Book – 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.
J. J. Abrams, the movie and television creator of popular works such as Armageddon and Lost, hired a writer and a graphic design team to bring this celebration of paper and ink reading to life. S. is a multi-layered set of mysteries, composed of a suspenseful love story handwritten in the margins of an enigmatic, fantastical adventure novel. 22 extra artifacts that arrived tucked into this novel, including a map on a napkin, a college newsletter, and a decoder wheel, required extra TLC from our cataloging department, and add to the fun of this eccentric reading adventure. The design team did a wonderful job of using textures, images, and fonts to provide the nostalgic look of a library book published in the 1940’s, as well as inscribing the seams and margins with delightfully realistic handwriting.
I especially enjoyed Dorst’s writing in the adventure novel. The story is an analogy of literary novels of the early twentieth century, in which prose and philosophy proliferated. As a four-time winner of Jeopardy, Dorst has a wonderful depth of vocabulary which he uses playfully and poetically. For example, an assassin moving in and out of time feels that he is sleepwalking through his endless assignments and that his only choice is “to live a life of vigilant somnolence or somnolent vigilantism”. In contrast, the writing in the margins between two students who are surreptitiously passing the book back and forth as they try to discover the true identity of the author, is informal and includes current digital acronyms.
Book – Mackie Doyle is different. Then again, so is Gentry, the decaying steel town he lives in. Things are pretty good there, except when they aren’t, but mostly it’s a town where people have an unnatural ability to pretend that everything is OK. People pretend they don’t notice that Mackie is weird, and they pretend not to care when their children go missing on a startlingly regular schedule. Things start to change when Tate, a girl at Mackie’s school, loses her little sister, and refuses to pretend that it’s all OK.
I really enjoyed this dark and creepy YA interpretation of the myth of the changeling, babies stolen away by the faeries with alien children left in their place. Mackie is a wonderfully relatable character, a boy who knows he’s strange but doesn’t know how normal he is at the same time, and Tate is a fierce companion. Recommended for fans of Maggie Stiefvater and Holly Black.
Book – Tyador Borlú is a detective in Beszel, charged with investigating the murder of an unidentified woman found in one of their slums. His case would be much simpler if he did not believe she was murdered in Ul Quoma, the neighboring city and other half of Beszel, a city which intertwines with his own but whose borders are strictly policed by a shadowy force known as Breach. To unwind the mystery, he must travel across and between these borders, but carefully, because the murderers appear to be extremely powerful – and Breach is always watching.
Miéville’s books always revolve around cities, from the fantastical cities of Bas-Lag to a mystical London, but Beszel and Ul Quoma are perhaps the strangest yet, although there is almost fantastical about them, strictly speaking. This book also features two of the greatest chase scenes I’ve ever read, enabled by the cities’ particularly peculiar geography.
Book – Whatever assumptions you might have about fantasy novels, you can put them aside when reading something by Elizabeth Bear, because she will certainly do something different. Bone and Jewel Creatures packs a whole lot of different into a very few pages. The story revolves around Bijou the Artificer, an old, tired wizard who is ready to retire when she is given a feral child who has been poisoned by a mysterious agent. In healing the child, Bijou begins to unravel a plot rooted deep in her own past that threatens her home, the City of Jackals.
At only 136 pages, Bone and Jewel Creatures is slim, but not slight. Bijou and the feral child are both wonderfully realized characters with whom it’s a delight to spend an afternoon. My favorite part of the story, though, are Bijou’s artifices – creatures made up of bits and pieces, metal and bone and gemstones, to serve some purpose and then kept around long after their original use. There’s definitely a steampunk aesthetic, but it’s an unusual one. This is an engrossing short novel that offers a tantalizing glimpse of a unique world. The prequel, Book of Iron, was published in September, and both novellas are also set in the same universe as her Eternal Sky trilogy, which begins with Range of Ghosts.
Book – Johannes Cabal has a problem with his soul. Namely, he doesn’t have it – he sold it to Satan some time ago in exchange for the secrets of necromancy. He’s decided that it was a bad deal, and he wants his soul back. Satan, of course, isn’t letting any souls go that easily, so he proposes a challenge: if Cabal can acquire 100 souls within a year, he can have his soul back. The Devil will even throw in a diabolical carnival to help. It’s not a great deal, but it’s the only one on offer, so Cabal enlists the help of his estranged brother and sets out across the countryside, carnival in tow, to race against the clock. Er, hourglass.
For the first fifty pages or so I kept trying to figure out what time period and what country this book was set in; eventually I realized that it just doesn’t matter, and I settled back to enjoy the ride. Johannes Cabal is delightfully deadpan and almost entirely unconcerned with the fates of other people. It’s the almost that makes it great: he shows flashes of humanity at the most inopportune times. This is the first in a series; the latest, Johannes Cabal: The Fear Institute, was published in October.
Book – What would happen if magic came back into the world? That’s the driving question behind James Treadwell’s ongoing trilogy, which starts with Advent. Hundreds of years ago Johann Faust, the greatest magician of his age, locked all the magic of the world away in two precious objects. In the present day, Gavin Stokes is fifteen, and he sees things that other people don’t. Unlike most teen protagonists, he refuses to shut up about it, and when it gets him suspended from school his parents send him his aunt in the country, where he finds that he is far from the only one.
I loved Advent for the feeling it has, a sense that magic is something very old and mysterious and dangerous which, though wonderful, might not actually be something that you want. This is magic by way of horror – too powerful to be simply charming. It reminds me a little of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, a little of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and a little of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The sequel to Advent, Anarchy, was published in the US in September, and the third book in the trilogy is forthcoming.
Book – Although my favorite books by Steven Brust are his Vlad Taltos series (ongoing, catch up now before Hawk comes out next year!), there’s no denying that his stand-alone novel Agyar is a remarkable piece of work. It’s also hard to review and hard to recommend, because the thing that you would usually use to describe it is the thing you can’t know ahead of time without completely changing your experience of reading it. Let’s just say it’s a truly spectacular example of what a talented writer can do with an ambiguously reliable narrator.
On the face of it, Agyar is the diary of a disillusioned, hedonistic young man, a classic anti-hero. It’s a very period novel, originally published in 1993, and it does kind of reek of that early nineties goth chic. That’s part of it’s charm, and I don’t think it would work nearly as well updated to the present day. But if the face of it was all there was to it, I wouldn’t be writing this incredibly roundabout review, would I? Brust plays with the reader’s expectations, and he knows exactly what to do with them. So here’s my recommendation: if you like urban fantasy, clever writing, or fascinating if unlikeable characters, pick up Agyar and start at page one. Do not read the back cover copy. Just trust in the author. He’s worth it.
Book – The first of a four-volume series, Mélusine is not a gentle introduction to Sarah Monette’s elaborate, well-constructed fantasy world. For one thing, one of the point of view characters goes mad about fifty pages in. But for those who stick it out, it’s a rewarding book, and one of the most unique fantasy series of the last decade. Felix Harrowgate is a wizard of the Mirador, well-respected if not well-liked, but he has never let anyone know how far he had to climb to get there. A dark figure from his past frames him for a terrible treasonous magic – the casting of which has driven Felix insane, so he can mount no defense. At the same time, Mildmay the Fox, the most famous assassin of the Lower City, has fallen on hard times and is forced to flee the city of Mélusine. The two, thrown together by their desperate circumstances, undertake a journey to cure and redeem them both.
The narration switches back and forth between Felix and Mildmay, and as annoying (and depressing) as Felix’s madness can become, Mildmay’s humor, stubbornness, and wonderful felicity for storytelling more than make up for it. While the story is excellent, the characters are what really make this series: you come to know Felix and Mildmay both intimately, and it doesn’t take long for them to feel like old friends.