse, into the wilderness, never to be seen again; centuries since they faded into myth and urban legend.

One day, the life of a tea monk is upended by the arrival of a robot, there to honor the old promise of checking in. The robot cannot go back until the question of “what do people need?” is answered.

But the answer to that question depends on who you ask, and how.

They’re going to need to ask it a lot.

Becky Chambers’s new series asks: in a world where people have what they want, does having more matter? 

Dex is a monk whose life is missing something. They don’t quite know what it is or why, because technically they have everything they could want. Family, friends, a lovely home in the city… but one day, they get a longing for the sound of crickets that just won’t let up. So Sibling Dex decides to just pack up their stuff and become a travelling tea monk. Along the way, they eventually stumble across a robot which upsets not only Dex’s life but could also mean change for humanity as such. Because when robots gained consciousness, humanity ended up releasing all robots into the wild and they haven’t been seen since. Except, of course, for this robot named Mosscap, who is now in Dex’s path…

I’m pretty sure you already expect that this book is delightful, and you are absolutely right. Just like with Becky Chambers’ other books, this isn’t just a simple straight-forward story, but a tale with many layers. I’ll try to squee about them one at a time, lest this review turn into incoherent fangirling.

I immediately loved the tone of the writing which is a little bit different than expected. First of all, although the story takes place on a moon on which humanity has finally managed to live mostly in harmony with nature and each other, things aren’t all perfect. Or at least, humans aren’t. Our protagonist Dex who goes by they/them and doesn’t belong t oany gender has this strange feeling of dissatisfaction which kicks the whole story off. The way Chambers describes this emotion of feeling like you should be perfectly happy with your life but for some reason just aren’t, that was so damn relatable it hurt!
Very similarly, Dex’s journey to learning a new skill and taking on a new job, felt so utterly real it made me laugh. Dex thinks they know what a tea monk does and just… tries it. Their very first customer isn’t quite as pleased as she should be after visiting a tea monk and Dex quickly understands that there is way more to their new job than they expected.

You see, a tea monk serves tea to people who just need a break. I adore this concept and wish we had something like this in our world! Dex travels with their wagon (which is self-sustainable and super cool, btw) from city to city to village to city again, sets up their cushions and tables and chairs, and just listens to people. Whether it’s stressed out people, depressed people, or perfectly happy people who just enjoy the company, Dex is there for them and always has just the right kind of tea to make them all feel better.

It’s only after Dex has become really good at this whole tea monking thing that this strange feeling creeps up again, this sense that this is not enough. And that’s when they meet Mosscap, an actual honest-to-gods robot who’s on a mission of its own. Mosscap volunteered for the job of checking in on humanity and finding out what we need. Which, obviously, isn’t a question one tea monk can answer just light that. And so it’s decided that Mosscap will accompany Dex on their journey for a while, to learn about humans and our ways, and maybe to teach Dex a thing or two in return.

Oh, how I adore Mosscap! Mosscap not only teaches us interesting things about what robots have been doing all this time since they left humanity to their own devices, but it also brings this childlike joy at everything the world has to offer. Reading this book had a similar effect on me as watching a baby or toddler explore the world and being totally awestruck at something we adults take for granted. There is this sense of wonder at (to us) unremarkable things that make the world feel just slightly more magical.

Most of the second half of the novella is conversations between Dex and Mosscap, some more philosphical than others, dealing with all sorts of subjects and nicely showing that opposite opinions can still find common ground. There’s glimpses of super cool world building, and not just in the way cities are built or how humans live without destroying the nature that surrounds them, but also in terms of religion and tradition and the different types of monks there are. There is the friendship that’s slowly growing between Dex and Mosscap, although you can’t expect the bond to grow very strong in just one book (which I like – it’s like an insta-friendship antidote). But Dex does open up to Mosscap and Mosscap shows just how human a robot can be. This is clearly the beginning of a wonderful friendship and I for one can’t wait to go on the next adventure with these two.

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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

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

THE EMPIRE OF GOLD
by S. A. Chakraborty

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

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

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

Daevabad has fallen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 7.25/10 – Very good

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

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

THE EYE OF THE WORLD
by Robert Jordan

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

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

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

Let the Dragon ride again on the winds of time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6.25/10 – Good

Still Mostly Meh: Isaac Asimov – Foundation and Empire

Ages ago, I read the first Foundation book because it’s a sci-fi classic and on all the “Best SF” lists and all that other jazz. I found it okay then but now that the book series is being turned into a TV show, I wanted to both refresh my memory and finally continue the series. Turns out, my second reading of Foundation was exactly as middling as the first one. I did continue and read the second book, though, and that experience – although a teensy bit better – was similarly meh.

FOUNDATION AND EMPIRE
by Isaac Asimov

Published: Harper Voyager, 1951
eBook:
240 pages
Series:
Foundation #2
My rating:
5/10

Opening line: The Galactic Empire Was Falling.

WINNER OF THE HUGO AWARD FOR BEST ALL-TIME SERIES

The Foundation series is Isaac Asimov’s iconic masterpiece. Unfolding against the backdrop of a crumbling Galactic Empire, the story of Hari Seldon’s two Foundations is a lasting testament to an extraordinary imagination, one whose unprecedented scale shaped science fiction as we know it today.

The First Foundation survived two centuries of barbarism as the once-mighty Galactic Empire descended into chaos. Now it mist prepare for war against the remnants of the Empire as the Imperial fleet advances on their planet, Terminus.

Hari Seldon predicted this war; he even prepared his Foundation for it. But he couldn’t foresee the birth of the mutant Mule. In possession of a power which reduces fearsome opposition to devoted slaves, the Mule poses a terrible threat to Seldon’s Foundation.

This book is comprised of two stories. The first one is simply a continuation of what was done in the first book – namely a Seldon Crisis which is resolved by one dude being slightly cleverer than another dude, and also “fate”. Because Hari Seldon predicted the various crises the Foundation would encounter, and he also predicted that by the laws of psychohistory the Foundation has a super high chance of surpassing all those obstacles, there’s not really all that much excitement left. We know ahead of time the Foundation will continue to strive, no matter what kind of problem comes up next. So by creating Hari Seldon, Asimov made it harder for himself to build up tension.

The second, much longer, part of this book is called “The Mule” and it can almost be called a proper story. There’s multiple character POVs, we travel different parts of the galaxy, there’s a big threat to the Foundation, and there’s some new political stuff coming up. Again, a big problem for me was the utter lack of tension throughout the whole story. I knew the Foundation would come out on top because that’s the entire point of this series. So why should I worry that a mysterious conquerer who calls himself The Mule is apparently defeating Foundation forces left and right?

Asimov’s characters are still as bland and interchangeable as in the first book. It literally doesn’t matter who is talking to whom. You could literally exchange the people with talking cats and it wouldn’t change a thing about the story (well, it would make it more awesome). Nobody has a personality because this is not the kind of book that’s actually trying to tell a riveting story or make its readers feel empathy for its characters. It’s a vessel for ideas and, in my opinion, those ideas were transported well enough in the first book. I don’t need a second book to tell me the exact same ideas, slightly differently.
But – color me surprised – one of those bland characters is a woman! Who gets to speak!! And who even has a vital role in the tale!!! Never mind all the microaggressions, the sexist remarks, the obvious disregard for women in general, at least we have proof that there are women in Asimov’s galaxy. Despite this revolutionary development, I found that the whole Mule story dragged along unnecessarily and the twist ending was super obvious and lacked any impact whatsoever. Again, Asimov is his own worst enemy because of course the “good guys” win and the Foundation is safe.

Speaking of “good guys” – I find the entire premise of this series quite disturbing. When it was all about preserving humanity’s knowledge, it was one thing. But what it has always really been about is power and colonization and gaining control over everything through a massive galactic empire. Why the hell should I root for that?

I don’t think it’s all that surprising that many of the so-called science fiction classics didn’t age well. Asimov’s idea of psychohistory is still pretty cool, and the Foundation series doesn’t have much more to offer in terms of sfnal ideas (so far), but everything that surrounds it, every tiny little bit of worldbuilding or character work I could find in this rather mediocre story is really rather startling in its misogyny, blind love for the military and colonization, hunger for power for power’s sake, and totally casual hate towards neurodiverse people.

This book also makes me wonder at this so-called golden age of science-fiction. Sure, many of the ideas that came up at the time must have felt new and exciting, but didn’t people also care about storytelling? Because, as interesting as certain ideas may be, they are rather worthless if the story about them sucks. Having just re-read the first Foundation book and then going straight into this one, I did notice that Asimov’s writing style has evolved, although he continues to do the same thing over and over again, just slightly better told. At least now we get some descriptions of surroundings, of how a given planet works, instead of just two men standing in a room trying to outsmart each other.

I’m still going to read the third Foundation book just so I have finished what was then The Foundation Trilogy but I very much doubt I’ll check out the rest of the series. This trip to a distant past that many people seem to glorify is just not for me.

MY RATING: 5/10 – Utterly meh!

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

P. Djèlí Clark is one of the most exciting authors in SFF right now who stole our hearts with his stories set in an alternate historical version of Cairo where djinn live among humans and the supernatural needs its own police. My personal favorite of his works is the amazing Ring Shout (which is going to win all the awards this year, I’m sure of it!), but I was nonetheless excited to read Clark’s first full-length novel. Someone who builds entire worlds in a novella can only do great stuff with a novel.

A MASTER OF DJINN
by P. Djèlí Clark

Published: Tordotcom/Orbit, 2021
eBook:
401 pages
Audiobook:
15 hours 37 minutes
Series:
Dead Djinn Universe #3
My rating:
6.75/10

Opening line: Archibald James Portendorf disliked stairs.

Nebula, Locus, and Alex Award-winner P. Djèlí Clark returns to his popular alternate Cairo universe for his fantasy novel debut, A Master of Djinn

Cairo, 1912: Though Fatma el-Sha’arawi is the youngest woman working for the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities, she’s certainly not a rookie, especially after preventing the destruction of the universe last summer.

So when someone murders a secret brotherhood dedicated to one of the most famous men in history, al-Jahiz, Agent Fatma is called onto the case. Al-Jahiz transformed the world 50 years ago when he opened up the veil between the magical and mundane realms, before vanishing into the unknown. This murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to condemn the modern age for its social oppressions. His dangerous magical abilities instigate unrest in the streets of Cairo that threaten to spill over onto the global stage.

Alongside her Ministry colleagues and her clever girlfriend Siti, Agent Fatma must unravel the mystery behind this imposter to restore peace to the city – or face the possibility he could be exactly who he seems…

It isn’t often that I discover an author through a work of short fiction, but with P. Djèlí Clark, I couldn’t help but be impressed by his novellas and then continue to read some short stories as well. The world he has set up for the Fatma el-Sha’arawi series is this really cool blend of alternate history, steampunk Egypt with djinn and magic and a supernatural police. I mean, what’s not to love? A full-length novel set in this world was exactly what us SFF readers were hoping for.

As much as I was looking forward to this book, as difficult do I now find it to talk about it. On the one hand, it was a lot of fun to read. On the other hand, it has many problems, some of which bothered me more than others but the overall feeling is a mix of disappointment (because there was so much potential) and indifference. This was fun to read and I enjoyed myself but it’s nothing like Ring Shout, a story that still sticks in my head and gives me goosebumps when I think about it.

This starts as a really cool murder mystery. When an entire cult gets burned alive (only their bodies though, their clothes stay intact), it’s clear that this is a case for Fatma el-Sha’arawi. She’s right on the case when a partner is thrust upon her. Fatma prefers to work alone so the fact that this new partner is a woman doesn’t help to say her. Who neeeds a rookie trailing along when there’s supernatural murderers to catch and an impostor al-Jahiz to uncover? But as anyone would notice, it’s the perfect recipe for a buddy cop story. I was actually looking forward to the Hadia and Fatma dynamics and watching them grow closer over the course of the police procedural. But that just goes to show that expectations are a dangerous thing and most of them weren’t fulfilled in this case.

First of all, Fatma and Hadia don’t actually do all that much policing and that made them both appear more passive than they should be. The whole police procedural is them showing up somewhere, either being told straight up where to go next or being given a clue by somebody else and then moving on to the next place or person where, in turn, somebody will give them vital information and send them on their merry way. This repeats until things become so obvious even I figured them out. Okay, maybe this book’s focus isn’t supposed to be the actual mystery or the police work. That’s fine. The world has much more to offer of course. Cool and diverse characters, for example.
Except Clark departs from his usual way of writing characters and turns certain things up to eleven. Fatma’s bowler hats and English suits are a nice gimmick but, let’s face it, they aren’t really important to the plot, especially at the time this story takes place. She has already gained a lot of respect from fellow police (a fact I didn’t quite understand judging from the previous story but okay) and her choice of wardrobe is there mainly just for fun. We get a lot of wardrobe changes in A Master of Djinn and most of them have no impact on the plot or characters at all.

What I found the most interesting – a plot string that got sidelined very quickly in favor of blowing up the murder mystery into a let’s-save-the-world kind of problem – was the relationship between Fatma and her new partner Hadia as well as Fatma and her sort of girlfriend Siti. Fatma is… let’s say reluctant to accept a partner at all, so when she is told she has to work with the super eager hijab-wearing Hadia, she is less than thrilled. The clash between the two was to be expected and I was looking forward to reading about how they learn to work together nonetheless, how they bond over time, how they solve this mystery together. There is some of that, but for large chunks of the book, this part of the plot seems to be completely forgotten. The fresh partners spend a lot of time apart.

I did adore Fatma and Siti’s relationship (even if the audiobook narrator gave Siti an overly seductive voice all the time) and how they deal with the challenges dand dangers they encounter along the way. And I’m not even talking about the fact that they are two women who love each other but life-threateneing danger and life-shatttering revelations. It felt like they have a history that happened prior to this book, they felt comfortable enough in their ways, but they were still a fresh enough couple that they can learn new things about each other. This was probably my favorite part of the entire book.

I was a little flustered by the direction the plot took in general. Like I said, it starts out one way – as a simple enough, albeit supernatural and quite disturbing – murder mystery. But the more stations Fatma checks out on her way to the solution, the more people, organizations, religions, and historical artifacts get intertwined into it all. Normally, that’s something I love about books. Tales that seem small at first but then grow larger and larger and only show the whole picture at the very end. For some reason that I can’t quite define, I didn’t enjoy it here. I felt let down, betrayed even because my expectations weren’t fulfilled at all. There was just too much of everything crammed into too few pages – and yes, I’m aware I’m talking about a 400 page book. But I didn’t get the buddy cop tale, I didn’t get two clever policewomen actually working their way toward the truth, and I didn’t get the cool “and here’s how the murderer did it” at the end, at least not in the way I had hoped because the murderer had all sorts of other plans.

But as negative as that sounds, I can’t say that there was a moment while reading (or rather listening to) this book that I didn’t enjoy at least to some degree. Suheyla El-Attar does a great job with voices and accents, her reading is engaging and with the exception of Siti’s constant sexy voice, I adored the audiobook version. I’ve been writing/deleting/rewriting this review for a few weeks now because I just don’t know how to feel about this book. I liked it but I also wanted more. But don’t think for a second that this will keep me from pouncing on whatever P. Djèlí Clark publisheds next.

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

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

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

THE FATED SKY
by Mary Robinette Kowal

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

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

THE SECOND IN THE NEBULA AND LOCUS AWARD-WINNING SERIES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 8.5/10 – Excellent!

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

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

THE WOLF AND THE WOODSMAN
by Ava Reid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

MY RATING: 6/10 – Good