Tag Archives: fantasy

The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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Iris and the Tiger by Leanne Hall

I actually can’t remember exactly how I ended up with Iris and the Tiger on my to-read bookshelf. I’m not sure, in fact, that I know anyone else who’s read it. And that’s a pity, because it’s a delightful book: a marvelous little surreal fantasy that I enjoyed very much and highly recommend.

Iris Chen-Taylor has been sent by her parents from her home in Australia to her great-aunt’s house in Spain. Sadly, their motives are not pure: they are hoping to convince her aunt to leave Iris her house once and for all. So Iris is supposed to be agreeable and charm Aunt Urusla. But when she arrives at Bosque de Nubes, all her expectations are turned upside down and things take several dramatic turns.

Despite her parents’ machinations, Iris is a sympathetic character, who quickly becomes attached to the house, her aunt, and her new friend Jordi. She’s certainly conflicted, but Hall does a nice job of making her struggle believable while also reassuring young readers that things will probably turn out okay.

I also absolutely loved the descriptions of the house and its environs–Hall really has a gift for showing the magical and conveying Iris’s wonder and the enchanting and terrifying aspects of Basque de Nubes. Although I saw a comp to Elizabeth Goudge’s Little White Horse–and that does make sense–I also thought of Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe series, which I think is slightly closer in the real sense of danger pervading the book.

Finally, I’ll mention that Iris’s dad is from Hong Kong and that Iris deals with some casual racism in very realistic ways (I believe Hall is herself Asian-Australian). It’s nice to see a book with both a wonderful sense of magic and adventure, and a more diverse cast. All in all, this is just a lovely middle grade fantasy/mystery. And now I want to check out Hall’s backlist, as she’s apparently written a couple of YA in Australia!

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016; middle grade fantasy

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Recent Reading: Markus, Lord, McPherson, Gonzalez

Photo of Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez on a wooden background

Dared & Done by Julia Markus: After having a months-long thing about Markus’s biography of Annabella Milbanke Byron (Ada Lovelace’s mother), I definitely had to read her first biography about the marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning. I have a lot of feelings about Elizabeth Barrett Browning–mostly due to the fact that I wrote part of a senior thesis on the Sonnets from the Portuguese. In fact, Markus’s look at the Browning’s marriage as it relates to the sonnet sequence was probably the strongest part of the book for me. It’s very solidly researched and does a nice job of teasing out the circumstances of the Browning’s marriage in particular as opposed to Victorian marriage in general, and contrasting it with some of their friends who were less conventional. However, there were times when the organization was a bit confusing–jumps in chronology that muddled rather than clarified–and I found it less emotionally affective than I expected.

The Start of Me and You by Emery Lord: I’ve been hearing good things about Lord’s books for a couple of years now and finally actually read one! Oddly enough, this is set in a suburb of Indianapolis, with a setting that felt very much like the suburb of Indianapolis where I work. Both setting and voice are an interesting contrast with The Fault in Our Stars; perhaps unsurprisingly, I vastly prefer The Start of Me and You. Paige’s story is thoughtful and nuanced, with a lot of care shown for all the characters. Plus, Paige has a strong group of girl friends, and I loved they way they interact and grow together. Add in a slow, careful romance, and a quiet and realistic depiction of healing from trauma. I will definitely be looking for more of Emery Lord’s books!

The Reek of Red Herring by Catriona McPherson: This is book 9 in the Dandy Gilver series, and it’s a strong entry. I have to admit that I find Alec a good deal more annoying than Dandy seems to. He certainly doesn’t add much to the story for me. Nonetheless, there’s a lot of interesting stuff about local folk traditions, and a nice creepy factor to the solution to the mystery. As usual, this is right at the line of cozy vs not, which is one of the things I appreciate about the series.

Return Fire by Christina Diaz Gonzalez: After Moving Target, Cassie Arroyo and her friends pick up right where they left off. This is a fun middle grade adventure/fantasy. It’s quite fast-paced, with a lot of excitement and even an explosion or two. But there are also some deeper questions about family, and destiny, that add some weight to the story. I’m not sure whether this is the last installment, but it ends on a satisfying note.

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The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier

mountain-of-kept-memoryIf you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, you probably won’t be surprised that I’m writing about this book. I’ve been a fan of Rachel Neumeier’s work since reading The City in the Lake back in 2011. And I definitely have some unspoken expectations when it comes to her books–themes, types of characters, a general style and set of interests that seem pretty common across the different kinds of stories she writes. The Mountain of Kept Memory is really interesting because it is very much a Rachel Neumeier book–but it also feels a little different, in a way I really liked.

Neumeier’s books nearly always focus on main characters who are resourceful girls and young women. Oressa, daughter of the king of Carastind and one of the two main characters in The Mountain of Kept Memory, certainly fits into this pattern. She’s very good at understanding people and motivations, potential costs and shifting allegiances. Her place in her father’s court is limited, but this doesn’t diminish the fact that she’s an extremely strategic thinker–which is helpful when everything begins to go wrong.

There’s an interesting comparison here to characters like Gen and Miles Vorkosigan. Oressa is also almost hypercompetent, good at sneaking through her father’s palace. But unlike Gen and Miles, there’s a strong suggestion that she’s developed these traits at least partly as a way to survive her father. He holds her future in his hand, and it’s pretty clear that he’s not a safe person to be around. There’s a sense of danger in him that’s more hinted at than shown, but which is very effective.

And both her father’s disregard and her overall vulnerabilities are partly because she’s a girl. There’s one really powerful moment which I unfortunately can’t seem to find again where Oressa realizes that her brother Gulien sees their father totally differently, because he’s been treated totally differently. But since Oressa is a girl and therefore largely despised and expendable, she’s been pushed to the edges and largely ignored.

But over the course of the book, she also finds a way to use her compensations to her and Guilen’s advantage. I loved watching her come to terms with the power that she does have and the shape of it. This idea of strengths coming out of vulnerabilities and the way that plays out was really fascinating to me.

Oressa was certainly the heart of the book for me, although I liked both Gulien and Gajdosik. Without wanting to give too much away, there’s a complicated romance here, which worked pretty well for me once it got past the initial stage. Shifting power and understandings are also very present in the relationship between Oressa, Gulien, and Gajdosik. We see it in the bond between the siblings, and the way their strand resolves, the way power is handed back and forth.

But we also see a question of power and relationship in the Kieba and her guardianship over Carastind. Will she exercise her old promise to keep the country safe, or will she let it fall? There’s a real sense of danger here, a sense that something could go truly and finally wrong. And Neumeier shows an nonhuman sense of the world very well, making it especially fraught. How can you predict what the Kieba will do, when she doesn’t think the way we do?

Overall, there’s a feeling of sharpness and almost horror to the scenes in the Kieba’s mountain. I’m thinking of a couple moments in particular which have really stuck with me. It’s not that there’s never a sense of danger in Neumeier’s other books–indeed, there’s quite frequently a very thorny problem driving the plot. But here it feels heightened in a way that’s really effective.

All in all, this was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, though sometimes in a slightly horrified way. There’s a feeling of familiarity in the political intrigue and family complications, but there are also some interesting turns in the story that made it feel also alive and real.

Book source: review copy from author

Book information: 2016, Saga press; adult fantasy

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Other reviews: Jason Heller at NPR; Charlotte’s Library; you?

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Complex and haunting adult SFF: Oyeyemi and Jemisin

Spoilers for The Fifth Season below!

I wanted to take a look at two books which fall on the literary end of speculative fiction, but which are also very aware of the genre’s conventions and influences. Which is to say, that they are both complex and sophisticated, while remaining very much a part of SF. Also, I am still thinking about them two months after first reading them.

To begin with, I have now read two books by Helen Oyeyemi, and both were bewildering and beautiful. I started with White is For Witching and then read Mr. Fox, and let me say that I have no idea what is happening in Mr. Fox and I love it.

Except that this isn’t quite true. I do know what is happening, but Oyeyemi is writing in a non-linear way, trusting the reader to make connections between disparate times and places and characters. So the text feels both impenetrable and exactly right. I understand it in the way I understand difficult poetry: I can’t say what it means, but I know what it means. I feel it in my deep heart’s core, to steal a line from Yeats.

In this case, Oyeyemi is circling around several related ideas. Mr. Fox is about stories: the stories we tell, the stories we’re a part of, the stories we consume. And it’s about fairy tales, which of course are stories with extra power. It’s about patterns: who gets to tell the stories, who is featured in them, and how they are portrayed. At the center, the tangled heart of this book, is the relationship between the male novelist and his muse. The book uses this relationship to talk about male consumption of women, in the sense of fictional portrayals but also emotional labor. And it talks about women and their relationship to each other, their resistance and/or non-resistance to what men ask of them.

In short, this is a book that demands attention and energy to give up its meaning. It is coherent, but it doesn’t boil down to a simple argument or theory. It takes delight in taking you by surprise, especially in the moments when you think you finally have a grasp on what’s going on.

The second book I wanted to talk about is N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season. Many people have already talked about this book’s strengths, so on a certain level I feel like anything I say is just a matter of “me too!” However, I’ve been reading Jemisin’s books for a few years now, and I remain fascinated by how deftly she plays with big concepts and assumptions about story.

In The Fifth Season one of the big twists is the revelation that the three main characters–Essen, Syen, and the “you” of the second person narration–are all the same person at different times in her life. There’s a convention in epic fantasy that the story feature lots of different characters and viewpoints. Here, Jemisin trades on that convention brilliantly, as the reader slowly realizes the truth. The question of how these three parts of the same person fit together propelled me through the second half of the book.

But on a larger scale, Jemisin starts off with the end of the world, the act that causes this world to fall apart. I keep thinking about the end of the prologue:

But this is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
This is the way the world ends.
For the last time.

Not only does it set the stakes for the rest of the story, but it’s a brilliant almost-echo of Eliot. And indeed, part of what’s agonizingly effective in this book is the extent to which it’s all a whimper. The revelations of the last chapter or so change that to a certain extent, but most of the story is fueled by this tension between knowledge and ignorance. Who knows that something bad is coming, and who believes this is just another Season. Jemisin shows us her hand and then unfolds all the decisions, all the little moment which lead up to the cataclysm.

It would be easy for all these different parts–the narrators, the structure of the narrative itself, the looming apocalyptic threat–to end up feeling like tricks. But they don’t. Instead, they deepen and enrich the story, so that when you reach the end, it feels real and raw and devastating.

In fact, this is a large part of what I admire about both Mr. Fox and The Fifth Season is the way in which the authorial choices are made in service to the story that’s being told. Neither books are easy; both books ask something of the reader; attention, sympathy for difficult people, patience to unravel the pattern. But on the other hand, neither book has style with no purpose. It’s the marriage of story and style that I’ve found myself returning to since I finished reading, because it’s somewhat rare but also so lovely when it’s pulled off.

Other reviews:

 

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Out of the woods: books set in forests

I’m not entirely sure why forests are such a powerful setting and symbol in fantasy. Maybe it’s something to do with fairy tales, maybe something to do with how much of the land we now inhabit was once covered with vast acres of trees. Regardless, I love books that have forests as a main setting and I wanted to highlight some of them. They might engage with the mythology of forests in different ways, but they’re all playing with that sense of magic and danger.

out of the woods

The Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: The forest that Hazel and Ben enter plays a major part in this haunting book.

The Jinx trilogy by Sage Blackwood: The Jinx trilogy is almost entirely set in the Urwald, a magical forest that’s full of danger and secrets.

Sorrow’s Knot by Erin Bow: In Otter’s world any shadow can hold one of the deadly White Hands, and so the forest that surrounds her home is both beautiful and terrifying.

Through the Woods by Emily Carroll: Carroll draws on fairy tale influences to weave her extremely creepy story of a girl who goes out into the dark woods.

The Ordinary Princess by M.M. Kaye: The forest in this book is more benign than many of the others I’m featuring here, but it’s extremely delightful.

Some Kind of Happiness by Claire LeGrand: Finley’s semi-imagined forest, the Everwood, drives a lot of this book, as well as being the place Finley feels the safest.

In the Forests of Serre (and several others) by Patricia McKillip: McKillip loves to write about forests, and she often does so with a sense of the edges where they turn magical.

Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne: Like the woods in The Ordinary Princess, The Hundred-Acre Woods are more benign than most of these stories. It’s still a magical and enchanting land.

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater: A magical forest where the trees speak Latin and time is out of joint should definitely be on this list.

The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede: I mean, they’re called The Enchanted Forest Chronicles. Also, a wonderful mix of funny and serious.

 

Am I missing a favorite book set in a forest or woods? Let me know! I’d love to read more of them.

 

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The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

invisible libraryI have to admit that I tend towards books that are on the intense and emotion-heavy side, especially with speculative fiction. So it’s fun to every so often read a lighter book. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is a great one to turn to in those moods. It’s a light and fun fantasy, with some cool worldbuilding and interesting mystery elements. It’s also Cogman’s debut, and I’m looking forward to the rest of the series.

The Invisible Library is narrated by Irene, an agent of the Library, which collects fictions from across different realities and worlds. I liked Irene a lot–she’s capable and has a lot of strength and knowledge. In some ways, she’s not very confident, but these mostly stem from the hierarchies and politics of the Library itself, rather than internal doubts.

I also enjoyed the central conceit of the story, and I thought Cogman did a nice job of making it internally consistent. While the Library bears basically no resemblance to the living, breathing libraries I’ve worked in, Cogman also generally avoids being precious about the sacred value of learning. (Public libraries in particular are weird and wonderful places that aren’t exactly sacred sanctums of Knowledge.)

I thought the mystery element was pretty well played out–it can be tricky to balance a mystery when there are lots of extra fantastical bits going on at the same time. There were a couple of moments that were genuinely horrifying, although they never overwhelmed the overall tone of the book. I certainly didn’t guess the ending, and I thought the book did a good job of showing Irene and Kai as competent without being superhuman.

I’ll also note that the main Inspector in the alternate world is Indian. Irene herself seems to be canonically bisexual (although that term is never used); she’s been romantically interested in women in the past, but describes her type as dark and dangerous, and seems into at least one male character. I can’t say whether those representations are done well–there was one moment I have some questions about.

Some books end with everything neatly wrapped up and resolved. Others end with things mostly resolved. And still others end with new revelations and questions. The Invisible Library is definitely in the third category, which unfortunately is my least favorite of the three. However, I do genuinely want to know how it will play out. To the extent this works for me, it’s because the set up had been becoming more complicated throughout the whole book, rather than having a Surprise!Info dump ending.

All in all, despite a few minor quibbles, this was a really enjoyable fantasy, with some cool elements and nice characters. I’ll definitely be looking forward to reading the next one.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Roc (in the US); adult fantasy

Other reviews: The Guardian; Li @ Book Daze; Supernaut; you?

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