FOR THE WOLF by Hannah Whitten

For the Wolf
(Wilderwood Book 1)
By Hannah Whitten
Orbit Books — June 2021
ISBN: 9780316592789
— Paperback — 437 pp.


To escape the will of the Kings, they fled into the far reaches of the Wilderwood. They pledged that were the forest to offer them shelter, they would give all they had for as long as their line continued, let it grow within their bones, and offer it succor. This they pledged through blood, willingly given, their sacrifice and bond.
The Wilderwood accepted their bargain, and they stayed within its border, to guard it and hold it fast against the things bound beneath. And every Second Daughter and every Wolf to come after would adhere to the bargain and the call and the Mark.
Upon the tree where they made their pledge, these words appeared, and I have saved the bark on which it is written:
The First Daughter is for the throne.
The Second Daughter is for the Wolf.
And the Wolves are for the Wilderwood.

Thus opens the first volume of Hannah Whitten’s Wilderwood series, a modern and atmospheric romantic fantasy that draws from deep folkloric roots of the “Animal as Bridegroom” archetype. As the first royal second daughter in centuries, Redarys (Red) has accepted her sacrifice to the monster within the mystical forest, taking in faith that the stories entwined with her fate are true. In contrast, her elder sister Neverah (Neve) skeptically pleads with Red to resist, and with their mother to stand up against the religious traditions.

Though wary of her uncertain future, Red feels equal fear at the prospects of staying home. She wrestles with her obligations to longtime friend Arick who harbors romantic feelings that she cannot bring herself to reciprocate. Even more, she worries about a mysterious power within her that once boiled to the surface in a dangerous moment that almost left Neve dead. Red remains uncertain of who she is, what she is. And, if the Wilderwild is indeed a part of that puzzle, she is ready to discover what that means. Perhaps she can even succeed where second daughters of the past have apparently failed: in convincing the Wolf to let the imprisoned Five Kings go free.

With Red’s entry into the Wilderwood to meet her destiny the novel steps into a rhythm of sets of chapters that focus on her third-person point-of-view, broken up by interludes from Neve’s. Though Red serves as novel’s protagonist, Whitten makes her sister’s importance clear. I imagine this will bear more fruit with a focus on the first daughter in the sequel For the Throne that is coming out this June.

Once in the cursed forest, Red comes upon a ruined castle and a man within. He is Eammon, the warden, the wolf, son of the original couple that made a pact with the mystical wood. She discovers that the myths she has learned don’t speak the entire truth. And she begins to explore powers within her that might not just keep her and Eammon safe, but also protect the Kingdom and the world beyond safe from the real monsters that are eager to spring forth from their containment. However, forces gather back in the Kingdom in the meantime to take exert control over Neve and block either her or Red from reaching their potentials.

For the Wolf is a novel that’s about two young women discovering not only what they are capable of, but what they want. It’s about learning to make difficult choices, but also embracing the freedom of having the agency to be able to make those choices for oneself. To really be in power, rather than needing another to provide it or permit it. If not already apparent over the course of the novel, Whitten transparently summarizes it within the novel’s climax:

It was time for choices. [Red] could see only one.
“Arick.” Her voice was hoarse.
“At his name, Arick’s eyes closed tighter. “I’m so sorry,” he said quietly. “We were all just trying to save you.”
“Come here.” Tears choked her. “Come here, please.”
A pause, then a lurch as he moved over the darkened ground. Red fought to keep herself steady against her childhood love’s broken stance and the sure knowledge of things vast and terrible stirring beneath her feet.
She reached up when he came close enough to touch, gently laid her fingers on his bloodied face. “I know you didn’t mean for this to happen.”
“No. But I didn’t care what was going to happen, not then.” There was shame in it, just barely. “I only wanted you safe.”
Red’s lips pressed white. All of them loved like burning, no thought for the ashes.
“I am safe.” Her hand left his face, fell to her dagger. She tried not to think on it, tried to let her body work without her mind’s direction. “I love Eammon, and he loves me. That’s safe.”
Another roar ripped through the grove. “Do you love he’s become?”
“We’ve both been monsters,” Red whispered. “I’ll love him, whatever he is.”
“You loved me once. You never said it, but you did.” Arick’s dry throat worked a swallow, eyes still pressed shut. “Didn’t you?”
“I did.” It was barely a whisper, this gentle thing that existed beyond truth and lie. Her fingers closed around the dagger hilt. “Not the way you wanted me to. But I did.”
His eyes opened. “Do it quick, then.”

The cover of For the Wolf, along with Red’s name, may lead readers to believe that the novel is a take on “Little Red Riding Hood”, but it really draws more from “The Beauty and the Beast”. Also, I would not characterize it is ‘dark’ fantasy as Jodi Picoult does in her cover blurb. It may not be bright or optimistic, but neither does it lie very close to horror. Brooding romantic fantasy would be a more apt description, and it’s an important consideration.

For the Wolf is well written, with fantastic prose and exceptionally lush visual imagery. The themes are great, and the world building is enticing. But, for my tastes Whitten emphasizes the style and plot to the neglect of fleshing out characters or the potential of that world building. The romance at the heart of the novel is not a sub-genre element I gravitate toward, because it’s a complex bundle of emotions and social patterns that get so often simplified to cliché. This seems particularly true with young love written all angsty and brooding. Eammon fits the mold perfectly, a rough and gruff exterior hiding a puppy dog core. The relationship between Red and Eammon reads very much like the bits I’ve read from YA fantasy formulas. Though Red is well developed, all other characters lack significant attention. I found this particularly unfortunate with secondary characters who give glimpses of interesting histories and personalities.

The magical system of the Wilderwood series, and the reality of its mythology become slowly revealed over the course of the novel, right on up to its close. Paradoxically, information is both repetitive and lacking in that Whitten provides some details multiple times while leaving other matters unanswered or unaddressed. Partially this comes from the character’s own ignorance and confusion on how the Wilderwood and its magical pacts work. But that also easily confounds the reader. I remain uncertain about the limits and possibilities of magic here, of the nature of the Five Kings, or the Shadowlands, or even the forest. I just know that somehow the union of Red and Eammon, and the supporting sisterhood of Red and Neve will somehow keep the world safe from evil.

Thus, there are a lot of individual elements to For the Wolf that make it an interesting novel, they just don’t come together in a way I found really satisfying, or emphasize the complexities and details I find most intriguing.

However, if you like a good romantic fantasy, made up of a tried-and-true formula done well, then this would certainly be a novel that you might love. Whitten’s writing is evocative with a stress on the magical atmosphere of the novel’s sylvan setting. The novel’s central themes are fantastic. I just yearned for something a bit more complex in character interaction and clearer in world-building from that foundation.

I still plan to read the sequel, For the Throne, which I’m scheduled to review in June for Fantasy Book Critic. I can imagine Whitten writing something that was more in my wheelhouse, even within this series, but regardless I know there is an audience for this, even if that’s not me.


THE HOUSE OF SHATTERED WINGS by Aliette de Bodard

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The House of Shattered Wings
(Dominion of the Fallen Book 1)
By Aliette de Bodard
Roc Books – August 2015
ISBN 9780451477385 – 402 Pages – Hardcover
Source: AceRocStars Street Team


Set in an alternate history, late 20th Century Paris that lies in near ruins, The House of Shattered Wings is a dark urban fantasy of competing houses who compete for control of the city. But these houses of noble power set in the ashes of a great apocalyptic conflict are not founded or controlled by humans, but by fallen angels and ancient magic. Once at the top of political influence, House Silverspires is in rapid decline, its powerful founder gone missing decades past, and its current members now targeted by a mysterious, unknown force. As its current leader tries to maintain House Silverspires’ existence, a trio of potent wild-cards fall under its protection: a human alchemist struggling with addiction and escape from past loss, a newly fallen angel, and a strange young man of rare abilities who appears neither human nor angel.
 –
Those who read the major markets for short speculative fiction and fantasy are likely familiar with Aliette de Bodard’s science fiction stories set within her alternate history Xuya Universe. Prior to reading The House of Shattered Wings this is the only writing I really knew her from, so I was surprised to find out the novel I anticipated was a fantasy. (I later learned she does have another alternate history fantasy series of novels from Angry Robot Books). This ignorance actually made me start the novel with optimistic expectation because I was curious to read something from her that I could approach more independently from my previous reading experiences of her SF.
Of her short fiction that I’ve read, I consistently find the stories to be beautifully written. A native French speaker, de Bodard’s English prose is spectacular and her dialogue is generally engaging. Despite this, her stories have been very hit or miss in enjoyment for me. Some pulled in my attention, while others I could just never fully connect with the plot or characters. Reading The House of Shattered Wings I felt similarly. Rarely do I feel so ‘wishy-washy’ over a book. I had a difficult time first getting into the novel, but slowly began to develop some more interest as the story unfolded. Yet, overall I never felt strongly connected to its characters (perhaps due to their being so many), and I found myself strongly regretting the absence of certain elements, while still enjoying fairly well those elements that were present.
 –
Another general way to state all of this: I understand how readers could both really love this book, while also find it a big disappointment despite the obvious quality of the writing and de Bodard’s talent. Because I felt all of this, like a tug-of-war, throughout my reading The House of Shattered Wings. So then, what specifically did I like and what did I feel was missing?
To start with my negative impressions, they stem from the complexity of de Bodard’s universe that she is introducing here. The first volume in a series, it contains a troop of characters of major importance, including multiple protagonists. It is a mashup of several speculative genres while also including a prominent mystery, several angles of romance, and some decent delving into matters of spirituality, culture, and mythology. It is rich and dense: a universe I really want to get to know filled with characters that should become dear to me. But it’s all too much for just this book, the first step in what is to be an even grander series. And despite those statements, I’m going to go on and say that I wished it had something more: a fuller setting. With fewer characters, fewer twists to the plot, and perhaps fewer focused themes there could have been some more room to see more of this post apocalyptic, alternate history Paris that the characters inhabit. Another reader I noticed use the word ‘claustrophobic’, and I think this is apt. The view is so close to the myriad characters that there is little direct sense of the physical world they inhabit.
The added bit of mystery genre to this novel, however, is one factor that really made me enjoy the story, particularly by its closing chapters as I finally also got the plethora of character identities under some type of memory, control. de Bodard incorporates the magic, the fantastic, into the politics of this universe really effectively. Towards another point of the novel’s strengths: I’ve read so many novels where I adore the setup and then become embittered by its ending. While The House of Shattered Wings may try to overdevelop its setup, it does takes all of its plot threads and ties them up satisfyingly well. I finished this pleased with its conclusion, and looking forward to what future books would bring, perhaps with a bit narrower focus.
If you’re familiar with de Bodard’s short fiction, then decisions on whether to read this novel should be easy, particularly if you have strong feelings one way or the other on urban fantasy featuring fallen angels (in a generically spiritual sense). For those unfamiliar with her writing, I suggest you try out some of her short fiction if you are curious, but hesitant, to start a full novel. She has several short stories set within the Dominion of the Fallen universe. Though I haven’t read those – like her other short stories – I suspect they are representative of the high quality of de Bodard’s writing, and also contain style,  plotting, or character that will permit you to judge the ‘fit’ for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher as part of the AceRocStars Street Team in exchange for an honest review.

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.

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

 

The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1476704589
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Source: Goodreads

Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.

Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.

Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.

Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest  with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel.  Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.

The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.

The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.

The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.

Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.

Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.

Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.

The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.

The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.

And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George

The Johnstown Girls, by Kathleen George
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press
ASIN: B00J2D60W8
348 pages, Kindle Edition
Published January 2014
Source: NetGalley

Coming from Pennsylvania (even the other side of the state) I’m familiar with the Johnstown Flood. This entered heavily into my decision to request the novel; in addition its concept itself seemed promising.

Kathleen George seems known for her mystery/crime genre writing, so this is a departure from her normal literary pool. “The Johnstown Girls” is an exploration of three female protagonists, linked together through a shared region of birth. Set in part in the present, Nina returns to her hometown with her boyfriend Ben, a fellow newspaper reporter doing a feature on the anniversary of the catastrophic Johnstown flood. Together they interview Ellen, one of the last surviving flood survivors and learn of the mysterious loss of her sister May (Anna). We the reader then are shown that the sister has survived, with few memories of the disaster, no knowledge of her true origins and relations. Despite the literary shift then, this still has elements of crime and mystery in minor ways, displaying George’s touch and appreciation for the genre.

For the elderly Ellen and May/Anna, the narrative is split between present day and recollections of the past from their separation at the flood through the decades following. The novel is therefore historical in its backdrop and link between past and present narratives. Leading similar, but quite distinct lives of circumstance, Ellen and Mary/Anna display a shared kindness and intelligence, and a progressive independence that make them strong and decisive characters. They thereby reflect an optimistic example born from experience that mirrors Nina’s precarious situation in her own life still relatively early in progress, trying to make a relationship with Ben work. This contrast is evident to the reader between Nina and either sister, though to Nina only in regards to Ellen who she has met, driving her to help and determine the truth of what happened to May/Anna those many years ago and where she is now.

This overall theme of the story works tremendously well. The trio of female protagonists are fascinating, complex, and touchingly real. The verisimilitude of character, the contrast between the elder sisters’ optimistic certitude and Nina’s uncertain fears make the relations in the novel work emotionally, bright without any false rosy perfection. This authenticity is helped by the historical framework of the flood and the photos of real average people who lived through the event that George peppers between chapters.

Despite these strengths there are aspects to “The Johnstown Girls” that seriously detract from it. The primary difficulty is the Ben-Nina relationship. Though it complements/contrasts the relationships and experiences of the elder sisters, this doesn’t crystallize until the end. For much of the novel the scenes between Ben and Nina seem superfluous, particularly when extending to Ben’s family. Some of these portions could be left out probably, but at the very least the organization of the novel between multiple protagonists/relations across two times could have had connections strengthened via reorganization. Secondly, to augment the ‘historical’ nature of the novel, ‘copies’ of Ben’s articles are reproduced, largely repeating information already conveyed in the main narrative, or revealing information that could be better revealed through character interactions.

The regional familiarity of this novel for certain readers and an interest in the Johnstown flood make this a worthwhile read. For those that really appreciate novels with strong female characters and the travails of realistic relationships you will likely enjoy this a great deal, enough to look past the imperfections of the novel’s construction, much as the situation is in human interactions.

Three-and-a-Half 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