Saturday, April 30, 2022

A Dead Djinn in Cairo

P. Djeli Clark
Completed 4/30/2022, Reviewed 4/30/2022
4 stars

A neat little novelette, just under fifty pages.  It’s a mystery set in a post-colonial steampunk 1912 Cairo where the native population was able to expel the British because of the discovery of magic.  I read this little gem in anticipation of the author’s novella and novel, the former being nominated for several novella awards and the latter being nominated for both the Nebula and Hugo this year (so far).  This novelette sets up a world of djinn, ghouls, and angels in a very interesting way and features a female detective.  I enjoyed it, though it felt a little crammed being so short.

Fatma is the detective.  She likes to wear men’s suits in the British style rather than the local Arab garb.  She comes to the scene of a djinn dead from exsanguination.  In fact the body is completely bloodless.  First thought to be a suicide, Fatma thinks there’s something more to this death.  Soon, the remains of an angel are found, confirming Fatma’s hunch.  This leads her to a plot to end the world and bring back ancient gods.  

The best part of this book is the world building.  I’m not much of a steampunk fan, but this was interesting.  The angels are clothed in metal and there are automaton animals running around.  Clocks and gears are also featured.  The author goes into detail describing what a djinn looks like, from yellow eyes to scaly skin.  And Fatma continually reasserts that the angels are not really angels, but other magical beings.

The characterization is decent for such a short book.  The focus is on Fatma, of course.  She’s a smart, sly detective, seeing more than what’s there than her male counterpart.  I liked her and hope she is the main character in the next books.  

Not much more to say about this book without giving away too much, it being novelette length.  I give it four stars out of five.  The prose is really terrific and kept me reading until my eyes simply shut from exhaustion.  I’m looking forward to the rest of the series for the prose and to see what other mysteries the author can come up with.  

Thursday, April 28, 2022

Under the Whispering Door

TJ Klune
Completed 4/28/2022, Reviewed 4/28/2022
5 stars

Another beautiful book by TJ Klune.  This one deals with death, so it may have triggers for some people.  It’s got sparkly prose that’s not overbearing, interesting world building, great characters, and a romance between a ghost and the ferryman who’s supposed to help him cross to the other side.  It has a lot of tear-jerking moments, especially the end, and then again in the epilogue.  I thought it was really well done and not schmaltzy at all.  It hasn’t been nominated for anything yet, but should have been.  I was just enthralled with this book, even though it took me a while to get through it, mostly due to my being distracted by some other life issues.  

Wallace Price is a sleazy, arrogant lawyer.  He’s divorced, has no friends, and is ruthless at work.  One day, he’s at his own funeral and a reaper appears to cull his soul.  This makes him think he may actually be dead.  Mei the reaper drags him to a tea house that’s a sort of way station for souls.  There Wallace meets Hugo, the owner of the tea shop and a ferryman.  Hugo is there to guide him to the next place, but Wallace isn’t having any of it.  He tries to run away but ends up returning.  He slowly accepts that he’s dead and, in the process, falls for the Hugo.

Wallace is a wonderful character.  He starts out a terrible person and ends up an empathetic soul.  The transformation is subtle.  It takes some time for him to come around, just as it did for me to come to like and empathize with him.  Hugo is also wonderful, a gentle person who believes he can bring out the best in people and devastated when he can’t.  Mei is a tough cookie, as one might expect a reaper to be.  The characters are racially diverse, but it’s so natural and organic that it does not feel forced.  It just is, as is the queer content.  

The story telling style is simple but eloquent.  The dialogue is very natural and realistic.  It never gets preachy, morose, or overly philosophical, especially considering the story is about death, dying, and the afterlife.  The narration is third person from Wallace’s perspective, but the characterization never lets anyone remain two-dimensional, expect maybe for the annoying psychic and the arrogant health inspector.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I got teary several times throughout the novel as people had metanoias and took the final walk through the whispering door to the other side.  This book left me with a warm feeling in my heart so much so that I didn’t want the book to end.  I loved the main characters, I loved the style, and I loved the plot.  I’m sure it’s been done before, perhaps not quite like this, but the whole way station for souls trope has been around a while.  But Klune does this so well, it feels fresh and inventive.  Between this book and Klune’s award winning The House in the Cerulean Sea, he’s become one of my favorite authors.  Despite my massive TBR list, I’m going to try to read some of his earlier works soon.

Sunday, April 17, 2022

Queen of the Conquered

Kacen Callender
Completed 4/17/2022, Reviewed 4/17/2022
2 stars

I didn’t care for this book.  Only 360 pages and it took me two weeks to get through.  Almost the whole book was exposition.  The main character could enter people’s minds and practically become them, in effect, getting their back stories.  She then proceeded to recount those back stories to us.  There was very little action, even though the book is about colonialism, revolt, and revenge.  I picked the book up every day and had to force myself to stay awake despite the tedium of the back stories.  This book won the 2020 World Fantasy Award.

Sigourney is a black woman on a Caribbean-like nation of many islands dominated by Dutch-like white people from the north.  The white people enslaved the native black people.  One black family was able to buy its way to freedom.  They were able to rise out of poverty and become part of the ruling class.  The Rose family was hated but tolerated by the rest of the ruling whites until they decided to kill the Roses.  Sigourney was the only survivor.  She had the kraft, that is, the gift I described above.  Using her kraft and her wits, she grew up with one goal, to exterminate her family’s murderers and claim the throne to free her people.

The thing about the kraft is that anyone could have it.  It takes many forms: creating illusions, reading people’s minds, blocking mind readers, causing fear.  Sigourney’s kraft allows her to occupy another person’s mind and even control their actions.  However, the whites believe it is a gift from their gods, not for the savage island natives.  So they kill any black person who shows evidence of having the kraft.  Sigourney, to her knowledge, is the only adult black person who has the craft.  

The prose was actually good.  The word choices and descriptions were done well.  It was very readable from that perspective.  However, the content was tedious.  I felt like the main character went on and on about how much she was hated by both the native people and the ruling class.  She was seen as a traitor by her own race for being part of the elite and hated for being a savage who had no right to have the either the craft or her position.  Callender reiterated this again and again throughout the book.

The characterization was also good.  The narration is first person Sigourney.  The other characters we learn of mostly through her entering their minds.  At first, I thought this was an interesting technique to describe characters and their motivations, but as the story progressed, it became tedious.  The book became one exposition after another with only a little bit of movement in between.  Nonetheless, all the characters were very well drawn.  No one was a cardboard cutout.  

I give this book two stars out of five.  I can’t believe it won over the superb The Ten Thousand Doors of January.  The usually engaging and enraging themes of racism and colonialism failed to help this book.  I might say the sum of the parts were greater than whole.  Good prose and characterization, but overall, just plain boring.  I’ll probably give this author another chance, but it won’t be with the sequel.  

Saturday, April 2, 2022


Lewis Shiner
Completed 4/2/2022, Reviewed 4/2/2022
3 stars

This book took me a long time to read.  It was good, but just not terribly engaging.  It’s about a guy who travels in time to try to get famously unfinished albums recorded.  His personal problems are mixed in with that plot.  I found the time travel to be really interesting, but the life story narrative was rather ho hum.  The interactions with the artists were based on interviews, biography, autobiography, and some speculation and created very well-developed characters.  This book won the 1994 World Fantasy Award.  

Ray repairs stereos in 1989.  He lives with his wife Elizabeth.  Their relationship is not the best.  One day, he begins to hear recording sessions of famous recording artists that never took place.  As he hears the songs play out, they get recorded on his tape deck.  He connects with a record company that puts out reissues and compilations and they put out his first recording, of the Beatles, as a bootleg.  It sells like mad.  He begins work on other artists and before he knows it, he’s back in time trying to get them to record their final works before they self-destruct.  The artists are Jim Morrison, Brian Wilson, and Jimi Hendrix.  In the meantime, his relationship with his wife deteriorates, he can’t reconcile his relationship with his recently deceased father, and he begins to fall in love with a woman who was present at his father’s death.  

The narration is first person by Ray who is shut off from his feelings.  This may be why I had trouble engaging with the book.  There weren’t many feelings.  The book just felt cold.  The only time Ray is close to fully engaged is when he is working with the recording artists to get their music recorded.  The rest of the time, he tries to get to the bottom of his problematic relationships with Elizabeth and his dad, but always with one foot in the numb zone.  He starts to open up when he meets Lori, the partner of man who runs a diving expedition in Cozumel where his father died while on a dive.  But Lori has her own problems and their interaction is split between passion and hesitancy.  In the end, this made the book feel like pop best seller about a dysfunctional man who is saved by love.  

Fortunately, the book is interspersed with three intense episodes of time travel to the ‘60s to meet with Morrison, Wilson, and Hendrix.  I particularly liked the episode with Brian Wilson who is coming off the success of the “Pet Sounds” album and trying to make the experimental “Smile” album.  Interestingly, ten years after this book was published, Wilson created a concert version of his original concept and in 2011 released an actual album called “Smile” which was well-received, though he claimed it differed greatly from his original vision.

Based on the synopsis on the internet, I thought I would have liked this book more.  But the synopsis was more engaging than the book itself.  I give the book three stars out of five.  Maybe under different circumstances, I would have enjoyed the book more.  I read this book in the middle of buying a house, which has been pretty stressful.  Normally, I would have found solace in a book, but here, I kept finding excuses not to read it.  It’s not a bad book, just not that great.