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 Sharvani, 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.


A MIRROR MENDED by Alix E. Harrow

A Mirror Mended
(Fractured Fables #2)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — June 2022
ISBN: 9781250766649
— Hardcover — 144 pp.


With A Mirror Mended, Harrow hits all the right notes of success from A Spindle Splintered, and then surpasses them with additional fresh melodies of complexity. The second novella the Fractured Fables series picks up five years after the end of the first. Zinnia has spent that time traveling the Sleeping Beauty metaverse, saving Princesses in distress wherever possible. With the years of her predicted lifespan reset by the magical clearing of her misfolded cellular proteins, Zinnia has been able to go on living fearlessly, not having to worry about her own inevitable cost.

But, her activities saving Sleeping Beauties across the narrative realms has come with some costs. Zinnia’s become estranged from her former best friend Charm, who continues to live a happy life with Prim. Zinnia has become exhausted of the constant movement, the reiterations of the same story, slightly changed. She can begin to feel the effects of time passing on her health. And the universes have begun to show signs of becoming increasingly fractured and intertwined in inexplicable ways, fairy tales bleeding in to ‘normal’ reality, with elements even outside Sleeping Beauty.

Celebrating the rescue of her latest princess, Zinnia gazes into a mirror to see an unfamiliar face staring back, and she suddenly is drawn into another universe. It’s one she quickly realizes comes from beyond the Sleeping Beauty cluster. Somehow, she has ended up in a world of Snow White. And the strange face that she saw in the mirror that pulled her there is none other than the Evil Queen.

What makes A Mirror Mended so successful is that Harrow doesn’t simply rehash the types of adventure and themes found in A Spindle Splintered. Readers quickly figure out that Zinnia is not here to rescue Snow White at all, but to help the Evil Queen. The immediate question for Zinnia is, should should save an Evil Queen? Of course, Harrow deftly shows that this narrative is based on a ton of missing information on who this villain really is. Why is she villainous? Why does she not even get a name?

So begins a novella that is an adventure like the previous one, but also a tale of connected self discovery. Zinnia most come to terms with what she has been doing, and the risks they might entail. This includes some critique of her assumptions/actions in the first novella, as well as the collapse of her core friendship with Charm.

The imperfections that remain even when trying to ‘cleanse’ a problematic fairy tale of all its offenses become more clear, serving as a sort of meta analysis of Harrow’s series itself, or the idea of retelling fairy tales in general. Harrow ups the meta joy in A Mirror Mended, having absolute fun with the zaniness of the novella’s premise and its play with narratives and character agency within a narrative that Harrow controls. This really rounds out Zinnia’s journey to a next step in this book two.

Self discovery is also central theme for the Evil Queen, who Zinnia chooses to name Eva. Eva must discover how far she is able to go to ensure self-survival, particular when she suddenly realizes there are other people who may actually care about her. Eva is a fabulously multidimensional character that drives the novel forward and ends up saving the woman who has played the savior heroine these last five years, Zinnia. And only through letting herself be saved does Zinnia save Eva.

This is all so meta! A recursiveness and eternal knot formed by the two women. The struggles within each of them become entangled their relationship. That entanglement is itself they key for the progression of each to self resolution. It’s an absolute inversion of the saving trope that was the focus of the first novella, one that was predicated on someone saving another so that the other can have personal agency. Here, full agency is only achieved through a partnership of sorts, a giving up of agency. It’s meta, an apparent absurd contradiction. Yet, it is also the basis of the concept of marriage.

A Mirror Mended succeeds on so many levels, even down to that symbolic level that the title evokes. It’s a love story of Zinnia and Eva, the foundation of a true partnership without the loss of choice or control for either party. The individual shards (lives) of a fractured mirror become united into something whole that reflects back an image of the other – just like that moment that initially pulled Zinnia into Eva’s seemingly hopeless story – staring into a face that is not your own, but that together make a tale for the ages.

I’ve probably drifted way too far here into the realms of analysis over that of review, forgive me. But this is what I really, really loved about A Mirror Mended. It’s simply brilliant on multiple levels, meta and all.

Even without all that, A Mirror Mended is simply an entertaining adventure filled with great language, rich characters, humor, and deep human emotion. Harrow’s choice to make this more about the villain than simply another princess in distress story is essential to its success. But atop that I also adored her inversion of the Snow White tale by having Zinnia and Eva end up in a universe where Snow White has become the one-dimensional villain of the story, like some Disney aesthetic Lady Bathory.

Another final detail of A Mirror Mended that I really enjoyed were the original silhouette illustrations by Michael Rogers. I forgot to mention that style of illustration that appeared included in A Spindle Splintered. That first novella included doctored illustrations whose originals were done by Arthur Rackham, a fairy tale illustrator often mentioned in that text by Folklore nerd Zinnia. I had no prior familiarity with Rackham, or fairy tales in general. I don’t think I could even explain what the plot to Sleeping Beauty is prior to reading Harrow’s first novella. Though I enjoyed the whimsical alterations to Rackham’s silhouettes, they didn’t quite fit with the text of the novella where they were placed. In A Mirror Mended I liked that a similar vibe could be attained without having to use pre-existing ones inverted and fractured.

Somewhere I noticed mention that this would be end to the Fractured Fables series. I’m not sure if that’s true, or I misunderstood, but I would hope that if Harrow can find new directions to take the idea, or new themes to delve into, that she would. A further fracturing and entanglement of fairy tale metaverses could prove interesting if used symbolically for new relevance. But if not, I will continue to reread and enjoy these two little gems.


A SPINDLE SPLINTERED by Alix E. Harrow

A Spindle Splintered
(Fractured Fables #1)
By Alix E. Harrow
Tordotcom Publishing — October 2021
ISBN: 9781250765352
— Hardcover — 128 pp.


Today is the publication date of the second book of Alix E. Harrow’s Fractured Fables series, so I’ll have reviews of both novellas today in celebration. I first encountered Harrow’s writing with some of her short stories and immediately felt drawn to their intelligence and passionate zeal. Even when they fell within a sub-genre of fantasy that wasn’t among my favorite, like the fairy tale, I still found them to be interesting perspectives riffed in a fun, inventive way. I read her debut novel The Ten Thousand Doors of January feeling the same, and her next novel sits on my purchased TBR shelf.

The Fractured Fables series is excellent because it distills the best of Harrow down to the novella length. I was once a complete novella skeptic, but I’ve realized works like this can do it well, giving characters and worlds a chance to breathe, but limit unnecessary padding.

A Spindle Splintered introduces readers to Zinnia Gray, a young woman about to celebrate her twenty-first birthday, the upper limit of years her doctors expected her to survive. Zinnia has a genetic disease brought on from industrial pollution, a ribosomal (chaperone-associated?) disorder that leads to cellular accumulations of misfolded proteins throughout her body. Her curse of a young death has led to a personal affinity with the story of Sleeping Beauty, even though it is “pretty much the worst fairy tale, any way you slice it,” and pursuit of a degree in folklore.

Zinnia’s life-long best friend Charm arranges a Sleeping Beauty inspired party for Zinnia’s monumental birthday, held in an abandoned factory tower, complete with an antique spinning wheel – even if the earliest versions of Sleeping Beauty and original Grimm tale predate its invention. When contact with the prop causes Zinnia to black out and fade into a faux Medieval Europe setting, complete with a confused fantasy Princess named Prim, a version of Sleeping Beauty with a hyper-real, idealized radiance. Zinnia wonders if the misfolded proteins have finally obliterated neurons into hallucination, if her body is simply in the process of giving up the ghost.

But no, all signs point to this being real, and Zinnia finds she’s even able to text on her cell phone to Charm, seemingly across universes. She and Charm reason that Zinnia has discovered the ability to shift across a multiverse of fairy tale universes through some sort o object-induced narrative resonance. Zinnia knows the fate that awaits Prim: one curse of lost agency broken by another, marriage to a man she neither knows nor desires. Zinnia can do nothing to save herself from biological fate, but she realizes she just might be able to do something to save Prim from Prim’s curses before trying to return to home reality. And one thing Zinnia has learned to do well is running from her own problems by focusing on fixing others.

The premise of Zinnia’s fantasy adventure here is utterly absurd, defying logic in ways that the characters – and Harrow – readily admit. Charm comes up with ‘explanations’ for what is happening to Zinnia, how the magic of multiverses works. But really, it’s all a big MacGuffin (as admitted in meta call-out in the sequel novella) to facilitate the adventurous fun. With Mystery Science Theater 3000 music in your head: “If you’re wondering how she hops ‘tween worlds, and other science facts, just repeat to yourself it’s just a farce, I should really just relax.”

The obvious large theme of the fun romp that is A Spindle Splintered would be the feminist one: a sisterhood of support between female characters who each face their own particular curse or demon that tries to hold them back, that tries to eliminate their agency as individuals with any choice in their futures. For the novella length, Harrow does remarkably well balancing character relationships, and their growth (particularly Prim’s.) We get the friendship between Charm and Zinnia, the partnership between Zinnia and Prim, and as the novella goes on, a budding romance between Prim and Charm.

But, another aspect of that sisterhood comes up with a visit by Zinnia and Prim to the ‘evil fairy’ who originally put the curse on Prim. Here, we see Harrow’s focus on the untold stories of secondary characters in classic fairy tales like Sleeping Beauty. These tales give little to no motivation to characters, and usually no background history. This leads to the reader forming assumptions. As a student of folklore, Zinnia knows all the stories, and knows the caveats. Yet, she also cannot help but make assumptions. The Fractured Fables sequel to A Spindle Splintered plays with this idea even more, but we get hints of it here as well.

Retellings of fairy tales in modern ways is nothing new, and ‘modern’ of course is relative as time continues on. Harrow acknowledges this within the multiverses of Sleeping Beauty stories by at first mentioning, and then literally brining in, the ’90s era retellings featuring ‘strong women’ who kick ass. I became reminded as I read A Spindle Splintered of the anthology series of fairy tale retellings edited by Ellen Datlow and Terry Windling, starting with Snow White, Blood Red in 1993. At the time, many of the stories in that were viewed as cutting edge, attempts at casting less problematic versions of the classic fairy tales, ones that inverted or ‘righted’ biases and inequality. Of course, viewed now many of these now have their own problematic issues that remain from the older tales, or that were created anew through the reimagining.

And that brings me to what I see as the second major theme of A Spindle Splintered, and the series as a whole: the concepts of ‘saving’ someone and ‘agency’. How do these play together? Who deserves to be saved? Are there actions that make someone no longer worthy of being saved? Does saving someone – even with the best intentions – create other problems? How much of saving is interference, and when does that interference act to inhibit agency in the other? Is one’s personal agency reduced if allowing oneself to be saved by another?

From A Spindle Splintered to its sequel A Mirror Mended, Harrow begins to show just why this series is called Fractured Fables. Zinnia’s activities in helping trapped women find freedom is still an interference that disrupts other things. I’ll get to this more in the review for A Mirror Mended, but it begins here in the first book. Just as Zinnia’s well intentioned changes have imperfect effects, so too are retellings of fairy tales to try to make them less problematic an imperfect endeavor. Assumptions still remain, characters are still short-changed. What seems to work now, may still have issues reveled in retrospect. One can’t do everything in a story with absolute equity. So too can Zinnia not save everyone, or completely save herself.

But, that doesn’t mean the effort is not worthwhile, that the adventure shouldn’t be had, that righting injustices and fighting for others to have choice over their lives should be abandoned.

Harrow’s start to the Fractured Fables series begins to explore this all, to ask these questions of its characters and its readers. But, no clear answers are given; I don’t think clear answers even exist. It’s about the exploration and doing one’s best. And that, at its heart, is what A Spindle Splintered is about, even on its surface level of entertainment, of celebrating supportive female relationships. It’s an exploration of possible worlds, of characters finding their way through hardships to do the best they can not just for themselves, but also for each other.