Black Sun, by Rebecca Roanhorse (Saga)
This novel was my introduction to the work of Rebecca Roanhorse, of whom I had heard a great deal. From the beginning, I was struck by the originality of her world and cultures that were at once relatable and quite different from the typical Western-European-derived canon. Set in a fantasy pre-Columbian (or non-Columbian?) Central America, the story weaves together the lives of disparate characters, who will all come together at “the Convergence,” a predicted eclipse. The story is told from multiple points of view, jumping back and forth in time. This is often a recipe for reader confusion and disengagement, but I found the characters compelling enough to hold my interest and to welcome each new section. I found the jumps in time distracting and largely unnecessary, but I admit to a personal preference for chronologically linear stories. In the end, though, it was the novelty and richness of the world that enchanted me.
Trouble the Saints, by Alaya Dawn Johnson (Tor)
The core of the magic in this edgy, often disturbing fantasy is that the anguish of slaves was so deep, so powerful, that it created a spell persisting to the modern age. This takes the form of bespelled hands – hands that can detect a person’s darkest secrets, hands that can tell the future – and hands that crave justice. In 1940s New York, the descendents of those slaves, men and women gifted with magical hands, often end up on the wrong side of the law. Phyllis, the first of these characters, is an enforcer for a white mobster, his “avenging angel.” Her best friend, Tamara, dances with a snake and tells fortunes at the mobster’s night club. And Dev, who loves them both, is a bartender by night and police informant by day. But someone has been targeting Blacks and harvesting their hands…
Trouble the Saints is a difficult book to describe. It’s not an easy or comfortable read, but it is an important book, fearlessly delving into issues of racism, injustice, murder, greed, and forgiveness.
House of the Patriarch, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)
This latest “Benjamin January” mystery begins with yet another commission to find a missing daughter. In this case, the lost girl is a young lady from a modestly well-to-do white family, recently introduced into society but given to fanciful questions. The last thing Ben wants is to leave his family and put himself at risk of being nabbed by slave-catchers, or worse. But the fee will mean his family’s security during a long lean season.
That said, House of the Patriarch stands apart in its depiction of the social experiments that flourished at the time. Spiritualism (séances, communicating with the dead), communal living, charismatic leaders, all abounded. The Mormon church and others trace their beginnings to this time. The “House” to which Ben ventures is the resident of one such leader. Since the leader has also a reputation for helping escaped slaves on their route to Canada, Ben disguises himself as such and quickly infiltrates the hidden areas of the house. Needless to say, plot twists and dark secrets abound.
Hambly marries her knowledge of history and social customs to a pitch-perfect story of human fears and longing.
Phoenix Extravagant, by Yoon Ha Lee (Solaris)
I loved Lee’s Ninefox Gambit and Raven Stratagem, so I dove into Phoenix Extravagant in the hopes it would be just as good. I was wrong – it’s better! In a fantasy Korea-like land, newly conquered by fantasy-Japan, a young artist, Jebi, ekes out a living selling conventional mass-appeal paintings. An orphan, they live with their sister in an uneasy relationship. Okay, I was hooked. First, my own sister is an artist and I love the protagonist being a gifted painter longing to do original work instead of copying others. Second, how cool is it to have a nonbinary primary character in a world in which this is no big deal???
Back to the story: Jebi’s plan to better their (and their sister’s) conditions is to pass the exam for the Academy of Art. Much to their dismay, they aren’t admitted even though their work is perfect. They are subsequently recruited/drafted by the Ministry of Armor, the propaganda arm of the fantasy-Japan occupiers. Who have been extracting magical pigments from priceless original fantasy-Korean art (which involves total demolition of the pieces). Jebi reacts with horror to the destruction of his nation’s cultural heritage. The most rare and prized of these pigments is “Phoenix Extravagant,” vital for the mystical sigils used in controlling masks for automata – including a sentient, robotic dragon destined to be a war weapon. The dragon turns out to be a pacifist at heart, in no small part due to its no-harm programming.
What happens next, with all its twists and turns, is wildly inventive, full of heart and longing and magic. I adored Jebi and the woman duelist-prime, and most of all, the dragon. I can hardly wait for Lee’s next book!
The Skylark’s Song (The Skylark Saga, Book 1), by J.M. Frey (REUTS Publications) and The Skylark’s Sacrifice (The Skylark Saga, Book 2), by J.M. Frey
These two are really a single story, broken into two. After a great social and environmental collapse, two neighboring nations endure decades of war fought mostly in the air. Gliders from Saskywa take on motorized Klonnish airships, while the populations in each descend further into poverty. This is especially true for the indentured Saskywan underclass, the formerly nomadic Sealies, who must often rely upon scavenging the wreckage of the past for survival (shades of children picking through rag heaps in today’s desperately poor countries).
Robin, a Sealie mid-flight mechanic, lives for her time in the skies, resisting at every turn the relentless pressures to conform and bend to the will of others, particularly men, and always the ruling Benne class. When a brilliant Klonnish pilot dubbed “The Coyote” shoots down her ship, she ends up, by dint of skill, bravery, and luck, being promoted to pilot. Thus begins a battle of strategy, skill, and courage, fought first in the skies, then through captivity and escape.
The brilliance of this two-part novel lies in the skill with which Frey layers and echoes themes. The first, obvious parallel is the resonance between the situation of the Sealies in Saskwya and that of women in Klonn, although the latter live in a gilded prison of silken gowns. The Sealies are pantheistic, the rituals of their faith woven into the fabric of their lives, while the Klonn consider themselves as superior atheists, devoted only to rationalism and the practice of the Arts.
Robin is sick of taking orders and bowing to the expectations of others, whether it’s pressure to retire and marry, or become a “proper” Klonnish lady. She’s an exceptionally stubborn character, which is at times a bit exasperating, but is absolutely true to a world in which a woman of her talent and history must rely upon her own judgment and intuition above all else. Whenever pulled in different directions by the demands of duty, friendship, and love, she always manages to create her own solution moving forward.
Ring Shout, by P. Djèlí Clark (Tordotcom)
This is the book that got me through the final days of the 2020 Presidential election.
It’s now 1922, and the Ku Klux Klan, fueled by a re-showing of The Birth of a Nation, is on the rise. The hatred and violence it encompasses has opened the doors to an even greater, supernatural evil that turns human members into demonic Ku Kluxes (imagine the peaked hood and eye holes conforming to the shape of the skull beneath). Will the menace spread to every corner of the land? All is not lost however, for four intrepid Black women have banded together to defeat it. Each has her own talents, whether skills gained as airwomen in World War I, or through the magic passed on from generations past. Although unique in personality, the bonds of sisterhood and shared purpose has welded them into an indomitable team.
This is the book that got me through the last days of the 2020 Presidential election. I’d turn away from the news, as full of fear and bigotry as it was of hope, and dive into the world of Ring Shout, where the loyalty and courage of Black women heroes stood fast against the forces of evil.
That gives me hope.
The Book of Two Ways, by Jodi Picoult (Ballantine)
Sitting down to review a new Jodi Picoult novel always catapults me into a state of awe. She’s a terrific writer who always envelops me in her story, and those stories are rich in layered textures, interwoven like brilliant tapestries. Her work is characterized by a deep, consistent trust in the discernment and judgment of her readers. She never bashes me over the head by telling me how to feel or what to think about any event, situation, or character. So here goes The Book of Two Ways According to Deborah:
The “Two Ways” in the title refers to many things: in Egyptology, a map depicting two paths a dead person may follow to find the afterlife, one by water, one by land. It also refers to “the road not taken,” the “might-have-beens” in any person’s life. How would things have been different if we had chosen one career over another, or committed ourselves to one first love instead of letting them go?
More importantly, what happens when the chosen life and the might-have-been collide in real life?
Dawn’s first and abiding passion in life was the study of Ancient Egypt, in particular a new interpretation of The Book of Two Ways painted on the insides of mummy cases. She didn’t expect to also find human love with an equally obsessed, brilliant British archaeologist, Wyatt. But when her mother was dying, she left both career and lover to return to the US and a long, excruciating hospice vigil that she survived thanks to the gentle, loyal Brian, whom she eventually marries. She finds new meaning in her work as a death doula, supporting dying clients and their families through their transitions (and echoing the Egyptian practice of guiding the dead to their destination). Dawn’s daughter Meret becomes the shining star in her life. A near-fatal airplane crash fractures Dawn’s neatly assembled world and sends her back to Egypt, and Wyatt.
So much for the plot. First of all, the book itself isn’t linear in chronology, and a good part of it is layered, spiraling back to themes and situations previously touched on, each revisitation offering new insights.
Secondly, Egypt! Tombs! Mummies! Mysteries! Unearthing objects not seen in millennia! Just about every kid I knew was fascinated by Ancient Egypt at one time or another, me included, and Picoult presents the scholarly material and methods in her typical blend of passion and accessibility.
Thirdly, what does it all mean? Can we ever truly pick up the pieces of the lives we might have lived? How do we know if we want now what we wanted then, or have we ourselves changed so there is no going back?
Is it possible to love two people, each in different ways? How does any of us choose between love and the demands of an all-consuming vocation?
In the end, Picoult presents us with an ending that reflects as much what we as individual readers have experienced or longed for, as the text of the previous story.
As usual, highly recommended.
The House on Widows Hill, by Simon R. Green (Severn House)
Ishmael Jones, intrepid (and extraterrestrial) secret agent, takes on a haunted house, along with his charming companion, Penny. The story opens with a peek into Ishmael’s history, hints of the space ship crash that landed him on Earth and the existence of a second survivor. In return for help locating another of his kind, he agrees to investigate an old house with a nasty reputation. It’s the usual set-up, with Ishmael, Penny, and an assortment of psychics and ghost-hunters and such agreeing to spend an entire night in the house. Of course, spooky things happen. Of course, Ishmael and Penny don’t for a second believe these are due to supernatural apparitions.
Of course, things then take a seriously twisted turn, one even Ishmael can’t explain away.
The opening of the book felt comfortably familiar, with the legends and warnings about the house, the introduction and frictions between the guests, and the early, inexplicable events. But this is Ishmael Jones at work, and the story unfolds in the hands of a gifted writer who is much too savvy to follow expectations.
Marvelous fun, but with moments of reflection. I hope Ishmael gets his answers, but not too soon. The journey from here to there provides excellent entertainment.
Machine (A White Space Novel), by Elizabeth Bear (Saga)
My introduction to Elizabeth Bear’s gorgeously inventive “White Space” novels was Ancestral Night. While I highly recommend be read first, Machine stands on its own. Both are huge books in the sense of sweeping plots and vast universe-building.
As before, Bear uses an unreliable but highly competent first-person narrator, in this case Brookllyn Jens, a rescue operations physician ex-cop with a chronic pain condition, who relies on self-administered drugs and an exosuit for support. Despite being estranged from her wife and daughter, she’s formed deep ties with her crew and shipmind, the AI of their rescue vessel. Chance places them first on the scene of a generation ship, drifting far from where it ought to be, with a much smaller ship of methane-breathing aliens attached to it. One mystery unfolds into the next: why are both crews in cryo sleep? What’s going on with the generation ship’s android/ship-computer peripheral unit? Matters take a turn for the much, much worse when one AI after another becomes infected with a meme virus, and all too quickly Llyn realizes there is no one she can trust but herself.
My reactions to this book were very much in line with how I felt about Ancestral Night, so I’ll paraphrase them here: The book is filled with action and reflection that say as much about the different ways of looking at self vs society as they do about Llyn’s journey of self-discovery. It’s all fascinating, if a bit sedate in places, until the pieces start coming together. Then the parts I had previously found slow made brilliant sense and I couldn’t put the book down until the exciting and immensely satisfying conclusion. I say this as an advisory to other readers to hang in there: every piece is there for a reason, and it is richly worth the ride. Machine is in turns dramatic, thoughtful, humorous, hopeful, and tragic. From the government ship name, I Really Don’t Have Time For Your Nonsense to the weird and wonderful aliens to everything I’ve mentioned above, the book is as much about how we balance individual choices with the greater good. Worth savoring, and re-reading, as is the previous book.
Creatures of Charm and Hunger, by Molly Tanzer (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
This third volume in the “Diabolist” series focuses on a family of diabolists – magic workers who draw their power from pact-bound demons. There is, of course, always a catch and always a price. To minimize the danger, diabloists through the centuries have kept meticulous notes on the names, temperaments, and histories of the known demons. Nancy Blackwood is one of a lineage of librarians guarding these and other critical documents. While her sister, Edith, engages in the larger world (in this case, the end of World War II), Nancy lives in a remote British village, along with her Hollywood-obsessed daughter, Jane, and her ward, Jewish refugee Miriam, both student diabolists about to embark upon the “Test” that will lead to full privileges and their own demons. After passing their Tests, each embarks upon perilous paths in violation of the rules: Jane, eager to hide that she has in reality failed her Test, creates a familiar by placing a demonic spirit into her pet cat, but lacks the experience to truly bind it to obedience; and Miriam goes searching for her parents, captives of the Nazis, by taking over the bodies of animals and then people, at a terrible cost to her own spiritual self. What could possibly go wrong?
Tanzer perfectly captures life in a secluded, rambling house in a small British village toward the end of the Second World War, weaving in a story of brash youth, tested friendships, treacherous demons, and consequences. If this is truly the last of the series, I will be sad to see it end.