THE OLEANDER SWORD by Tasha Suri

The Oleander Sword
(Burning Kingdoms Book 2)
By Tasha Suri
Orbit Books — 16th August 2022
ISBN: 9780316538565
— Paperback — 512 pp.


If you haven’t yet read The Jasmine Throne, the first book in Tasha Suri’s Burning Kingdoms series, go away. Read it. One of the best epic fantasies I’ve recently read, it succeeds with powerful themes, strong characters, and a propulsive plot.

If you have read the first novel in the series and enjoyed it, you will probably love this sequel just as much, if not more. Now, readers might get a bit angry at Suri and what she does with our emotions. But it’s a love/hate kinda thing that makes readers thirst for the next installment, holding onto hope.

If you read The Jasmine Throne, but didn’t really like it much… well… you’re a mystery to me. But, to be fair, no book is for everyone. The characters and themes of The Oleander Sword resemble the first novel, most clearly feminist themes of being seen and heard (respected) and having a freedom from control by a patriarchal society. I’m glad this didn’t change, and I enjoy how Suri takes these themes in new directions from where the plot of the series left off in the first novel’s end.

Malini has now been declared the rightful Empress of Parijatdvipa, but the opposition of her despotic brother Chandra remains, and the supporters of her elder brother Aditya (who has given up a throne as a Priest of the Nameless God) seem to only warily follow a female of the royal line. When the apparent use of Mother’s Fire by Emperor Chandra’s forces begins to cast doubts of the Mother’s blessings on Malini’s position, the Empress must make difficult choices to ensure her victory and Chandra’s defeat.

Meanwhile, Priya and Bhumika serve as co-rulers of Ahiranya, thrice-borne priestesses with the powers of the Yaska. With the fanatical Ashok lost to the waters, the former rebels under his command have now taken on the role of Mask Keepers within the new freedom the Ahiranyi people have achieved. However, the return of the worship-hungry and self-serving Yaska soon darken this vision of hope and freedom for the leaders.

Malini sends for Priya’s help, also seeking a reunion and continuation of their romance. However, the sacrifices that each must make for their own goals and people may make their partnership and love impossible.

The Oleander Sword is an excellent sequel to The Jasmine Throne, and a middle entry to trilogy that reminds me a bit of the feelings that The Empire Strikes Back evokes: dark and bittersweet, yet with some little bit of hope still remaining. Suri expands the world building of the first novel with a deeper dive into the deities of the Burning Kingdoms lands, most notably the Yaksa. But, she also expands details of the world with more political machinations among the representative lands of the Parijatdvipa Empire.

Though, I obviously enjoyed The Jasmine Throne, it didn’t really surprise me much in the plot development. It went exactly as I expected. (I may not have expected all the events to happen already in the first book.) What I loved even more about The Oleander Sword is that things became complicated in ways I didn’t necessarily foresee. The first novel is a bit of an underdog story, of three relatively powerless women defiantly seizing power. The Oleander Sword shows that this was decided not the end of their fight. Their defiance must continue, and worse threats to their freedom and agency than they ever imagined are coming.

Like its predecessor, this is a novel about surviving and sacrifice, but with increasing costs and difficulty, if not regret. Suri does interesting things with this that tie nicely into the building plot and epic fantasy world she’s created here, with its inspirations from Indian history and mythology.

This is a middle chapter that really made me curious and eager to see what happens, how it could possibly conclude, both for the characters and the themes Suri is tackling. I was fortunate to finish the first novel not long before I was able to get a copy of this sequel. Now the pain of the waiting game.


THE WIND RISES by Timothée de Fombelle (Translated by Holly James)

The Wind Rises
(Alama Book 1)
By Timotheé de Fombelle
(Translated by Holly James)
(Illustrations by François Place)
Europa Editions — 16th August 2022
ISBN: 9781609457877
— Hardcover — 410 pp.


Tucked safely on the plains of a secluded and verdant valley, 13-year-old Alma lives with her family in peace, removed from continental conflicts and European colonial powers who sail the 1786 seas and plague the African coasts with resource confiscation: elements and minerals from the soil; human lives in the slave trade.

Alma and her younger brother Lam delight in the life and landscape of their home, its familiar comfort, and the seasonal cycles that provide for them. One day, they notice a strange looking ‘zebra’ of pure white, that Alma names Cloud. Observation of the new arrival awakens a curiosity in the siblings of what other wonders might lie in the world beyond their isolated valley home. Though their father has often warned them against straying away, Alma begins to consider nevertheless going off to explore further.

However, Lam pre-empts her plans when he decides to mount the inexplicably tame Cloud, and the white ‘zebra’ takes off with him beyond the valley. With her younger brother is gone – and understanding that the current pathway from the valley to the world beyond will close back up for year with the approaching change of seasons – Alma decides to set off after her brother.

In the meantime, their father also independently sets off after Lam, fueled by a desperation borne from his secret past: first-hand knowledge of the horrors that exist outside of their valley, horrors he played a direct hand in before meeting the woman who became his wife, and they settled into their secluded home to raise a family.

As these events proceed, a young orphan named Joseph Mars plots on the other side of the world to steal aboard a slave ship, the Sweet Amelie, on a clandestine mission to find something its ruthless captain has hidden aboard, and information on a trove of pirate treasure buried somewhere in the Caribbean. But, Joseph quickly learns this might not be so easy, and that others on board might have hidden agendas of their own.

Along with these two young protagonists, de Fombelle takes a large cast of characters from very different cultures and experiences, and places them onto intersecting paths of destinies in a swiftly changing world. The result is a rollicking adventure novel that captivates through the weighty emotion of its characters, themes, and historical setting as much as its entertaining and complex plot.

Written as a middle-grade/young-adult novel, The Wind Rises reminded me of some of the best books discovered during my childhood, thrilling adventures that spanned the globe and exotic locales. The illustrations here by François Place helped in such childhood connections. Of course, that term ‘exotic’ comes loaded with some baggage, and those childhood tales I adored were certainly colored by their colonial origins, even with some scrubbing over done since their original publications. What impressed me so much about de Fombelle’s novel is how well it captured my nostalgia by keeping the best of adventure story plots and diverse settings, but casting it in less problematic terms that still maintains educative historical accuracies.

The Wind Rises succeeds with its two contrasting main protagonists, female and male, African and European. Alma comes from a more innocent and protected life whereas Joseph comes from an existence of cruel, street-wise survival. Yet, they share important traits that sit at the thematic core of the story: human compassion and personal resilience.

Of the two, Alma is an open book to readers. Her curiosity, loyalty, and bravery becomes clear from the novel’s opening. It’s fascinating to watch her journey into a dangerous new world in search of her brother, and how that parallels her father’s search for Lam. Both are unstoppable forces of will, the father from drawing upon his knowledge and abilities from his past, and Alma drawing on her heart. Though ignorant of the world, she confidently asserts herself towards her goal, utilizing her practical experience of living in the valley (and the languages her parents have taught her) to find her way in strange new cultures and circumstances.

Joseph’s story, in contrast, remains a bit of a mystery to readers, as he keeps his exact goals and details of the past closely guarded while infiltrating the Sweet Amelie. At first, Joseph seems mostly concerned with himself, and gold, but slowly the reader begins to see there is more to Joseph and his convictions than might at first be apparent.

Timotheé de Fombelle sets the stories of these two teens within a period that allows incorporation of historical events and themes that are important for people to learn and remember. The horrible nature of the Middle Passage and the slave trade of course ranks foremost here. The issue is related through the eyes of perpetrators, sympathizers, victims, and opponents alike. Sometimes a character might fall into two of these categories even. Importantly, de Fombelle handles such a difficult topic with aplomb, neither glamorizing or exploiting the issue. The ‘villain’ and antagonist of the novel appears to be the entire political/economic system of colonialism and Africa, rather than any single human. Yet, the reprehensible captain of the Sweet Amelie does fit into the villain category too, particularly for Joseph’s plotline.

Slavery is not the only societal issue taken up by de Fombelle through the plot of The Wind Rises. The entire global political/economic system that slavery fits into is a broader stroke of the historical focus of the novel, and a secondary character who stands to inherit her family’s business fortunes (though not really, because she’s a female) serves to put feminist perspective into the novel as well.

One of the largest ironies within the novel is that the plot involves pirate treasure (and hopefully not to spoil much, eventually pirates.) However, what becomes glaringly obvious to the reader through the perspective of Alma and her family, and other Africans, is how the legitimate vessels of business are really no different, plundering the oceans and a land.

As the pages of The Wind Rises pass, it’s easy to become impresses with how much de Fombelle does in a middle grade adventure novel. Moments of tranquility pass to fun and laughter, to joy, but then to agony and pain, to resilience and stubborn pride, despair to hope. It’s a rollercoaster of emotion that goes alongside the rollercoaster plot and changes of scenery from Africa to Europe to the seas and to Caribbean plantations. Through this all the writing is impeccably measured to convey informal excitement and reverential beauty each, and Holly James does a powerful job here in retaining that in the English translation from the French.

Moments of beauty in the novel mark perhaps the most memorable for me: Alma’s appreciation and wonder of her home landscape, the songs of captive slaves who communicate in support through misery, the little choices of defiance by those with some power, who look to restore some humanity to those treated inhumanely, the show of power still present in the oppressed.

Amid all that is that adventure story to keep readers hooked: the mystery of Joseph and wondering what will happen to Alma, and each member of her family. Readers can expect some answers here, but not all. The Wind Rises is the first novel in the Alma series, and I cannot wait for Europa to release the remainder in English translation. I kind of mean that literally: I can read them in French. Though, I’ll eagerly check out future releases in English regardless.


Interview with Alex White (AUGUST KITKO AND THE MECHAS FROM SPACE)

I had the opportunity to review Alex White’s August Kitko and the Mechas from Space for Fantasy Book Critic back in July when their new novel released from Orbit Books. Orbit and and Alex graciously agreed to an interview, and I’m excited to present their wonderful answers here below. If you haven’t gotten August Kitko and the Mechas from Space yet, you can check out my review at the link above to read more about it (including the official synopsis), and you can also read a FREE preview of the novel’s first chapter at Orbit Books.

photo credit: Renee White

I believe the creative start of your Salvagers series was initially focused on the just the first novel of it, A Big Ship at the Edge of the Universe, as opposed to mapped ideas for the entire trilogy. Did August Kitko and the Mechas from Space start similarly, or were you working out all three movements of the Starmetal Symphony right from the start?

It’s actually a little of both! I don’t plot too deeply, except for the book I’m directly working on. I need to keep ideas in mind and set things up in the first books for later, but the realities of writing always change the plot for me. If I try too hard to plot the whole series, I just end up throwing a bunch of work away because of cascading changes from book one. Instead, the sequels are maybe a paragraph of intent each, whereas the first book has a 40-page synopsis.

I am, however, a plotter. I like to know everything about the book I’m about to write, even if I’m going to change it all when I get there.

How do you think your writing (or the process) has changed over time with experience (if at all)? Do you feel you write now with more confidence, or thrill at diving into new ideas or territory?

It has gotten a lot harder, honestly. The more you know, the more pitfalls you see. Gone are the days where I could crank through 3,000 words in an hour, replaced with agonizing over the tiniest details. One thing has remained, though—I believe that a writer should always be uncomfortable. You need to push yourself to go places you’ve never been, and you must do the work to make it authentic.

I’ve gotten better at story development, though! I have a lot of different creative processes and games I use when I’m planning books, mostly using sticky notes. I find that visualizing data in unique ways (emotional resonance over time, actor swimlanes, etc.) can bring a ton of insight into the plotting process. It also helps me reinforce the themes and make sure I sew up all the holes. My basement walls are so covered up with notes that it looks like I’m hunting a serial killer.

So much of writing is editing. I know you’ve enjoyed fantastic partnerships with your editors, but is there anything you’ve found challenging in that process, or have you found yourself giving more pushback to suggestions of changes over time?

A long time ago, one of my favorite editors confided in my agent that she was worried she was steamrolling me with changes. He replied that I’m easy to work with–if you don’t change the ethos of my book. I don’t personally care what shirt color someone has, or even what their name is half the time. Those aren’t core details. Hell, I’ve rewritten major plotlines on edits.

However, I’ve had editors push back on things like gender identity, claiming the inclusion of nonbinary persons would be “too political,” or that a sexual harasser didn’t deserve condemnation. Those people discovered a new side of our relationship. I’m not a pushover, and I’m not above dragging something out for the right reasons.

At the end of the day, an editor is there to protect you. Their job is to make your book amazing and sellable. If I’m going to buck an edit, I’m going to have agonized over it for days. When that happens, I’m always polite, but it’s my name going on the book. It will conform to my standards of quality.

I actually first discovered your writing with the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine tie-in novel Revenant, and you’ve written two novels set in the Alien franchise. How did those opportunities come about, and if there’s one piece of advice you’ve learned from writing in existing universes, what would it be?

I got into tie-in writing because I was afraid that my debut novel, Every Mountain Made Low, would flop. When an editor is considering hiring you, they look at sales, first. There are plenty of debut authors who never get another shot because they failed a six-figure advance. Tie-in fiction is a great insurance policy against that because of the built-in fanbase.

As far as writing for tie-ins, I have an article in Grimdark Magazine about it, but my main piece of advice is this: Fans have already seen the movie/TV show/game/comic. They’re buying your tie-in because they want more, but you can’t simply deliver what they’ve seen before. The goal is to capture the way they felt the first time they experienced the franchise. I think people miss that part sometimes, and try to write another episode, as opposed to an experience.

Music is obviously a huge creative outlet in your life as well, and you’ve composed music inspired by your fiction. Does it also go the opposite direction, or during times of writing/composing do you find the two interplaying back and forth in any unexpected ways?

Oh, my, yes. I was never able to compose music before I started imagining a story to go with it. On a broader scale, my other interests all impact one another. I learn about writing from user experience and vice versa. I learn about photography from storytelling. One of the biggest lessons I’ve taken from having diverse interests is that the more you know about everything, the more you know about everything. It’s good to get deep knowledge, but nothing compares to being a generalist.

Any master of an art has lessons applicable to mastering other arts. I think it’s important to watch demonstrations of skill and ask, “How can I apply this to my creative body?”

Could there be any August Kitko and the Mechas from Space inspired numbers to come, and what instruments would they involve?

There’s already a theme song, actually! It’s called Burn Down the Stars, and I wrote it for the audiobook. I spent the entire time I was writing the novel to practice just the piano part, then I used Ableton Live to sequence an entire orchestra for backup.

If I had more time, I’d love to do a whole album exploring the interplay of American pop, djent, bhangra and jazz. There is no doubt in my mind that a movie produced from this book would have an absolutely killer soundtrack.

How would you characterize ‘subversive’ writing, and what kinds of power do you hope that your fiction might have in that regard for readers, or in your outlook on things?

People are wired to exclude information that doesn’t sync with their worldview. It’s one of the reasons that debate rarely changes anyone’s minds. Stories, however, are magical because they skate beneath your psychological defenses. They place you in the situation and ask you to empathize with people whose views you might rather dismiss. You get to live the experiences you’d rather not accept.

To me, this means calling into question the basic premises of our society and analyzing the systems for bias and abuse. A great story should suck you in, then make you profoundly uncomfortable with the status quo. And—not to put too fine a point on it—stories without this amount of heart are just useless fluff. No truth equals no stakes and a love of the prevailing authority. Throw it all in the trash.

I realized that one common element to August Kitko and the Mechas from Space and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine Reventnant may be the theme of consent/control in organismal pairings. There’s the human-mecha ones in August Kitko, and that biological level of symbiosis so central to Jadzia Dax’s identity and story. Is this a theme you have consciously turned to with particular interest throughout all of your work, through different directions?

As a trans person, the depersonalization of one’s form is constantly on my mind. A lot of us are consumed by society, both through fetishistic desire and bigoted derision. We’re expected to perform certain roles to be allowed to comingle with the “normal” people, but our very bodies are liabilities in the public space. Having your own identity while trying to reconcile the unwanted, even alien, standards of civilization can be quite a trip. I’m sure this feeling stretches beyond transness, and a lot of people can identify.

In the broader sense, consent is constantly on my mind because the violence done to characters is usually beyond their control. What’s interesting is how it unfolds in various contexts beyond organisms. It comes into play when discussing the role of sentient androids (though I hate the “robot rights” discourse), but also the grander application of political and economic systems. We’re all in nonconsensual relationships with our workplaces, banks and medical providers, just so we can survive and participate in society.

Staying on that subject of symbiosis in a way… Have you ever had a collaborative writing experience with another author; do you think that coauthoring a novel would work with your style and personality or would you have to run away from that prospect?

It would have to be a special circumstance, conceived as a coworking project from the start. If there are boundaries, I can do it. I’ve participated in writers’ rooms, for example, and have every intention of doing more in Hollywood. That means that I must be a good collaborator.

With novels, I do think it’s harder than scripts. Long form is closer to my heart, and a place I use to express my inner self. I think it would be tough to team up. I don’t even let friends suggest plot points to me. A quick aside, how the hell does anyone decide to plagiarize something? My ego would not be able to handle someone else’s work powering my story.

Is there any chance of you writing something outside of the science fiction/fantasy realms, like the crime genre, historical or contemporary?

Absolutely. I hope to have a long, fruitful career where I get to prove my range and continuously work in new territory. I read a lot outside of speculative fiction, and I’ve always wanted to write a historical crime novel.

What would be your favorite board game and your favorite whiskey? Are board game – whiskey pairings a thing?

Let’s go with Agricola, plus a long-sipping Islay whiskey, like a Laphroaig. I could probably drain a whole bottle in the course of a game (back when I could still process alcohol). Nowadays, I’d probably pair some kind of intoxicant, but I’m not sure I have a specific one in mind…

And finally, to circle things back to August Kitko and the Mechas from Space, what can you say about the upcoming movements of the Starmetal Symphony? In particular, will the next volumes be in a different key, tempo, or style?

The ground game in every volume will be completely different. Every single book, something is going to happen that changes everything—usually at the beginning. I won’t give you the whole picture. Suffice to say, if you thought the first book was strange, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Thanks again to Alex White for taking part in this interview, and to Angela Man from Orbit in helping make it possible! If you haven’t yet, please be sure to check out August Kitko and the Mechas from Space and their other work.

Cover design by Lisa Marie Pompilio; Illustration by Ben Zweifel

THE JASMINE THRONE by Tasha Suri

The Jasmine Throne
(Burning Kingdoms Book 1)
By Tasha Suri
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780356515649
— Paperback — 533 pp.


This review never made it up on the Skiffy & Fanty blog. The second book in the Burning Kingdoms series comes out tomorrow, and I plan to have my review of it up there then. So in the meantime, I decided to put up my review of the first book here, in case readers weren’t already aware and enjoying this wonderful epic fantasy series…

Regular followers of Skiffy and Fanty may already recognize the name Tasha Suri as the author of the well-received duology The Books of Ambha. Back in Episode 356 of the podcast, Paul picked the first novel of that series, Empire of Sand as a favorite Epic Fantasy of 2018. I haven’t gotten a chance to read those, but I was fortunate enough to discover Suri’s talent with The Jasmine Throne, the first book in her new Burning Kingdoms series. Its sequel, The Oleander Sword, is scheduled for release this August, so if you haven’t delved into this yet, let me convince you.

Ruthless and fanatical Emperor Chandra of the Parijatdvipa Empire has punished his sister Princess Malini for failing to fulfill her duty of immolation to the Mothers of Flame. Exiled to the colonized Ahiranya, under the care of Regent Vikram, Malini is imprisoned within the Hirana, a decaying temple of the Ashiranyi culture. She pins her only hope of rescue on a friend known as Rao, a noble from the Aloran realm of the Empire who worships the Nameless God – a man who is trying to unite Parijati factions under Prince Aditya, the elder brother of Malini and Chandra, who has abdicated the throne to become a Priest of the Nameless after a religious epiphany.

The site of a now lost spring of magical waters, the Hirana was once home to Temple Elders and children, whose connection to the Yaksa gods of the Ahiranyi manifested through surviving sequential baptism in those waters to become reborn twice, and thrice. The power of the Yaksa and the political domination of Ahiranya during the Age of Flowers ultimately ended with Parijati colonization: the destruction of the temple and slaughter of its adepts. As the magic of the gods has faded and the Ahiranyi culture becomes silenced, a mysterious rot forms in the surrounding forests, infecting the most vulnerable and slowly spreading to lands of the Empire beyond.

But, not all of the Temple children died in the purge. Priya escaped with her temple brother Ashok, who left young Priya at the regent’s court in care of Vikram’s Ahiranyi wife, Bhumika. Bhumika happens to be another former child of the temple, who had left to care for family before the destruction had occurred. Priya became one of Bhumika’s maidservants, suppressing her innate magic, and turning her meager life to helping the destitute whenever she could: such as taking in a young boy named Rukh who suffers from the rot.

In the meantime, Priya’s temple brother Ashok has gone on to become the volatile leader of a rebellion against the empire, and has turned his sights on using Priya to rediscover the lost waters of the Hirana and regain the powers of the Yaksa to overturn the oppressive foreign rule. The threads of Princess Malini and Priya’s lives become entangled when the two encounter one another within the Hirana, and the each realize the power of the other, and the potential they may have together to change to world.

The Jasmine Throne begins with the line: “In the court of the imperial mahal, the pyre was being built.” I’ve not read a more fitting line to start a novel. The events of the prologue truly set things up as Emperor Chandra orders a literal pyre built for immolation of Malini and her maidservants. But, this action also starts building a metaphorical pyre that will soon engulf the Parijatdvipa Empire and its colonized Ahiranyi.

Suri starts with Malini’s act of defiant rebellion against the misogynistic religious fervor of her brother, introduces the humble and compassionate Priya, and then slowly weaves the complex tapestry of characters and plot summarized above. Suri excels at revealing her world of the Burning Kingdoms series in a manner that feels effortless, natural, and engaging. I never felt lost amid the cast of characters and their disparate story lines that become increasingly entangled. Revelations are given to readers in a logical way that matches the pace of foreshadowing; the system of magic and the history of these lands becomes clear through well-placed background information given to the reader that Suri organically integrates with the plot and character motivations.

Chapters are each written with an identified point-of-view character, mostly alternating between Malini and Priya, but intermixed with others, particularly Bhumika. These three women become the central core emotional core of the novel, disparate in their temperaments, social castes, and goals, but united by their femininity and a desire to be recognized and seen as individuals of agency who can support one another.

Malini sees this, for instance, in Priya:

“Priya hated being belittled. Priya hated not being seen. Hated being made small… It was lucky, then, that it was always so easy to meet Priya’s gaze. To look into that face and give her what she wanted, simply by allowing herself to be honest. Not having to manipulate Priya felt like a small blessing.”

[…]

“I do not think you are used to being seen, are you Priya?

It made something warm settle in her stomach, that thought. That she had recognized the value of this woman when all others hadn’t. That somehow […] she had witnessed a woman full of raw potential. Someone powerful who looked at her and looked at her, as if Malini – sick, unkempt, her curls in a snarl and her mind liquid – had the sun inside her.”

The relationship between Malini and Priya builds from uncertain alliance to friendship and on to romance, rekindling Sapphic unions that were accepted by the ancients during the Age of Flowers, but only became taboo upon colonization. This parallels the reality for cultures of Southeast Asia where homosexuality had been historically accepted, only to become suppressed in modern times. Suri addresses this type of outcome from cultural colonization throughout the novel, not just in sexuality but also at the levels of language and art. She points out the collective psychological damage that can happen to a conquered people, and what such oppression can end up inciting:

“Symbolism is important. And freedom. You will not understand this, Princess Malini. But there is a subtle pain the conquered feel. Our old language is nearly lost. Our old ways. Even when we try to explain a vision of ourselves to one another – in our poetry, our song, our theater masks – we do so in opposition to you, or by looking to the past. As if we have no future. Parijatdvipa has reshaped us. It is not a conversation, but a rewriting. The pleasure of security and comfort can only ease the pain for so long… Now bloodshed is inevitable…I gladly enter a pact that allows the death to be minimized, and even a shade of our freedom, our selves, to be saved.”

Bhumika also yearns for a voice of her own to match the power she clandestinely wields within her colonialized marriage. Just as the Ahiranyi resent the yoke of the Empire that quashes their cultural identity, so too does Bhumika become frustrated by a husband who can only see her as something to control, rather than recognizing and making use of her unique strengths and talents. She laments how perverse this is in the context of Virkam’s child that she carries within her:

“A child should not be a chain, used to yoke a woman like cattle to a role, a purpose, a life she would not have chosen for herself. And yet she felt then, with an aching resentment, how Vikram would use their child to reduce and erase here. She hated him for that, for stealing the quiet and strange intimacy of her and her own flesh and blood and making it a weapon.”

The three female characters of The Jasmine Throne have led lives where others around them have painted them as deviants, as monsters, declaring that the only purposes for womanhood are procreation and sacrifice.

“Some parts of me are monstrous,” Malini said… “You know why? A woman of my status and breeding, Chandra told me, should serve her family. Everyone told me I should be obedient to my father and my brothers and one day, my husband. But Aditya and Chandra made their choices, and I didn’t simply accept those choices. I didn’t obey. Because my brothers were wrong. But more than anything, Priya – more than that – I’m monstrous because I have desires… I’ve avoided marriage. I’ll never willingly beget children with a man. And what is more monstrous than that? To be inherently, by your nature, unable to serve your purpose? To want, simply because you want, to love simply for the sake of love?”

The novel is about these three women finding each other amid political situations that force things to a head, that force them to act. They reject the demented violence of rebellious men like Ashok. They strip the ignorant Vikram of power, and they mold the more tempered support of Rao and Aditya to their own will. The Jasmine Throne is about these women coming into power to change the world together, each to their own strengths.

“I’ve never wanted justice. Maybe I should have, but the thing I truly wanted was myself back. And now I just want to know – to prove – that the temple elders were wrong. Parijatdvipa was wrong. My brothers and sisters and I, we were never monsters. We didn’t deserve what was done to us. I want to believe that. I want to know that. I want that to be true, and if it isn’t I want to make it true. But you, Malini,” she said. “You want to remake the world.”

Though Priya recognizes this first in Malini, by novel’s end, Priya effectively states a variation of the same thing as her immediate goal, as she looks to take on the Rot. I cannot wait to continue the story of these three women, and all the other characters. (I have no room here to also go into all the interesting things she does to enrich her secondary characters, such as Rao and Rukh.) Suri’s skills here at imagining a captivating world populated by profound characters has easily enticed me to also read The Books of Ambha. She writes one hell of an engaging epic fantasy, full of entertainment, heart, and meaning.


THE WOMEN COULD FLY by Megan Giddings

“…Literature drawing parallels between historical witchcraft trials and modern persecutions is hardly new, and it might be tempting to view The Women Could Fly as merely a superb, new iteration of that tradition. Yet, Giddings does something more here than offer a dystopian fantasy as standard social commentary on sexism, queerphobia, racism, and related anger/hatred-born oppressions. The novel’s title itself points to possibilities, and magic. A magic that can be reached through a rejection of unreasonable systems and foolish distraction, through an appreciation that power lies in personal daring and forging of communities, freely available to all, for the taking. As a complex and conflicted protagonist surrounded by imperfect relationships in a confused world, Jo’s life of yearning for connections with freedom captivates readers and cultivates deep reflection on the relevance of the novel’s themes in our world. The Women Could Fly conjures an itch for discussion and debate while concocting a tremendously enriching read, frightening, entertaining, and wondrous all.”

Read my entire review of The Women Could Fly HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Amistad Press – 9th August 2022 – Hardcover – 228 pp.

THE BOOK EATERS by Sunyi Dean

The Book Eaters
By Sunyi Dean
Tor Books — 2nd August 2022
ISBN: 9781250810182
— Hardcover — 304 pp.


Scattered across the planet, living on the edges of human settlement, are the remnants of a people brought to Earth long ago by a now departed alien Collector. Their purpose: to catalog the works and thoughts of humanity and await the Collector’s return. Their ancient origin and duty misted in myth, they remain uncertain if the Collector will ever return, and worry about the decrease in females born to continue their lines.

Most of their kind are Book Eaters. After weaning off milk, they consume books of all types, able to gain the knowledge of the tome through its consumption. Their brains unable to process language through the act of writing, this swallowing of already written text is their only means of cataloging the throughs of humanity. However, some among them are born without the capacity for nourishment through books. These rare births instead wean from milk into a rapacious thirst for minds. Such Mind Eaters are born with a long tongue that can be used to penetrate into a victim to suck a brain dry of thought and knowledge, leaving shells behind.

In their varied cultures across the Earth, some of the Book Eaters choose to destroy any Mind Eaters born among them, others allow them to prey upon humanity. Families in enclaves spread throughout the UK rely on giving their Mind Eaters a drug that one family developed tto allow them to consume books instead. However, it still does not reduce their hunger for brains. Such Mind Eaters are taken as Dragons to be trained and kept in check by Knights. The Knights are Book Eaters taken as children from among all the UK Families, forming an organization that historically only served to protect women transported between enclaves for arranged marriages that allow the Book Eater lines to continue.These politics suddenly change when a revolt for control of power occurs within the Family who holds the secret for producing the drug for Mind Eaters.

Devon is a young Book Eater from a Family that has settled the wilds of the Yorkshire moors. She’s now on the run from her Patriarch, and from the Family of her last husband, searching for the survivors of the revolt and try to secure some of the now unavailable drug from them. She desperately needs the drug because she has her five year old son Cai with her, a boy born a Mind Eater, for whom she now has been forced to find prey. In roughly alternating chapters, Sunyi Dean writes about the quest for freedom in Devon’s present – her acts of love to save her son – and the events of Devon’s past, from childhood, that brought her to being a pariah.

The Book Eaters is an inventive dark fantasy that dazzles with empowering themes of devotion and defiance. It’s also a story about the monstrous things that someone could find themselves doing for survival when circumstances and systems of oppression tighten in.

As a child, Devon has a devoted reverence for her Family, her patriarch, and their rules. Such naïveté leads to disenfranchised horror when Devon discovers just how little justice there is in the political system of her people, how powerless and exploited she will be no matter how closely she obeys, no matter how meekly subservient she acts. Faced with this realization, Devon chooses defiance in every way she can, and narrows the allegiance of her devotion to only herself, and her children – who are equally taken for exploitation by the Families.

Forced into marriages and bearing children who are taken from her, Devon defies and bears punishment, up until a possible route of freedom becomes open to her from an unlikely familial source from her past. Dean’s structure for The Book Eaters makes it a compelling read for discovery of how Devon ended up in the situation she is in at the novel’s start. And there are some lovely little twists and clever double-agent-type situations that enhance the fun of the plot and its action.

Well written secondary characters also put some extra accomplishment into the novel. Cai is a perfect mixture of endearing innocent childhood and creepy terror, at one moment himself (a typical five-year-old), and the next moment one of the minds he has eaten (e.g. an elderly pastor.) Dean also creates a cast of intriguing and varied villains, from those who harm through their cultural privilege to those who have been shaped by the Knights or those who have revolted against the establishment to only form a cult of power for themselves in its place. None are purely evil, or purely good. Despite its fantastic plot, The Book Eaters is a novel rooted in a moral realism where people (even if not human) are formed by their circumstances or experiences and pushed toward helpful or harmful actions.

Born into this type of world, Devon is striving to find another option where the system no longer necessitates monstrosity. Thankfully, she is not alone on this path. Dean has two wonderful characters to help aid her journey. One, Hester, is a survivor of the revolt in the Family responsible for the Mind Eater drug. Her story is a terrific parallel to Devon’s own journey, and she develops into a perfect romantic interest for Devon. Devon is also helped by the kind hearted, video-game loving, brother of one of her husbands. He’s also a notable character in terms of being asexual, which makes sense given how closely male sexuality is tied to oppression and power in the UK Book Eater society.

I’m definitely eager to reading more in the future by Dean. Her straight-forward prose makes for a breezy read, yet is still filled with rich atmospheric imagery. The well-paced plot and shifting back and forth between times works very well, with a seeming simplicity that masterfully hides the complex execution needed to go into such careful plotting.

But I’m also really hopeful to read more from this Book Eater universe. I’m not talking about a series per se, or even a continuation of Devon’s story, or Cai’s. It would also be fantastic to see other stories and other characters around the world or time periods, built from the novel’s premise. Either way, please give us more.

The Book Eaters is now out in North America from Tor Books, and Harper Voyager will be releasing it in the UK later this month. If I still haven’t convinced potential readers out there that this should go on your to read list, go check out this second opinion from Shazzie at Fantasy Book Critic. She points out some details I wholeheartedly agree with but didn’t get into here, such as Dean’s fun use of classic and modern fairy tale passages as context for each chapter.

If you live in the US, please check out the giveaway I’m doing for a copy of The Book Eaters. Finally, be on the lookout here for an interview with Sunyi Dean, coming soon.


FACE by Joma West

Face
By Joma West
Tordotcom Publishing — 2nd August 2022
ISBN: 9781250810298
— Hardcover — 272 pp.


In near-future society, everything comes down to maintaining Face, masterly control over one’s image, the light in which others perceive you. Domination of diverse social media, and selfishly calculated steps in the dances of social interactions to build influence and control, become rewarded by a climb up the ladder of class and power. Marriages are built only upon convenience, a mutual benefit of improved Face, increased attention. Children are carefully designed, with the best possibilities available to the highest class, using the most talented of genetic artists. In an existence where success and fulfillment comes only from the construction of a virtual profile and celebrity persona, traditional forms of community and physical interactions have vanished. The concept of physical touch is anathema, and no respectable person would have a child other than through a professional biological surrogate who can fare no better.

Schuyler and Madeline Burroughs (together forming SchAddie) exist at the very top rung of society, with Faces of perfection that can make no missteps and who can afford eccentricity. They live as models and envy for others to follow and emulate, and to court their favor. But underneath those Face masks of perfection, sits discontentment and strife within the SchAddie household. Their designer children maintain their own exceptional Face, yet also don’t seem to be living up to the potential for which they were made. Maddie lives on edge, finding it harder to feign happiness and control, particularly with the increasingly risky behavior of Schuyler against conventions and expectations.

Case in point: Schuyler has inexplicably befriended a young couple who are hoping to get a baby of their own. While not socially low, they are not high up along the ladder to be able to get the best doctor out there without Schuyler’s support. Which, he oddly seems eager to provide, without any seeming benefit for himself. He arranges to host a party with Maddie in their home to introduce the young couple to the most famous baby designer around.

Also at that party are all the Menials owned by SchAddie, genetically engineered and trained human servants who are designed to have no will or desires of their own, constructs with a fleetingly short life-span and no rights. But one of their Menials harbors secrets of his own buried beneath the emotionlessly servile mask. Despite the design and training, he is feeling urges to transcend the rules: sexual desire and an increasingly difficult yearning to reach out and touch the skin of his mistress.

In a certain way, Face could be considered as a collection of interconnected short stories as much as a novel. Each of the main chapters presents the point-of-view portrait of a unique character. In other words, Face is itself a compilation of distinct character faces into a whole. Between each of these chapters are interludes from the perspective of a Menial who has started going to a confessional online in an effort to fight his prohibited compulsions, taking the added bizarre initiative of giving himself a name en lieu of his official Menial registration number.

The fragmentary construction of Face is central to its themes, purpose, and success. This future society is fragmentary itself, built from competing individuals whose only sense of community comes from naked desire for personal gain, never risking to sacrifice and lose Face. On the smaller scale, each of the characters we meet are fragmentary identities. There is the public persona they present in the online world and at engagements. But there is also their actual desires and thoughts beneath the ersatz, a personality they never let stray from their own mind or private moments where they think they are alone, unsurveilled.

The construction of the novel also means that it lacks strict linearity or one distinct protagonist arc. One you have a chapter from a given point-of-view, you’re done. The character will appear again, but you won’t get any further closure to their unique perspective. This is what’s brilliant about Face, because it’s all about perspective and how one appears compared to what really lies beneath, known only to oneself.

The construction also means that events that occur in one chapter will reappear in another, usually with blocks of identical dialogue. I have noticed many reviews of Face that criticize such receptiveness, but I can’t help but feel these have failed to appreciate just how essential the element is to the novel. Not only is it essential, it is exactly the element that drew me in to keep reading with intense curiosity. Again, it’s all about perspective.

West gives us a scene from one point of view and then later revisits that same scene from another individual’s senses and interpretations. The spoken words may stay the same, but the inflection of them, their interpretation, and the reading of body movements and actions brought on by that dialogue all shift. For instance, we see a character speaking to Schuyler early in the novel from their point of view, noting their uncertainties over why Schuyler uses particular words or frowns. Later, we get that same scene from Schuyler’s point of view.

As the novel progresses the reader begins to learn just how all the characters are connecting and tie together with the SchAddie corse. We get to learn about the characters from multiple directions, intimately and distantly alike. And we also begin to get a deeper sense of the complexity of the society in Face: its various strata of social class, and the large amount of discontentment that sits universally across the class spectrum, despite the veneer.

An engaging social commentary, Face inventively takes a look at the ways in which preoccupations with self and recognition in an increasingly digital civilization can go awry, stripping away the basics of humanity and healthy relationships social and biological. I wish I could easily go more into the various characters and events of Face, but things are so juxtaposed and woven to make summary impossible. These are elements simply to be discovered by reading.

Face is a compelling near-future dystopia of competitive social pretense, formed from interlacing portraits of individuals who thirst for biological & psychological connection. With all their energies devoted to cultural success that ultimately leaves them empty and dysfunctional, they seek fulfillment through community that paradoxically compels and disgusts them. There’s a bleak horror to Face, not unlike an episode of Black Mirror, an apt comparison that others have drawn. For all its coldness and distance, it’s an emotionally resonant narrative that readers are forced to stitch together from disparate conflicting perspectives into a singular community of reality.

A HALF-BUILT GARDEN by Ruthanna Emrys

“…Using a first-contact plot and speculative themes of ecology, Ruthanna Emrys explores the politics of human interactions in A Half-Built Garden. The novel delves deeply into elements of gender, sexuality, and diplomacy, tackling the balances of discord and harmony, competition and cooperation, that go into the institution of government and family. Some readers may feel the novel lacks concrete details of its speculative world in terms of how humanity achieves an ecological turn for the better. However, Emrys does significantly develop speculative details of communication technology, and brings greatest focus to explorations of sociological possibilities Though pacing struggles in its middle, its captivating opening and its incisive conclusion make A Half-Built Garden a successful and significant novel in the first-contact sub-genre and speculative literature in general…”

Read my entire review of A Half-Built Garden HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Tordotcom Publishing – 26th July 2022 – Hardcover – 336 pp.

THE MOONDAY LETTERS by Emmi Itäranta

“…a lyrical epistolatory novel of longing and hope. One part science fiction, one part fantasy, and one part mystery, it becomes linked by the strand of romance, the connection between Lumi and Sol even in separation… With a wistful voice, Lumi’s words flow with a poetic precision and empathetic peaceful calm. Yet, murmuring beneath that calm lies a continuous thread of unease, a growing panic that Lumi allows out in short moments, but mostly tries to tamp down through memories of happiness and togetherness…”

Read my entire review of The Moonday Letters HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Titan Books – July 2022 – Paperback – 368 pp.

BOOK GIVEAWAY! THE BOOK EATERS by Sunyi Dean

I happen to have an extra copy of The Book Eaters by Sunyi Dean from Tor Books.

I considered cutting it into strips to consume, but thought I’d run a giveaway instead to share this superb debut fantasy with someone else.

OFFICIAL BLURB:

Out on the Yorkshire Moors lives a secret line of people for whom books are food, and who retain all of a book’s content after eating it. To them, spy novels are a peppery snack; romance novels are sweet and delicious. Eating a map can help them remember destinations, and children, when they misbehave, are forced to eat dry, musty pages from dictionaries.

Devon is part of The Family, an old and reclusive clan of book eaters. Her brothers grow up feasting on stories of valor and adventure, and Devon—like all other book eater women—is raised on a carefully curated diet of fairytales and cautionary stories.

But real life doesn’t always come with happy endings, as Devon learns when her son is born with a rare and darker kind of hunger—not for books, but for human minds.

The Book Eaters is a darkly sweet pastry of a book about family, betrayal, and the lengths we go to for the ones we love. A delicious modern fairy tale.

Christopher Buehlman

My review of the novel will be coming here soon. But in the meantime, please enter to win this copy.

Here’s what you have to do to enter:

  • Have a US mailing address
  • Follow this blog
  • Have a Twitter account and reply to my Tweet of the giveaway here.

The winner will be chosen randomly from the Tweet replies and will be contacted via Twitter.

Ends Friday 5th August at 8PM ET