Tag Archives: historical 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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Masks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis

masks and shadowsMasks and Shadows is Stephanie Burgis’s latest book, out this month. She’s a favorite author of mine–I absolutely loved the Kat Stephenson series–and someone I really enjoy on Twitter a well. Masks and Shadows is her first adult novel, and I was very curious to read it and see that switch.

Like the Kat books, this is a historical fantasy. It’s set in 1779, in the court of Prince Nikolaus Esterhazy–another reason I was interested to read this one, since I couldn’t think of many other historical fantasies set in Hungary. The story takes place against a backdrop of a tumultuous political era, with many of the tensions appearing in the microcosm of the Esterhazy court. But it also weaves in the personal stories of Carlo Morelli, a renowned castrato singer, and Charlotte von Steinbeck, a widow and a new arrival to court. And there’s some really creepy magic, which probably didn’t happen. (Right?)

At first I was a bit taken aback because my impression had been that this book was focused on Carlo and Charlotte. As it turns out, there are actually a number of narrators! Once I adjusted my expectations there, I ended up really liking this story. It’s a complex and twisty plot with different threads that all come together at the end. And I did like several of the characters (the ones we’re meant to) quite a bit, especially Charlotte.

One of the things I really appreciated was the way Burgis depicted the society of the time, with its arranged marriages, acknowledged mistresses, and intrigues, while also giving us a character who is both part of that society and who also longs for something different. Both Carlo and Charlotte are, in their own ways, dependent on others, and they have a similar journey to finding a way to each other and to the life they actually want to live.

There’s also a lot of lovely writing about opera here. I happen to be an opera fan, personally, so I’m not sure how this would read to someone less interested in that aspect. Haydn is a minor character, and the whole plot hinges on the performance of one of his operas. Music is also the way that Charlotte and Carlo initially connect, as Charlotte’s talent allows Carlo to see beyond her conventional facade. There’s a clear sense of the love of music, especially opera, and its power, which I really liked.

[this paragraph is maybe slightly spoilery] I found the secret society that is the main magical force and the main antagonist a little less compelling. Although their presence makes sense given the fact that there were secret societies in Europe throughout this period, they never seemed entirely real as a threat to me. However, their magic is quite creepy!

That minor issue aside, I ended up really liking this book and the story it tells. It weaves different threads together in an expert way, but I found the central love story between Charlotte and Carlo, their slow recognition of the other’s worth, remained my favorite part.

Book source: ARC from the author

Book information: 2016, Pyr books; adult historical fantasy

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Recent Reading: comics + fantasy

I’ve been reading a lot over the past couple of weeks because I was sick and spending large amounts of time lying down. However, I was also feeling very picky about what I wanted to read and that boiled down to: comics or adult fantasy.

cloud roads fandemonium thor troubled waters

Comics

  • Thor: The Goddess of Thunder: I loved this. So much. My background here is that I haven’t read any of the original Thor (and am not planning to go back and try), so this relaunch was a perfect place to enter. I’m really intrigued by the premise and I loved the characters. In particular: FREYA. NEW THOR. OLD THOR. I also snickered over the “you mean she won’t be Lady Thor? Thoress? Lady Hammer Pants?” thread that runs through. At any rate, this is smart, engaging comic writing, with some nice visuals and a thoughtful approach to its source material. Sign me up!
  • Captain Marvel: Higher, Further, Faster, More: I really like Captain Marvel. While the start of this collection was a little confusing to me (they’re doing a framing thing that maybe doesn’t entirely work?) I kept going and was rewarded with a story that delves a little deeper into the tensions and divisions that run through some of the characters we’ve already seen. Also, I love Chewie.
  • The Wicked & the Divine: Fandemonium: I remain unsure about how I feel on this series. I wasn’t a big fan of the first volume but decided that I should give the second one a shot. And I did like it at least enough to read the third one! I think my main problem is pretty close to Jodie’s [spoilers at that link]: “Part of my disconnection with Laura’s feelings come from the fact that I’ve never felt like I would trade life for artistic immortality. However, I feel like the comic should still be able to make me understand her point of view or, at least, provide textual clues that can help me pinpoint what her views actually are.” At any rate, I will give the next volume a go and see what happens.

I also tried the first of the recent Catwoman comics but while I was really liking the story and characters, I hated the art to the extent that I didn’t actually finish it and doubt I’ll go on. Which makes me sad! But also: why, DC, why.

Fantasy

  • The Mirador and Corambis by Sarah Monette: [mild spoilers!] Third and fourth of the Melusine books. I have so many emotions about Mildmay, and Felix, and Mehitabel, and Mildmay, and Kay, and Mildmay. I think Corambis is my favorite of the series because by the end of it I actually was hopeful that the main characters would eventually be okay. I think this starts in The Mirador, when we get glimpses of who Felix actually is when he’s not in crisis and get a sense of his kind of hard-won integrity. I’m not sure that’s exactly right? but close? He has no morals, but the morals he doesn’t have are on his own terms? Anyway, Corambis is both lovely and satisfying and SLIGHTLY FRUSTRATING because all of a sudden we leave the Mirador completely behind. I would really like to know what happens to Mehitabel! Also Simon & Ronaldo! Argh! Lastly, my ships in this series are really weird, AMA. (NOT Felix/Mildmay, though.)
  • A Companion to Wolves, The Tempering of Men, An Apprentice to Elves by Sarah Monette and Elizabeth Bear: I glomped through this trilogy pretty quickly because I really wanted to know what happened. (How is Sarah Monette so good at writing heart-breaking characters? ow.) I loved the first book and felt that the second one was definitely a bridge book; the plot didn’t quite hold up to the weight of being its own book in my opinion. I did really like the third book, and I was happy to see Alfgyfa becoming a character in her own right! I think I wanted a bit more personal resolution for Isolfr, but overall this was an interesting, intense trilogy.
  • Troubled Waters and Royal Airs by Sharon Shinn: I’m partway through the third book in this trilogy. The first book was a complete joy for me–I always want to like Shinn’s books just a little more than I do and Troubled Waters may well be the book that’s resonated the most for me. Royal Airs was just fine, an enjoyable read, but I wasn’t quite as invested in the characters. Overall, I find the idea of the blessings & personalities really fascinating and I absolutely recommend the first one! It would work just fine as a standalone if you wanted to go that route.
  • The Cloud Roads by Martha Wells: The first Raksura book. I think I had read it several years ago, but I didn’t remember much about the plot or even characters. I thought I should reread it before going on to finish the series. I think the problem is simply that I don’t connect with this world in nearly the same way as I connected with the worlds of the Ile-Rien books. There’s no particular reason for this: Wells is a gifted writer and there are no problems here. It’s simply personal preference. I would like to read the rest of the series just so I’ve read all of her books, and also in case I connect more with a later book.

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A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston

a thousand nightsA Thousand Nights is a loose-ish retelling of the Scheherazade story. It’s E.K. Johnston’s third book, and it’s firmly cemented her as a go-to author for me. I got the ARC for this one just before the Cybils started, so I set it aside until now. And while I’m sorry I had to wait this long, I’m happy that I had a chance to really savor this lovely book.

First, I think it’s worth stating upfront that Johnston is really thoughtful about how she changes the Scheherazade story. She resists romance here, which I appreciated. This is not the story of a girl falling in love with her captor, and it so easily could be.

The narrator of A Thousand Nights is never given a name–in fact, many of the characters aren’t. They’re defined in relationship to the narrator, or to the each other, which gives the story an immediacy and intimacy that I think works really well here. In fact, I felt that the narrator’s voice throughout the story, and the authorial choices that Johnston makes in terms of the way language is used, are one of the major strengths of the book.

Despite the fact that she’s not given a name, I found the narrator’s character–the way she experiences the world–worked in a really powerful way. This story is about some big themes and ideas, but it’s driven by the narrator and her choices.

One of the things I most appreciated about the book is the way it centers the relationships between the women in the story. The narrator is motivated by  her love for her sister, and she has strong, important connections with her mother, her sister’s mother, and Lo-Melkhiin’s mother. Even more so, the story explicitly honors and talks about women’s stories, women’s secrets, and women’s lives in a way that I found really refreshing. The place of handcrafts and traditional women’s work in the story is also really great; they’re shown with respect for the work and knowledge that goes into them and shown to have power, even if that power is often overlooked or misunderstood by men.

Moreover, the women in the story are not set in competition with each other. The narrator and her sister love each other, and their mothers are dear friends. Even Lo-Melkhiin’s mother and the servants in the qasr are shown to have relationships with each other and with the narrator that are supportive and nurturing, rather than competitive.

There’s also a great exploration of pride in who you are and where you come from. Many of the narrator’s images and similes grow out of her life in the desert, and she’s shown to draw much of her sense of self and her sense of strength from that identity. In the end, the story makes that a bittersweet thing, and yet I found that it really grounded the narrator and gave her a sense of purpose and the readers a sense of who she is. I had a sense of tradition and culture that’s very deep, even if we don’t see all of it.

Finally, this is a book that’s all about choices. The narrator faces hard choices again and again, and she has to choose rightly and see clearly in order to keep herself alive and to keep her family and country safe. The narrative deals really well with this, making it seem natural, while at the same time drawing attention to this theme and to the narrator’s sense of being on a knife’s edge.

In case it’s not clear, I really loved this book–I found it a joy to read and I was consistently surprised and convinced by Johnston’s choices, and by the narrator and her story. It combines a sense of being rooted in a sense of family and history and self, with a strength and purpose that’s shown to be how the narrator saves herself in the end.

Book source: ARC passed on from Brandy

Book information: 2015, Hyperion; YA historical fantasy

Other reviews: Brandy, Kirkus, Kaye, you?

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Cybils round-up: Ritter, Traver, O’Neill

beastly bonesBeastly Bones by William Ritter: Beastly Bones is a sequel to last year’s Jackaby, which I did enjoy. Abigail Rook, Jackaby, and Charlie return for this one, which features a mystery surrounding a recently discovered skeleton. I think I actually liked this one better than the first, as I felt that Abigail’s talents  and personality were a little more foregrounded. Jackaby certainly dominates the story, but I got more of a sense of who Abigail is and why she finds the work she does with Jackaby rewarding. I also liked the relationship between Abigail and Jenny. While these aren’t books of my heart, they are smart and engaging, and I’ll likely be back for the rest in the series.

duplicityDuplicity by N.K. Traver: Sci-fi ish, with a heavy emphasis on the -ish. I struggled with the beginning of this one as Brandon is such a deeply awful person to pretty much everyone around him. (Also calling your creepy mirror double Obran, for Other Brandon, severely tests my suspension of disbelief.) As the story unfolded, I did get drawn in a bit more, although I feel that the narrative lets Brandon off pretty easily and I had issues with one of the big plot points and how it unfolded. If you have a reader who wants a creepy book about hackers, this might be one to hand them.

only ever yoursOnly Ever Yours by Louise O’Neill: I’m still mulling over my exact reaction to this book. It has more than a bit of a Handmaid’s Tale feel to it (I don’t think the fact that the main character’s name is freida is a coincidence), but here’s where I admit to bouncing pretty hard off Handmaid’s Tale. I know. At any rate, I think this is an important book, and that it’s showing very clearly the destructive effects of a certain kind of gendered thinking. At the same time, I struggled with how bleak it is, how little hope it gives its female characters–and I know that’s the point, and yet. And yet. I worry that this narrative reinforces the idea that this societal setup is inevitable, and that girls will always destroy each other. And I’m not sure the degree to which this is personal preference vs. a flaw in the book (I do, more objectively, think the ending is a little too abrupt, diminishing the power of what happens.) As I said, I’m still mulling over my reaction, which I think boils down to: I get it, but I don’t like it. Your thoughts welcome!

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Cybils round up: Carson and Lee + bonus Hamilton moment

walk on earth a strangerWalk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson: Set in 1849, this historical fantasy follows Lee, a young girl whose parents are murdered. She can sense gold nearby, so when her uncle shows up to claim her and her property, she disguises herself as a boy and sets out on the trail to the California Gold Rush. The focus here is very much on Lee, but there’s a wider cast of characters in the people she encounters and travels with. This one was exciting, but I personally felt that it was a little short on substance somehow; the action felt almost episodic. But I liked the friendship between Lee and Jefferson, and the way the wagon train functions as a small community. (I was really interested in the way Mrs. Joyner was written as well.)

this monstrous thingThis Monstrous Thing by Mackenzi Lee: This is also historical fantasy, set in 1818 Geneva. It’s a steampunk alternate history of the writing of Frankenstein. I wondered how well this might work for readers who either haven’t read Frankenstein or who don’t know that Mary Shelley was born Mary Godwin (although it’s eventually spelled out for us). But I liked the way Lee translated the concerns of early 19th century Europe into this society anxious about clockwork men (created in the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars), about the rise of technology and the concern with what is natural vs. monstrous. The uprising aspect didn’t work quite as well for me, but I did appreciate that it was an attempt to draw on actual historical events. Alisdair is a mostly sympathetic main character, although I liked him best when he was interacting with Clemence. All in all, this is a pretty solid and interesting look at Frankenstein and some of its concerns.

Also, I had a Hamilton moment, because it turns out that Aaron Burr (sir) was close friends with the Godwin-Wollstonecraft household and knew Mary Shelley fairly well when she was young. He even had a portrait of Mary Wollstonecraft copied and sent to his daughter Theodosia! (So now I want that AU fanfic where Theodosia and Philip Hamilton both live and fall in love and hang out with the Shelleys and Lord Byron because tell me THAT wouldn’t have ended in at least one duel and maybe a continental war.)

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Cybils review: The Shadow Behind the Stars by Rebecca Hahn

shadow behind the starsI read Hahn’s debut, A Creature of Midnight, last year and appreciated a lot about it, while also feeling ultimately slightly detached from the story. So I was interested to see how her second book, The Shadow Behind the Stars, would play out. I thought it was excellent and showed Hahn’s strengths and growth as a writer.

The Shadow Behind the Stars is narrated by Chloe, the youngest of the three sisters known as the Fates. Well. Sort of the youngest; all three were born at the same moment, but they show themselves to others, and to a certain degree see the world, as different ages of women. One of the questions the book teases out is the degree to which the Fates themselves are fated–must Chloe be rash and impulsive? Does Serena find herself drawn to children because she truly loves them, or because it is the slot she fits into? I found the treatment of this aspect really interesting and well done.

I noticed how much of A Creature of Moonlight was focused on women’s stories and friendship, and this is definitely the case in this book as well. The sisters’ relationships to each other and Aglaia form the heart of the book, and even when they venture into the wider world, many of the people they actually interact with are women. It’s not that men are completely absent, but the weight of the story is on female experience and voices, which I found very refreshing!

It’s also a story of change, of choices that both humans and the Fates make. Aglaia, the human girl who arrives at their doorstep, forces them to step outside their mostly-comfortable routine (we get hints that things are not quite as smooth as they immediately seem, and later these hints are explained a bit more). I liked the way her humanness was portrayed–sometimes in books where non-humans interact with humans, it can be hard to tell the difference, but here we see Aglaia’s impulsiveness, passion, and stubbornness through Chloe’s eyes.

And Chloe herself is a great character. She’s not exactly an unreliable narrator, but because the story is told in first person narration through her perspective, I kept remembering that everything is filtered through her. She has authority; she’s much older than she looks, and she is after all one of the Fates. But she also has things that she won’t admit even to herself, and part of her journey in the book is coming to terms with this, letting herself admit that the things which happen hurt.

There are definitely sad things that happen in the course of this story, but I felt like, appropriately for this story, they had weight and meaning. (I may have cried a bit.) (Also Monster, why.) I am struggling to decide exactly how I feel about the ending, which I won’t spoil so I can’t just say what I’m trying to tease out. But I think there is a difference between doing something because it’s what you’ve always done and doing it because you mean to.

All in all, this was one I was impressed by–I didn’t even mention Hahn’s prose, which is lovely!–and also moved by. It’s definitely one for readers who like quieter, character driven stories, especially retellings of myths and folktales.

Book source: public library
Book information: 2015, Simon & Schuster; YA historical fantasy

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Other reviews: The Book Smugglers @ Kirkus; Teen Reads; Eater of Books, you?

I read this book for the Cybils, but this review is my personal opinion.

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