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:

#Diversiverse Review: Nnedi Okorafor – Binti

diversiverse3After a bit of a rocky start, I am now convinced that the Tor.com novella lineup is excellent and will continue to be so. Nnedi Okorafor hasn’t managed to capture me this much since Who Fears Death. Both her first contact story Lagoon and Who Fears Death’s quasi-prequel The Book of Phoenix were good books that somehow didn’t reach me emotionally. Now Binti was everything I had been missing from these two. A wonderful, wonderful story!

bintiBINTI
by Nnedi Okorafor

Published by: Tor.com, 2015
Ebook: 96 pages
Standalone Novella
My rating: 8,5/10

First sentence: I powered up the transporter and said a silent prayer.

Her name is Binti, and she is the first of the Himba people ever to be offered a place at Oomza University, the finest institution of higher learning in the galaxy. But to accept the offer will mean giving up her place in her family to travel between the stars among strangers who do not share her ways or respect her customs.
Knowledge comes at a cost, one that Binti is willing to pay, but her journey will not be easy. The world she seeks to enter has long warred with the Meduse, an alien race that has become the stuff of nightmares. Oomza University has wronged the Meduse, and Binti’s stellar travel will bring her within their deadly reach.
If Binti hopes to survive the legacy of a war not of her making, she will need both the the gifts of her people and the wisdom enshrined within the University, itself – but first she has to make it there, alive.

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Binti is running away from home to follow her dream. She wants to study at the renowned Oomza University which happens to be on a different planet. So right from the start, I was invested in the story. Without knowing anything about Binti, I think everybody understands the feeling of wanting to escape your parents’ plans for you and follow your own way. Except if Binti really leaves, she knows she can never come back, so the stakes are pretty high.

On her way to Oomza University, Binti sticks out because of her appearance. The Himba people have such a rare supply of drinking water that they don’t waste it like other people do. For cleaning themselves, they use otjize, a paste made of red clay and oils – just look at the amazing book cover. The use and preparation of otjize is described beautifully, and I felt just as anxious as Binti when her pre-made supply threatened to run out. What little she has brought with her is her only real, tangible connection to her home – for the rest of the story, she will be on space ships or on a different planet. Having a piece of your home with you makes travelling a little easier.

When Binti meets the alien Meduse, she needs to act quickly and make smart decisions, not just to save her own life but also her future. I loved Binti’s character so, so much. Knowing what you want and going for it are two very different things and Binti is trying to keep her culture alive, even after being faced with things that change her world view, even her body.

My favorite part was probably the relationship that Binti builds with an essentially hostile alien race. She comes into it with prejudice – after all, the Meduse are known to have killed a lot of people – but her mind remains open enough for her to rethink and change her understanding of the Meduse and their motives. This doesn’t happen overnight, of course. Somebody has to make the first step, somebody has to trust the other enough to meet and talk without protection, without weapons. Binti wants to make things right and uses her mind, her kindness, and her empathy to do it. It’s not only a struggle to find common ground with the aliens, she also has to consider the cultural differences between herself and the humans in Oomza University. Binti is the only Himba to ever be accepted there, so to the people there, she may appear almost as alien as the Meduse.

binti cover art

I loved how Okorafor took a story that could have easily been a stale coming-of-age, woman-runs-away-from-home tale, and gave it a twist that puts the fate of an entire planet at risk. The language flows beautifully, the book is impossible to put down.

There is also a fair bit of world-building in these 96 pages. Binti’s people are highly skilled in mathematics, and Binti herself is the best among them (well, her and her father). This addition of maths and currents makes this an interesting science fiction world that made me want to explore it more. So maybe Nnedi Okorafor will follow in Paul Cornell’s footsteps and write us a sequel to her Tor.com novella – I’d be the first to buy it!

This is a very short novella that doesn’t waste a single word on unimportant stuff, but it packs a punch on every page. Really, everything about this was wonderful. Binti’s character, the connection she builds with the Meduse, her inner struggle about who she is and what it means when parts of her become suddenly different… Unsurprisingly, I read this in one sitting and ended up wanting more. In my opinion, this is by far the best thing Okorafor has written since Who Fears Death!

MY RATING: 8,5/10 – Excellent!

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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: