Lady of Perdition, by Barbara Hambly
A new Benjamin January novel is an occasion of delight. I’ve loved the series since the very first volume, Free Man of Color. In pre-Civil War New Orleans, the French-influenced culture viewed race in a very different, nuanced way than their slave-holding American neighbors to the north. Benjamin, born a slave of an African father, has studied medicine in Paris, yet finds the only way to earn a living in the New World is as a pianist at balls and other social events. This, of course, is the perfect combination of skills with which to solve a murder. Now, many mysteries and adventures later, he’s married, with connections in both the white and the many gradations of colored communities. When a spoiled, rebellious young student at his wife’s school runs off with a man of dubious character and even more problematic intentions, Ben goes after her, ably assisted by his white friends, a Yankee lawman and a consumptive, classically educated fiddler.
As Ben feared, the girl has been sold into slavery, then beaten and raped into submission. Getting her free will be tough enough, but she’s been taken into the Republic of Texas, which which prides itself on being a slave-holding nation. Ben himself is now at risk of being captured and claimed as a slave, for papers can be destroyed as easily as they can be forged. Texas itself is in turmoil, with those who want to join the US coming to (literal) blows with those who want to remain independent. In an escapade based on historical incident, one party steals the official State Archives.
That’s just the initial set-up, the action that gets him and his friends to Texas. Once there, he runs into an old nemesis, Valentina de Castellón, now Valentina Taggart (from Days of the Dead), who lands in a serious mess when her rancher husband is found murdered and she is the most likely suspect. Her husband’s family wants the title to her land rights, inherited from an original Spanish land grant, and her allies are few, so she turns to Ben as a skilled detective, able to gather information from “invisible” witnesses, such as servants and slaves.
Hambly effortlessly weaves vibrant characters, dramatic tension, and history – with all its quirks and dangers – into a murder mystery. This is the 17th Benjamin January adventure, and like its predecessors, it stands well on its own. The series remains fresh and captivating as American history and social history unfold into a panorama that informs and shapes each new mystery. Reading Lady of Perdition makes me want to get the previous stories off the bookshelf and reread them all.
Upright Women Wanted, by Sarah Gailey (Tor.com)
In a post-collapse eternally-at-war America, most States are rigidly controlled, with traveling women Librarians bringing only Approved Materials to small communities. Conventionally rigid “virtue,” subservience to male authority, and suppression of free thought are the rule in Esther’s world. Just before the start of the story, she has fallen in love with another teen girl, their affair has been discovered, and her lover has been hanged. Only the power and political standing of her father has saved Esther’s life. So she does the only reasonable thing: she runs away to join the Librarians. Who are not at all the conventional, convention-enforcing women she expected: a lesbian couple and a third, who presents as female in public but wears trousers and insists on “they” in private. To say this blows up Esther’s preconceptions and challenges her guilt for having the “wrong” attractions is putting it mildly.
The core of the story emerges as Esther gains in confidence, rising to face one increasingly dangerous challenge after another. The world is nothing like what she expected, and the only way to gain her own freedom to be fully herself is to fight for the rights of others to do the same.
A satisfying ending concludes this thoughtful page-turner.
The Fantastical Exploits of Gwendolyn Gray (Book 2), by B. A. Williamson (Jolly Fish Press)
I first had the pleasure of meeting Gwendolyn Gray in her Marvelous Adventures (of GG). I write and mostly read YA and adult fantasy and science fiction, but I had recently delved into reading Middle Grade. To my delight I found that literature for this age group has all the adventure and self-discovery I love, plus a simplicity and directness that adds depth and honesty. Yep, honesty. Kids this age are hard, if not impossible, to fool when it comes to emotional truth. They’re old enough to have attained a considerable degree of agency in their own lives, which connects them with characters, but young enough to not yet be smothered in hormonal angst. The best Middle Grade books trust their young readers to figure out what’s going on and how they feel about it. I love that! I should also add that no matter what the target audience, the most powerful ideas are best communicated in simple, direct language. Nowhere is that more true than in Middle Grade.
So, to Gwendolyn. When I first met her, she was a flame of color and imagination in a city of unrelenting conformity. Specifically, she lived in a City – the one and only City – where everything is gray and monotonous, literally as well as chromatically, and where children and adults alike spend the better part of their lives under the control of soporific lights called “lambents.” What distinguishes Gwendolyn, besides her delicious name, is her imagination, which is so vivid as to constitute a superpower. In that first book, she battled the Faceless Mister Men, traveled across worlds with her maybe-not-imaginary friends, Sparrow and Starling, rescues a snarky teenage pirate king, saved the City from the vile Abscess, and destroyed the lambents.
Of course, the resulting good times cannot last, and all Gwendolyn’s achievements have only made matters worse. As she embarks upon her new adventures, the Mister Men are closing in and matters go from bad to worse until she’s been erased from the memories of everyone she cares about. She flees the world of the City for the Library of All Wonder, gateway to every world ever dreamt of, and ends up in the lands of the Fae, ruled by Titania and Oberon. That Titania and Oberon, straight out of “Midsummer Night’s Dream,” attended by a smart-ass, gender-switching Puck and given to random quotes from Shakespeare. Titania and Oberon are, of course, fairies of the most dangerous kind, and the bargains they strike are more dangerous still. Here Gwendolyn aided by a Victorian “inventress,” who turns out to be the creator of (among many other things), the Library of All Wonder.
Gwendolyn’s Fantastical Exploits are just as dramatic and entertaining as her Marvelous Adventures. Perhaps a bit more so, when she finds her own story in the Library, and when she must reflect on how the things that make her extraordinary have set her apart from her City and created a lingering sense of unworthiness. For young people trying to figure out who they are in their own world, and who they want to become, nothing could be more resonant.
Gwendolyn and her friends came along long after my own children were grown up, but I hope we are never too “mature” for a rollicking good story that leaves a sweet yet thoughtful afterglow long after the last page is turned.
Music from Another World, by Robin Talley (Inkyard)
In the late 1970s, the gay rights movement was getting underway, with cities like San Francisco leading the way. Harvey Milk’s election as city supervisor (1978) catalyzed a generation of LGBTQ youth and their allies, while in other parts of the country Anita Bryant was campaigning for anti-gay laws. The punk music movement was in full swing, giving voice to the chaos and rage many of these young people felt.
Into this world come two young women, high school students at extremely conservative schools. A summer program pairs Sharon, a Catholic from San Francisco, with Tammy, a Baptist from Orange County. Each harbors a secret she dare not let her homophobic parents know: Sharon’s twin brother is gay, as is Tammy herself. Gradually, through diaries and their correspondence, the girls discover the courage to fight free of the homophobia, repression, and secrecy of their lives. Matters come to a head when Tammy is outed and flees to San Francisco. Under a pretext, she and Sharon convinced Sharon’s mother to let her stay with them. Here she’s caught up in the Castro Street scene and a radically, woman-owned bookstore. Tammy and Sharon find that adjusting to in-person intimacy is very different from the openness they enjoyed in their letters.
So much of this book evoked memories for me. I wasn’t in San Francisco when the story takes place, but my sister was. We both frequented book stores like the one in the story; we both knew people struggling with their sexual orientation, with the condemnation of their families. We knew the fear of bigotry such as Bryant’s and the exhilaration of Milk’s election. That said, we were both older, and Tammy and Sharon are still teens. The teen years are agonizing enough without issues of identity and the terror of being sent to a conversion camp or being rejected by family and friends. It was no wonder gay teens had such a high risk of suicide. But this story is filled with hope, too. The love and support of some friends and some family, and the riotous energy of the music, and the deep friendship between the two girls is a message of hope.
Nowadays it’s all too easy to look back on “those terrible times,” as if they will never happen again. That’s a false confidence, as daily news stories remind us. The eternal vigilance that is the price of freedom means that books like this one have enduring value. Even in “enlightened” times, there are teens who struggle, who come to loathe and even destroy themselves, because of isolation and hatred. I would love to give each one of them this book, with the message, “It Gets Better.”
The Vanished Queen, by Lisbeth Campbell (Saga) presents a fiercely intelligent political drama in a fantasy kingdom dominated by a pathological sadist. The queen of the title was his wife, who was systematically tortured, separated from her sons, and then gone missing, “Disappeared,” presumed dead at his hands. One of the king’s cruelest acts was to do everything in his power to make the boys as brutal and insensitive as he is. A decade later, a resistance movement is gaining momentum, fueled by international intrigue and the king’s own increasingly desperate, ruthless suppression. One of the resistance fighters, a former student now a law clerk, discovers the queen’s diary in a boarded-up library, and the two time lines unfold and intersect.
What sets The Vanquished Queen head and shoulders above other fantasy novels is the intricate, pitch-perfect depiction of its characters, struggling to hold on to their humanity in a world that polarizes and debases even those with the best motives. These are smart, incredibly astute players who are all too often faced with impossible choices, both personal and political.
Campbell respects her readers, giving us everything we need to piece together the story without condescension or emotional manipulation. We are free to draw our own conclusions about complex, often ambivalent situations. With subtlety and exquisite skill, Campbell takes us on a journey through a series of moral and emotional conundrums: how is it possible to be a good person in a world where survival means doing evil deeds? When does a person become truly unforgivable, beyond redemption? And what is the place of love in such a world?