The Last Days of New Paris by China Miéville

Book – Surrealism, as it was invented, wasn’t just an art movement but a political one as well, designed to help the practitioner break out of the mindset imposed on us by the culture we live in and invent a new and better world. Given that, it was really only a matter of time before China Miéville wrote a book about a surrealist city rising up to overthrow its fascist oppressors.

It’s 1950, and Paris is still occupied – both by the Nazis and by the manifs, physical embodiments of surrealist art and poetry that sprang into existence after the S-bomb exploded in a café in the 40s. The city has been sealed off to prevent the manifs from infecting the surrounding countryside. Thibaut is the last remaining member of Main á Plume, a surrealist Resistance faction, when he’s joined by Sam, an American photographer who’s chronicling the manifs for a book she wants to produce, The Last Days of New Paris. But Sam has other goals in mind, and they have to do with the Nazi scheme to leash the manifs as weapons, which is beginning to show signs of success.

This is such a perfect China Miéville book that I really can’t give it a better recommendation than that: If you like his books, you should love this. It’s probably a little easier to follow if you’re moderately familiar with the Surrealists, but there are some helpful illustrations (and an index chronicling the sources of the manifs, if you want to look them up). If you’ve never tried Miéville before, this isn’t necessarily the place to start (unless you really love Surrealism). May I recommend The City & The City, a surrealist mystery novel that’s recently been announced for an upcoming BBC adaptation?

Bitter Seeds by Ian Tregillis

6881685Book – Klaus and his sister Gretel were sold to the Doctor when they were children, and ten years later, after innumerable surgeries, experiments, and hours of training, they and their companions are the secret weapons of the rising Reich. Klaus can walk, insubstantial, through walls or hails of bullets with equal ease; his rival can burst into flames at will; and his sister Gretel’s powers, though less dramatic, are no less important, because she can see the future consequences of all their actions.

Meanwhile, across the Channel, the British Secret Service has formed an even-more secret organization called Milkweed to figure out how to combat the German supersoldiers whose existence they’ve stumbled upon. Raybould Marsh, an up-and-coming SIS agent, recruits his old friend William Beauclerk, the younger brother of a Duke and, more importantly, one of Britain’s secret network of warlocks, able to negotiate favors from impossibly powerful beings with control over the very fabric of reality.

Nazi supermen versus British warlocks — Bitter Seeds (the first book in the Milkweed Trilogy) is like a comic book movie in novel form, in the best possible way. While the Nazi doctor sometimes falls into cartoon-villain territory, Klaus and Gretel more than make up for it, and the machinations of the British warlocks are mesmerizing in their horribleness. This is a dark alternate history (although perhaps no darker than World War II actually was) where everybody makes terrible choices in the service of winning the war, without stopping to think about what will happen if they do.

If you like Marvel’s Captain America movies or the X-Men in any form, do yourself a favor and pick this up. Another great alternate-World War II novel is Jo Walton’s Farthing, an English country house mystery set during the long peace between Britain and Nazi Germany.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde

indexBook-  Thursday Next is a SpecOps (Special Operations) agent in an alternate universe Britain where literature is at the center of people’s lives, dodos are not extinct, and the Crimean War is ongoing. The story revolves around Thursday’s attempt to capture wanted criminal Acheron Hades, who just happens to be her former English professor. Acheron, the third most wanted criminal in the world (if you don’t know the first two, you don’t want to know), has found a way to enter the world of books and starts holding various book characters for ransom. Thursday must find a way to follow him and rescue Jane Eyre before Bronte’s masterpiece is ruined.

This book is enormous fun, but if it has a flaw, it’s that it tries to go in too many directions at once. Various diverse subplots include Thursday’s reconnecting with her former fiance, fighting vampires, and her father’s excursions through time. Never fear, though:  this book begins an ongoing series where most of these plot threads get resolved and more elements introduced along the way. We own the first book in audio and paper copies, and the rest of the series in paper copies, here at the library. The Eyre Affair will appeal to fans of other British authors specializing in the zany and fantastical, such as Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett.

Soulless by Gail Carriger

soullessBook – Miss Alexia Tarabotti is not your average twenty-six-year-old spinster in Victorian London.  Along with her Italian name, her headstrong temperament, her distressing complexion and her even more distressing nose, Alexia inherited something noteworthy from her father: her missing soul.  Alexia is a preternatural, a soulless human whose touch can exorcise ghosts and transform vampires and werewolves back to their human forms.  Her preternatural status is a closely guarded secret from humans, even from her own family, but it brings her to the attention of the Bureau of Unnatural Registry, headed by the exasperating alpha werewolf, Lord Conall Maccon.  And when Alexia accidentally kills a vampire at a party and is launched into a web of supernatural intrigue extending far beyond her usual sphere, she finds herself entangled with Lord Maccon in all sorts of new and exciting–though still exasperating–ways.

As an infrequent reader of romances of any kind but a big fan of sci-fi and fantasy, I was pleasantly surprised by how entirely I found myself rooting for the romantic subplot in this scrumptious confection of a fast-paced steampunk adventure.  Soulless is a purely fluffy read, but delightfully so, the kind of light-hearted, feel-good, take-you-away-from-your-troubles indulgence of a book that we all need every once in a while.  It would make an outstanding book to take away on vacation–and with four other books in this series, a manga adaptation and two separate spin-off series in progress, it might just leave you eager to get home and read more of Alexia’s world.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! by Richard Ned Lebow

archdukeBook – On the 28th of June, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated in Sarajevo, an event which is now commonly regarded as the spark that kicked off World War I. In this book, Lebow considers what might have happened if the assassin had missed. The Archduke, he argues, was an important moderate voice in European politics, and if he had lived, war may have been avoided. But what would the world look like if one of the deadliest conflicts of the twentieth century had never happened?

Lebow offers two alternatives: a particularly good world, in which the absence of war creates an open, moderate, and prosperous global community; and a particularly bad one, in which the tensions which contributed to the Great War continue without ever breaking into outright war, creating an atmosphere of oppression and paranoia. He admits that either set of events is as plausible as the other, and we’ll never be able to test his guesses, but he also argues that thinking about how things could have been different helps us to understand why things happened the way they did.

Since the book focuses so much on individual people, it’s easy to get lost in a long list of names and titles, particularly since half of the book is describing things that these people never actually did. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to the war, but for someone already a little familiar with the events, this is an interesting new angle.

My Real Children by Jo Walton

my realBook – Patricia Cowen is confused. “Very confused,” it says on her medical chart most days. She forgets things. But she remembers things, too. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Now” and getting married and having his four children. She remembers Michael telling her “It’s now or never” and saying “Never” and traveling in Florence and raising three children with Bee. She isn’t sure which one of them is right, or if both of them are, but she’s sure it means something.

My Real Children is one of those novels that could only be written by Jo Walton. It’s science fiction insofar as it’s about one woman and two different lives she could have had, both of them in worlds that are not exactly our own. (The split occurs sometime in the early fifties, and history progresses in sometimes surprising ways.) But the real story, the point of the story, is about Patricia – Trish in one lifetime, Pat in the other – and her life and her family. It’s a little bit about might-have-beens, but more about the small choices that you make that make big differences, both to yourself and to other people. I loved it, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

In Great Waters by Kit Whitfield

In Great WatersBook – What would the world be like if there really were mermaids? No, really, what would that be like? That’s the question Kit Whitfield sets out to answer in her spectacular novel In Great Waters, an alternate history of the world where the royalty of Europe are all descended from the deepsmen, tribes of not-quite-human folk who live in the sea and who first rose to land in Venice in a time of political strife. Now – in something very like sixteenth-century England – a half-human, half-deepsman boy has been abandoned by the deepsman tribe that tried to raise him. He represents an opportunity – the chance to overthrow the incompetent, inbred crown prince before he has a chance to ruin the kingdom. The boy himself, however, may have some different plans.

This is a tremendously inventive story, not fantastical at all except for the existence of the deepsmen – if it were set in the future, you’d call it science fiction. The book explores the implications of its premise, but it never loses sight of the characters at the heart of the story: abandoned, bastard Henry and Princess Anne, both trapped by others’ expectations and fighting to define themselves on their own terms.