Queer Imperial Chinese fantasy about ambition and power
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the author. I also received a paperback copy of this book from Paperchain Bookstore‘s recent VIP science fiction and fantasy After Dark event which came with a signed bookplate. It was a really fun event with some local fantasy authors, however I have to say it is dangerous having a bookshop open with wines on offer because it turns out a little loss of inhibition means buying a lot more books!
“She Who Became the Sun” by Shelley Parker-Chan is a fantasy novel set in Imperial China. The story is told from two perspectives: an orphaned girl who appropriates her brother Zhu Chongba’s identity in pursuit of the great destiny he was promised and a eunuch called Ouyang whose loyalty to the Mongols who adopted him is undermined by his vow to avenge his family.
This is an epic novel that explores the idea of fate, and how much our lives are predetermined and how much our determination can shape our lives. Zhu was a fascinating character who refreshingly pursues ambition using wits, willpower and an impeccable sense of timing. Parker-Chan challenges the reader to consider gender identity from very unique perspectives: being forced to assume a gender to survive, and having your sex stolen from you without your consent. I really liked that in this book, ambition trumps everything and I felt that this made the character’s motivations really refreshing. Parker-Chan’s characters are surprising in their ruthlessness and I enjoyed how they used hardship as a springboard to greatness, no matter the moral implications. The magic in this book is really understated and Parker-Chan did an excellent job maintaining ambiguity about who is responsible for fate and who grants the power to conjure light.
I am actually a bit reluctant to write much more about this book because it is such a journey. A ground-breaking addition to the fantasy genre, and I cannot way for part 2 of this duology.
Queer steampunk fantasy mystery set in early 1900s Egypt
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher.
“A Master of Djinn” by P. Djèlí Clark is a fantasy mystery novel with steampunk elements set in an alternate Cairo, Egypt in 1912. After the barrier between our world and the magical world was removed half a century earlier, countries have been trying to manage the influx of magical beings. In Egypt, where Djinn now live amongst people, Fatima is the youngest woman who works at the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. Fuelled by confidence and a snappy style of dress, a new mystery soon has Fatma stumped. After members of a secret British society are murdered by someone claiming to be the very man they worship, Fatima must solve the crime before the tension in the city boils over and and all is lost. Meanwhile, she has an unwanted new partner at work and her hot and cold girlfriend is more than who she seems.
This is a fun novel that reimagines Cairo at the turn of the century in a new light. The introduction of magic and Djinn in the world shifts the international power dynamic and in Clark’s Egypt, the British have withdrawn early and colonialism is becoming a distant memory. Djinn and the mysterious Angels bring with them new technologies, which Clark shows off to great effect during some of the action scenes. Fatma is a great, imperfect character whose brilliance is tempered by her vanity and her stubbornness. I really enjoyed Fatma’s new partner Hadia, and their interactions were a really good comment on how scarcity of opportunity for women (or people who belong to any marginalised group) can force unfair competition, but also how valuable mentorship and camaraderie can be. I also really liked the romance. Clark explores what it means to come from more than one background, and how critical trust and safety is in a relationship. The Djinns as well were really well done and I thought Clark brought a lot of complexity and humanity to these new citizens of Cairo.
I think something to keep in mind is that the characters refer to events earlier one quite often, and I though perhaps he was setting the story up for a prequel. It turns out, he has actually written a short story set in the same world. While I don’t think you need to have read it to enjoy this story, given how often it is referred to it might help. Although set in a steampunk fantasy world, this is at heart a mystery and I probably would have liked it to be a little, well, mysterious. Clark introduces several red herrings and plenty of action, but ultimately I guessed the twist early.
A fast-paced and enjoyable novel with a lot of interesting social commentary if not a particularly surprising ending.
Content warning: sexual assault, religious themes, rape apologism, violence
When I was growing up, animal fantasy was one of my favourite book genres. Some of my absolute favourites included “Watership Down” and “Black Beauty“. It is a broad genre, with plenty of books out there, but one that I have not explored very much as an adult. I picked this book up at a Lifeline Book Fair quite some time ago and it has been sitting on my shelf with a small collection of other animal fantasy novels that I haven’t gotten around to reading. The cover is extremely autumnal and very in season, and I thought it was high time I gave this genre another go.
“Duncton Wood” by William Horwood is an animal fantasy novel about two moles: Rebecca and Bracken. Born at a similar time in the declining system of burrows called Duncton Wood, Bracken and Rebecca’s upbringing couldn’t be more different. Bullied by his siblings but with a flair for exploration, Bracken leaves his unhappy burrow early and forges his own path. Rebecca on the other hand is the cherished daughter of Mandrake, an enormous mole from a far away system who has taken control of the Duncton moles. Mandrake suppresses the moles’ spiritual beliefs and encourages violence, and outright bans the ritual of visiting the revered Stone in midsummer. Between them, Rebecca and Bracken must rebel against Mandrake and help the Duncton Moles regain their faith.
This is an epic and sprawling story that follows the lives of Rebecca and Bracken as they mature and overcome physical and spiritual adversity. From the outset, Rebecca and Bracken are identified as star-crossed lovers, and Horwood spends a significant amount of the book navigating their complex yet inevitable relationship. I think Horwood’s real strength is nature writing, and his descriptions of the English countryside and changes of the seasons are very beautiful.
However, there were so very many problems with this book. While there is nothing wrong with this, a cursory glance at the cover would not indicate to a reader just how strong the religious overtones of this book are. An enormous proportion of this book is about moles finding and maintaining their faith in the Stone, and meeting other moles from other systems to talk about their own Stones. The overwhelming message in this book is that discarding spiritual traditions is bad, however it was never really made clear in the book what the social decline in Duncton was caused by. For example, the traditions were not replaced by technology, and Mandrake didn’t exactly fill the moral void.
Speaking of moral voids, I cannot in good conscience write about this book without mentioning the sexual assault. Essentially one mole rapes another mole in a horrific breach of trust and an enormous proportion of the book is spent trying to understand the perpetrator mole’s background and circumstances that lead to his violent and controlling behaviour. The perpetrator then commits unthinkable violence against children. However, despite this, the survivor spends a large amount of time empathising with the perpetrator and even later coming to think of the rape almost fondly. Reading these parts of the book honestly felt pretty gross and overshadowed the better elements.
Although I was really interested in reading about Horwood’s mole culture, ultimately it felt underdeveloped and contradictory. For example, some mole systems have books, but Horwood fails to explain how the books are made and how their language was written. This was such a missed opportunity in worldbuilding, and also raised questions of why there were no other technological developments. The emotional development of the characters was also quite superficial. Moles love and show reverence for each other almost immediately without any real reason. Horwood could have leaned into a more realistic explanation (moles like the smell or body language of other moles) or a more character-driven explanation, but mostly moles just made snap judgements about one another for no apparent reason.
I also thought it was a bit anglocentric that the Siabod (Welsh) moles had to speak English, but the English moles didn’t know or bother to learn Welsh and regularly described the language as harsh. The older moles constantly lamented that they did not have the words to explain what they meant, and the dialogue between the moles frequently didn’t say much at all. Harwood’s own language felt quite repetitive, and he mentioned the terms ‘peace’ and ‘love’ over and over and over.
A slow burn with strong religious themes and some very questionable narrative decisions, I would think twice before reading this.
This was the set book for my most recent fantasy book club. Although I hadn’t heard of this author prior to reading the book, the author has had a number of books published recently and is generating quite a bit of hype for his novels.
“The House in the Cerulean Sea” by TJ Klune is a queer romantic urban fantasy novel about a public servant called Linus who works as a case worker for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. Linus spends his days in a toxic workplace writing reports about the compliance of special orphanages with child welfare standards and his evenings alone listening to records with a cat who doesn’t particularly like him. Linus’ life is lonely but predictable, and he is always careful to maintain clear boundaries between work and home. However, when he is called to attend a meeting with Extremely Upper Management, Linus soon finds himself auditing an institution so secret even he has never heard of it. He travels to Marsyas Island Orphanage and meets the enigmatic Arthur Parnassus and the peculiar children he is responsible for. As Linus gets to know them, it becomes harder and harder to remain objective.
The book club member who picked this book also picked “The Rook“, and it has been really interesting reading another example of a subgenre that I’m going to call bureaucratic fantasy. Most fantasy novels focus on war and overcoming evil, and it is kind of a nice change to read about the less exciting practicalities of how magic might be regulated in a more real world setting. It was also really refreshing to read a romance novel that gently unfolds without anything especially bad happening. This is a sweet novel with a strong message of belonging. Klune manages to maintain a sense of tension without ever causing the characters too much discomfort, which is honestly kind of a relief during these times. The kids were really fun and I particularly enjoyed Chauncey and his big dreams of becoming a bellhop.
There were only two things that jarred with me a little. One was that Linus’ world didn’t really have a clear, consistent internal logic. There are a mishmash of magical beings that seem to derive from different mythologies and belief systems without any of those belief systems actually being incorporated into the story. It’s not often that I would be calling for more exposition, but I did feel that the magic was more of a nod to the canon rather than well thought out itself. The other was that while I appreciated the sweetness of the story, there were a number of scenes that were just too saccharine for my liking.
A light-hearted story that is not particularly challenging but is satisfying nonetheless.
I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.
“Honeycomb” by Joanne M. Harris and illustrated by Charles Vess is a novel made up of original fairytales. Many of the chapters are distinct stories in the form of fables and parables, however most of them connect to an overarching story arc featuring the Lacewing King, a handsome yet selfish man who wanders through his kingdom ruling over the Silken Folk doing as he pleases. Nevertheless, as time passes and the number of his enemies grows larger, the Lacewing King’s self-interested lifestyle becomes unsustainable.
I have been a fan of Joanne M. Harris (styled as Joanne Harris for her non-fantasy fiction) for a really long time, and as early as 2012 I was reading her #storytime vignettes on Twitter (which have now been removed and collected into this book). I was even inspired to make the little painting below. The stories in this book make for hard-hitting, unsettling chapters that all contribute towards the overarching story of the Lacewing King. Harris conjures a captivating and uncomfortable world made of insects and excess, the same world that was touched upon in her previous book. Some of the fables in this book have clear underlying morals and are told in a similar style to “Animal Farm“. Harris writes particularly about the perils of following the crowd and placing too much faith in self-proclaimed leaders and self-important loudmouths. However, it is the journey of the Lacewing King that I was the most invested in. I really liked how Harris shows the repercussions of indifference over generations, but how also people can change their worldview. There are also stories that initially don’t appear to be related to the main story that Harris masterfully weaves in later.
While individually I found each fairytale very readable, I did find it hard to settle into this book. I found myself reading one story then setting the book down. I think that although the structure of the book lent itself to this kind of story, it ultimately did feel quite interrupted.
A thought-provoking and refreshing approach to the fairytale genre.
It has been a while since my fantasy book club has met, though I hosted one a couple of months ago for a book I read quite some time ago, and by coincidence the title of this book was quite similar to the last one I reviewed.
“The Bone Shard Daughter” by Andrea Stewart is a fantasy novel and the first novel in “The Drowning Empire” series. The book is about an empire of islands ruled by a reclusive emperor who maintains peace and order remotely through the use of beings called constructs. In the emperor’s palace, his daughter Lin competes for her father’s favour by learning bone shard magic to unlock secrets and her birth right as heir. Meanwhile, Jovis, an Imperial navigator turned renegade, is sailing through the archipelago in search of a boat with blue sails. Pursuing a particular heroic goal, Jovis must decide whether he doggedly continues his quest or whether he reluctantly accepts the other opportunities for heroism he is faced with.
Although I was a bit slow starting this book before book club, once I began reading I couldn’t stop. It is a gripping story with an uncomfortable and brilliant magical premise. Stewart asks the reader to consider what price it is reasonable for an empire to ask its citizens to pay for security, and when that price becomes too high. Jovis is one of those great characters with a tough, efficient exterior and a sentimental interior and I loved his chapters with his peculiar animal sidekick Mephi. Lin is a strategic and courageous character whose missing memory creates a sense of mystery and intrigue. I really liked the way that Stewart places her characters in situations where their decisions have life or death consequences, and some of those situations are heart-breaking. There are lots of complex storylines woven through this book that intersect and intertwine in surprising ways.
This book lingered with me for a long time after I finished it and I can’t wait to read the rest of the series when it comes out.
A particular genre of podcast that I enjoy is fictional podcasts, and one of the very first fictional podcasts I started listening to was “Welcome to Night Vale“. If you’ve never listened, the podcast is in the format of a show on a community radio station run by the mysterious and charismatic Cecil. Each episode includes updates about the town’s unusual happenings and immerses the listener deeper and deeper into the unusual and ominous culture of Night Vale as well as regular segments known as Weather and Traffic. Some years ago, the creators of the podcast released a novel set in the town and I jumped out and bought a copy. Although my partner read it at the time, it has waited on my bookshelf, watching me judgmentally with its crescent moon eye symbol. Finally, I relented.
“Welcome to Night Vale” by Joseph Fink & Jeffrey Cranor is a novel set in the eponymous town where all manner of strange, paranormal things happen. The story is about two women: Jackie, who runs a pawn shop and has been 19 years old for more years than she can remember, and Diane, a single mother struggling to raise her teenage son who is going through puberty and who also changes shape constantly. When even more strange things than usual begin happening in Night Vale, unlikely pair Jackie and Diane must work together to solve the mystery of the man nobody seems to remember and find their way to King City.
This is a contemplative book with a mildly threatening aura that takes the reader on a journey through lesser known parts of Night Vale. In addition to some of our favourite characters from the podcast such as Cecil and his boyfriend Carlos, we meet new characters and explore some new and particularly dangerous areas of the town such as the Library. The book weaves together several threads and themes to explore broader issues of identity, family, adolescence and parenthood. Although a difficult character in some ways, Diane’s challenges in relating to her son as he grows up were both relatable and poignant. I enjoyed the transcripts of radio show episodes as interludes, with Cecil reporting with alarming accuracy on Jackie and Diane’s activities and whereabouts. The scenes with Jackie’s mother were particularly unsettling and really set the menacing and absurdist tone we have come to know and love from the podcast.
While there were a lot of aspects of this book that were well done, I did find it a little slow to get started. The characters spend a considerable time musing on their own circumstances, and it is some time before the action kicks off. I think that perhaps now wasn’t the best time for me to read this book. We are currently living through a time of significant uncertainty, with things like borders opening and closing and changes in rules about where, how and with whom we associate happening suddenly and without much warning. This is a book that really leans into the unexpected and decisions made by authorities (known and unknown) are often arbitrary and inexplicable, and reading this book made me realise that I do have a bit of fatigue around these things and probably impacted how much I enjoyed it.
Nevertheless, a valuable contribution to the Night Vale universe in a complementary format to the podcast, definitely a book for fans.
Young adult novel about Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and voodoo
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.
“Knee Deep” by Karol Hoeffner is a young adult novel about a 16 year old white girl called Camille who lives a slightly off-beat life as the daughter of owners of a bar in New Orleans. Exposed to a very diverse range of people in the French Quarter, Camille’s first love is for her handsome next door neighbour, an 18 year old young black man called Antwone. Already facing the not inconsequential obstacles of an interracial romance and Antwone’s current girlfriend, Camille’s crush is truly put to the test by Hurricane Katrina. When Antwone goes missing, Camille turns to voodoo magic to return her love to her. However, her dogged pursuit in a city of chaos puts more than just her dreams of a relationship at risk.
This is a readable and creative novel that resonates as a historical and cultural touchstone. Although of course in Australia we all saw the reports of Hurricane Katrina on the news, and have watched TV shows that reference the struggles to rebuild, it is hard to imagine what it was really like being there during such a challenging and tumultuous time. Hoeffner has a compelling writing style that reminded me a bit of Daniel Woodrell in his book “Kiss Kiss”. Camille is a really interesting character who makes a number of ethically suspect and selfish decisions, and Hoeffner fosters a strong sense of dramatic irony around her crush and exactly how requited it actually is.
I think the only part of this book that got under my skin was that Hoeffner did take some creative liberties with elements of the story. For example, although the hurricane happened in 2005, Hoeffner describes her characters posting on Facebook several times even though the social media service wasn’t open to public access until late 2006.
A unique and historically relevant book that showcases New Orleans culture and challenges the reader with ethical questions.
Even though I have absolutely adored this series so far, I have put off reading this book since it came out mid-year last year. This wasn’t because of a reluctance to read the book: I couldn’t wait! However, I had found out too late about this magnificent special hardcover edition of the series. Knowing that without paying $500+ for the rare set that comes up on eBay the beautiful editions wouldn’t be mine (unless you, dear reader, would like to surprise me!), I became paralysed with indecision about what to settle for instead. Unable to buy a copy that I wouldn’t be happy with, I finally decided to just by the eBook and hope that I can find a great set to buy later. If you haven’t read this series yet, I recommend you start with my review of the first book to avoid spoilers.
“The Empire of Gold” by S. A. Chakraborty is the third and final book in the fantasy series “The Daevabad Trilogy”. The book picks up immediately after the previous book ended with the death of the king and Nahri’s mother taking over the city. After throwing themselves into Daevabad’s lake, Nahri and Ali suddenly find themselves safe in Nahri’s old home Cairo, far away from the violence they left behind in the djinn city. Unsure who has survived the sacking of the city, Nahri and Ali find a brief reprieve in the rhythms and bustle of the human world. However, as Ali’s peculiar marid powers grow, and Nahri’s powers disappear, they must decide what to do about Suleiman’s Seal. Meanwhile, Dara serves Nahri’s mother Manizheh as she seeks to restore order in a Daevabad without magic. As Manizheh’s methods of control grow more and more extreme, Dara must consider how much of his reputation as the Scourge is him, and how much it is the will of others.
This was a fantastic finale to a fantastic series. Chakraborty excels at tension and I was hooked on every single page. I really enjoyed that the story visited familiar places as well as new places, and I felt that the scenes in Cairo were a great counterbalance for the destruction in Daevabad and the novelty of Ta Ntry. Chakraborty uses this book to explore the mysterious marid and I really enjoyed how she played with the idea of becoming both more and less god-like. The timing of this book was also exquisite. Many of the questions left unanswered by the previous books are answered, and there was one very small but very powerful moment in the book where Nahri’s realisation had me in tears. However, Chakraborty leaves plenty to the imagination and elements of the book are left tantalisingly open-ended.
This book was so enjoyable, I barely have a criticism to make. I think the only thing that snagged at me was that the dialogue occasionally felt a little too modern and casual for the setting which meant that while it was often very fun and funny, the illusion was sometimes broken.
Overall a brilliant ending to a series that I cannot recommend enough.
Fantasy novel about a deadly tradition for the crown
This is the sequel to “A Shadow in Summer“, so if you haven’t started the series yet, I recommend you start there. I actually had a really difficult time finding a copy of the sequel because the original paperbacks were out of print, and all that was available was these editions combining two books in one. It has been sitting on my shelf for several years now, and I decided in an effort to chip away at my to-read shelf, I would tackle it.
“A Betrayal in Winter” by Daniel Abraham is the second book in the “Long Price Quartet” fantasy series. The story picks up over 12 years after the events of the previous book. Disgraced poet Maati has returned to the village of the Dai-kvo after failing in his mission to bind an andat, an idea made corporeal. When news of his estranged friend Otah’s royal family reaches the Dai-kvo, Maati is called upon to find him and determine whether Otah really was responsible for the murder of his own brother in a bid to take over the Machi throne as per tradition of the Khaiem. However, when Maati arrives in the city of Machi, it appears that there is a much more sinister plot afoot – one that could undermine the security of Machi, and the Cities of the Khaiem.
Abraham is an excellent fantasy writer, and this book is full of just as much intrigue and world-building as the previous on. I really enjoyed reading more about Khaiem culture, such as the use of poses to convey emotion and money being issued in lengths rather than coins. Although a lot of the character are male, Abraham explores the extreme conclusion of what it means for women who have no options in society apart from marriage and motherhood. I really enjoyed the juxtaposition between Maati and the young poet Cehmai who successfully completed a binding with an andat, and seeing the alternative life Maati may have had.
There is quite a lot of politics in this book which slowed things down for me a little, but I think if you really enjoy political books that discuss lines of succession, diplomatic relations and the major influences seemingly minor characters for have, then this book will be very enjoyable. I really liked seeing another andat in play, but I felt like the book could have used a little more magic.
An enjoyable read, and I will definitely be reading the next book in the series.