More Delightful Summer Reading

Here are some more reviews of books I’ve recently enjoyed recently.

 

Servant Mage, by Kate Elliott (Tor)

Kate Elliott always delivers entertaining stories with relatable characters, and Servant Mage is no exception. Indentured fire-mage Fellian leads a drab life, half-starved and clinging to memories of her childhood, before the rigid, fundamentalist Liberationists came to power and enslaved anyone with magical power. The usurped Monarchists have formed an underground rebellion, and they need Fellian’s Fire magic. Of course, one among them is devastatingly handsome, thereby setting expectations of romance to come, as well as the restoration of a noble, altruistic king.. Here’s where Elliott departs from the usual and becomes deeply subversive. Fellian holds steadfastly to her own values when presented with an attractive man and the lure of a benevolent monarchy restored. Instead, she asks piercing questions and relies on her own judgment, time and time again. She is keenly aware that the other conspirators need her special talent, and she’s not about to exchange her autonomy for a new community. In short, she thinks for herself. Through her, Elliott strongly questions the romantic notion so prevalent in fantasy: the noble aristocracy, devoted to the welfare of their subjects. Fellian insists that to trust future generations of entitled rulers is folly and that exchanging one form of top-down rule for another is no guarantee against despotism. This emperor might be just and fair, but in a generation, common people like her might find themselves just as oppressed.

I love how respectful Elliott is of her readers’ intelligence. She plays fair and gives us all the information we need (such as Fellian’s passion for literacy in teaching fellow servants to read and write) without ramming conclusions down our throats. She lets the characters and unfolding events speak for themselves without telling us how to feel about them. For this, and for superb storytelling and compelling characters, I’ll grab anything she writes!

 

The Necropolis Empire, A Twilight Imperium Novel, by Tim Pratt (Aconyte)

Tim Pratt writes a lot of very cool science fiction. From his “Axiom” series (my gateway into his work) to The Doors of Sleep (which I really, really hope will become an entire series, now that there’s a sequel) to his “Twilight Imperium” novels. When I reviewed the first of these, The Fractured Void, I had no idea that Twilight Imperium is a war-without-end strategic game. I wrote, “Game tie-in novels are common these days, but not those that are so well crafted as to stand on their own merits. I picked it up because I loved Tim Pratt’s other science fiction novels (and after reading it I still have no idea what Twilight Imperium is, nor do I particularly care as long as Pratt turns out books as good as this one).” That’s even more true for The Necropolis Empire. If you, like me, are so much Not a Gamer that you’re into negative gamer-ness, just ignore that part and enjoy the book as a great science fiction tale.

Standing on its own, The Necropolis Empire falls into one of my favorite science fiction subgenres: spooky alien ruins. In this case, very, very old alien ruins from a race we’re really glad has gone extinct. Now if folks would just stop trying to resurrect their tech…

Our young heroine, Bianca, lives on one such world, a pastoral culture built on top of the aforementioned, deeply buried alien tech. Scavenged bits are useful, but mostly the farmers go about their lives…until a ship from the imperialist Barony of Letnev arrives, annexes the planet, and carries Bianca away with a rather incredulous story about her being a space princess. Bianca falls for it, though. Not only is she adopted, but rather than settle down with a nice neighbor boy, she has always yearned for something beyond her own world. That something becomes clearer when she begins changing, developing superhuman speed, strength, senses, healing, and more. The ruthless Letnev believe she is the key to finding and controlling the ancient military relics, which they mean to use to dominate all known space. Bianca has other ideas.

I absolutely love how vulnerable and how competent Bianca is. Her confidence in herself and her abilities stems from more than her new, superhuman powers. As a child, she was wanted and cherished, never coddled but given responsibilities. She grew up with permission to tackle all manner of challenges, and she’s a genuinely nice person. The Letnev, not so much. They’ve perfected arrogance to an art form.

I would be perfectly happy to see an entire series of “The Adventures of Bianca,” although I sadly fear the good folks who’ve created Twilight Imperium are more interested in promoting their game and not so much in a fascinating character who stands on her own.

 

Scandal in Babylon, by Barbara Hambly (Severn House)

I loved Barbara Hambly’s Bride of the Rat God, a fantasy set in Roaring 1920s Hollywood. Now she returns to that era, with its glamorous silent film stars, bootleggers, gangsters, drug use, widespread corruption, and the frenzied exuberance that followed World War I. In this story, a murder mystery (without Bride’s supernatural elements) the viewpoint character is Emma, a young British widow who now works as a companion and secretary for her superstar sister-in-law, Kitty. Classically trained, Emma is constantly affronted by the wildly inaccurate movie scripts (Kitty is currently starring in The Empress of Babylon), many of which she is called upon to rewrite on the spur of the moment. She’s also embarked on a possible new romance with cameraman Zak. To complicate matters further, Kitty’s real life is as melodramatic as her screen characters. She is a generous person for all her antics, especially loving to her three adorable Pekinese. When Kitty’s dissolute ex-husband, Rex, is found murdered, it looks very much as if someone is trying to set Kitty up to take the blame and is doing a very bad job of it. A deliberately bad job?

Drenched in atmosphere and fascinating historical details, featuring vivid characters and snappy dialog, Scandal in Babylon is Hambly at the top of her form. The pacing and depth of the scenes are wonderful, just the right combination of page-turning action, whodunit tension, and moments of reflection and personal growth.

Rumor has it that Scandal in Babylon will be the first of a new series. If so, sign me up!

 

The Science of Being Angry, by Nicole Melleby (Algonquin Young Readers)

Eleven-year-old Joey lives in an unusual blended family. For one thing, she had her two twin brothers have two moms, one of whom was married before and has a son from that marriage. She and her brothers were the result of IVF, and the boys are identical, having split from the same egg. For all the nontraditional nature of this family, there’s a lot of love and acceptance. But all is not well with Joey. She’s been having increasingly volatile episodes of anger and acting-out. Her temper has become legendary at school, where she’s been given the nickname, “Bruiser,” after she threw a soccer ball at a boy in gym class so hard she bruised his collarbone. She’s roughly pushed away her best friend, on whom she also has a crush. Now she’s left with the fallout wreckage of what she’s done.

Despite the efforts of her moms to help her, Joey’s outbursts are only getting worse. Finally, she melts down into a tantrum so destructive, her family is evicted from their apartment and must move into a motel, where close quarters fuel everyone’s irritation. Her moms start bickering, and Joey thinks that’s her fault. Her older brother, who is trying to focus on his academics, goes to live with his father, and of course, Joey blames herself for that, too.

Joey can’t understand why she flies into a rage or how to control it. All her best intentions are in vain. Then she gets the idea that perhaps her temper is a genetic trait inherited from her biological father. If she can just track him down, she thinks, she might better understand her own volatility—and he might have found successful strategies for managing his anger. With the help of her alienated best friend/crush, she embarks on a genetics project for science class. And, of course, nothing goes the way Joey expects.

In many ways, Joey is a typical adolescent, struggling with the tensions between immaturity and independence. In others, though, she is very much her own person with a unique family. I loved the way the unusual marriage and relationships are presented in a matter-of-fact way. Joey’s anger is clearly not caused by her having two lesbian mothers. Indeed, the clear love and understanding between her mothers, the way each of them has found her way to an authentic life, are one of Joey’s principal strengths. I also noted very little along the lines of, “girls don’t have anger management issues,” when in fact psychological research shows that girls experience anger as frequently as boys do (but are socialized to suppress it).

What I most loved about this book was the respect with which Joey and her problems were portrayed. Joey is in many ways still a child, and for all her competence in many areas, she has a child’s limited resources for dealing with psychological issues that confound many adults. Her sense of responsibility often leads her to shoulder disproportionate blame, to withdraw rather than harm someone she loves, and to keep her pain to herself. She confronts an issue all of us face, regardless of how old we are: when do we ask for help, and when do we rely upon our own resources? In the end, Joey realizes that she cannot master her temper by herself, and—more importantly—that there is kindness, understanding, and help available to her.

Highly recommended for adults as well as their adolescent children.

 

Noor, by Nnedi Okorafor (DAW)

Okorafor’s work invites us into a world of the future, but one in which the foundational culture is not derived from Western Europe but situated in Africa. Her underlying premise is that the Africans of the future, in this case Nigerians, have developed their own rich technologies. Two stand out for me in this novel: harvesting solar and wind energy in the deserts of northern Nigeria; and the heroine herself, whose cyborg body has been extensively augmented. At the same time, herdsmen follow ages-old traditions. In Okorafor’s skillful hands, high tech and ancient ways of life blend into a seamless whole.

 

 

A Potpourri of Short Book Reviews

I’ve been reading a lot of delightful books recently. Here are a few for your consideration.

The Galaxy, and the Ground Within, by Becky Chambers (Harper Voyager)

Set on an uninhabitable planet whose only value is as a stopover for other worlds, this story explores what happens when members of very different species and histories are forced into community when they are temporarily cut off from contact with the larger Galactic Commons. Three of these strangers are guests at the overwhelmingly hospitable Five-Hop One-Stop version of a spacer’s truck stop when a freak accident halts all traffic and communications. At first glance, they have little in common: an exiled artist with an urgent, perhaps redemptive appointment to keep, a cargo runner with a military history at a personal crossroads, and a mysterious individual who cannot leave her space suit but is doing her best to help those on the fringes. Add to this odd grouping, their host and her teenager, furred quadrupeds that reminded me repeatedly of space otters. Most of all, though, this book is about how people who are initially not only diverse but at odds with one another can bridge those differences through understanding and shared experiences to form friendships and, ultimately, community.

 

Crazy in Poughkeepsie, by Daniel Pinkwater; Aaron Renier illustrator (Tachyon)

It’s difficult to find words to describe a Daniel Pinkwater book because they are a unique breed that defies the usual literary terminology: they’re enchanting (often literally), playful, spontaneous (as in combustion, upon occasion), and hilarious-yet-insightful. In other words, a Daniel Pinkwater book provides the occasion for parents wrestling the copy from their kids, and vice versa, so why not avoid bloodshed, or paper-shred, and read them aloud together?

Mick’s ordinary life comes to a screeching 180 degree turn when his older brother returns home from Tibet with Guru Lumpo Smythe-Finkel and his dog, Lhasa, and Mick finds himself—how, he’s never entirely clear—the guru’s new disciple. Guru, disciple, and magical dog set off on a quest that’s as notable for its vagueness as its unpredictability. They acquire fellow travelers, graffiti-fanatic Verne and Molly, a Dwergish girl (sort of like leprechaun trolls with hidden goals, magical powers, a gift for making friends, and a charmingly madcap sense of humor). Soon they’re cavorting with a ghost whale who is the essence of love, as well as other wacky and memorable characters.

Pinkwater’s in on a great secret: if you want to communicate wisdom to young readers, first make them smile. Or giggle. Or run wild in Poughkeepsie, as the case may be.

 

 

The Dispatcher: Murder by Other Means, by John Scalzi (Subterranean)

Part noir detective story, part thriller, part inventive science fiction that examines a world in which death is not permanent (well, certain kinds of death and mostly), this is newest adventure in John Scalzi’s “The Dispatcher” series. I hadn’t read the first one but quickly found that didn’t matter. Scalzi skillfully weaves in all the necessary backstory with nary a plot hiccough.

In Scalzi’s world, a few years ago almost all folks who were murdered don’t die, they reappear in a place they feel safe, like a childhood home. Natural deaths are something else: you die, you stay dead. A new profession has arisen, that of “dispatcher,” a not-murderer for hire. If you’re about to die naturally, you hire them and get another chance at life. Most of the time. But business has been drying up, and Tony Valdez has been taking on cases that blur the shady line of what’s strictly legal. Like killing a Chinese executive so he can re-appear thousands of miles away in time for an important business meeting. At this point, Scalzi propels Valdez firmly into thriller territory, with plenty of dramatic tension, noir mystery, and danger. In Scalzi’s superlatively competent hands, it all comes together seamlessly for a can’t-put-it-down ride.

 

Paper & Blood (Book Two of the Ink & Sigil series, by Kevin Hearne (Del Rey)

I’m a huge fan of Kevin Hearne to begin with, and his “Ink and Sigil” series is a delight. As a former student of calligraphy, I love the idea that the written word is magical. In this series, set in the world of the Iron Druid, scribes create magical spells using not only words, but painstakingly prepared pens, inks, and paper. The spells include the Sigils of Unchained Destruction, Restorative Care, Agile Grace, Muscular Brawn, and Quick Compliance and are used to protect the world against malevolent gods and monsters.

Our everyman-hero, Al MacBharrais, is under a couple of nasty spells himself. If he speaks to someone more than a few times, they loathe him (this happened to his own son), and his apprentices die violently after a year of service. This isn’t good news for his hobgoblin apprentice, Buck Foi. While Al is searching for a way to lift his misfortunes, his fellow sigil agents go missing in the wilds of Australia. Al and Buck are off to the rescue, joined by one of the missing agent’s apprentices, his receptionist Gladys Who Has Seen Some Shite, a few sundry allies, and the Iron Druid himself. The search leads them to a forested preserve, where chimeric monsters lie in wait. These critters are sometimes more effective and lethal than others, but always inventive: a turtle-dragon-spider, an eagle bull, a scorpion with a rat’s head (ugh), pygmy goats with fanged snake heads, a gorilla elephant, a yak badger, and my favorite, a zebra possum.

All in all, this is a quick, fun read filled with plot twists and delightful characters but also depth, the best combination.

“Abandoned cheese is a sure sign that something’s gone wrong.”

 

The Paradox Hotel, by Rob Hart (Ballantine)

If we ever managed to figure out time travel, who would control it? How would we prevent time tourists from messing with the past—and would that warp the present, as in the grandfather paradox? In Rob Hart’s latest novel, The Paradox Hotel, the US government has been policing time tourism and historical research expeditions, only now they’ve run out of funds and the franchise is about to go to auction.

January Cole works security at the Paradox Hotel, which hosts time travelers awaiting their scheduled “flights to the past” at the nearby Einstein Institute. She’s a seasoned time traveler herself, having made many trips as part of the policing agency. As a result of spending too much time in the past, she’s become Unstuck, with the result that she often sees events and people from prior times. The best of these incidents allow her to be with her sweet, loving girlfriend, now dead. But January’s condition is worsening, and she’s not only seeing the past but the future. That future includes a corpse in Room 526.

With trillionaires arriving for the auction, baby velociraptors on the loose, and January’s grip on the present moment growing ever less reliable, it’s inevitable that more things will go wrong…starting with a series of “accidents” befalling the powerful, ultra-wealthy bidders. Clocks run backward, time seems to stutter, the treatment for being Unstuck no longer works, and January’s running out of time to stop the murder.

I loved the convolutions of time, January’s wrestling with grief and guilt, the dips into the past, and of course, the baby velociraptors that grow much too fast, all with the fast pacing of a thriller. In short, Hart’s time-twisting murder mystery satisfies on many counts.

 

 

Something Perfect, by Laura Anne Gilman (Faery Cat Press)

Just in time for Valentine’s Day comes a sweet, sexy novella from Laura Anne Gilman. It’s a romance between a long-married couple, Jenny and Nic, who feel more complete with a third person. Luck hasn’t favored them so far, as triads or throuples aren’t for everyone. Polyamory requires excellent communication skills, integrity, and generosity of heart. Frustrated with having their hearts broken from yet another breakup, Jenny asks Nic to use his scrying talent to find their perfect partner.

“When you see the curve of their face reflected in glass and moonlight,” goes his reading. “The city shining on their skin. When you see that, you’ll know.”

Years go by, until Jenny attends an exclusive party in New York City and spots Amy sitting alone on the moonlit patio. Jenny knows she’s “the one.” Courtship is difficult enough, but between three people it’s a real challenge, especially when one of them is as insecure as Amy, who’s convinced she “isn’t good at sex” and will never find the right partner. Nic’s “Seeing” may have started the ball rolling, but it takes more than magic to forge strong, resilient relationships.

There was so much I loved in this story, and it’s all beautifully rendered: the strength and clarity of Jenny and Nic’s marriage and their ability to communicate in a loving, nonjudgmental fashion; the absence of plot stupidities and misunderstandings that serve no other purpose than to draw out tension, when a simple conversation would resolve them; the positive portrayal of sex and multiple relationships, one that trusts the reader’s intelligence; and most of all, a thread of gold running through the story, the importance of consent. Asking for it, giving it, checking in, taking it back, celebrating it. And the wonderfully juicy erotic bits are great, too.

 

 

Within Without (A Nyquist Mystery), by Jeff Noon (Angry Robot)

This is the third “John Nyquist Mystery” I’ve read and it’s by far the weirdest. Nyquist’s latest case involves the theft of a sentient, essence-of-glamor image that has gone missing from its host. To

investigate, Nyquist and his new assistant travel to the city of Delirium, guarded by boundaries that are far more than checkpoints or physical barriers. Their search for the magic practitioner who created and attached the image to begin with leads them into increasingly bizarre cities-within-cities. In Escher, Nyquist discovers his “Inverse,” the character hidden within his psyche, and it turns out to be Gregor Samsa, the narrator of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, who wakens one morning to discover he has turned into a cockroach. So Nyquist must deal not only with Samsa’s personality and voice, but that of the cockroach. As if that weren’t strange enough, his assistant has become infected with a creeping magical substance and, obsessed with taking the image, named Oberon, for his own, disappears. Plot twists abound, building until Nyquist finds himself in an utterly different plane of existence, one in which the images define and distort reality. The book carries forward and intensifies the hallucinatory texture of the previous Nyquist novels.

 

 

 

Award-Eligible Works by Treehouse Residents

As 2021 draws to a close, writers in the Treehouse want to call attention to the new works they published this year. These works are eligible for writing awards based on year of publication. These works include three novels, a novella, and three short stories that are already in print.

Additionally, four of the stories in the forthcoming anthology Bright Morning, which will be published on December 20, 2021, qualify as short stories. Bright Morning, edited by Treehouse resident Deborah Ross, honors the late Vonda N. McIntyre. All proceeds go to Room to Read, a nonprofit supporting literacy and education for girls.

Novels:

A Valentine for One – book 8, Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. August 2021.  (mystery)

The Green Children Help Out, by Gillian Polack ( (fantasy)

For the Good of the Realm, June 2021 by Nancy Jane Moore (fantasy)

Novella:

Intermezzo – Household Matters” – novella, tie-in to Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. January 2021. (mystery)

Short Stories:

“Mannikin,” by Madeleine Robins in the March/April 2021 issue of the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. (science fiction)

The Missing Forget-Me-Nots,” – mystery short story, tie-in to Wisteria Tearoom Mysteries, by Patrice Greenwood. August 2021. (mystery)

Karen’s Secret Story,” by Gillian Polack (science fiction)

Original Stories from Bright Morning (forthcoming December 20), all science fiction:

“Sanitizing the Safe House,” by Leah Cutter.

“More Lasting Than Bronze,” by Judith Tarr.

“Panacea,” by Pati Nagle.

“Harden,” by Gillian Polack.

A New Book

coverThe humans in the treehouse think they can sneak things past us, but we crows see all. One of the humans, Pati Nagle, has just published a book, Intermezzo: Household Matters by Patrice Greenwood. That’s not the name she uses around here, but humans are funny sometimes.

This is a short book, all about characters in a series of mysteries. Here’s the announcement she tried to sneak by us.

She calls this an ebook, which seems to mean that it exists only in the imagination, but she says there will be a version on real paper soon, with a shiny cover. Those are more fun for us.