Monday, May 30, 2022

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld

Patricia A. McKillip
Completed 5/30/2022, Reviewed 5/30/2022
3 stars

I feel like a bad person giving this book only three stars.  It has the trademark McKillip prose (gorgeous and inspired), great world-building, and an inventive plot.  But somehow the parts did not translate to a satisfying whole for me.  It’s McKillip’s first novel.  It won the 1975 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for the Mythopoeic Award as well.    I just found out she passed away just three and half weeks before the writing of this review and I am devastated.  I have loved almost all I’ve read of her body of work and want to read more as time goes on.  So I feel even more like a heel for not appreciating this one more.

The story follows Sybel, a young girl who inherits several generations of wizardry.  She lives alone on the mountain of Eld with a small menagerie of fantastical animals with whom she can communicate.  Her only friend is a witch who lives nearby.  One day, a man from the nearby kingdom comes bearing an infant, insisting she take care if it.  She accedes, getting help from the witch as well as her beasts.  Years later, Coren returns to tell her the infant is actually the king’s son.  The boy, Tam, finds out and desires to be with his father.  Sybel calls the king the way she calls her beasts.  The king comes and Tam returns to the kingdom with him.  Coren returns several times, and after a terrible encounter with a powerful wizard funded by the king, Sybel agrees to marry Coren.  The thing about Coren is he is of a family that wants to kill the king.  Sybel sees this as an opportunity to take revenge on the king while hopefully saving Tam.

Sybel is a well-developed but icily cold character.  She does learn love by raising Tam and through her encounters with Coren.  However, her icy exterior makes it hard to like and empathize with her.  The other characters around her, Tam, Coren, the witch, and even the king, are more likeable.  I rather liked the witch.  Despite her isolation, she has a great way with people, unlike Sybel.  I liked Tam as well.  His longing to be with his natural father evoked the empathy I did not have for Sybel.  He turns out rather well-rounded though he lived on Eld with only Sybel and the witch for human contact.  I was also surprised by liking Coren’s war-mongering brothers, particularly Rok, who had a warmth that countered Sybel’s hard, cold nature.

The beasts were a wonderful part of the story.  There was a dragon, a lion, a wild boar, and several others who Sybel had power over.  She did love them and they loved her, despite her dominance over them.  The boar was a riddle master who could speak verbally.  He was the only one who could communicate with Coren.  The dragon was fun, hoarding gold and breathing fire.  I liked the lion the most, as he was like a huge teddy bear for Sybel and Tam.  

Altogether, though, I had a hard time enjoying the book.  I think not warming up to Sybel was the reason.  She left me as cold as her disposition.  I didn’t really care about her revenge on the king and I couldn’t understand Coren’s love for her.  He loved her so much that he renounced his own vengeance on the king for killing one of his brothers.  I know this is an unpopular opinion, as many, many readers gave this an average of about four stars on different sites, including my favorite, Worlds Without End.  It is apparently a favorite reread among many.  I guess you’ll have to read it yourself to make an informed opinion.  I give it an okay three stars out of five.  

Saturday, May 28, 2022

Light from Uncommon Stars

Ryka Aoki
Completed 5/28/2022, Reviewed 5/28/2022
4 stars

This book combines fantasy and science fiction with lesbian and transgender characters who play the violin and make donuts.  It’s certainly an odd combination of the genres, plot, and themes, which at times seem disjointed, but somehow, it really works.  The most powerful aspect of the book is that it has the most realistic, gut-wrenching telling of what it is like to be a transgender teen that I have ever read.  And yet there is a silliness that brings you back from the despair of the trans girl’s horrific experiences.  This book has been nominated for several awards so far this year, including the Hugo and the Mythopoeic.

Katrina Nguyen is the trans teen girl.  She’s runaway from her abusive home, landing in southern California in a largely Asian area.  She herself is part Asian, part Latinx.  What’s special about her is that she is a genius on the violin, another aspect of her life for which her father beat her.  She happens upon a master violinist in the park, Shizuka Satomi, who has sold her soul to the devil and is now trying to find a seventh and final soul to damn so that she can be released from her contract.  Shizuka takes Katrina in as a violin student.  But Katrina is different from the previous six young violinists she’s taught and damned, and the teen is not the only thing upending Shizuka’s life.  At about the same time, she meets Lan Tran, an alien who has escaped the Endplague from her home planet with her family.  They own a donut shop where they are also making a stargate.  Out of the blue, Shizuka falls for Lan, and all their lives intertwine as the time comes closer for the devil to have his due.

The plot is quite crazy.  The Katrina’s life experiences are very heavy and Shizuka’s Faustian deal is also quite dark.  At the same time, you have the kooky alien plot and the romance between Lan and Shizuka. But the characters and the storytelling are so rich that I didn’t mind the occasional disjointedness.

The story of Katrina is very, very intense, delving into the terrible experience of growing up trans, including the taunting, the parental abuse, sex work, rape, and even the trauma of simple tasks like trying to find a bathroom or go shopping.  It really made me empathetic towards her.  It is not an easy life and would not wish that sort of abuse and harassment on anyone.  And to know that attitude toward transgender persons exists today is revolting.  In the headlines of the day, a congressman blamed a mass school shooting on transgender illegal aliens, a pure lie.  So that is what Katrina deals with until she meets Shizuka.

Shizuka is also a terrific character.  As we read through the book, we get her background as well, one which made her feel the need to sell her soul to achieve the heights of the violin world.  She’s pretty ruthless and she knows it, which is why she herself is surprised when she finds herself attracted to Lan.  Lan is also terrific.  She’s captain of the ship that escaped from their home and mother of most of the crew, making for an interesting dynamic within the family.  Another character to watch for is Shirley, an AI that Lan created who also calls her mother.  

The prose is really good and the dialogue realistic.  The descriptions of the violin playing and listening are masterful.  It’s reminiscent of books like Song for a New Day and Gossamer Axe.  I really felt like I understood what it was like to play the violin as well as to be powerfully touched by it.  However, the science fictiony parts are glossed over and if I thought about it more, could probably find holes in the science.

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s really powerful and entertaining.  However, the goofiness of the mixing of genres and the questionable science kept me from staying deep in the characters.  In the beginning, I thought I was going to cry a few times, but as the book progresses, it takes a step back from the deep emotional gut-wrenching, leaving me fulfilled but without the tears.  Nonetheless, I highly recommend the book and would honestly like to see this win the Hugo.  

Sunday, May 22, 2022

Akata Witch

Nnedi Okorafor
Completed 5/22/2022, Reviewed 5/22/2022
4 stars

Nnedi Okorafor is a terrific writer of stories that bring African mythology and traditions into modern settings.  This book is a young adult novel, first of a trilogy, bringing the mythology to an outcast American born African albino girl and her few friends.  The theme may be familiar: young adults with magical abilities, known as Leopards, fighting an evil murdering sorcerer while hiding their powers from the general population, known as Lambs.  Sort of Harry Potter-ish.  But the setting is so different, it feels completely new and exciting, and Okorafor’s prose, even for a YA novel, is simply terrific.  This book was nominated for a couple of YA awards back in 2012.

Sunny is the albino girl, living with parents in Nigeria after growing up in the U.S.  Her father is extremely strict and quite abusive.  Her brothers are belligerent and dismissive of her.  She gets along best with her mother.  And there is a mystery about her maternal grandmother, who supposedly was insane.  She’s ridiculed for being different at school, called “akata”, literally “wild animal”.  One day while gazing into a candle, she has a vision of the end of the world.  Then she meets three young people who recognize her as a Leopard and introduce her to the world of magic.  They become students of a magic scholar.  But their powers are soon recognized by the magic community at large and they are tasked with stopping a serial killer who is ritually murdering young children.

Sunny is excellently depicted as the skeptical “Free Spirit”, so named because her parents weren’t magical.  It takes her a while to accept that she’s magical and accept the rules of the magical community of which she is a part.  Orlu, her only friend from school, is the level-headed one.  His main ability is that he can undo other people’s spells.  Chichi is sort of a wild thing.  She doesn’t go to school and lives with her mother in a small hut with tons of books.  She has an eidetic memory, remembering everything she reads.  She has particularly powerful magical gifts, executing some meant for more mature Leopards.  Lastly there’s Sasha, and African-American boy sent to Nigeria because he uses magic in front of Lambs, getting into constant trouble.  What’s particularly great about these kids is that they each have something off about them, like the albinism or severe dyslexia or even ADHD which makes them particularly special Leopards, overcoming their disability once they embrace their magical abilities.  I really liked the whole gang.  Each have distinctive personalities and several of them instigate trouble.  It helps define their characters, making them unique and interesting.

The world building is quite creative.  There are magical places that are hidden from the Lambs where Leopards live apart from them.  There are insect ghosts, which come back to haunt if they are killed by humans during their life.  There’s a blue wasp that only stings if you don’t praise it for the structures it makes out of crumbs.  There’s a red grasshopper that if you’re lucky, sings you to sleep.  There are also Masquerades, terrible spirits that can be conjured but almost always cause serious trouble.  

I found this book to be quite awesome, a fresh take on the training magical youth trope.  The characters were very vivid and the prose is descriptive without be overbearing.  I’ve come to really like Okorafor’s work.  Previously, I loved her Who Fears Death as well as the Binti novella trilogy.  I give this book four stars out of five and really look forward to reading the rest of this trilogy.

Monday, May 16, 2022

A Master of Djinn

P. Djeli Clark
Completed 5/12/2022, Reviewed 5/13/2022
4 stars

This is the first full novel in Clark’s Djinn in Cairo series.  I really liked the first two, A Dead Djinn in Cairo and The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and I really liked this one too.  It was a fun mystery with a secret society, murders, a Lesbian investigator, and of course djinn.  While I once again didn’t read this quickly because I was preoccupied with my move, I loved the time I got to spend with the book.  The star of the book is, of course, the world-building, but I thought the character development was pretty great as well. 

In this alternate-history Egypt, a secret society devoted to al-Jahiz, the man who opened the portal to the worlds of magic, is wiped out during one of their ceremonies.  The members were mostly English high-born, still living there though Egypt gained its independence from Great Britain.  Agent Fatma from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities is called in to investigate the mysterious deaths.  At the same time, she gets assigned a new female agent, Hadia, to be her partner.  The murderer claims to be al-Jahiz, returned to aid the downtrodden left behind by technology and the new Egyptian government.  Fatma and Hadia, with the help of Siti, Fatma’s secret lover, try to find and subdue this supposed incarnation of al-Jahiz.

I really liked the three main women in this story.  Fatma was terrific again as she navigated the temples and alleyways looking for clues to the truth behind al-Jahiz.  She’s very good at her job, but at the same time, her youth and inexperience show.  She’s not infallible and occasionally misses important clues.  Hadia was cool as the by-the-book apprentice.  She was a surprisingly deep and insightful character, not just an annoying newbie.  I really liked Siti, who appeared previously under the name of Abla in the last story.  She’s magically powerfully and very mysterious.  She scales the wall to get to Fatma’s bedroom to avoid suspicion of their relationship.  She also has interesting insight into ways of the magic and the djinn who are now a part of the Egyptian cultural scene.  It’s also worth mentioning the character (whose name I forgot) who is slowly turning into the crocodile god of the Nile.  He keeps popping up throughout the story, his transformation a little further each time.  He provides relevant info as the case evolves.  He’s not particularly funny or tragic, just very interesting.

The characters I wish were more prevalent were the two investigators from Haunting, Hamed and Onsi.  They do show up, but I think Clark has more Cairo mysteries up his sleeve and I’m sure we’ll see them again.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I generally have a hard time giving a mystery five stars because I don’t get as emotionally involved as my five-star rating requires.  The same holds true for this book.  It’s excellent, but didn’t tie me in emotional knots.  The prose, world-building, and characterization are all terrific.  And by the way, the plot isn’t a simple murder mystery.  It evolves into a battle for the future of the world.  It’s hard to imagine what Clark will come up with next if he continues this series, but if there’s another book in this series, I’ll definitely read it.

Wednesday, May 4, 2022

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

P. Djeli Clark
Completed 5/1/2022, Reviewed 5/1/2022
4 stars

Another terrific story by Clark.  This novella takes place in the same alternate steampunk Cairo of 1912.  In this magic filled Cairo, the suffrage movement is in full swing.  Djinn, angels, and ghouls still abound.  This time, a tram car is haunted and two paranormal detectives are called to investigate.  While Fatma, the detective from A Dead Djinn in Cairo, is only lightly in this one, the two main detectives carry the story well.  This novella was nominated for multiple novella awards as well as the 2020 Mythopoeic Award.  

Hamed is a hardened, experienced detective for the Ministry of

Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities.  He is assigned a case involving a tram car that has a supernatural entity in it.  The entity may or may not be a djinn.  It had been scaring passengers, but the tram was finally taken offline when it attacked a woman.  Hamed is assigned a partner, Onsi, who is fresh out of the academy.  Together they try to determine what kind of entity is doing the haunting and exorcise it while navigating suffragettes, underground religions, and sentient automatons.  

Once again, the characterization is superb.  I found all the characters believable and their dialogue natural.  The story is told from Hamed’s perspective, third person.  He is about as interesting as Fatma from Dead Djinn, but without the quirkiness.  I liked him from the onset, as I did Onsi the newbie.  

The star of this book, though is the world-building.  While we were introduced to it in Dead Djinn, this story takes it in a new direction.  Hamed is sure the haunting is not a ghost or even a djinn.  What it turns out to be is complex and interesting.  The interactions with the suffragettes initially may seem kind of forced into the story, but it crosses paths with the plot later on.  I also liked the delving a little into the underground religions, with the charms and sigils and chanting.  While this story is still short for a novella, it deftly packs a lot into it without feeling like your getting skimped in any one area.

The prose is wonderful.  It has the same manner and style as its predecessor.  It never feels flowery or overbearing.  It delivers just the right amount of description of people and their thoughts, places, and actions.  The reading is smooth, and I’m curious to see how Clark can keep it going in the next installment in the series, a full length novel.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s original, well-written, and wildly entertaining.  I did feel like I could guess how Hamed and Onsi were going to go after the haunter, but it didn’t really matter.  The story was engaging and fun.  I look forward to the next book, which I hope will have the same momentum as these two.