Saturday, December 31, 2022

The Changeling

Victor LaValle
Completed 12/27/2022, Reviewed 12/27/2022
4 stars

I don’t read much horror these days unless it falls under the guise of fantasy, which it sometimes does.  This book was such a horror/fantasy and it was terrific.  It was nominated for a slew of awards in both horror and fantasy, winning the 2018 Locus Award for Horror, August Derleth (British Fantasy) Award, and World Fantasy Award.  It’s about changelings, children that are stolen from their parents by faeries or other mythical creatures and replaced by something that looks like the child but isn’t.  In the modern world, a mother claiming this would be diagnosed as having severe post-partum depression or the child diagnosed with some behavioral problem.  And that’s what we find in this modern changeling tale until the mythical is found to be factual.  

Apollo Kagwa is a rare books collector in New York.  He was raised by his mother, a Ugandan immigrant to the U.S., when his father disappeared when Apollo was four.  He marries Emma and they have a son, Brian.  Apollo takes care of Brian while Emma recovers from childbirth.  However, she appears to be suffering from post-partum depression and the relationship between the couple is strained.  Then she commits the unspeakable and disappears.  When a stranger approaches Apollo with information that both Emma and Brian are alive, he jumps at the chance to find them.  This leads him to strange encounters with an island of angry women and children, secrets in a cemetery, and the only forest in New York City.  

I was really impressed by the prose, perfect for a horror novel, just the right combination of description and dialogue.  Nothing too flowery, just enough to get you in the mind of the main character as well as paint colorful and realistic boroughs of New York City.  Reading the book was difficult at times, knowing what a changeling is and being able to see what’s coming.  I often had to put the book down and chill.  

The tale is told from Apollo’s point of view, though the narration is third person.  Apollo is a complex character, longing for the father who disappeared, having strange nightmares, becoming the father he never had, and grieving like only a father can over the death of his child.  It was easy to empathize with him as he went through the wide spectrum of emotions.  Patrice, his friend who is also a collector of rare books, was also interesting as a secondary character.  A war veteran and computer whiz, he provides good support through the story.  And when you find out who the bad guy is, he makes your skin crawl.  

I thought it was interesting that the main characters are black and middle-class, a scenario I haven’t come across much in genre fiction.  I think that’s why I like authors such as N.K. Jemisin, Nnedi Okorafor, and Craig Laurance Gidney.  Their stories that take place in contemporary settings have good representations of black people with average lives, but of course in extraordinary situations.  

I give this book four stars out of five.  It’s a real page turner until you have to walk away from the intensity.  The ending is something else too, coming out of Scandinavian folklore.  I don’t know if the author always writes genre novels, but I’d definitely read him again. 

Friday, December 30, 2022

Black Water Sister

Zen Cho
Completed 12/24/2022, Reviewed 12/24/2022
4 stars

I really liked this book.  I basically finished it in a day.  It’s easy to read, with effortless prose and believable dialogue. The plot is interesting, utilizing the rather common trope of the old being destroyed to make way for the new, but with the involvement of an angry Chinese god in Malaysia to make it fresh and interesting.  I had previously read Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, which I thought was okay, even though it had been nominated for several awards including the Lambda Literary Award.  This book, a full-length novel this time, didn’t get a Lammy nod, but felt like a much better product with a Lesbian main character.  It did get a 2022 World Fantasy Award nomination, however, and I stumbled across it because it is the February read for the in-person Science Fiction Book Club.  

The book opens with Jess and her parents moving back to Malaysia after living in the U.S. for nineteen years.  Jess has just graduated from Harvard but doesn’t have a job yet.  With the move, her relationship with her partner is transitioning to a long-distance one.  Strange things have begun to happen to her.  She hears voices which she thought were hers, but comes to realize it’s of her grandmother who’s been deceased for about a year.  Her grandmother is angry that a massive condo development is going to raze a temple to several gods, including to Black Water Sister.  She charges Jess with trying to stop this.  However, there is more to this than what grandmother tells, with the past clashing with the present in more ways than one.  In addition, Jess is not out to her parents, nor her extended family, and this burden adds extra pressure.  

Jess is a delightful twenty-something who is torn between her sexual and cultural identities.  She draws the reader’s empathy easily and all her decisions, good and bad, strike at your heart.  The grandmother is also a great character.  She gruff and opinionated and more than a little underhanded.  Jess’ parents, as well as her extended family, come across as more than stereotypical Asian parents, but still evoke the frustration one gets from their suffocating parenting style.  I felt like I was immersed in their family dynamics and could feel the frustration Jess felt.  

The world building is quite good, describing modern Penang while evoking the past through the encounters with the Chinese gods.  I could feel the stifling heat and smell the smells of Penang.  You also get just enough of an exposure to a few gods to be able to stay in the story without feeling overwhelmed, but still feeling immersed in the religion of the region.

I give this book four stars out of five.  I enjoyed it thoroughly even though the trope has been done so often in science fiction and fantasy.  Cho makes it feel fresh and immediate, mostly through the interaction of Jess and her grandmother.  There is some rough violence in the book which may have a triggering effect on some readers, so be forewarned.  But overall, it’s a really good book that has put Cho back on my radar as an author to watch for.  

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Soldier of the Mist

Gene Wolfe
Completed 12/23/2022, Reviewed 12/23/2022
3 stars

This is one of those books that people seem to love or hate.  Interestingly, I found myself somewhere in the middle.  I liked the conceit, a “barbarian” soldier in ancient Greece with short term memory loss searching the countryside for healing by the Great Mother.  Besides the memory loss, he can see and interact with gods and demigods.  What I didn’t like was that Wolfe doesn’t use any of the names of the places and gods that we are familiar with.  I don’t know if it was part of the conceit of memory loss, or if it was a style choice, but it made it difficult to follow.  Still, I enjoyed a lot of it though I was also often confused.  This book was nominated for the 1987 Nebula and World Fantasy Awards.  I read it because the third book in the series won the WFA and so is part of my personal challenge to read all the WFA winners.

The plot is crazy.  I guess this book could kind of be called a travelogue because the main character Latro journeys from place to place in a quest to get his memory back.  He writes in a journal so that he can remember what has happened.  He basically has amnesia and cannot retain new memories.  He discovers that this affliction is from the Great Mother for some unknown transgression.  Latro must atone for this transgression to be healed.  The problem is he doesn’t know what he did in the first place.  Along the way, he meets people who befriend and help look after him, as well as people who enslave him, passing him around from owner to owner.

My main problem with this book was that it felt like it meandered.  Latro goes from place to place, more or less at the whim of the gods and the luck (or really the lack of luck) of the draw.  I often felt like I had lost the momentum of the book because we took another detour on the journey.  There is also a lack of continuity because the story is the journal.  It is only as accurate as Latro was in remembering the events of the day.  And it becomes clear that he didn’t write in the journal every day.  This is the epitome of the unreliable narrator.  I have to say Wolfe is a master of this style, but I didn’t quite care for it in this form.  

My other problem with the book was that none of the gods, goddesses, or cities are named.  I put a few things together, which I later confirmed in Wikipedia, like the city of Thought was Athens, Rope was Sparta, and one of the gods was Hades.  But I was lost with everyone and everywhere else.  What this book did make me want to do was read Stephen Fry’s retelling of the Greek Myths and Hero stories.  

Despite these big hurdles, I guess I overcame them because I liked the story, I empathized with Latro and several of his companions, and I enjoyed the prose.  I think Wolfe was an underrated Sci Fi/Fantasy writer.  I really enjoyed his New Sun series, which began with Shadow of the Torturer and his standalone book The Fifth Head of Cerberus.  I’m intrigued by the rest of the Latro series to see if I can follow the next two books any better.  

I guess my pros and cons for this book were tied, so I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s my lowest rating for a Wolfe novel so far.  But three stars means good in my rating system.  And in this case it means that were some good things about it which were balanced by the difficulty of the reading of it.  It definitely takes some effort to read this book.  It’s not light by any means.  I read less than twenty pages an hour, well below my normal reading speed.  So be prepared to put some work into this book if you decide to read it.  

Tuesday, December 20, 2022

The Cloud Roads

Martha Wells
Completed 12/17/2022, Reviewed 12/17/2022
2 stars

This is the first entry in the very popular Raksura series.  After scanning various review sites like Worlds Without End, people really liked it.  I found it tedious and tough to read.  I found the world building to be terrific, but I just couldn’t get into the characters or the plot.  It takes place on a planet with many different races of people, some are groundlings, some are skylings.  And it’s complete with wild flora and fauna.  The imagination that went into creating this world was staggering, reminiscent of the movie “Avatar” in its differences from Earth.  It just never grabbed me as a reader.

Moon is a Raksura, a changeling skyling whose family was murdered by the evil race called the Fell.  He has been hiding among the groundlings living in groundling form, as he doesn’t know any others of his race.  When the current community he lives with discovers he can change into a skyling, they assume he’s a Fell and try to kill him.  He is saved last minute by another Raksura who takes him back to his colony to live with them and be a consort to one of the sister queens.  But what awaits there is nasty politics and war with the Fell.

I never connected with Moon.  The book begins with the recounting of how he is nearly killed by the Cordans, the groundling community he lives with.  I felt no empathy for him despite the dire predicament he was in.   As more Raksura characters are introduced, I found no connection with them either.  The one character I kind of liked was one of the Cordans, Selis.  She was cantankerous and not really likeable until she shows up later in the book.  There we get more background and motivation for her.  I also kind of liked Chime, one of the Raksura.  He was a mentor who was transitioning into a warrior.  He was kind and patient with Moon even when many Raksura were openly hostile toward him for being a “solitary”.  

I didn’t care for the writing.  It never really flowed for me.  Despite Moon being a thirty-five-year-old male, I spent half the book feeling like he was a teenage female.  Something didn’t jive for me, even when he was shirtless in a scene and his chest hair is described.  Upon reflection, there was something juvenile about the whole book, having a YA feel versus adult.  Comparing this book to her Murderbot Diaries series, the writing in the latter is much more mature, culminating in the excellent novel, Network Effect.

I give this book two stars out of five.  This book is a book club read for January and I’m interested in discovering what the rest of the group thought of it.  I may be the unpopular lone voice, but I’ll stick to my guns in my dislike for it.  I’m not going to pursue any more of the books in the series.  

Saturday, December 17, 2022

Tender Morsels

Margo Lanagan
Completed 12/10/2022, Reviewed 12/10/2022
5 stars

Terrific book.  It took me a long time to get through it, almost two weeks for about 500 pages, but it was worth it.  Judging by its cover, I thought it would be fairy tale-ish.  Instead, it was a dark fantasy about a teen who escapes her horrible existence to live in her own private heaven with her two daughters.  It was beautifully written and mostly engrossing.  Around page 400, I thought it meandered for a while before coming up to a thrilling and heart-wrenching conclusion.  This is another in my World Fantasy Award reads, winning for 2009.

Liga is barely a teenager, living with her abusive widowed father.  She conceives his children, but he gives her herbs from the local witch to stop the pregnancies.  After a series of these, she once again conceives, but this time, the father is killed on the way home.  She bears a daughter.  Within a year, she’s attacked by five teen boys leaving her pregnant again.  She’s about to drown her daughter and kill herself as well when a portal opens up and they go through it.  Suddenly she’s in another dimension, similar to where she grew up, but with none of the bad people in it.  She bears a second daughter and she raises them there in peace and happiness.  Of course, such happiness doesn’t last and one daughter finds her way back to the real world, and the mother and other daughter are soon pulled back as well.  There they must face the hardships that real life holds.

Yes, it’s very dark.  Terrible things happen to Liga and when she escapes to her own personal heaven, you feel nothing but relief for her.  She raises her daughters in a loving home with her horrific memories deeply hidden.  The oldest daughter loves nature and the wild animals.  Of course, here, the wild animals are somewhat tame.  The younger daughter is a little wilder, longing for something more than the simple peace they live in.  She does escape when she finds a portal back to the real world.  

The interesting thing about this heaven is that occasionally, it is punctured through and people from the real world find themselves in Liga’s world.  That’s where the bears come in.  The town has a bear festival and young men dress up as bears and run around chasing young women.  Every once in a while, one such bear ends up in Liga’s world as a real bear.  One such bear ends up living with the family in their peaceful existence.  Another bear with less honorable intentions does the same, but Liga can tell the difference and warns her daughters.  

The prose is tremendous, being lush without interfering with the plot.  The world building is wonderful as well, with lots of surprises throughout.  After the traumatic beginning, I wondered if Lanagan could maintain an interesting, engrossing plot.  She was more than able to accomplish this.  

I loved the characters.  I empathized with Liga and her daughters.  None of the supporting characters were cardboard cut-outs of good or bad guys.  While there is more prosy description than dialogue, the internal thoughts of the characters made them lifelike.  The form of the book is interesting.  When the story is concerning women, it is told in third person omniscient.  When the story is from men’s point of view, it is first person voice.  There are only two men, if I remember correctly, that narrate, the good bear and the not so good bear.  But it makes for an interesting juxtaposition in the perspective.  

I give this book five stars out of five.  I was deeply moved by it, particularly Liga, so much so that near the end, I could feel my gut clenching at various points.  And it is hard to not be moved by the horrific beginning unless you’re a stoic.  But that combined with the wonderful prose and the originality of the tale made for quite a terrific read.  Even the lull around page 400 couldn’t deter me from assigning this rating.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

The Chimes

Anna Smaill
Completed 11/27/2022, Reviewed 11/28/2022
2 stars

I didn’t like this book.  I thought the form was confusing, the world building muddled, and the characters not terribly likable.  I had trouble following what was going on for over half the book.  By the time it explained things, I had given up on it.  I finished out of habit; I have a hard time just putting down a book when I’m going to write a review, and more significantly, when I’m doing a challenge.  I read this book because I’m reading all the World Fantasy Award winners and this one won for 2016.  The premise is intriguing: a near future London where music is used to wipe memory and keep people completely in the present.  However, this didn’t become clear until that halfway point of the book, even though I had read the blurb that explains this before starting the book.  And I don’t like being lost for 150 pages.

The story begins with Simon coming to the city after his parents have died.  He carries a bag of items which when he touches them, he can remember things.  This turns out to be a gift, not something everyone can do.  In addition, he can read the memories off other people’s items.  Too old to become an apprentice, he joins a gang that collects palladium from tunnels leading to the Thames.  Lucien, the leader of this little gang is mostly blind, but has a secret.  He knows how to destroy the Chimes which wipe out memory.  Simon joins him in his quest to do this.  In the process, they fall in love.  Of course, this makes the mission more dangerous as they are pursued by the order of monks which compose the music and safeguard the status quo.

I liked what the author tried to do, making a world where music is used to communicate.  The prose is dotted with musical terms and phrases, like presto and lento.  There were some I didn’t know and had to look up.  After a while, I felt this device to be dreary and annoying.  It didn’t flow with the prose or in the dialogue.  I think anyone who doesn’t know much about playing an instrument would find this really difficult to understand.  

Simon was the main character, but I never felt empathy for him.  I didn’t not like him.  Nothing really drew me into his mind.  Even when he finally falls in love with Lucien, I didn’t really care.  All I could think was “finally”.  Lucien was annoying.  He never gave clear answers to Simon’s questions.  I felt like this was a poor literary device to string the reader along as well as Simon.  None of the minor characters drew me in either.  

I’m giving this book two stars out of five.  It’s a good idea, but poorly executed.  Other books which use music for world building were much more successful, like Gossamer Axe and A Song For A New Day.  I also didn’t get how this was fantasy.  I thought it was much more like science fiction, with it’s post-apocalyptic London and lack of anything magical or supernatural.  I’m definitely going to think twice before reading another novel by this author.