Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Broken Kingdoms

NK Jemisin
Completed 4/5/2020, Reviewed 4/5/2020
4 stars

This is the second book in Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy.  In The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, the action took place in the palace atop the exceedingly tall World Tree.  This book takes place in the shadow of the tree.  It follows a blind commoner who can see magic and interacts with godlings.  I liked this book a little better than the first.  I think it’s better written and delves more deeply into the religion and mythology of this world.  It’s also a murder mystery.  The first book was nominated for a ton of awards.  This one wasn’t, but it should have been.

The blind commoner is Oree.  She’s an artist living in the Shadow of the World Tree.  She meets a mysterious man who is dead in the marsh, but he mysteriously resurrects.  Against her better judgement, she brings him home and cares for him.  He doesn’t speak but does her no harm.  She calls him Shiny because sometimes he shines with magic, which she can see.  One day, while selling her paintings at the city market, she finds a dead godling in an alley.  Her ex-lover Madding, also a godling takes the body away.  However, the next day, the Order, a sort of police force that maintains the law and morality, comes to question Oree.  They sense her innate magical sight and try to take her away.  Shiny comes to rescue, killing three of the Order, but not the captain.  Shiny and Oree escape, but live on the run.  More dead godlings are found.  Soon the two of them are not just trying to hide from the Order, but also trying to find out who is murdering the godlings. 

Two of the main gods, known as The Three, put out a moratorium on finding who is committing the murders.  While Oree is a prime suspect, so is Shiny, Madding and several other godlings.  Their investigations bring them face to face with dangerous cults who don’t worship the Skyfather.  Soon the real question becomes whether or not gods, godlings, demons, and humans should interact at all.

The book is told in first person by Oree.  Despite being blind, she sees a lot because of all her interactions with godlings, demons, and their magic.  Of course her other senses are accentuated as well.  Through her, we learn a lot about the pantheon and life under the world tree.  I think she is better crafted and developed than Yeine, the main character from the first novel.  She seemes much more real.  However, like Yeine, she spends a lot of her time angry, particularly at the injustices of the Order and the madness of the cults, but it wasn’t quite as overwhelming as Yeine’s constant anger.  It was a lot more natural and flowed with the unfolding of events in the book.

The other characters are pretty well crafted as well.  Shiny is great, as he lurks about, gets attacked by the Order, and kicked around by godlings, always resurrecting when someone goes too far.  I really liked Madding too.  He’s Oree’s ex, but she still goes to him for support.  He’s a pretty kind, compassionate godling, even though he makes his fortune in the black market selling godling blood to humans for a taste of their magic and strength.  The “evil” characters are morally ambiguous in the beginning, and only one turns very evil at the end.  It was actually nice to have this ambiguity instead of straight-out badness, adding a bit of realism to the characters.

The writing is really tremendous with equal doses of prose and dialogue.  Even when we get info dumps, it doesn’t feel forced.  It fits right into the plot at that time.  The world-building is simply marvelous, adding a whole new dimension to this place we were introduced to in the first book. 

I give this book a very strong four stars out of five.  This trilogy is imaginative and interesting.  Jemisin is incredibly creative.  This being only her second novel, it just floors me.  I should get to the final book in this series in about a week or two.  It’s a long one, so it might be a few weeks before you see a review of it, but I’m really looking forward to see how she concludes it.  The nice thing about the books so far, is that they are stand-alone stories with the world-building advancing, not unlike Lois McMaster Bujold’s World of the Five Gods series.  The books don’t end in cliffhangers, which I really like. 

Saturday, April 4, 2020

Falling to Earth

Elizabeth Brownrigg
Completed 4/1/2020, Reviewed 4/1/2020
4 stars

This was a really tough review to write, not because it’s a bad book.  On the contrary, this is an interesting and entertaining little fantasy.  I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it.  The writing is pretty good for a first novel.  It was tough because it’s such a short book.  To describe the plot gives away a lot, that is, it can be a big spoiler.  So I’ll do the best I can.  The author hasn’t written much since this book, which is too bad.  I felt that the imagination that went into this was great.  It was nominated for a Lambda Literary Award in 1999, but it is currently out of print, as far as I’ve found.

Here’s my attempt at the plot summary.  Phoebe is the guardian angel to Alice, a lesbian technical writer who is not out at work.  She asks Alice to write stories for her.  At first Alice refuses, but then becomes intrigued as Phoebe starts telling the stories.  As time goes on, the stories unfold, and Alice and Phoebe begin learning from each other.  Alice learns to fly and Phoebe learns about her senses.  But does Phoebe really want to be human?

The real surprise of the book is the stories Phoebe tells.  At first, they seem extraneous, but as the book progresses, so do the stories.  It’s kind of like reading a novel and several short stories simultaneously.  They all tie together in a sort of meta fashion towards the end.  It wasn’t exactly surprising, as I kind of guessed it, but the way it comes together is pretty smart.  The short stories are about an African-American drag queen, a poor, white, racist family, and a woman who makes story boxes about her life and the lives of her friends.  Each one is like a little gem set in the larger context of the story of Phoebe and Alice.

Phoebe and Alice are wonderful characters.  There’s a lot of character development despite the length of the book.  Alice is particularly interesting as she is closeted at work, but has an active life in the lesbian community outside of work.  However, the conflict of this double life is clear as she reflects on her last relationship.  Phoebe is interesting as she slowly becomes less ephemeral and more substantial.  Also of note is Blanche, the racist woman, as she develops a casual relationship with an African-American man, and Jo-Jo the drag queen who started life wanting to be a nun.

The ending is a little esoteric.  Initially, I thought it ended too abruptly.  It took me some time to absorb what actually happened, and then I was able to appreciate it.  Of course, I can’t go into it, but it if you read this book, I highly recommend that you take the last ten pages slowly, then sit with it for a few hours afterwards. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  I think it’s an underappreciated little gem.  It’s written well with decent prose and realistic dialogue.  It’s not been widely read, and doesn’t have much love on Goodreads, and I think that’s a shame.  If you can find a copy of this book, it’s well worth your time.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

NK Jemisin
Completed 3/31/2020, Reviewed 3/31/2020
4 stars

This is my fourth sojourn into the mind of NK Jemisin, the first three being the Broken Earth trilogy.  What strikes me the most about her work is her imagination.  Even though the basic plot of this book has been done before and since, that of the outsider who finds themselves suddenly heir to a throne, it’s the rest of the book that I find fascinating: the world-building, the characters, the religion.  Just like Broken Earth, it’s familiar, yet very different from anything I’ve read before.  This book was nominated for many awards back in 2011, though it only won the Locus First Novel Award. 

Yeine is a leader in her own kingdom when she is summoned to the city called Sky.  There she finds out she has been named heir to the throne over all the kingdoms.  This is fraught with danger, though, as there are already two other named heirs, against whom she must play a dangerous political game to survive.  Once at Sky, she meets her other distant relatives and most importantly the gods and godlings who also play political games of their own. 

The plot is actually very difficult to describe in much more detail than I gave above.  In a way, there really isn’t that much plot.  The book is mostly about relationships, with her two devious cousins who are the other heirs to the throne, and with the gods and godlings who make up the pantheon of this world.  These gods are condemned to human form as the result of the Gods’ War some two thousand years earlier.  They have powers, but are not as omniscient as you would think.  One of the main gods known as the Three, Nahadoth, has a major role in Yeine’s time at Sky.  He is a god of darkness and shadow.  He is a seducer and destroyer.  He is an antithesis to Itempas, a god of light, and victor of the Gods’ War.  The third of the Three is Enefa who created the material world and is a god of the grey.  She is dead, but has a cult of followers who are considered blasphemers. 

Nahadoth has the largest role of all the gods in Yeine’s experience at Sky, despite being an untrustworthy ally.  He is also perhaps the most interesting character in the book, full of contradictions and surprises.  I really liked him.  He is dark, devious, sensual, and powerful.  But he also has a soft spot which becomes evident in his relationship with Yeine.  I also like one of the godlings, Sieh, who has the human form of a child, which makes for a very complicated relationship for Yeine.  He’s very mature, but at the same time, plays the role of a ten-year-old in most situations.  When he reveals his affection for Yeine, it is both interesting and a bit repellant.  Yeine herself is a complicated character, full of anger towards her grandfather who sits on the throne.  She blames him for the death of her mother, and hates him for putting her in a no-win situation as the third heir to his throne. 

The world building, as you can tell from the pantheon alone, is quite complex.  There is an interview with the author in the Kindle version I have, and she says that her ideas for a book begin with images, like Sky, a city built high atop a narrow column, and Nahadoth, the god who is made of darkness and shadow.  You can basically tell this when reading the story, as the images are very strange and detailed. 

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s incredibly imaginative, even though the plot is a basic trope of speculative fiction.  It’s more about alliance building and enemy making.  I plan on reading the rest of the trilogy, as I got the three books of this Inheritance Trilogy, as well as Jemisin’s Dreamblood Duology from the Kindle Deals of the Day. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

How Are the Mighty Fallen

Thomas Burnett Swann
Completed 3/27/2020, Reviewed 3/27/2020
4 stars

This is a retelling of the David and Jonathan story as if they were lovers and with some fantasy thrown in.  The question of the relationship between David and Jonathan has been a matter of speculation, that it was more than a bromance.  Of course, it is very controversial.  Published in 1974, it’s a subtle romance, with more emphasis on the forces around them than in the details of the relationship.  And it has a rather cold narration, not flowery or overly prosy, but it reads well.  It has gods, goddesses, cyclopes (yes, that’s the plural of cyclops), war, and intrigue.  It packs in a lot for such a short book.

Jonathan is the son of King Saul and Ahinoam.  But it turns out that Ahinoam is a siren and a queen from Crete and Jonathan Saul’s adopted son.  The two fled their island during the onslaught of Goliath, a giant cyclops.  They made their way to Israel where she met the King and married him.  Through a tragic incident, Ahinoam introduces David the shepherd and psalmist to Jonathan.  The two young men fall immediately in love.  David is kept in the court by Saul for his poetry and singing.  When Goliath comes to Israel to fight with the Philistines, Jonathan is fevered, and David takes up the mantle and slays Goliath with his sling.  David becomes a hero.  The rest of the story mostly follows the Biblical tale, with David and Jonathan trying to keep their relationship secret and pledging themselves to one another.

The story is well told.  I was impressed that the author was able weave in the subplot of Ahinoam and her background as a siren, though the full story of how they got to Israel is kind of an info dump.  It also goes into detail about Ahinoam’s patron goddess Ashtoreth and adds some humanity to the Philistines, creating a more well-rounded social setting. 

The character development is good, but Ahinoam really stands out.  She’s an immortal, so she has not aged while her husband the king has.  He does not divorce her, but he takes a concubine, effectively displacing her.  Still, she has figured out how to stay relevant.  She is the envy of Israelite women and the fantasy of Israelite men.  She is also the only one who knows about David and Jonathan, and councils them on the beauty of their relationship rather than the Jewish laws prohibiting it.  This is in stark contrast to Saul, who is losing his mind, and is tortured by Samuel the prophet’s constant scrutiny. 

The narration is third person and it has a coldness to it.  It’s almost told like a documentary.  As a result, I enjoyed the book tremendously, but didn’t feel particularly connected to it.  This next part is a bit of a spoiler.  The story has a tragic ending.  I thought I would have felt more at the end than I did.  I attribute this to narrative style. 

I give the book four out of five stars.  I didn’t know much about it going into it.  The cover, while exciting, doesn’t give you any clue that it’s about David and Jonathan.  None of the blurbs tell you this either.  I only knew that it had a gay relationship in a fantasy setting.  Once I figured out what was really going on, I buried myself in the book despite the coldness of the prose. 

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Queer Fear II

Michael Rowe, ed.
Completed 3/25/2020, Reviewed 3/25/2020
4 stars

The second of a two-volume anthology, this book explores horror, suspense, the supernatural, and the macabre with gay and lesbian characters.  Winner of the Lambda Literary Award for SF/Fantasy/Horror, this volume and its predecessor were also winners and nominees of several other awards in the horror genre.  The stories that comprise Volume II are mostly of the macabre nature.  A few are funny, a few are gross, a few are scary fantasy.  Many of them make you reflect on life, love, desire, and despair, and of course, good and evil.  I really enjoyed most of the stories.  Most are written well.  As usual with anthologies and collections, I’ll mention a few that I really liked.

The opening story, “Bugcrush”, is very weird but an excellent story.  It’s about a teen boy who has a crush on the new kid.  The new kid is an outsider with no friends at this school.  The teen boy notices he has friends from another school.  He manages to get invited to one of their get togethers, being led by his desire for the new kid.  He finds out they get high by getting bitten by insect larva that secrete a mind-altering chemical.  This story is really well written.  I was instantly in the head of the main character and terrified as other boys coerce him into trying the drug.

The second story, “Polyphemus’ Cave”, is also well written.  A closeted movie star in the ‘50s goes home for his abusive father’s funeral only to find out he was flattened by a giant cyclops from a traveling circus.  The cyclops can read souls even though he can only communicate with what is probably ancient Greek.  Again, I was instantly in the head of the main character.  I think when it comes to short stories, that’s the mark of a good one.  Can the author get you identifying with the main character quickly enough for you to totally experience the twenty pages or so of their story.

“On Being a Fetsih” is a gross but awesome tale.  A gay teen ghost is conjured by a living gay teen and his two friends.  The ghost falls in love with the teen and the teen gets off on the ghost.  “Want”, another gay teen tale, has the main character buying a voodoo potion to get the love of the high school star quarterback.  Of course, situations like this always go wrong.

“Numbers” took a while for me to figure out.  Eventually, I concluded it was the ghosts of gay men who died from AIDS telling their stories.  It’s written in a sort of journal style, recounting gay life in the ‘70s and moving into the AIDS era.  One of the narrators is the so called “patient zero”, the Scandinavian flight attendant who had hundreds of anonymous sexual encounters in the cities he flew to.

As I noted above, most of the stories were really well written with terrific prose.  I enjoyed most of them, even when I didn’t understand what transpired in the story.  There were a few of these, where I thought, “What the heck was this about”.  I only knew two of the authors, Poppy Z. Brite who wrote several gay horror novels, and Gemma Files who wrote the Hexslinger series among other books.  Many of the authors were Canadian, as the editor is.  Michael Rowe is also a journalist who currently contributes to the Huffington Post. 

I give the book four stars.  From the reviews I’ve read, the first volume is the better of the two, though this one won the Lammy.  I’ll have to pick that one up as well.  My only complaint with the book is that there were only two female-centric stories.  Given the title uses the term “queer”, I would have liked to have seem more diversity in the stories, although queer back when the book was published in 2002 was just beginning to be widely used again to be inclusive of the wide spectrum of gender and sexual identities.

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Heartstone & Saber

Jacqui Singleton
Completed 3/21/2020, Reviewed 3/21/2020
3 stars

Not a bad book, but certainly not great.  As I read this, I felt like this was a first novel, which I think it was, though I’m not positive.  It had a lot of good ideas and decent plot, but reading it felt a little choppy and uneven.  It took me quite a while to get into the characters, as it took a long time to flesh them out.  But by about halfway through, I found it entertaining.  The story has magic, war, pillaging, and a lesbian love triangle.  The female characters are strong and dominate the story.  It didn’t necessarily feel like any new ground was covered, but it the end, I found myself enjoying it.

Elayna is a young peasant woman and the Witch of Avoreed.  She has a lover, a brother, and a powerful amulet called the Heartstone.  When mercenaries come and pillage the town disguised as the Sentinel Army from the throne, Elayna’s lover dies and her house is burned down as is most of the town.  It leaves herself, her brother and most of the town homeless.  They are rounded up to be sold as slaves.  Cydell, the ruler, known as the Hya, is infuriated with the action.  She goes to the auction block and frees the captives.  However, she takes Elayna and her brother with her to the castle to provide them with food, shelter, and work until the village is rebuilt.  Elayna hates Cydell, assuming she’s responsible for sending the Sentinels.  Cydell can’t convince her otherwise.  She sends the brother to Sentinel training, which he does enthusiastically.  Elayna, she employs under her nurse.  Though full of hatred for each other, the two women must work together to overcome a terrible evil that is spreading over the land and trying to steal the Heartstone. 

The lesbian love triangle comes as a subplot.  Cydell has a lover who is the leader of the Sentinels.  Valkyra (which is a little too close to Valkyrie for me) loves Cydell, but Cydell never really returns her love.  They are passionate and are together often, but the relationship is very one way.  Enter Elanyna with her Heartstone.  The powerful magic of the Heartstone affects desires, which creates an attraction between Elayna and Cydell.  This causes conflict, of course, because of their initial hatred.  And it causes conflict between Cydell and Valkyra.  This was one of the more interesting parts of the book because this is where we get a real feel for the characters, especially Cydell.  We’re in her head a lot more than Elayna and Valkyra’s heads.  We get to see her as a fierce ruler she is and then see her evolve as she comes to love Elayna.  Elayna’s transformation isn’t as well developed.  She’s a headstrong young woman, very black and white.  So we don’t see her emotions change and grow quite like we do with Cydell.

The writing was what was really lacking for me.  It felt like something I would write.  Not much prose, not much warmth.  And there were infusions that didn’t seem necessary.  The best example of this was a chapter that opened describing how this was a distant planet in a system with two moons and very large continents.  I felt like I didn’t need to know this.  She already told us previously that there were two moons, so we knew this wasn’t earth.  Having to talk about it as a planet in a different solar system just felt like filler.  Also, the dialogue felt wooden.  There were several times when I thought it didn’t sound like how real people would talk.  Other times, it flowed just fine.  I think maybe a better editor might have been helpful in smoothing out the rough ones. 

One of the nice things about the book is that there is some comic relief.  This comes from the brother and his best friend in Sentinel training, as well as from Cydell’s cousin Kovi, who comes across as that brash gay uncle that makes everyone laugh.  It was nice to break up the seriousness of the story with these interludes. 

I give the book three stars out of five.  It’s not great, but it’s really not that bad.  There’s a sequel that was published about ten years later, which I probably won’t read, and seems harder to find.  As far as I can tell, Singleton only wrote three books.  But she was also a playwright, director, and singer-songwriter.  I didn’t find any real biography of her, except her obituary.  She died in 2014 at the age of 58. 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Through a Brazen Mirror

Delia Sherman
Completed 3/19/2020, Reviewed 3/20/2020
4 stars

This book is based on fragments of an old English ballad that was reconstructed the ‘70s.  It’s about a woman who dresses up as a man and becomes advisor to the King.  It’s sort of a “Victor/Victoria” story, but told in medieval times and very serious.  I found it a little dry, but I really enjoyed it.  Sherman has wonderful prose and story-telling ability.  She’s gone on to be nominated and win several awards for her period pieces and her YA work.

Elinor Flower’s husband and infant son are murdered by ruffians hired by her evil sorceress birth mother, Lady Margaret.  She dresses as a man using the name of her husband, William, and gets a job as an undercook for the King.  Due to her industriousness, she very quickly advances in rank, becoming a close advisor of the King, much to the consternation of the castle staff and noblemen.  Throughout this time, Lady Margaret continually tries to kill Elinor/William, not directly, as it is forbidden by the laws of sorcery to kill kin.  It seems there’s a prophesy that Lady Margaret will be killed by her own daughter and she does everything possible to subvert the prophesy. 

The book reads very easily, once you get the jumping timelines down.  The narrative follows William coming to the castle and working.  It jumps to Lady Margaret’s orders to kill Elinor’s family.  I follows Elinor’s birth and later her young life with foster parents.  Then it follows Lady Margaret’s attempts to kill William.  The use of William and Elinor is significant here as the story is told about Elinor as Elinor and Elinor as William. 

The character development is interesting.  The most colorful characters are the supporting cast, including the King, Elinor’s foster mother, Lady Margaret, and several women who fall for William.  Elinor/William is cold and aloof, which one would expect in her gender-bending situation.  However, it prevents us from seeing much inside her/him.  This is my only problem with the book.  If part of the narrative was told from her point of view, I think it would have made for a warmer book. 

One of the reasons I probably really enjoyed this book so much was that I got to read it in one day.  This of course is the time of the Corona Virus Pandemic.  I’m working from home, and there was not much work the day I read it.  So read it I did, in roughly half a day.  Once you’re into it, it’s a fast read, even though the dialogue is a little archaic and written messages and letters are very archaic.  I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s terrific fantasy with magic and demons all told in a pseudo-Middle-Age England setting.  It’s a hard book to find as it’s out of print.  I got a second edition used copy from the ‘90s.  But I think it’s a hidden gem that deserves a little more attention than it gets.