This week I want to talk to you about two very different books: Joan He’s debut fantasy Descendant of the Crane, set in a world which draws inspiration from Chinese history and culture; and Jaime Lee Moyer’s Brightfall, a fresh new approach to the Robin Hood mythos set in a medieval Sherwood Forest filled with Fae lords and magic.
Ragged Alice is a low-key contemporary fantasy. DCI Holly Craig has had a successful career with the London Metropolitan Police, albeit one marked by her isolation from colleagues, her lack of meaningful relationships, and her alcoholism-as-coping-method. Orphaned young, she was raised by her grandfather in the small Welsh coastal village of Pontyrhudd, a place she left as soon as she could—a place where a brush with death-by-drowning on the eve of her departure for university gave her the ability to see the shadows on people’s souls.
My ability to stay on top of everything has slid significantly lately. (Planning a wedding is stressful, guys! Everyone wants to sell you shit and you have a budget here!) I’m doing my best with that on top of the usual strains, but my best is significantly less great than I’d like.
But! Here are my three most recent posts on Tor.com:
Every so often, a book comes along that I fall in love with entirely. A book that hooks its fingers into my heart and soul and nests there. Last year the novel that did that to the most precise, complete point was Aliette de Bodard’s In the Vanishers’ Palace. Although they’re very different books, this year it looks like E.K. Johnston’s The Afterward is a strong contender.
If there’s one thing one can say for sure about Ann Leckie, it’s that so far in her career she shows no signs of settling into a rut. All her novels have been ambitious in their own separate ways, and they’ve played with gender, language and identity to fruitful, thought-provoking ends. (Let’s be honest, I’m a fan.) That ambition continues to show in The Raven Tower, her first novel-length published fantasy—and shows itself in some interesting, unconventional narrative choices.
Who doesn’t like epic fantasy? And feminist epic fantasy, at that?
The Women’s War by Jenna Glass and The Ruin of Kingsby Jenn Lyons are both opening volumes in new epic fantasy series. I read them one after the other, and can’t help comparing their approaches to feminism—because both of them set themselves within oppressive societies. And yet, though The Women’s War spends more of its time with female main characters and sets itself amid a violent struggle for the liberation of (some) women in a rigidly patriarchal society, I found The Ruin of Kings more inclusive and more persuasive—more liberatory—in its approach to a patriarchal society.
Song of the Dead is the sequel to Sarah Glenn Marsh’s debut Reign of the Fallen. I reviewed Reign of the Fallenhere last year and enjoyed its voice and approach, though I found its pacing uneven, and its treatment of relationships not quite up to the highest mark, but it had voice in spades, and engaging characterisation.
Song of the Dead shares some of Reign of the Fallen’s flaws, but also its virtues.
An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors (2018), the first volume in Curtis Craddock’s The Risen Kingdoms series, was an extremely accomplished fantasy novel. It combined intrigue, adventure, and swashbuckling in a setting filled with airships and floating kingdoms, ancient religion, lost knowledge, and powerful magic. Its politics bore the influence of Renaissance Europe while its narrative approach held something of the flair of Alexandre Dumas. An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrorsset a strikingly high bar for any sequel to follow.
Fortunately,A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery more than meets that bar. It’s just as good as its predecessor—if not better.
City of Broken Magic is Mirah Bolender’s debut novel. I’ve read a lot of debut novels in my time (and will undoubtedly read many more), so I feel confident in my conclusion that City of Broken Magic is the kind of debut one calls promising.
The Sisters of the Winter Wood is largely measured in its pacing (one might call it slow), save for those moments where everything happens all at once. It is, perhaps, a promising debut. I wish I’d liked it more, because I really feel the genre needs more fantasy that draws on explicitly Jewish (and Muslim) backgrounds in the face of the pull that Christian soteriological and teleological influences exert on the literature of the fantastic. I hope it finds an audience.
There’s a strange phenomenon whereby one truly enjoys a novel, admires it for its craft and emotional impact, and still finds one element painfully frustrating.
Naomi Novik’s SpinningSilver is just such a novel, a glittering jewel of a novel influenced by fairytale and by—as far as I can tell—the history of medieval Hungary. Miryem is a moneylender’s daughter, who takes over her father’s business because he’s too soft-hearted to actually demand repayment. She’s so good at it that the Staryk—beings of winter who covet gold—come to believe she can turn silver into gold, and one of them sets her a challenge with her life as the stakes. Victory won’t bring her any joy, either: if she wins, the Staryk king will take her to be his queen, far from home.
These characters engage in political intrigue, magic, and war. In emotional terms, From Unseen Fire focuses on whether Latona will allow herself to claim ambition for herself—to move into spheres that custom and habit would deny her—and whether or not she’ll allow herself to act on her attraction to Sempronius Tarren. Meanwhile, Tarren is aiming at election to the praetorship, with an eye to having control of the legions in Iberia and advancing his ambitions for the future of Aven, but his enemies have no hesitation at stooping to dirty tricks to try to bar his way.
It is difficult, sometimes, to speak about something that you loved wholeheartedly. To set out to review a work that carries you away and lifts you out of yourself with delight is to set out to reveal the vulnerability of your joy—and that can be a frightening thing.
Bledsoe’s prose, as always, is carefully precise and elegantly measured, a delight to read. But The Fairies of Sadieville feels more scattered and less unified than his previous Tufa novels, without—it seems to me—a compelling through-line to draw the whole work together. Thematically and in terms of characterisation, the book feels slight, lacking the depth of its predecessors. Its strands are woven together without the deftness of connection that I hope for in a Bledsoe book, failing to support each other for the maximum tension or strength of feeling. It’s not quite all that one desires in the capstone volume of a series with the Tufa series’ strengths.
There have been many fantasy treatments of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, several on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and even one or two (I believe) on Coriolanus, but this is the first novel I recall to deliver a fantastical take on The Tragedy of King Lear.
Though it must be said my appreciation for the book was rather tainted by reports of Gratton’s objectionable behaviour.
This is an interesting novel, a compelling and entertaining read. But it’s also a novel engaged in—in conversation with—political dialectic about change and systems of power, and on that count, it doesn’t examine nearly enough of its assumptions.
I want to rave about Elizabeth Bear’s The Stone in the Skull. Actually, it feels like I needto rave about it: a glorious, dramatic, lush and striking fantasy set in the same continuity as the Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, and The Steles of the Sky), with a brilliant cast of characters and an opening that involves an ice wyrm attacking a caravan on its way up a frozen river. It’s no exaggeration to say I was hooked from the first page.
I submitted this piece to one of the places for which I write reviews. They handed it back to me as unduly cruel to a debut author writing in an underrepresented subgenre. I will not name the venue. “Unduly cruel” may be a fair criticism of this review. So if you read on, be warned.
(I will write and sell at some point, I hope, a longer essay on the stakes involved with writing about underrepresented groups and the extra frustration when a cool premise in that regard turns out to have crappy execution.)
Of Fire and Stars is Audrey Coulthurst’s debut novel, out of the Balzer + Bray HarperCollins imprint. It’s a novel that I wanted very much to like.
Unfortunately, I found myself very disappointed by it. One might go so far as to say I was brutally underwhelmed by its achievements.
Of Fire and Stars promised me a princess, Dennaleia of Havemont, sent away from home to fulfill an arranged marriage. A princess who falls in love with her betrothed’s unconventional sister, Amaranthine, better known as “Mare”. With extra magic and all sorts of hijinks. That’s what it promised me.
You’d think it might be difficult for such an intriguing premise to turn out bland and somewhat boring, wouldn’t you? I mean, wouldn’t you?
As it turns out, you’d be wrong.
Let me enumerate the ways in which Of Fire and Stars disappoints:
Everyone in this book is an idiot. There are constant, confused — and confusing — infodumps about politics, and a cast of political actors who… well, let’s just say I’ve seen more sophisticated school yearbook committees, and leave it at that. In politics everyone has an agenda! Often more than one! This book does not have any clue how to depict that effectively. No one has the least suspicion that a Helpful Guy might be manipulating everyone for his own profit. Neither princess knows how to lie. I can’t see a single redeeming feature about the prince, who may be a complete incompetent — jury’s out, because no one in this book is particularly competent.
And every so often, we’re treated to a scene of the ruling body of the country sitting around a table yelling infodumps at each other — and committee meetings are just as boring to read about as they are in real life, unless you can appreciate cunning politics in play.
Of course, that means there needs to actually be cunning politics.
Of Fire and Stars is told in the first person, alternating points of view between Dennaleia and Mare. Neither of the voices are particularly well-defined. Neither of them can be easily distinguished from each other. Denna and Mare are thinly drawn protagonists, and unfortunately the members of their surrounding cast are just as thin, if not more so. In the main, character motivation is ridiculously shallow, where it isn’t confused. And the pacing — It’s all over the place.
I haven’t even mentioned the worldbuilding. “Lightly sketched” might be overstating the case: there is very little solid here, very little that feels real or plausible or even that follows the general constraints of physical geography. It also possesses an unfortunate lack of linguistic tact in its naming conventions — if they were sufficiently consistent that I might call them conventions, that is.
Sod me, I wanted to like this book. I really wanted to like it: there’s not so much mainstream fantasy with queer lady protagonists out there. I’m always looking for reasons to love every single one.
It is a perpetual canard of the “anti-PC” crowd that “social justice warriors” promote politics over quality, in art. And untrue as that is, I’m prepared to give something that tells a story I don’t often get to see — a story like this — much more benefit of the doubt than I otherwise would.
But Of Fire and Stars makes me want to get out the Immortan Joe MEDIOCRE clip.
It is mediocre at best. I spent the three hours it took me to finish it hoping against hope, hoping desperately, that it would show a glimmer of something great before the end. A hint of shine. A promise of better things.
It lets the queer lady awesome side down, is what it does.
Of course, part of my problem here is scarcity. And scarcity, where it comes to queer female protagonists who do not end up dead or miserable, is a major problem. I’m annoyed at Of Fire and Stars, and frustrated by it. Would I be as annoyed if I had acres of stories with queer female protagonists to choose from?
No. I wouldn’t be nearly as annoyed.
And that’s not fair to Of Fire and Stars. But we don’t have acres. We have a scant handful every year. (Even scanter if we look for stories whose protagonists aren’t white.) So every example carries an unfair weight of hopes and expectations: every example’s success is a wedge by which to pry open more space to tell these kinds of stories to wider audiences.
And failure therefore, particularly on economic grounds, becomes a stick that can be used to beat that wedge back.
I wish I could simply not care that Of Fire and Stars is a mediocre offering for the Young Adult marketplace. I wish I had that luxury. Just say “meh,” and let that be an end to it. Instead, I find myself uncomfortably rooting for the success of a novel that I find at best third-rate, because if it sinks without a trace, who the hell knows when I’ll see another fantasy take on a similar premise?