Sylvia Spruck Wrigley – Domnall and the Borrowed Child

After a shaky start, the Tor.com novella lineup has been nothing short of excellent. I haven’t read all the titles yet (working on it) but I want to tell you about this new addition which comes out  – drumroll – today! If you’ve been reading big, epic books with ambitious world-building and multi-layered characters, if you just need a break, some time to breathe with a short fun tale, pick this one up.

domnallDOMNALL AND THE BORROWED CHILD
by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 112 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 6,5/10

First sentence: For centuries – more than that, millennia! – since the beginning of time itself, the fae had celebrated the Spring by finding the bluebells and creating a faerie ring.

The best and bravest faeries fell in the war against the Sluagh, and now the Council is packed with idiots and cowards. Domnall is old, aching, and as cranky as they come, but as much as he’d like to retire, he’s the best scout the Sithein court has left.
When a fae child falls deathly ill, Domnall knows he’s the only one who can get her the medicine she needs: Mother’s milk. The old scout will face cunning humans, hungry wolves, and uncooperative sheep, to say nothing of his fellow fae!

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Domnall doesn’t have it easy. He’s one of the Fair Folk, but few remain that hold with the old ways. Fairies nowadays are scared and careful and hide away under their hill, not like it used to be. But whenever there’s trouble, who do they run to? Domnall, of course. No need to be sneaky and hide from the humans – he’s a fae, after all, and proud of it. They used to run about all over the place, making fairy rings, enchanting humans, drinking fresh dew…

Domnall and the Borrowed Child tells exactly the story you’d expect from the title. Domnall has to exchange the sick Sithein girl for a human child, so the fae can get human mother’s milk – a cure-all for fairy diseases. But of course, things don’t go smoothly. Domnall manages to swap babies somehow but forgets that the human baby, now under the hill among the Sithein, also requires milk or else it will scream its head off. But he can’t exactly milk the mother, so sheep will have to do. And milking sheep is no easy task. Domnall stumbles from one disaster into the next, just trying to do the best he can.

Along the way, he gets help by the young Sithein Micol and I think there were supposed to be romantic undertones in their relationship. I didn’t feel those at all, because to me, Domnall was much, much older than Micol (and he is, 100 years older at least) and so I was rather hoping for a friendship. Domnall’s character is lovable, if somewhat one-dimensional. The plot was fun and quick-moving and adorable in many ways. It also fell a little flat because it was such a straight-forward fairy story. This may very well be my own fault because I have been spoiled rotten with wonderful subversions of fairy tales, lately, so Domnall is not to blame.

I have very little to say about this book, other than that it was cute and I’d totally pick up another of Sylvia Spruck Wrigley’s stories. This wasn’t the kind of story that sticks in your mind, not the kind that makes you think deep thoughts or question the world around you. But it was highly entertaining, a romp through the fairy hills, with a Sithein who’s essential just a good guy with a grumpy exterior. Lovely.

MY RATING: 6,5/10 – Quite good

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Second opinions:

Paul Cornell – Witches of Lychford

It’s funny that I’ve never read anything by Paul Cornell before. I really like the guy, I have listened to every episode of the SF Squeecast, I enjoyed his presentation of the Hugo Awards a few years ago, and I generally like what he has to say on the interwebs. So no pressure, Paul, but I had high hopes for this novella. And it passed with flying colors. I was enchanted and creeped out and just completely enjoying this well-paced, well-written story about three witches.

witches of lychfordWITCHES OF LYCHFORD
by Paul Cornell

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 144 pages
Series: Lychford #1
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Judith Mawson was seventy-one years old, and she knew what people said about her: that she was bitter about nothing in particular, angry all the time, that the old cow only ever listened when she wanted to.

Traveler, Cleric, Witch.
The villagers in the sleepy hamlet of Lychford are divided. A supermarket wants to build a major branch on their border. Some welcome the employment opportunities, while some object to the modernization of the local environment.
Judith Mawson (local crank) knows the truth — that Lychford lies on the boundary between two worlds, and that the destruction of the border will open wide the gateways to malevolent beings beyond imagination.
But if she is to have her voice heard, she’s going to need the assistance of some unlikely allies…

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Judith Mawson stole my heart on the very first page. The grumpy old lady who is known as a bit of a strange one in her village knows things for what they are. Her banter with her husband, whenever she leaves the house, is charming and shocking at the same time, her view on life and her neighbors completely understandable. I adored Judith from the start and she helped me fall into the story without problems – a welcome change after the first Tor.com novella and I didn’t really hit it off.

 Judith hated nostalgia. It was just the waiting room for death.

Autumn, owner of the local magic shop, is also a bit strange, at least in the eyes of the villagers, and in a town as small as Lychford, everyone has an opinion on everyone else. Cornell managed to convey this feeling of people being up in others’ business really well, without long dialogues or descriptions. It’s just a feeling, floating around in the air, on every page of the novella. Lizzie, Autumn’s old friend, has recently returned to Lychford and the relationship between the two women is fraught, to say the least.

Lizzie takes on the job of reverend in Lychford, something Autumn (who is all about logic and science and doesn’t think much of religion) can’t fully understand. But Lizzie brings her own demons back with her – it is these layers, the fact that each of the three women has a back story, a past, and their own hopes and dreams for the future, that makes the novella so compelling. We learn early on what happened to Lizzie and why she is struggling with her faith. Autumn’s secret comes out only later, and Judith has a big reveal left for the very end.

The plot itself was also solid. On the one hand, a big supermarket is supposed to be built in Lychford, destroying its idyllic life, but offering all sorts of employment to its inhabitants. So the village is divided. All will come down to a final vote. But that’s not all there is to it. If the supermarket is built, the barriers between our world and the fairy worlds will be broken and things will go batshit. Judith knows this. Now she needs to convince Autumn and Lizzie of this fact and get them to help her.

witches of lychford

Witches of Lychford is a charming, enchanting story about a small village, about three women having to work together without having much in common anymore, other than their connection to the Other World. The way they come together, the way the lurking evil is introduced, it was all so wonderfully done I can’t find the right words for it. The pacing was spot on, the characterisation beautiful, and Cornell even managed to break his readers’ heart right there at the end. To pack so much depth into a small novella is nothing short of amazing.

I am so excited that he will revisit the town of Lychford (just found out about this a few days ago) and that I may get to see Judith, Lizzie, and Autumn again. Either way, Paul Cornell is now very high on my to-buy list. The man isn’t just charming on podcasts, he is also a damn fine writer!

MY RATING: 8/10 – Excellent!

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Kai Ashante Wilson – The Sorcerer of the Wildeeps

This was really not my thing. It sounded like my thing, I started like it would be my thing, but then it drifted off into a territory only known as verbose, show-off-ish polysyllabic thesaurus-world. If the plot had been interesting that could have saved the book. As it is, the first of Tor.com’s novellas (I’m still buying and reading all the others) was not a good start to the lineup.

sorcerer of the wildeepsTHE SORCERER OF THE WILDEEPS
by Kai Ashante Wilson

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 224 pages
Standalone novella
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The merchants and burdened camels went on ahead into the Station at Mother of Waters.

Since leaving his homeland, the earthbound demigod Demane has been labeled a sorcerer. With his ancestors’ artifacts in hand, the Sorcerer follows the Captain, a beautiful man with song for a voice and hair that drinks the sunlight.
The two of them are the descendants of the gods who abandoned the Earth for Heaven, and they will need all the gifts those divine ancestors left to them to keep their caravan brothers alive.
The one safe road between the northern oasis and southern kingdom is stalked by a necromantic terror. Demane may have to master his wild powers and trade humanity for godhood if he is to keep his brothers and his beloved captain alive.

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Oh, this sounded so good. “Hair that drinks the sunlight” – yes, please! Demigods abandoned on Earth? Even more yes, please. To be fair, this novella started out really good. Demane is introduced and through him, we meet his caravan brothers, a group of diverse and thoroughly interesting men who I thought I’d love to follow through this story. But then something else happened.

The author frequently loses himself in long rants, filled with big words that I either had to look up or just skimmed over. Demane expresses himself equally but instead of adding a layer to the pretty intriguing world-building, this detracted from the story because it was so inconsistent. One chapter would be written in beautiful prose, not simple, but readable, then suddenly we’d go off on a tangent expressed entirely in words of 5 syllables or more. I didn’t understand the purpose of this and felt very much that the author just wanted to show off how well he knows his language. That’s really cool for you, Mr. Wilson, but it didn’t really work for your story.

So the prose was already a big hurdle for me which, granted, may be due to my not being a native speaker. But I read big books with big words and don’t consider myself to struggle with the language. This was unintelligible at times. Which leads to me still not quite knowing if I missed a part because the language threw me out of the story or because it’s actually missing. There are scenes that are interrupted mid-sentence (which I find pretty cool), there are flashbacks and there are memories, all thrown somewhere in between the continuing main plot. I found it incredibly hard to follow where, in the time-line, I was at any given moment. It was hard to find a red line to follow, to hold on to a character or the plot, because within a matter of paragraphs, I’d be thrown into the past or the future or a tangent memory anyway.

In the Wildeeps, a monster is said to reside, one so terrifying that the toughest of people are afraid of it. The blurb hints at that, and also at Demane possible having to make a sacrifice in order to save his lover, the Captain. I really like that idea, but again, the execution was so confusing and incoherent, I couldn’t even tell you what exactly happened. There is a monster, yes, and it comes with a pretty nice plot twist, but other than that, I couldn’t say I cared about much of anything that happened in this story. This may also be due to the fact that Demane’s relationship with the captain may be mentioned a lot, but we’re not shown enough how these two love each other.

There are so many hints and beginnings of great things here that were simply dropped in favor of purple prose descriptions. I have nothing against big words – hell, my favorite author is Cat Valente and she’s a walking, talking thesaurus – but if they don’t paint pictures, if they don’t add to the story, why put them there? I wanted to learn more about the man whose hair absorbs sunlight for nourishment, about the love between him and Demane, about the other men in the caravan.

Reading this felt more like work than pleasure. I wanted to like this so, so much, and ended up not only bored but actually annoyed at the wasted opportunity. From what I’ve read on the internet, I’m almost alone with that opinion (which is fine, not every book is for everyone and all that), but I can happily declare that the second Tor.com novella, Paul Cornell’s Witches of Lychford charmed the living daylights out of me.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

Catherynne M. Valente – Speak Easy

I wonder if Cat Valente is even capable of writing  a bad book. It’s getting kind of ridiculous for me to try and write reviews of her stuff. We all know what’s going to happen, anyway. I will gush, I will quote, I will gush about the quotes, and then I’ll tell you how terrible I’ll feel until I can get my hands on the next Valente book. But oh well, each of her books is worth gushing over for different reasons, so I suppose we might as well do it again.

speak easySPEAK EASY
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Subterranean, 2015
Hardcover: 144 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 9/10

First sentence: There’s a ragamuffin city out east, you follow?

“If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.”
The hotel Artemisia sits on a fantastical 72nd Street, in a decade that never was. It is home to a cast of characters, creatures, and creations unlike any other, including especially Zelda Fair, who is perfect at being Zelda, but who longs for something more. The world of this extraordinary novella—a bootlegger’s brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organized crime—is ruled over by the diminutive, eternal, sinister Al. Zelda holds her own against the boss, or so it seems. But when she faces off against him and his besotted employee Frankie in a deadly game that just might change everything, she must bet it all and hope not to lose…
Multiple-award-winning, New York Times’ bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente once again reinvents a classic in Speak Easy, which interprets “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” if Zelda Fitzgerald waltzed in and stole the show. This Prohibition-Era tale will make heads spin and hearts pound. It’s a story as old as time, as effervescent as champagne, and as dark as the devil’s basement on a starless night in the city.

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Have you seen The Grand Budapest Hotel? The opening of Cat Valente’s newest novella has a similar feel to it. An unnamed narrator welcomes us into the Roaring Twenties and introduces us to the Hotel Artemisia and some of its inhabitants. Room by room, we find out how half a zoo’s worth of animals ended up in the hotel, how Zelda Fair and her roomates moved in with the already resident pelican, how Al runs the underworld and provides enough booze to keep the entire hotel happy and puking all night, how the rooftop farm makes it possible for people to never go outside and just live in the hotel forever.

In the first few chapters alone, there is so much to discover and the language is so amazing, I just curled up on the couch and soaked it all in. I have come to the conclusion that, while Valente has a trademark lyrical style, she has no trouble whatsoever adapting it. The narration immediately puts you in the time period, the choice of words is exquisite, the dialogue perfectly fitting. You can see the tattered dance shoes and flapper dresses, the bobbed hair and cigarette holders.

“Have you seen Zelda?” he asks.
“Who?”
“Zelda. Zelda Fair. About this high, short black hair, smile like a punch in the gut?”

But Speak Easy is also a heartbreaking story. It starts off as a light, super fun exploration a strangely self-sufficient hotel. Once Zelda – in search of her Goodies, her talent, her one thing that she’s good at – and Frankie, poor bellhop with a secret side-job, are introduced, things get darker. Valente’s love for mythology shines through yet again, and a trip to Artemisia’s basement might well be a trip into the actual underworld. People are what they seem but they are also more than that. And the basement is where they thrive. Zelda’s roomate Ollie can show her talent without hiding behind a pen name, Frankie discovers that he does have great things in him, Zelda can enjoy herself and realise that her Goodies aren’t hiding from her, that she does have talent… there’s booze, there’s sex, there’s dancing all night.

As with most of her books, my number one complaint is that it ends. I fell into its mood right away and wanted to spend more time with the narrator, wanted to ask her about all the other inhabitants of Hotel Artemisia. What about the seals in the fountain? Or the pneumatic tubes? There are entire worlds of intrigues, love affairs, and sinister dealings hiding in there, and we only glimpse some of them. But that’s also one of the book’s qualities. The author doesn’t spell everything out for us, she lets us in on this secret world just a little bit and draw our own conclusions, make up our own side-stories.

quotes greyCaspar Slake has a three-month limit at the bar. Any longer and you start thinking about a person different. You start thinking of them like they’re yours. You start making plans. He didn’t make the rule. It just is. People are clocks who think they wind themselves.

Zelda may be the main character, but I had just as much fun reading about Slake, Artemisia’s owner, and his wife Pearl. The pelican, Mr. Puss-Boots, has a surprising amount of personality and love for his roomates. Al, master of the basement, is surrounded by mystery and power – I completely understand how people can feel drawn to him. He exudes danger as much as he seems to be a benevolent lord in Artemisia’s very own underworld. I loved every character, no matter how little we see of them, and it’s to Valente’s credit that they came vibrantly alive without a lot of exposition.

I don’t think it’s coincidence that Zelda is called Zelda and Frankie – desperately in love with her – is called Frankie. If you have someone named Al run the underworld, it doesn’t take much to add a “Capone” to his name, and if a guy named Francis writes novels, there’s only a small step to supplying the missing “Fitzgerald”. The epic game of poker played in the basement leads me to believe that Valente had these people in mind when she wrote this story.  It made for a great tale and one that twists the knife in your heart at the end, just for good measure. That poker game and its eventual winners are so full of symbols that make a lot of sense when you read up on the Fitzgeralds. It’s really fucking heartbreaking.

As fun as it started, Speak Easy left me half-crying (why does she always do that? I become such a cry-baby when I read Valente books). If you’re invested in Zelda’s dreams – and you will be if you read this – then the ending hurts even more. But other than break my heart again, Valente also reminded me why I love this genre. You can take real-life people and throw them into a world of myth and magic and art, and create something wonderful and new that still feels like coming home. I will definitely put this on my Hugo ballot next year and probably re-read it every weekend until Radiance comes out.

MY RATING: 9/10 – Pretty much perfect

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Second opinions:

Octavia Cade – Trading Rosemary

The Book Smugglers’ review of this novella made me curious when they posted it but it was only after I read one of their Book Smugglers Publishing fairy tale short stories (“The Mussel Eater”) that I realised I had heard the name Octavia Cade before. Once I made the connection from raving review to short story  that I adored, it was a quick decision to buy the novella and give it a shot. My conclusion: The Book Smugglers continue to be a reliable source of amazing fiction and Octavia Cade is a name to watch out for!

trading rosemaryTRADING ROSEMARY
by Octavia Cade

Published by: Masque Books, 2015
Ebook: 82 pages
Standalone
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Among those who could accurately judge such things, it was generally acknowledged that Rosemary’s library was the finest of its kind in the entire archipelago.

In a world where experience is currency, Rosemary is the owner of a very special library—a library of memory, where scented coins transfer personal experience from one individual to another. When she trades away the sole memory of her grandmother’s final concerto, family opposition, in the form of her daughter Ruth, forces Rosemary to go on a quest to try and recover the lost coin. Yet having to trade away her own memories to get it back, how much of Rosemary will survive the exchange?

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The thing I remembered most about “The Mussel Eater” was Octavia Cade’s tendency to write food porn – gorgeous, mouth-watering, brilliant food porn. She did similar things in Trading Rosemary, although not limiting herself to food but describing all sorts of vibrant memories and experiences.

Rosemary is the proud and happy owner of one of the most valuable libraries in the archipelago. Her coins, each containing a memory and scent, are worth more than you can imagine and will ensure her family’s future. Except Rosemary’s daughter, Ruth, spoiled little brat that she is, doesn’t want anything to do with the memory coins. This daughter is the reason Rosemary sets out on a journey to bring back the coin containing her grandmother’s requiem – which she had traded for another, very rare one. To appease Ruth and have some peace and quiet at home, Rosemary is willing to trade the coin she wants for the coin her daughter demands back.

The author eases her readers into this strange world in the first two chapters. We find out how the memory coins work, read descriptions of the most wonderful scents, and get glimpses of memories that somebody once treasured and someone else might not have cared for. Despite the very strange and scary idea of embedding your own memories into coins, which are then used as currency, I had no problem suspending my disbelief and simply falling into the story.

The bulk of the book tells of Rosemary’s journey to get that damned coin back. The man she traded it to is willing to give it back, but at a high cost. Rosemary must collect nine other coins. One condition of the deal is that Rosemary only use her own memories in exchange for these coins. So chapter after chapter, she hands over memories that range from melancholy to important to heart-breaking to (seemingly) less interesting. Trying to put a price on a personal experience seems like a silly, incredibly subjective thing to do but I’m sure one particular memory will shock other readers just as it shocked me. And what’s more, the question whether Rosemary is still Rosemary after giving away even one single memory. Memories are what makes us who we are (Anybody who has had a case of Alzheimer’s in the family knows just how true this is.) and while leaving one or two childhood memories may not seem like a big deal, it will inevitably change your personality. Maybe just a tiny bit, maybe a lot. Mulling this over in your head was a large part of my enjoyment of this novella.

Even more interesting than their “value” is how these memories slowly paint a picture of Rosemary as a person. On less than 100 pages, drawing a full character is not easy but Octavia Cade succeeds not only in making Rosemary come to life but even the side characters. Ruth – the daughter whom I despise – the people Rosemary trades with, they all feel so real and alive even though we only get to see them for the span of a few pages. It’s a remarkable feat that Cade pulls off without giving up some of her descriptions of smells and foods or the mood of a day by the sea. It goes to show just how powerful personal memories are. One single glimpse into an important moment of a life can be so very telling. I enjoyed how every memory evoked different feelings. Some where shocking, some lovely, others disconcerting. They all advanced the plot, however, and developed the characters.

I thought I had the ending all figured out. According to me, it could go one of two ways – I got half of it right, but I could’t have foreseen what comes after. The fact that it shattered my heart the way it did is yet more proof of Octavia Cade’s talent. Not only did I get attached to Rosemary as a character (even though she is mostly remote and somewhat cold) but to her coins as well. I didn’t want to give away a single of her memories and watched in horror as she had to give up other people’s memories.

I loved the style so much that I immediately bought Cade’s newer novella The Don’t Girls. Her ideas are original, her prose is gorgeous, she plays with my emotions as if I were her puppet – and I loved it! I’ll be watching closely for anything new she publishes. Maybe one day, I’ll even get a big, fat novel.

RATING:  8/10 – Excellent

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Andy Duncan & Ellen Klages – Wakulla Springs

Though written by a man-woman-team, I am counting this book towards my 2014 Women of Genre Fiction Challenge – seeing as I’ve never read anything by Ellen Klages (nor Andy Duncan, for that matter). You can read this Hugo nominated novella for free at tor.com – head over there and read it now, while it’s hot outside.

wakulla springsWAKULLA SPRINGS
by Andy Duncan and Ellen Klages

Published by: Tor.com, 2013
Ebook: 139 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: Wakulla Springs. A strange and unknown world, this secret treasure lies hidden in the jungle of northern Florida.

Wakulla Springs, in the deep jungle of the Florida panhandle, is the deepest submerged freshwater cave system in the world. In its unfathomable depths, a variety of curious creatures have left a record of their coming, of their struggle to survive, and of their eventual end. And that’s just the local human beings over the last seventy-five years. Then there are the prehistoric creatures…and, just maybe, something else.

Ranging from the late 1930s to the present day, “Wakulla Springs” is a tour de force of the human, the strange, and the miraculous.

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“Wakulla Springs” was wonderful. That needs to be said before anything else. But I am still debating whether it qualifies as speculative fiction. There is no magic, unless you count the magic of film-making, there are no otherworldly monsters, unless you count costumed movie stars. But the atmosphere of the hot Florida air, the piney forests, the springs themselves, and what draws Mayola and Levi into the water, is so gripping that it brings a sort of magical feeling to the table.

The book is sectioned into several parts but for the sake of keeping this spoiler-free I’ll stick mostly to the first two. Mayola is a young black girl saving up money for college. She finds work in the Wakulla Springs Lodge – a whites-only hotel that pays their staff excellently – and through this summer job witnesses a movie crew shooting Tarzan. People of color aren’t allowed to swim in the springs but Mayola wants nothing more than to cool down in the still, clear water.

Needless to say, with a story set in the 1930s and a black protagonist, racial issues are front and center. But the authors handle them with a light touch and never the issues take over the plot. Mayola – and later Levi – has to face injustice on a daily basis and while I gasped at certain scenes, Mayola has grown up in that time and so doesn’t dwell on it too long.

The development thorughout the novella is wonderfully done. Not only does each character evolve, but since every part shows us a new generation of people living near or involved with Wakulla Springs, we get to follow how society’s views have changed. When Mayola thinks of swimming in the springs (secretly, at night) she is filled with fear at being caught, of losing her job. Levi, in the second part, knows fully well he isn’t allowed to swim there, but he does it anyway and doesn’t give it too much thought. When a black war veteran returns home, he fully expects to be treated like a hero regardless of his skin color. In yet another, later part, we follow a young black woman writing a paper for university – and the difference between her and Mayola’s dreams of saving up money and maybe, just maybe going to college is astounding. All of this is done without exposition. Through the characters we get a sense of time and political views. In a novella where racial discrimination happens all the time, the sudden lack thereof feels almost loud – in a good way, that is.

But the story is as much about the place as it is about the characters. Through Mayola and Levi, the readers get a glimpse of the local (and other) superstitions, traditions, and a feel for the time period the story is set in. The heat is almost tangible, the smell of the trees and the constant threat of alligators makes this an entirely engrossing read. I spent my Sunday afternoon with this book and the weather outside was just perfect. I’m sure this book is enjoyable when you read it in winter, but there is something about the sun on your face, sweat trickling down the back of your neck, and characters that are experiencing a similar kind of heat.

“Wakulla Springs” is, without a doubt, an excellent book. It is beautifully written, has engaging characters, and builds up such atmosphere that you can’t put it down. I was provided an ebook version of this novella in the Hugo Voter Packet so, naturally, I am considering how to rate it for the award. As much as I loved reading it, I fail to see the speculative fiction aspects of the story. It is a coming-of-age story, it’s about race and film-making, and women, and dreams, and very personal superstitions. But except for one little scene that can be explained away in a sentence or two, and pass as mainstream, and maybe the very last paragraph, there isn’t a single thing that qualifies it as fantasy or science fiction. I’m considering my votes well and will definitely rate this novella high. But simply because I feel it’s been classified as the wrong genre, it won’t make the top of my list. (It’s really not that hard to guess who gets my #1 novella vote…)

RATING: 8/10 – Excellent

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Chazan, Ching, Thomas, Young – (re) Visions: Alice

Let me be honest with you. I’ve always preferred Through the Looking Glass to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Even so, it is rare that I can resist anything with a bit of Alice in it. There were two reasons why I requested a review copy of this book via NetGalley. Number one was the beautiful cover. It drew me in and made me read the blurb. Number two was just that blurb. The little descriptions of the four short stories all included some buzz word that made me go “ooh”. Let’s see how I ended up liking this small volume.

re Visions: Alice(re) Visions: Alice
by Kaye Chazan, Amanda Ching, Hilary Thomas, C.A. Young
& Lewis Carroll

Published by: Candlemark & Gleam, 2011
ISBN: 1936460052
ebook: 219 pages

My rating: 5/10

First sentence: The boy has managed, so far, to displace himself four meters off the ground.

In 1865, Alice went on an adventure to Wonderland. Today, four modern authors follow her down the rabbit hole…

This is the first in a planned series in the (re)Visions line, which is devoted to exploring the lasting legacy of classic works of speculative fiction on our genres and on our lives. In each book in the series, four authors will tackle a classic work of imaginative fiction, and give it their own spin; along with each of these novellas will also be the original work.

dividerI read few to no anthologies or short story collections (a fault I am trying to remedy at the moment) and it may be because I feel the need to read the stories in order and not skip any of them. Reading short stories online (at Clarkesworld, etc.) has brought me enormous amounts of pleasure, though, so I thought I’d give this little collection a try. After all, not much can go wrong when you know you’re getting spins on a favorite classic, right? Well…

Lewis Carroll – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

I won’t say much about this. It is Alice as we know and love her, and if I ever do write a review on that book, it will get its own post. This was very nice beginning for the anthology, of course, and gave me an excuse to re-read it. Luckily, I can continue in my Annotated Alice which includes Through the Looking Glass. That one is definitely worth its own review…

I will talk about each of the four contained novellas separately, as they were all written by a different author.

Kaye Chazan – What Aelister Found Here

Blurb: It is 1888, and Aelister has never felt at home, not even in his own skin. Now that he’s been expelled from school, he sees no reason to stick around his house in Warwickshire, so he runs away to another world altogether: London. The city is a maze of heat and rain, where a murderer stalks the streets of Whitechapel and a Crown Prince flouts his mother’s laws, and Aelister soon finds himself dealt into a series of deadly games—ones that put his life, and far more, on the line. And while London may not be the wonderland Aelister expected to find, he is far from the only person in the city looking for that very place.

Now this is what I was hoping for. The story opens on our practical boy-protagonist in avery Alice-like style. The witty prose and clever asides were totally up my alley and reminded me very much of Victorian prose. There are references to Alice and they are very neatly incorporated into the real-world setting. While the main story has pacing problems as soon as Aelister arrives in London, it picks up once a very peculiar game of chess starts. I enjoyed how Jack the Ripper was mixed into this strange little tale, but the end came extremely abrubtly and was somewhat anticlimactic. The Alice-elements are subdued, you will recognize a lot of characters from the original. Altogether, a story that I enjoyed more for its whimsical tone and its practical protagonist than for its connection to the original Alice. Recommended. Rating: 6,5/10

Amanda Ching – House of Cards

Blurb: There’s Alice, who fell down a rabbit hole and had an adventure. Then there’s the Queen of Hearts, who loses her temper quite frequently. But before that, there was Mary Ann, a servant pressed past patience, past duty. As all three hurtle toward an inevitable meeting, a creature has broken from its coffin and is even now tunneling to meet them. When the deck is stacked like this, even the strongest foundation could crumble.

This story featured surprisingly many characters for such a short piece and the climax was probably supposed to be when it all comes together and the separate storylines make sense as a whole. But the story as such failed to grab my attention and I mostly just read on because I wanted to get to the next story. The Queen of Hearts as well as some other known characters do show up but mostly to spout nonsense. And not the brilliant kind of nonsense Lewis Carroll gave us, just plain nonsense without much humor. Except for the occasional badam-tish line that made me roll my eyes rather than smile. I was hoping for some fantasy elements but even that bubble was burst. I’ll give the writer props for the idea but I think it would have needed more characterisation and depth to work. Rating: 3,5/10

Hilary Thomas – Knave

Blurb: In the city they call Wonderland, the Queen calls the shots. If she doesn’t like the way you’re playing the game, she’ll give you the axe. Permanently. Jack Knave is an investigator, a man of many talents, an occasional blade for The Crown; and he’s the best at what he does. He knows every face in the city, every move they make, every connection. Except one.When a mysterious woman shows up in town, Jack is sure she’s not just here for the tourism. But the more he digs, the less he knows. Finding the answers means getting close to her, but she’s not the only one with secrets. Somebody’s been stealing from the Queen, and it looks like Jack’s taking the fall. Alice could seal his fate with a word—or not. With no options left, and the odds stacked against him, Jack must make a desperate gamble to survive. Whether his luck holds out or he’s left out to dry, one thing’s for certain: he can’t afford to lose his head.

Jack Knave lives in the city of Wonderland and the arrival of a certain dame named Alice turns things upside down. This is Wonderland goes noir. I was surprised by how much that genre mash-up appealed to me. But an idea alone does not make a good story. Characters may have names that sound like they are from Wonderland (Jimmy Cheshire, Jack Knave, The Queen, Kingsley, Alice) but they are walking stereotypes. I don’t read noir fiction but I have seen a few movies that fit the description. There is nothing new or original about this story. There also happens to be no magic whatsoever and the big reveal (if, indeed, it is supposed to be a big reveal) was painfully predictable. All of that said, I enjoyed the story more than “House of Cards”. The prose wasn’t a revelation but easy enough to read and the plot was fast-paced and had a nice flow to it. Probably not a story I will remember for long, but enjoyable, nonetheless. Recommended with reservations. Rating: 5,5/10

C.A. Young – The World in a Thimble

Blurb: Toby Fitzsimmons hates the creepy sculpture of Alice on display in his gallery, but when it drops him into Wonderland for real, he’s not prepared for what he finds. From real living furniture to scoutmasters and cowboys to coyotes who really do go everywhere, Toby finds himself in a Wonderland that’s more deadly, and much more American, than the one he remembers reading about as a boy. At the heart of it all is the Catmistress, who rules over the city’s dark alleys and knows the secret of the Cheshire trick. In this strange new world, Toby will need all the help he can get to find his way home. Before that, though, he’ll have to find a way to keep from losing himself. Wonderland, it seems, changes everything it touches. And then there’s the thing in the sewers…

This time around, the story starts in a modern day setting with gallery owner Toby, who spends his time as a punching bag for Hambrick, a man whose collection he’s showing in said gallery. With a little help from the Alice sculpture on display, he falls into Wonderland. I was insanely happy to actually read a story that took me to Wonderland and showed me some of its marvels. There are flying coyotes (who can talk, of course), cats who know the Cheshire Trick, depressed fountains, and bottles that say “drink me”. It could have been so nice. But the writing is clumsy at best, the characters – including Toby – are very flat, and the storyline is predictable. I did enjoy the craziness of Wonderland and its inhabitants but the description dumps and the characters left me rather unimpressed. Rating: 5/10

Overall, the first story was my favorite because it hit the tone of the original most closely and, while not showing us actual Wonderland, gave well-known characters a new personality. It had atmosphere and a good plot. I liked “Knave” second best, despite its stereotypical characters and predictable plotline. At least the idea was original and the execution okay. As a collection, I didn’t love it and wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. But if you love Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and want to see its characters wearing new cloaks, this might be right for you.

RATING: 5/10  –  Meh

Review: Catherynne M. Valente – Silently and Very Fast

February has just started and I felt like a nice, quick Valente snack. Her award-winning novella seemed like a good story to read, as I don’t feel ready for another big adventure yet. Deathless is still too close to my heart.

silently and very fastSILENTLY AND VERY FAST
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: WSFA Press, 2011
Online: Clarkesworld (text + audio)
ISBN: 1936896001
Hardcover: 127 pages

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Innana was called Queen of Heaven and Earth, Queen of Having a Body, Queen of Sex and Eating, Queen of Being Human, and she went into the Underworld in order to represent the inevitability of organic death.

Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future. Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great grandmother-a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote. But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . . . 2011 Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novella 2012 Hugo Award Nominee for Best Novella

dividerThis is the first time I will not completely gush about a Catherynne Valente book like a little fangirl. Silently and Very Fast is a difficult story to get into. The story of Elefsis, an artificial intelligence, and how he/she came to be is interspliced with scenes set in a strange dreamworld where Elefsis deals with the girl who is dreaming, Neva. In turn, these two plotlines make way for retellings of fairytales and fables, always revolving around humanity’s relationship with their creations, especially robots – these little bits of AI mythology were my favorite part of the book and they always taught us a little bit about Elefsis as well as just being great vignettes.

It took me almost half the novella to truly get into it. The beginning was as beautifully written as all of Valente’s fiction but I was desperately looking for some kind of anchor to hold on to, some time or place to ground the story in. We get nothing. We are disembodied creatures, floating around in a dreamworld where everything is possible and where nothing much makes sense. It becomes clearer later on what this dreamworld is and how Elefsis came to be there but until then, it was a bit of a struggle and I suspect certain scenes and sentences that were supposed to be meaningful just didn’t hit home as hard as they were supposed to.

Once I learned a bit more about what kind of AI Elefsis is and how he/she was created, the story became more interesting. I cared about Elefsis and I especially wanted to know the little secrets that are often alluded to. Ravan – Elefsis’ former companion – has met a mysterious fate that even Elefsis doesn’t know about. By following his/her past through the generations of Elefsis’ human family of companions, he/she hopes to learn this secret him/herself. It is in these flashback chapters that we have the chance to care about Elefsis and the Uoya-Agostino family who have been with Elefsis since his/her creation. I shouldn’t be surprised by anything Valente does, but it still amazed me how much she brought the characters to life on so few pages.

The prose is beautiful. Poetic and flowing, quotable and engaging readers to think for themselves, it has captured me yet again. I am unsure how I feel about the ending. It felt a little rushed and too open for my taste, although the melancholy tone hit the mark.

THE GOOD: Beautiful language, food for independent thought, a sort of mythology for robots.
THE BAD: Very confusing in the beginning, I wasn’t a fan of the ending.
THE VERDICT: Recommended for fans of Valente’s style – really anything she writes has a beautiful ring to it – but I wouldn’t recommend it as a Valente starter-novel(la).

RATING: 7,5/10 – Very, very good

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Second opinions:

Review: Brandon Sanderson – The Emperor’s Soul

While I saw reason to buy every single Brandon Sanderson book, I have never actually read one. The long and unfinished series are kind of daunting at the moment so I thought I’d start with something short – a standalone novella set in the world of Elantris – and see if I liked it. And I did.

THE EMPEROR’S SOUL
by Brandon Sanderson

Published: Tachyon Publications, October 2012
ISBN: 1616960922
Pages: 176
Copy: paperback

My rating: 7,5/10

First sentence: Gaotona ran his fingers across the thick canvas, inspecting one of the greatest works of art he had ever seen. Unfortunately, it was a lie.

A heretic thief is the empire’s only hope in this fascinating tale that inhabits the same world as the popular novel, Elantris. Shai is a Forger, a foreigner who can flawlessly copy and re-create any item by rewriting its history with skillful magic. Condemned to death after trying to steal the emperor’s scepter, she is given one opportunity to save herself. Though her skill as a Forger is considered an abomination by her captors, Shai will attempt to create a new soul for the emperor, who is almost dead. Probing deeply into his life, she discovers Emperor Ashravan’s truest nature—and the opportunity to exploit it. Her only possible ally is one who is truly loyal to the emperor, but councilor Gaotona must overcome his prejudices to understand that Shai’s forgery is as much artistry as it is deception.
Brimming with magic and political intrigue, this deftly woven fantasy delves into the essence of a living spirit.

Brandon Sanderson gets to the good bits very quickly. Shai, a master Forger, gets caught trying to steal the imperial scepter and offered only one way out of being executed. Within a hundred days, she needs to Forge a new soul for the emperor who has been grievously injured. It was pure pleasure reading about Shai’s preparations, the way her art works, the way this magic works – I could not get enough of it. What’s more: Sanderson made me stop at times. To think, to wrap my head around the magic system, and to make sense of it. This short novella offered my fantasy-savvy brain food for new thoughts. The truly wonderful thing is – he pulls it off. A magic system where every thing (as well as humans) has a soul whose history can be rewritten by those trained is just utterly intriguing.

Shai was a fascinatiBrandon Sanderson - The Emperor's Soulng protagonist. We only get glimpses of her motive for doing what she does and for making certain decisions along the way. Her and Gaotona both grew on my within the first few pages and I found them to be consistent, believable characters whose fate I truly cared about. Side characters are sparse but equally convincing. After all, what does one expect from politicians but corruption and hunger for power?

I won’t say much about the plot and you don’t really need to know much. Just read the first few pages and you’ll be sucked into this adventure. It is the mark of a gifted author to make one character, spending 100 days in one room so captivating. Shai’s research into the emperor’s history, her preparation of the soul stamp, and her thoughts about her own escape, were enough to keep me going. There was no need for big action – and I honestly wasn’t sure until I finished how exactly this story would end.

Even though I’ve only read this 175 page-novella, I now understand why Sanderson is currently on top of everybody’s favorite fantasy writers lists. The man is gifted with words and I can’t wait to finally start one of his longer novels. Because as much as I enjoyed The Emperor’s Soul (I read it last night, in one sitting), there is potential for so much more and personally, I wouldn’t have minded learning more about Shai, her history, Gaotona and the political set-up of this world.

THE GOOD: Great characters, fantastic magic-system and – despite taking place almost exclusively in one room – a real page-turner plot.
THE BAD: There is nothing bad about this novella. Except that it was too short.
THE VERDICT: Brandon Sanderson has recruited a new fan. If, like me, you want a small taste before starting a huge series, pick this one up. This is some great fantasy writing!

RATING: 7,5/10 Very, very good

Other reviews: