THE GRACEKEEPERS by Kirsty Logan

Yesterday, my latest review for Strange Horizons was published as part of their ‘Our Queer Planet’ summer special, highlighting international, queer, and fantastic writing. The novel I reviewed: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan from Crown Publishers.

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“…Expanded from a component in Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014), her debut novel contains a minimal, slow-building plot. But it is full of sensual prose that overlays a core of rich characters, a corporeal yet deeply intellectual feminism, and an overarching theme of transcendence….” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through the Crown Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

THE ARRIVAL OF MISSIVES by Aliya Whiteley

 

The Arrival of Missives
By Aliya Whiteley
Unsung Stories – May 2016
ISBN 9781907389375 – 120 Pages – Paperback
Source: Direct from Publisher


The weight and devastation of the Great War (World War I) has ended. Young Shirley Fearn looks toward her future with hopeful dreams that echo English society’s wish to transition from the bleak, meaningless tragedy of war to a freedom of bright, purposeful possibility. The only child of a village farmer, Shirley has grown up under the expectation that she would settle as a housewife, marrying an eligible young man who could take over the farm. Finishing her schooling and entering into maturity, however, Shirley feels driven towards other goals: leaving a domestic life to train as a schoolteacher at a nearby college.
A strong respect and romantic infatuation with her schoolteacher, an injured veteran named Mr. Tiller, helps fuel those goals even more. But her illusions of who Mr. Tiller is and her place in his life become shattered when he comes to her with a wild story of visions of a future disaster, and demands for actions Shirley must take to prevent its fulfillment. With the approaching village celebration of May Day, the crowning of a new May Queen, and the dawn of a new Spring, Shirley is pulled between the expectations of her family, the demands of a mentor, her developing sexuality, and the independent drives of her spirit and intellect.
When Unsung Stories contacted me about providing a copy of this for review I really hesitated. Starting in a full time faculty position has gotten me really ‘behind’ in reviews that I’m just now getting back in the groove of putting up/submitting. Did I really want to take on something more? As a novella it is a short length commitment, but the novella form is not something I gravitate toward. And the last (and unfortunately only) book I’ve read from the press previously disappointed. But something made me say ‘okay I’ll give it a look’. I am so glad that I did because The Arrival of Missives is a beautifully written story, a joy to read that actually shows me how effective an appropriately constructed novella can be.
I hadn’t immediately recognized Aliya Whiteley’s name (as accomplished as she is), though I later realized I had previously read one of her stories in Strange Horizons. In a way this is fortunate as it really did make this new novella a complete surprise. And who doesn’t love becoming enraptured with the writing of someone unexpectedly? However, whether you are familiar with Whiteley or not, this bit of literature with a touch of genre science fiction and romance is worth considering for an afternoon’s pleasure.
At its core the novella is a simple coming of age story, but Whiteley expertly constructs it to address the themes on multiple levels, visiting the ‘old’ and the ‘new’ on multiple levels from personal, societal, historical, and science fictional (time travel). Shirley is a richly drawn character who struggles with issues of identity and independence, but in a way that avoids simple answers or cliché. The other characters are less developed, and the motivations and psyche of Mr. Tiller feel uncertain beyond the need to fulfill the plot. But as a novella the focus on Shirley and her point of view – which itself is confused about Mr. Tiller’s intentions and moral authority – make this necessary.
The language of The Arrival of Missives fits its setting, characters, and themes perfectly, and is filled with a range of emotion and descriptive color that simply make the novella a pleasant and engaging read. I recommend giving it a read.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher  in exchange for an honest review.

WILDALONE, by Krassi Zourkova

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Wildalone
By Krassi Zourkova
William Morrow – 6th January 2015
ISBN 9780062328021 – 384 Pages – Hardcover
Source: William Morrow, via Skiffy & Fanty


In case you missed it, my review of Wildalone appeared recently on Skiffy and Fanty.
“Talented pianist and bright student Thea Slavin leaves the familiar confines of family and her Bulgarian homeland for the opportunity of study at prestigious Princeton University in the United States. Compounding the normal cultural shocks of studying abroad in an unfamiliar land, Thea discovers that she has chosen to accept an opportunity from the same school her older sister attended years past, an era mired in family secrets. Thea learns that this sister mysteriously died while at Princeton, leaving a hole in her parent’s lives about which they refuse to speak…”
I also ran into the cover reveal for the Bulgarian edition the other day and I think it fits beautifully:
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Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of this from the publisher in exchange for an honest review that originally appeared at skiffyandfanty.com.

MR. WICKER, by Maria Alexander

22545259Mr. Wicker
By Maria Alexander
Published by Raw Dog Screaming Press, 16th September 2014
ISBN: 1935738666 – 236 Pages – Paperback
Source: Raw Dog Screaming Press


You may recall the fabulous cover illustration of this from when Reading 1000 Lives took part in the Mr. Wicker cover reveal awhile back. Since then Mr. Wicker has earned a 2014 Bram Stoker Award nomination for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. In her debut novel, Alexander draws from mythological sources, particularly Celtic, to form a richly imaginative story that combines elements of fantasy, horror, romance, and historical novels.
In the throes of depression and instability horror writer Alicia Baum succumbs to suicide. Rather than offering any release, she finds herself in a timeworn library before a strange man who speaks of lost memories and a desire born from destiny to have her stay beside him, Mr. Wicker, in this mysterious realm beyond life where he can reunite her with all she has lost. Alicia, despite recognizing this sense of incompleteness within herself that has fueled her mental instability, chooses instead to flee from the uncertain strangeness of Mr. Wicker and his abode. Eternal rest ever elusive, Alicia awakens back to the reality of life, placed in a psychiatric ward under the care of doctors who would never accept her odd experiences.
But, Dr. James Farron has heard child patients in his care whisper in their dreams about the uncanny Mr. Wicker, and overhearing Alicia do the same draws him into serving as her advocate and protector, from her own mind and the corruption of hospital staff. In return he hopes to finally discover the secret to the Mr Wicker phenomena and save his patients.
A synopsis of Mr. Wicker‘s plot simply can not do its intricacies and many layers justice, and too much information can spoil the fun. In a way, Alexander has constructed the novel like a puzzle, and some pieces can be found outside of the novel proper on her website to uncover new secrets and connections. This construction fits well conceptually with the intermixing of genres that Mr. Wicker for the most part manages to handle rather well. She handles the balance between horror, fantasy, and romance rather well, particularly for a first novel. The story was originally envisioned as a film script and the fluidity of events amid the intertwined structure of character-history-reveal shows the marks of this.
My only major quibble is with the extended interlude toward the novel’s end that makes up the more ‘historical’ genre aspect of the novel. Revealing Mr. Wicker’s past, this section is actually one of my favorite portions of the novel in terms of the language and development on its own. But within the whole it ends up breaking the flow of everything around it, not fully integrated into the whole. Personally I can see this historical interlude working well on the screen, but within the book it felt almost a disruptive info-dump of revelation that may have felt more natural interwoven as all other elements of the novel are.
Rather than being the clear-cut villain as I expected, Mr. Wicker is in fact far more complex, full of bittersweet tragedy. The significance of his name will be familiar to anyone who’s seen either of the Wicker Man films or knows that aspect of Celtic history. I particularly enjoyed Mr. Wicker’s corvoid companions. While I knew of their place in Norse mythology, I hadn’t realized that the raven had similar counterparts in Celtic.
Alicia’s allure as a character arises from her opposing dualities. She is drawn alternatively between life and death, between the influence of Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron, fear of her present mind and desire to reclaim past memories. Alicia has moments of strong independence and making clear decisions, but then also times where she foolishly blunders or shows utter dependence on a male character. Mr. Wicker and Dr. Farron are (selfishly in one case, more altruistically in the other) each intent on claiming her, either as a sort of property or as a case for care, respectively. For much of the novel Alicia permits herself to be defined in this way, but she ultimately reaches her own self discovery and road to follow, so I’d encourage any readers at first put off by this to stay with the story.
While extremely likable as a character, Dr. Farron is rather predictable and one dimensional, as are the secondary characters of the novel, particularly another doctor who serves as the moral opposite of Farron. To be fair, the unique development of Alicia and Mr. Wicker could also arise from this story’s origin as screenplay, where development of more than a couple characters is simply not recommended.
Ultimately fans of dark fantasy who enjoy a touch of mystery and romance will find Mr. Wicker worth a look, an intricate Celtic knot that Alexander has woven quite well for a debut. I think a tale destined from the start for the page rather than the screen will even more deeply reveal her magic and talent for storytelling.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Raw Dog Screaming Press in exchange for an honest review.

The Paper Magician, by Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician,
by Charlie N. Holmberg
Publisher: 47North
ASIN: B00HVF7OL0
226 pages, Kindle Edition
Published: 1st September 2014
Source: Amazon Kindle First

 Ceony Twill is a talented young woman who, with the help of an anonymous benefactor and her own dedication, has beaten the odds of her disadvantaged background to graduate top in her class at a prestigious school of magic. Her abilities and promise argue that she should have preferred choice in her apprenticeship. However, in a world where magicians bind their abilities to one particular material, the greatest needs of society and the magician’s true inherent talents may not lie in the most glamorous material they yearn to work.
Ceony finds herself assigned to apprentice a mysteriously aloof paper magician who she knows nothing of, and she enters his home dreading the training that awaits her, certain that it will be nothing but uninspiring. Instead she rapidly finds herself enamored with the subtle art and potential power of paper magic and with her mentor, Emery Thane. Emery is charming, yet demanding. But, Ceony also sees Emery’s forlorn spirit, trapped in a past he keeps closely guarded.
Falling in love with her mentor and his trade, Ceony hopes to gradually open Emory up, but the sudden arrival of her mentor’s former lover threatens both their lives and the world of magic alike. Ceony takes it upon herself to help discover the secrets of Emery’s ailing heart, heal him, and save both her new mentor and magical society.
Holmberg’s The Paper Magician is an example of a fascinating premise that at first glance seems to hold tremendous promise as a symbolic and moving fantasy centered around love and the emotions of the heart. This universe that hails from an era with ‘historical novel’ airs and involves magicians bound to specific mediums is richly rendered, both familiar and intriguingly fresh.
I really adored the opening chapters of the novel, and both Ceony and Emery are fascinating characters.  Protagonist Ceony nicely has the active role of ‘saving’ the man rather than the traditional reverse gender roles of fairy tales or fantasy. Yet, their developing romantic attachment and the pure evil of Emery’s ex make their relationship simplistic and conservative where the female is still precisely defined by the male. This isn’t necessarily a strike against the story and characters, just a note that the story isn’t as subversive as a reader may first expect.
The appearance of Emery’s former lover is when the novel takes an abrupt turn with an arrival of threat, tragedy, and quest where Ceony enters a magical (and allegorical) journey into each chamber of Emery’s heart. The interesting, although more ‘academic’ portions of the early chapters where Ceony is learning her art and the reader is being introduced to this fascinating world give way to a straightforward, and increasingly dull quest. However, I did find the ultimate ‘showdown’ ending to be satisfying.
The novel thus has some great aspects, but also some real problems. Ceony is well written, but the initial promise of Emery vanishes when the plot shifts to portraying him solely via his unconscious emotions. The Paper Magician is a quick read, and the start to a series whose second volume is already available for advanced reading. I personally am not sure about continuing with the series. There is some promise here for quality and exploration of different magical fields (materials). But there’s also the good possibility of it continuing down a similar route where the story – or execution – veers to areas I wouldn’t really find interesting or fulfilling. Yet, readers that devour fantasy diversions or particularly like the genre flavored with a historical setting or aspects of the romance genre could find this really enjoyable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced electronic reading copy of this through the Amazon Kindle First program.

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation, by Jennifer Ellis

In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation,
by Jennifer Ellis
Publisher: Moonbird Press
ISBN: 0992153824
480 pages, eBook
Published: 26th April 2014
Source: Personal purchase

 There is nothing like being completely surprised at enjoying a book so much – not because you expected to dislike it – but because it was simply unknown and full of possibility, and you know that finding gold is rare indeed.
I can’t recall how, but soon after starting this site I came across Jennifer Ellis’ writing blog and became intrigued by what she had to say as an author, and by the description of her novel In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation. Though I didn’t win it through a Goodreads give-away, it proved enticing enough for me to purchase an e-copy, which turned out to be a great decision. I hope that more interested readers will discover this author and her fine post-apocalyptic novel.
In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is set on a fragile communal farm, a cooperative precipitously balanced between opposing camps of personality and goals as they struggle to maintain an island of civilization in a world rent asunder by economic and social collapse. Central to the community is Natalie and her husband Richard. Founded with family and friends in a move toward self-reliance during the start of the world’s collapse, the farm represents a new and defining beginning for Natalie. However, for Richard, a rising Vancouver politician, the farm is just Natalie’s pet project that by fortune became a safe haven to temporarily hold over until government regains control in the city and the good old days can return.
As friction in their marriage builds through Natalie’s increasing independence clashing with Richard’s personality of stubborn control and dismissal, Natalie finds herself drawn to the comfort found in the opposite personality of Richard’s twin Daniel. Faced with threats both from outside their isolated community and from betrayals and secrets within, Natalie and the other members of the community struggle to maintain a pocket of order, peace, and justice in the surrounding post-apocalyptic nightmare reality.
The plot of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation may seem rather familiar. A tight-knit post-apocalyptic community struggling to keep civilization in the chaos that surrounds. A cast of characters with disparate motivations and conflicting personalities bringing crises intentional and unintentional to the balanced status quo. A female protagonist showing independence who becomes stifled by her domineering husband and who is emotionally turned upside down by her attraction to another man. Yet, despite their familiarity, Ellis masterfully weaves these elements into a riveting story filled with characters that seem honest and real. In other words, she takes familiar story ingredients and uses them in precisely the right fashion and proportion to make a literary meal that satisfies.
The characters are mostly very well-rounded, both primary and secondary. While a few display a bit too-exaggerated villainy, this is an exception. For the most part the people in this novel are a combination of good and bad attributes, sympathetic and unsympathetic motivations. Natalie is a fine example of a woman displaying great strength, yet also signs that she is capable of so much more if she could just work past weaknesses. Daniel, in another example, shows qualities of heroism and seems at first glance to be the kind of perfect gentleman that a woman would swoon over. Yet Daniel’s apparent perfection for Natalie is shown to be illusory, with Daniel containing weaknesses that make him fail to live to his potential. Meanwhile, Richard who is shown in many instances to be a horrible person and spouse, is also realized as having important strengths and assets which in some ways make him fit perfectly in relationship with Natalie.
The triangle between these three characters and there imperfect relationships that nonetheless manage to balance one another is much akin to the overall balance in community member individuals in forming the farm society as a whole. How should a society work? If democratic, how should that work? How do we exist as both individuals and balanced communally. These are the matters at the heart of the novel, and Ellis does a fantastic job at posing all of these issues in an entertaining read.
Another strength I found in Ellis’ writing with In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is her sense of pacing and scope. The novel includes portions both in the farm community and contains excursions into the outside world, there are periods of calm and of action, of emotional reflection and serious dialogue, and each is handled fluidly. Despite my only mentioning Natalie, Richard, and Daniel here, there are several other characters, including some other point-of-view characters, giving a range of experiences that are beyond the scope of my comments here, but each were as well-handled as the main characters.
A final point I wanted to make concerns the romantic aspects of the novel. I am not one for romance stories, particularly when they become saccharine or depressing (either a bit too perfect or too ill-fated). There are many women writers out there who make a living writing books for a primarily female audience. They do what they do well I assume, just as there are male writers that write things targeted for male readership. I don’t know the demographics of Ellis’ readership (intended or achieved) but In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation is definitely not something that should only appeal to or be read by women. The romantic aspects to the story are importantly vital, and brilliantly rendered by the novel’s close.
Just as the characters of In the Shadows of the Mosquito Constellation struggle to maintain a balance between individual freedom and group responsibility, openness and safety, etc so too does a writer need to find a balance between the familiar and the alienating, action and still moments, entertainment and relevance, and so on. Ellis’ ability at balance is really impressive, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work – and would even love more stories in this universe. Most other readers that are willing to give her work a try should feel similarly.
Five Stars out of Five

 

Days of Blood and Starlight, by Laini Taylor

Days of Blood and Starlight,
by Laini Taylor
Daughter of Smoke and Bone Book 2
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
ASIN: B0076DCLF6
517 pages, Kindle Edition
Published November 2012
Source: NetGalley

The first book in the series left me impressed even with heightened expectations from glowing recommendations. I really had no idea what to expect from the second. Could it keep feeling fresh, or would it rehash the same themes? Would the characters remain engaging? In what directions would the plot be taken and would its emphasis focus on the romance angles or not? It is easy for a series to unravel after a well-received introduction.

Thankfully, Taylor makes this middle volume and its characters go places, focusing more on the battles and larger scale conflicts between the ‘angels’ and ‘devils’ side of the war. Where the focus of the first book was on the development of protagonist Karou and her personal relationship with Akiva, this focuses on the larger issues of what that relationship now means within the historical context Karou has uncovered by the end of volume one. The scale here is larger, and the themes transfer from being centered on personal or ‘destined’ romance to ones of war, what situations of conflict do to influence lives and how prolonged conflicts can enter into never-ending cycles of loss and retribution.

If these are changes you weren’t expecting, and leads the stories into directions you don’t care to go, this may frustrate you. Liking the first book won’t mean you’ll like the second. But, if you find yourself appreciating the broadening of scope with new characters, new relationships, and most certainly new complications, I think you’d still love this.

Despite continuing to love the story here and the characters, and appreciating the evolutions Taylor writes to avoid simply repeating the same story again, her style of writing begins to get old. Specifically, Taylor tends to forward the plot by ending a chapter with a sudden revelation or occurrence (often in cliff-hanger fashion) followed by starting the next chapter well ahead in time. She then goes back and fills in the missing details of how the character or plot got from the end of the previous chapter to the start of the next. This technique really maximizes reader interest, but when used continually over the course of the two novels it begins to lose its charm.

I’m eager to see where this story and its characters go in the presumably last novel of the series. I would expect a merging of the first two novels and the battle between these two races entering fully into our Earth. I suspect the events will surprise me and the underlying themes of individuals struggling to connect humanely amid horrific conflict will continue to prove interesting.

Four Stars out of Five