Novel Reviews and Recommendations for (1/31/2020)

Time WarThis is How You Lose the Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (Saga Press, July 2019)

Recommended – I had something of a mixed response to the first half of This is How You Lose the Time War. The plot of this epistolary novella concerns two agents (Red and Blue) belonging to rival organizations, fighting the titular time war while leaving messages behind for each other to find. Over the course of their correspondence, they fall in love. My initial problem was that I wasn’t entirely convinced by the transition from snarking enemies to starstruck lovers, which I felt was a little too abrupt. Additionally, there are scant details given about the background conflict that drives the story, or what the two protagonists’ overall goals might be if not for their budding romance. This makes sense from a structural standpoint: the story is only told from Red’s and Blue’s perspectives, and they have little reason to explain to one another what’s going on. But however intriguing a story’s world-building is, vague hints and cryptic asides can get a frustrating if that’s all you’re getting 20,000 words in. Thankfully, Time War is authored by two of the more accomplished wordsmiths in genre fiction, and that was enough to carry this reader through to the sterling second half, a thrilling, suspenseful and gloriously self-aware remix of Romeo and Juliet, with a climax as thrilling and surprising as any you will find in science fiction. It is also an ending that promises more to come, hopefully with a deeper dive into what makes this Time War tick.

ten thousand doorsThe Ten Thousand Doors of January, by Alix E. Harrow (Redhook, September 2019)

Must Read! – Anyone who has read Alix E. Harrow’s Hugo award-winning short story “A Witch’s Guide to Escape: A Practical Compendium of Portal Fantasies” knows the author has a thing for opening doors to other worlds. That story, about a studious librarian who nudges a troubled teenager toward the titular tome, knowing it would give him the tools he needs to magically extricate himself from his difficulties. Aside from tipping its hat to the good work librarians do, the metafictional tale offers one simple but powerful conceit: that fiction, specifically fantasy fiction, speaks truths to readers in more than just a figurative sense – it can have a direct impact on the choices they make. It can compel readers to change the circumstances of their lives if those circumstances are not to their liking.

January Scaller, the heroine of Harrow’s debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January, grew up in a life of privilege, a sort-of orphan cared for by the kindly, rich Mr. Locke. January’s mother died when January was a baby, and her father Julian spends most of his time traveling the world finding rare artifacts for Mr. Locke’s personal collection. One day, when January is a teenager, Julian goes missing on one of his trips for Locke and is presumed dead. Right after Julian disappears, January finds a strange, roughly bound book called “The Ten Thousand Doors” among her belongings, though she has no idea how it got there. The book tells the story of a young woman named Ade who finds a door to another world, and there she meets a young man she falls head-over-heels for. But the door disappears, so she goes on a quest to find another way into this magical realm. As January reads on, she discovers alarming connections to her own life and soon the book’s presence creates a scandal that turns her life upside down and forces her from the comfort of Mr. Locke’s patronage. But discovering the true meaning of book’s contents are also the only thing that inspires hope when her world falls apart.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January is entertainment of the highest order: twisty, roller coaster plotting, rich and colorful characters led by an impossible-not-to-root-for heroine, all propelled by meaty, electric prose that begs to be read out loud. This is a can’t miss fantasy adventure that more than capitalizes on the promise of Harrow’s short fiction.

AftershocksAftershocks, by Marko Kloos (47 North, July 2019)

Recommended – Aftershocks is the first novel in a new series by the Kloos, a gifted writer of military SF who is as steady writing scenes of action and peril as the smaller character moments that make stories tick. The author is clearly trying to show off his versatility and range with The Palladium Wars, and the kickoff mostly succeeds. Unlike the single perspective of his popular Frontlines series, Aftershocks follows several characters across multiple worlds. This is also not a story about war, but the uneasy calm of war’s aftermath: more of a slow burn space opera than a smack-in-the-pants action adventure.

The novel is set after a multi-planet war in which the main aggressor, Gretia, was defeated by a multi-planet alliance. Much of the focus of the story is on Aden Robertson, a former Gretian soldier trying to reintegrate into society after serving mandatory prison time as recompense for Gretian atrocities. Various other character threads elucidate the social and economic circumstances of the tense, uneasy peacetime reconstruction.

While it may evince a more temperate demeanor than the Frontlines novels, Aftershocks doesn’t skimp on the spectacle. The plot’s catalyst is a doozy, showing the brazen scuttling of a fleet of captured warships by unknown conspirators. This sequence, along with Aden’s desperate escape from a hijacked freighter and the thrilling chase finale, remind us of Kloos’ talent for jaw-clenching suspense and terrifyingly violent action. If I have any complaints about Aftershocks, it’s that while it teases a big reveal to come, it still leaves a little too much hanging at the end for the resolution to be truly satisfying. There is, however, a lot of solid groundwork laid for what promises to be a great series.

unravelingUnraveling, by Karen Lord (DAW, June 2019)

The hero of Karen Lord’s knotty, sometimes confounding fantasy thriller is Miranda, a therapist pulled out of time and into a labyrinthine netherworld to help solve a series of murders that baffles the gods themselves. The title of Lord’s novel is appropriate, the drawback being that the story unravels a bit too methodically and deliberately. The characters, human and god, are appealing. Miranda brings a surprising amount of consideration to her role in these events, even as she is unceremoniously hijacked into service. The Trickster, too, makes an interesting companion and foil. On the downside, we get way too deep into the book before a genuine antagonist shows up, and while the conclusion was satisfying enough, the trip there was too circuitous to fully captivate this reader.

song for a new dayA Song for a New Day, by Sarah Pinsker (Berkley, September 2019)

In Pinsker’s near-future character study A Song for a New Day, public gatherings have been outlawed after a series of devastating terrorist attacks. This brings an end to live music shows, legally speaking, so StageHolo arrives to fill the void. Users wear a Hoodie to “attend” pre-recorded shows in virtual reality Hoodspace, which begs the question: how do these bands get discovered in the first place? Enter Rosemary Laws – green thumbed, good-hearted, naïve-minded, and StageHolo’s newest talent scout. Rosemary is given an expense account and a directive to find the Next Big Thing amidst the barely thriving illegal underground music scene. What she finds is Luce Cannon, one-hit wonder whose near-fame arrived a split-second before the world changed and left her behind. Luce is a fierce performer and advocate for live music, generous with fans and friends alike. Rosemary wants StageHolo to sign Luce’s band – and many of the others she finds in Luce’s circle – but fails to realize in time that her activities threaten to overturn the delicate ecosystem that fostered all that talent in the first place.

A Song for a New Day features engaging characters and sets up its themes and conflicts nicely. It does feel a bit padded as it goes on though. I constantly felt overwhelmed by backstory details, and the more we learn about this future history the less credible it seems. The resolution also strains believability, and left me with a sour taste.




The Rack – Zine Reviews for the Week of February 16, 2019

Featured image by Ashley Mackenzie from “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” by J.Y. Yang

Beneath Ceaseless Skies #270, January 31, 2019

BCS 270
Cover Art: “Dreams of Atlantis” by Flavio Bolla

The narrator of Natalia Theodoridou’s short vignette “To Stab with a Rose” reveals an odd custom from her homeland, involving dancers on a frozen lake in spring choosing lovers by offering them a rose or a knife. The rose means you get no play, and the knife means you get cut and the lovemaking lasts for as long as the wound stays open. Unceasing war has since forced her to flee her homeland, and she now works as a servant in a foreign land. She pines after a fellow servant girl, who’s not in to her like that, while frequently being summoned to the bedchamber of her mistress, who is. As an internal monologue about her pain over the loss of her homeland and customs there are some nice passages here. Trying to keep a sense of one’s own culture in a place that doesn’t understand or accept it is a double-edged sword – the very thing that keeps you grounded in your identity can also distance you from others and leave you vulnerable to exploitation. The conflation of love with open wounds is an interesting, if grisly, metaphor.
When we meet the healer Eefa at the beginning of Alix E. Harrow’s “Do Not Look Back, My Lion”, she is fleeing the city of Xot and the Emperor’s endless war machine. Eefa’s pregnant wife Talaan, a famed warrior and the Emperor’s Lion of Xot, tracks her down and convinces her to return, promising her that their new daughter will be a healer like her, not a soldier. Eefa relents and returns with her, but soon learns that the Emperor’s will trumps even that of the great Lion of Xot. Harrow builds an interesting culture in this story, one where women are bred to be soldiers and pregnancy isn’t an excuse to keep one from the battlefield. I liked that titles such as “husband” and “emperor” were not gendered when describing a person’s role in society. The choices that Eefa and Talaan make at the end are touching, and the final image is stark and memorable. 1/23/2019 & 1/30/2019

HIs Footsteps
Cover Art by Kashmira Sarode

I love the groundwork Mimi Mondal lays for her story “His Footsteps, Through Darkness and Light”. Binu is a trapeze artist for the Majestic Oriental Circus in India, who also plays the character of Alladin for a real-life jinni’s illusion show. The jinni, Shehzad Marid, trusts only Binu with the care of his lamp. This makes Binu his de facto master, though Binu doesn’t see it that way. While performing at the wedding for the raja’s daughter in Thripuram, a devadasi (holy courtesan), convinces Binu to let her run away with the circus, which has deadly consequences for all of them. There’s so much to savor in story—the warm friendship between Binu and Shehzad, the unconventional daily life of the circus troupe—that the letdown of the story’s ending sank lower than it should have. The climax makes up its own rules, and the resolution comes too easily.
Lynette grew up in the circus. After spurning the advances of the escape artist, he chains her up and throws her in the water tank to drown. She is rescued by a boy in a mirror who becomes her boyfriend/companion, even though he is only present as her reflection. He disappears when she is sixteen, only to reappear years later when someone is hunting down anyone with a connection to him. The title of J.Y. Yang’s new story “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy” is a bit on the nose, don’t you think? I appreciated that all three title characters had a POV section of the story, though in some ways I would have preferred it stay with Lynette, who is the hero and whose section has the longest word count. Magic is an accepted part of daily life so there’s a weird casualness to everything that goes on in the story, even when it seems like the characters should act with a little more urgency. The writing has an unforced charm, like most of Yang’s work; I suppose not every story has to ratchet up the tension to 11, even when the protagonist is being hunted by a serial killer.

Apex Magazine Issue 117, February 2019

Cover Art by Julia Griffin

The brilliant concept that drives Izzy Wasserstein’s “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart” is that magic users transform into the thing they specialize in. In Danae’s case, it’s spiders, and she has a complicated relationship with her houseplant of a mother. Danae works as a courier for Pliny (books of course), who sends her on a job to clients who turn out to be fly cultists, who want to sacrifice her in a mysterious ritual. What starts as a straightforward chase story evolves into a meditation on cities and the people and myths and social structures that hold them together. Traverse is a mythical city filled with as much corruption, inequality, and structural decay as any real one, suspended over a chasm called the Drop by a massive spider’s web—an astounding visual metaphor, and one that Wasserstein uses to weave together a variety of thematic strands. Danae muses on the perception gap between rich and poor: the weave is tighter in the rich parts of town, where folks don’t have to worry about gaps in the walkway, while Danae prefers “to get clear of those claustrophobic streets” where she can “dash across open spaces” and “feel the web… beneath her bare feet.” An outstanding tale in a vivid and inventive setting.
Amadis escapes from their abusive Fey lover Kinnear, who doesn’t give up so easy in Hayley Stone’s suspenseful “Cold Iron Comfort”. The story does a good job of depicting the trauma abuse survivors suffer, and the climax contrives a clever solution to Amadis’ plight. I liked the way the author expressed Amadis’ gradual understanding of their gender fluidity.

Recommended Stories (***Must Read; **Highly Regarded; *Also Recommended)

*** “The Crafter at the Web’s Heart”, by Izzy Wasserstein

* “Circus Girl, the Hunter, and Mirror Boy”, by J.Y. Yang