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 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.


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.

THE LIAR OF RED VALLEY by Walter Goodwater

“… The Liar of Red Valley is a book about the power of lies in a society, and both the harm and good that these might engender for people. It’s also about defining a life for oneself, rather than being at the mercy of others, be them humans or gods. Both the themes and the gothic atmosphere/cosmic horror vibes are likely to resonate with a lot of readers. .”

Read my entire review of The Liar of Red Valley HERE at Fantasy Book Critic.

Solaris (Rebellion Publishing) – 19th July 2022 – Paperback – 400 pp.

THE NEXT TIME I DIE by JASON STARR

The Next Time I Die
(Hard Case Crime Series #154)
By Jason Starr
Hard Case Crime (Titan Books) — June 2022
ISBN: 9781789099515
— Paperback — 256 pp.


Hard Case Crime has been on quite a roll with their releases of late, and this new novel by Jason Starr generated all sorts of positive buzz up through its release this past month. All those great reviews are warranted, The Next Time I Die is an imaginative creation of literary depth and irresistible diversion. It’s a novel that should appeal to fans of both crime and speculative fiction genres, while also gratifying readers of contemporary general fiction that don’t normally dip into genre pools.

“I saw you, Steven Blitz”

With these words spoken by an unknown male voice, as stab to the gut, and a fade to black for the protagonist at the close of chapter one, the wild ride of The Next Time I Die truly begins.

Before: Lawyer Steven Blitz is busily working to prepare defense for a high profile serial killer murder trial that should help launch his career to the next level. His agitated wife comes in to interrupt him, demanding a divorce and ordering him to get out of the house. She declares she can no longer stand him, and has never really loved him. She has been having an affair with her best friend and wants him and their stagnant marriage gone from her life.

After trying to talk more with her, Steven reluctantly does leave, gathering his work and making a call to his brother saying he’s headed over and needs to crash at his place. En route there amid a winter night’s storm, Steven swerves at a turn in the road to avoid sliding into a collision, and safely continues on. During a quick stopover at a store to pick up some things, Steven witnesses a man and woman having an argument in the parking lot. When the woman’s safety seems threatened, Steven chooses to step in.

A painful stab to Steven’s stomach, his vision going dim, and that mysterious unknown voice coming from the void, nowhere, somewhere.

Expecting to be dead, Steven instead finds himself regaining consciousness in a hospital. Only he quickly realizes things are not right. The nurses and doctors know nothing of any attack in a parking lot. There is no knife wound. Steven was injured in a car crash, hitting a tree while sliding on an icy, snowy stretch of the highway.

Even more strangely, Steven’s wife is there, rushing to his side, full of concern and affection. And with her is their little daughter, a child Steven has no recognition of, but who is worried about her father. The news on the television makes no mention of the growing coronavirus concerns, or fiascos from the dangerous fool who’s occupying the White House. Instead the anchors seem to be concerned about conflicts in India/Pakistan, and how President Gore will be handling things.

As Steven comes to accept the insanity of what seems to have occurred he tries to figure out how it did and when divergences of timelines from his memory and the reality he now finds himself amid must have started. He also quickly realizes he has to pretend all is fine and he’s not confused, lest they keep him in the hospital over worries of unknown neurological problems – or perhaps side-effects of the cancer Steven has recently been treated for. A cancer Steven has no memory of.

While trying to make sense of the turned about reality he faces, Steven finds some things might be nicer in this new life. He has a devoted and loving wife that he finds a recaptured attraction to. He positively adores his wonderful daughter. And here he is already a big time lawyer – a partner in the firm he had been working for on a lower rung, with a hefty bank account and life style that no longer needs a flashy defense trial of questionable morality.

But also, Steven begins to uncover some darker facts about the new found timeline. In this world, the artist serial killer he had been defending walks free, unsuspected of any crimes. Though, Steven knows better. And much to his shock, Steven finds that in this reality, he was the asshole, cheating on his wife and getting into troubles with repercussions that ignorant (and innocent) Steven must now deal with.

Starr’s crisp writing and the mysterious nature of what the protagonist faces both help propel the reader through The Next Time I Die with exceptional pacing and investment in Steven’s hapless situation and character, simply wanting to do good and find success.

And therein lies the brilliance of Starr’s novel: what makes a person good? The fantastical premise of the novel is not something Starr sets out to explain. Is this jumping multiverses? Are there really multiple versions of him that have swapped? Is the start of the novel all in Steven’s head? Or is the rest? Is someone doing this to Steven? None of the answers to these kinds of questions are what is at heart here.

Whatever its cause, whatever its nature, this ineffable phenomena is a means for Steven to discover the totality of his human moral potential, what he is at the core, or can be. Or looking from the outside perspective of author and reader, an exploration of the character of a character and the degrees to which the ambiguous possibilities and gray areas lie in us all.

From the very start of the novel, Starr paints his protagonist as someone with tremendous sincerity for virtue in himself, a preoccupation with proving his merit to himself and others. Like Linus in the pumpkin patch proclaiming righteousness while also adopting humbleness, Steven trumpets his inherent goodness with dogmatic earnestness, to others and in rationalizations to himself.

His wife’s emotional antagonism that sets off the novel is not his fault, and he’s big enough to respect it’s not really hers either. She’s simply off her meds, not speaking or thinking rationally. This is something they can work out – even if she is having an affair – because he’s willing to work things out with her, after all. Defending a serial killer with a pleas of insanity, though he knows in his heart him guilty of heinous acts and deep seeded psychological problems is okay, because the man will still be kept off the streets and be offered help, and it’ll give Steven a chance to do more and better work in defending other clients who really are innocent.

Upon the discovery of things prior Steven has done in the new timeline reality he awakens in, Steven sets out to do all he can to make better decisions than his predecessor. Cut off affairs and stop doing things that a ‘good guy’ would do. However, he wasn’t responsible for those things previous Steven did, so there shouldn’t be any negative consequences for him in this new life. He’s good and will do better.

Starr weaves a brilliant story here drawing parallels between Steven’s personality and that of the serial killer, showing what people might be capable of, lies that might be told to oneself, versions of oneself that might be created to keep an image in one’s mind to live with. As more falls apart for Steven in this new found life, is that okay still? After all, there may be an infinite multiverse of Stevens and decisions out there. If things come apart here, there’s always another version to try better at the next time I die.

The Next Time I Die is a chilling novel for what it shows through its protagonist and from the fact that Starr is offering no answers here as readers consider personal choices and possibilities of a lifetime spent inherently trying to be good, but also knowing selfish deviations from that have occurred aplenty. It’s a brutal, honest portrayal of human nature, though without going full on into nihilism. Though not a new theme to literature or other artistic forms, Starr’s approach to it here is freshly conceived and captivating.

Next up from Hard Case Crime arrives in September: The Hot Beat by Robert Silverberg. Look for a review of that up here just prior to its release.


MALPERTUIS by Jean Ray (Translated by Iain White, Edited by Scott Nicolay)

“…The combination of classic Gothic Horror with the Weird subgenre, in a unique form of the haunted house novel, sounded perfectly tuned to my interests. Even with a foundation of mythological familiarity that was largely lost on me, Malpertuis succeeded wildly in entertaining and impressing…”

Read my entire review of Malpertuis HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Wakefield Press – May 2021 – Paperback – 256 pp.

A PSALM FOR THE WILD-BUILT by Becky Chambers

A Psalm for the Wild-Built
(Monk and Robot #1)
By Becky Chambers
Tordotcom Books — July 2021
ISBN: 9781250236210
— Hardcover — 147 pp.


A week from my writing this, the second Monk and Robot book (A Prayer for the Crown-Shy) gets released. I haven’t had the chance to read that one yet, but will eagerly grab a copy. This seems like a good time to put up a review of the first book – last year’s A Psalm for the Wild-Built – to get this on the radar of anyone who hasn’t discovered Becky Chambers’ series yet. If you’ve already read the first novella, check out this review of the sequel from my reviewing colleague Shazzie, over at Fantasy Book Critic.

Humanity has settled the moon of Panga and built a utopic civilization in balance with the other biological inhabitants, leaving areas unsettled as preserves for other species. Now absent from their civilization are the robots, artificial workers that gained sentience and chose to depart into the wilderness, centuries ago, in search of their own purpose and destiny. The robots have since faded into cultural myth.

Sibling Dex of the Meadow Den Monastery has begun to feel directionless, restless for deeper connection to others and life. They decide to leave, to drift the Pangan countryside serving as a tea monk: a wandering attendant who ministers to any who need a break: a sympathetic ear and that perfect cup of hot tea that can warm the heart and soul.

New to the role, Dex at first stumbles at finding just the right brew to match the needs of their guests. But, they quickly learn and adapt, gaining experience to become one of the most sought-after tea monks around. Just as they begin to feel as if they found their strength of purpose, and settle into the familiarity of their routine, Dex finds something unfathomable emerge from the forest wilderness to reignite their insecurity and feelings of inadequacy.

A robot named Splendid Speckled Mosscap enters their camp and enthusiastically declares they have returned to honor an old promise to humanity. Mosscap poses a simple question of Dex: “What do people need?” The tea monk is at a loss for words of how to reply.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built is a peaceful novella, an embodiment of that feeling of a nice cup of tea. There is little to it in way of a conflict, at least in the typical sense that one might find in a SFF plot. It’s a journey of empathetic friendship between two characters who discover one another over conversation. Dex and Mosscap are two very different individuals. A humble tea monk, Dex is timid and restrained, but also lacks self confidence. Mosscap bursts with curiosity and an assured optimism. Biological and artificial, they each view one another with a good bit of initial confusion and bewilderment.

Through their existential conversations and building friendship comes the discovery of each of their unique points of view, a celebration of their differences, and a perfectly matched partnership that gives them each greater purpose than they could have apart.

As I began A Psalm for the Wild-Built, I wondered how much I would like it. Most fiction relies on antagonism in polar opposite to the main character(s), with conflicts, setbacks, and dire threats aplenty. So often SFF tends toward the darker side of things. Even if not full-on ‘grim-dark’, there’s usually some amount of violence or tragedy to be overcome. Dystopias are the norm. I’m used to that; I enjoy that. The only other case of a more optimistic type of SFF story that I can think of reading is The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. It’s a beloved novel for many, but I couldn’t stand its optimism and peaceful resolutions. I wondered if I just didn’t like bright idealism.

A Psalm for the Wild-Built showed that I can go for that flavor of things. For whatever reason, the characters and world created by Becky Chambers here just worked. The conversation between Mosscap and Dex might not read as profound by all, but it should prove fascinating and worthwhile. Chambers illustrates personalities and a relationship of how two individuals coming from two different backgrounds and experiences can find a way to bridge. It requires a calm, an openness; an appreciation of life, open ears, and a patient tongue.

Reading the novella is like a retreat into the wilderness, a moment to appreciate beauty and meditate with one’s own thoughts and in close fellowship with a few. Chambers writes it with a simplicity and bright joy of words that matches the characters and premise. All of which enliven the novella into a page-turner without the need for extensive, complex plotting.

When visiting my local bookshop the other day, I noticed A Psalm for the Wild-Built featured on a corner cap as a staff recommendation. Notably, it may have been the only book there without an accompanying handwritten, signed note explaining the choice. Considering this, though, I realized the cover did all the speaking required. The art, title, font, and blurb from Martha Wells says it all, with a sparse charm to match the novella’s core.

Just writing this makes me regret that I didn’t request an ARC of A Prayer for the Crown-Shy. I’ll have to channel the patience and peace of Monk and Robot to calmly await July 13th when I can pick this up in the store now. If you haven’t started the series yet, this still gives you plenty of time to read a copy of A Psalm for the Wild-Built before the sequel’s release. Just don’t forget to collect some leaves of your favorite tea and to set a pot to boil.


OUT OF THE CAGE by Fernanda García Lao (Translated by Will Vanderhyden)

“… Out of the Cage is a grim tragicomedy, a family saga that parallels the absurdities of political upheavals. Related with a short crispness that makes the novel fly by even without much action, it contains a wealth of subtext for continued analysis and appreciation.”

Read my entire review of Out of the Cage HERE at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Deep Vellum Press – March 2021 – Paperback – 168 pp.