Some quickie reviews: Comfort women in space, rumors of a squirrel conspiracy, and the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

I’ve let these sit too long and just want to get some quick comments up before I forget everything! It’s one speculative, one cozy mystery, and a historical, so a mix of all the things!

The First Sister by Linden A. Lewis

r/suggestmeabook: I’d like a trip to the future where humanity is split into two battling factions and there are horrors in either group.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 351

Publisher: Skybound Publishing

Series: The First Sister Trilogy

ARC provided by NetGalley

Dystopic future scifi

From the publisher: This epic space opera filled with “lush prose” (Publishers Weekly) follows a comfort woman as she claims her agency, a soldier questioning his allegiances, and a non-binary hero out to save the solar system.

Voiceless women who fight each other for position, a disgraced soldier unjustly charged with losing a battle, and a missing son of the elite: these are the protagonists in Linden A. Lewis’s gripping drama placed centuries in the future. Each character is distinct and has a fascinating character arc, and the plot moves at the perfect place, with unexpected twists which are earned by Lewis’s ability to lay the groundwork.

Humanity has split into two groups. The Geans, on Earth and Mars, are ruled, at least in a large part, by the Sisterhood, a religious group which gives some women power by serving up their sisters as confessors and prostitutes to the military. The Icarii split away from Earth, no longer wanting to be involved in an endless war, and settled on Mercury and Venus (yes, there’s a magic element found on one of the planets that explains how that’s possible). The former are considered militant; the latter are technocrats who have manipulated their genes to survive, creating a separate species of humanity.

As is so often the case in the best science fiction, the postulated world reveals insights into our own, showing how both theocracies and technocracies can go wrong, showing how they impact the lives of the powerless. If that doesn’t appeal to you, it’s a great story as well, and I strongly recommend checking out this amazing book.


War of the Squirrels by Kristen Weiss

r/suggestmeabook: I want to watch an amateur sleuth figure out a murder while sorting out alien enthusiasts, retired spies, and rich kids.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 224

Publisher: Misterio Press

Series: Wits’ End Cozy Mystery

ARC provided by GoddessFish

Contemporary cozy mystery

From the publisher: All Susan wants is to get through this visit from her controlling parents without tumbling down a black hole of despair. But galactic forces are colliding at her whimsical B&B, Wits’ End, and her parents have plans of their own.

The silly pun of the name gives you a feel for what’s to come. Kirsten Weiss does a nice job of creating tension in a small town which has a disproportionate number of murders, and gives some really clear descriptions—to the point that I remember little scenes vividly six months after I finished the book (told you I was behind!). The traveling corpse is pretty cute, and the murder victim is appropriately dislikable. However, the tale stretches credulity, and the squirrels, well, they’re more or less in the background to create the pun and some silly shenanigans to keep the alien enthusiast motif. The earlier book(s) appear to play into the story more than I’d like for picking up one mid-series, as there are constant references to a prior event, but that’s on me for starting with the fourth book in the series (although I usually ask if prior books are required reading before picking up mid-thread).

Easy, quick read when you’re in the mood for something light.


Fiery Girls by Heather Wardell

r/suggestmeabook: I’m in the mood to watch immigrant girls overcome their differences for the common good.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 273

Publisher: Self

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Progressive era working women

From the publisher: In 1909, shy sixteen-year-old Rosie Lehrer is sent to New York City to earn money for her family’s emigration from Russia. She will, but she also longs to make her mark on the world before her parents arrive and marry her to a suitable Jewish man. Maria Cirrito, spoiled and confident at sixteen, lands at Ellis Island a few weeks later. She’s supposed to spend four years earning American wages then return home to Italy with her new-found wealth to make her family’s lives better. But the boy she loves has promised, with only a little coaxing, to follow her to America and marry her. 

This well-researched book occasionally falls a little flat. The transformations of the two protagonists, particularly Maria, feel a bit rushed, although the overall pace of the book is a little slow. It’s at its best when highlighting the efforts of the girls to unionize; the purely imagined parts are where it begins to flag a little. If you’re not familiar with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, it’s a pretty good introduction to the tragedy and the women whose lives were radically changed by it.

Spotlight on: The Fey and the Factory Girl by Nadine Galinsky Feldman

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Giveaway

Enter to win a paperback copy of The Factory Girl and the Fey by Nadine Galinsky Feldman! The giveaway is open to US addresses only and ends on October 28th. You must be 18 or older to enter.

Pages: 360

Publisher: Self

Publication date: October 14, 2021

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

19th century Scottish Fantasy

From the publisher: Jane Thorburn straddles two worlds: her life as a “factory girl” in Scotland’s mills, and her birthright as fairy royalty. Abandoned by her parents as an infant, and uncertain about the true motives of the Fey, she learns to depend only on herself. All she wants is to be a great weaver and to maintain her independence.

The Fair Folk, fighting for their very survival, have other plans for her, as does the handsome and charismatic Robert Stein. What life will she choose? And will she even have a choice?

A historical fantasy inspired by the author’s ancestors, The Factory Girl and the Fey is an affectionate tribute to the women who helped fuel Scotland’s Industrial Age, from the workers to the poets…and to the Fey who remind us that magic is real when we believe in it.

Excerpt

Beitris continued to heat the poker. In the calm voice of one who spent many, many years calming nervous young mothers, she said, “This is nae yer bairn. This is a changeling. Whit ye’ll see will look strange, cruel even, but you must trust me. Set it in the cradle noo.” 

Still doubtful, Elizabeth placed the changeling in Jane’s cradle with the same care she would have given her own child. Stepping back to give the old howdiewife room was one of the hardest things she’d ever done. 

Beitris grabbed the now-hot poker in both hands, wielding it like a sword between her weathered arms as she moved toward the cradle.

“Dinna hurt her!” Elizabeth cried. 

Ellen grabbed hold of Elizabeth. “This isnae Jane, remember. Beitris will bring the real Jane back.” 

As she held on to Elizabeth, Ellen squeezed her eyes shut in anticipation of disaster. This was all her fault. She had caused this to happen, back on the day of the baptism. Until now she had managed to shut away the memories, but now they rushed forward to taunt her. 

That day dawned bright with sun and promise. Ellen arrived early to help. They dressed wee Jane in a white lace gown that had once been Elizabeth’s. Jane, tiny as a doll, swam in the dress, her head nearly disappearing amidst the layers of fabric. Ellen wished for more time to alter it, as Elizabeth was too fatigued and sad to do it herself. This would have to do, though. The town would likely gossip about the child’s ill-fitting gown, but that mattered less than giving her God’s protection as soon as possible.

Tradition called for someone to offer a gift of bread and cheese to the first person she met on the path to the church. Ellen volunteered, honored to play a role in this special ritual. Carrying Jane in one arm, light as a cloud, and the basket with the food offerings in the other, Ellen headed toward the kirk, with Elizabeth and Robert to follow a few minutes later. 

Ellen didn’t have to wait long before an old man, listing to the right and hunched over a too-short walking stick, ambled toward her. His clothes were rumpled and torn, and they hung on his gaunt frame. Poor man, she thought. Apoplexy had robbed him of his dignity. As she neared him, his face twisted in a grimace. Perhaps the news of a new, precious babe would help to cheer him.

Holding the basket out toward him she said, “Good sir, we offer ye a gift from this new bairn.” 

He stopped without speaking, looked at her, then at the baby, his face twisting even further into a sneer. “Pah!” He spat on the ground and walked away, leaving her standing with the basket still outstretched. Jane started to whimper and squirm. 

“Sir?” Ellen pleaded to his back. “Please, sir, dinna curse the bairn this way.” 

Yet he kept moving, ignoring her completely.  

“Whit shall we do?” she asked Jane, her knees shaking from the encounter. Jane responded only with sleepy sucking sounds. “Well, I see ye dinna want tae help me. I’ll have tae fix this myself.”  

Normally the streets bustled with activity as townspeople prepared for morning service, but today they were oddly empty. Ellen continued to murmur loving words to Jane as they walked, praying for someone else to cross their path. She walked to within a block of the kirk when a young couple appeared. The woman, not more than eighteen, was ripe with her own child. 

Ellen nearly dropped to her knees in gratitude and relief. Holding out the food offering with trembling hands, she said, “Good folks, this is a gift from a new bairn that we offer ye.” She hoped she didn’t look too desperate.

“Aye, of course,” the young woman said, patting her own belly. “May I see the lass?”

Ellen held Jane up and the woman drew in a sharp breath, her eyes alight with the sight of the young beauty. Her mouth twisted and turned, not in bitterness, but rather in protection. To express a child’s beauty aloud would invite evil influences.

“Thank ye,” the woman said. “We would be honored.” 

Her husband, who stood next to his wife, silent until now, accepted the basket of food, then tipped his hat and bowed to Jane. “Welcome tae the world, lass,” he said. Then the young couple continued on their way.

The baptism occurred as planned, and Ellen breathed easier, telling herself that no harm would come from tucking away the unfortunate details of the first encounter. Surely the goodwill of the young couple would render the old man’s bitterness moot and bring good fortune to the child. They would put the incident behind them, and no one needed to know. 

Yet the scene unfolding in front of Ellen in the tiny flat, with a new mother numb with fright and a howdiewife wielding a hot poker, was no mere bad dream. She moved her mouth in prayer, begging for forgiveness and hoping Beitris could bring Jane back home. Then she remembered her children were present, stunned silent but wide-eyed and open-mouthed. “Go back tae the flat,” she said. “We will protect wee Jane.”

About the Author

Nadine Galinsky Feldman is an author of women’s and historical fiction. Her novel What She Knew was a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book awards. The Foreign Language of Friends was a finalist in the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, Chick Lit category. It was also named a Gold Medal Winner, Women’s Issues, in the 2011 eLit Book Awards.

As an editor, Nadine produced Patchwork and Ornament: A Woman’s Journey of Life, Love, and Art by Jeanette Feldman, which won the 2010 Indie Excellence Award for Best Memoir.

Her first book, When a Grandchild Dies: What to Do, What to Say, How to Cope, provided grief support to an underserved population.

When not working on her many writing projects, Nadine loves traveling, gardening, genealogy, and yoga. She lives in the beautiful Hudson Valley of New York state.


AMAZON | BARNES AND NOBLE | INDIEBOUND

Faith and death for the nonreligious

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

r/suggestmeabook: I need some comfort about death and dying, but I no longer believe in a God preached by a mainstream religion.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 390

Publisher: Tor Books

ARC provided by NetGalley

Optimistic fantasy

From the publisher: When a reaper comes to collect Wallace from his own funeral, Wallace begins to suspect he might be dead. And when Hugo, the owner of a peculiar tea shop, promises to help him cross over, Wallace decides he’s definitely dead.

When I was eleven and afraid of death, I read C.S. Lewis’s The Final Battle, and that gave me a positive way to look at death. Now, almost fifty years later, I no longer have the faith of that preteen, but TJ Klune’s Under the Whispering Door has given me a comforting book about death and dying which is just as much about how to live, and it is comforting even though I no longer believe in a hereafter.

There are little deaths, because that’s what grief is.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Klune’s vast gift for empathy and kindness infuses his books with an optimism that does not overlook the pains and perils of life; rather, Klune celebrates the possibilities of change and growth within clearly flawed people, and he’s fast becoming one of my favorite authors. In Under the Whispering Door, Wallace, the protagonist, starts as one of those people you love to hate: a workaholic unmotivated by even the slightest degree of concern for his fellow man (or woman)—the worst kind of lawyer. While the losses in life were insufficient for him to make any changes, the loss of control in death makes him face what kind of person he was.

All that work, all that he’d done, the life he’d built. Had it mattered? What had been the point of anything?

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Don’t get me wrong; there’s no unrealistic, cloyingly sweet arc here. It’s all very grounded in the real world, and there’s a lot of pain felt by various characters that can be achingly familiar. However, it’s a hopeful world, where change is still possible, a wonderful vision in our increasingly polarized society. Part of what makes it work is Hugo, the ferryman, an empathetic soul, paired with an irascible grandfather, so they complement each other nicely, as well as the spunky Mei, who does not suffer fools.

Every time Wallace opened his mouth to say something, anything, he stopped himself. It all felt…trivial. Unimportant. And so he said nothing at all, wondering why he felt the constant need to fill the quiet.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

Then there’s the view of death and dying itself. While I’m clearly not saying anything Klune propounds in his fantasy is literally true, the ideas behind them often resonate with me, providing a lot of comfort. I particularly like the view of faith, which has nothing to do with the kind of faith preached to me for years, but a more accessible faith that reflects experience.

There’s no one way to go about this, no uniform rules that can be applied to every single person like you who comes through my doors. That wouldn’t make sense because you’re not like everyone else, much like they’re not you.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

And, of course, it’s just a damn good story, with love, loss, and longing (hmm—didn’t plan on alliteration, but I’m going to leave it) all written in lucid prose with a pace that made me want to keep reading even when I had other things to do.

Whoever told you that you were funny obviously lied and you should feel bad about it.

TJ Klune, Under the Whispering Door

TJ Klune is a master of the optimistic fantasy, but never in ways I expect it to be, and never in contexts where I expect optimism, and it’s a gift to every reader, and Under the Whispering Door is a book I expect to reread many times.

Mastering gifts, politics and relationships

The Shadow of Water by Jacquelyn Benson

r/suggestmeabook: I want to follow the adventures of a precog learning to master her talent and her gifted friends in the shadow of the beginning of WWI.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 494

Publisher: Vaughn Woods Publishing

Series: The Charismatics

ARC provided by Book Sirens

From the publisher: In an England on the brink of war, Lily is plagued by psychic visions of the cataclysmic destruction of London. An ancient prophecy is coming to fruition, and it starts with the gruesome discovery of a corpse in the sewers.

Jacquelyn Benson’s writing style is lovely, and I love the characters. It’s always hard reviewing a sequel, as it’s hard to avoid comparing it to the preceding book. “The Shadow of Water” would not have stood up well on its own, as my feelings about the characters is derived more from the relationships built in the first book in the series, “The Fire in the Glass,” than in this one. In particular, the relationship between Strangford and Lily was less evoked by Strangford’s actions than by Lily’s summary comments. And for some reason I was having more difficulty keeping Ash and Cairncross straight, although that could be more my issue than that of the author.

Fear the pain of grief. Fear neglecting to embrace life with both your arms and draw all the joy of it that you can. Fear being stingy with your love or your compassion. But do not fear Death.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

Also, since much of the tension in the first book was derived from the question of whether her precognition showed an unalterable future, that tension was lost and there wasn’t as much to replace it. I felt less on-the-edge-of-my-seat about how things would turn out than in the first book.

Alone. Such a small word for such an enormous burden. It had driven her to poor choices in the past.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

This installment felt less layered and complex, although the mystery of Sam’s past was a great subplot, and I felt like Sam was developed much more in this book, which I enjoyed, although the characterization of his relationship with Ash was a bit repetitive and not really resolved.

Progress is like water. It will always find a way.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

The other thing I missed was the inclusion of someone you love to hate. Viscount Deveral was perfectly nasty and Joseph Hartwell creepy in the last book, but there wasn’t a concrete baddie to hate in this book. At best, there were people taking actions that were murky or unpleasant, such as Ash and Strangford’s mother, but those actors weren’t personally reprehensible.

The debutante caught the gaze of another young woman tied to a dour chaperone. She flashed her a flirtatious smile.

Jacquelyn Benson, The Shadow of Water

So although I love Benson’s writing, and I’ll still read the next installment in the series, “The Shadow of Water” was a little bit of a let down.


Pitch perfect but tone deaf

The Extraordinaries by T.J. Klune, narrated by Michael Lesley

r/suggestmeabook: I want a funny YA book with an uncritical depiction of police from the point of view of a very ADHD gay teen who really wants to be a superhero.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 397

Listening time: 13 hours, 3 minutes

Publisher: Tor Teen

Series: The Extraordinaries

From the publisher: Nick Bell? Not extraordinary. But being the most popular fanfiction writer in the Extraordinaries fandom is a superpower, right? After a chance encounter with Shadow Star, Nova City’s mightiest hero (and Nick’s biggest crush), Nick sets out to make himself extraordinary. And he’ll do it with or without the reluctant help of Seth Gray, Nick’s best friend (and maybe the love of his life).

This book made me laugh out loud more than any I’ve read in a while, so I started recommending it left and right when I was only a quarter of the way in. The story opens with Nick’s fanfic about the IRL superhero Shadow Star in a reality that shares our fictional superheroes, and includes in-jokes comic aficionados will get (I had to ask the resident expert about those), which got me going at the outset.

What if he’d met some Luxor Avenue debutante or a burly mechanic with oil stains on his fingers? Nick read alternate universe fanfiction. Stuff like that happened all the time.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Usually characters who are oblivious to things that the text makes obvious frustrate me, but T.J. Klune manages to make Nick so endearing, it doesn’t bother me. Part of it is that I relate to his ADHD to the extent that I was (and still am) often oblivious to what’s going on around me because I hyperfocus on something to the exclusion of everything else. Nick is far more ADHD than I, and might strike some as stereotypical, but he feels very much like kids I’ve known. On the other hand, there are some of his symptoms that don’t sound much like ADHD, but I’m not going to speculate on those.

Some people were born to be an Extraordinary. Nick was born to have a million thoughts in the space of a minute that often led to splitting headaches. It wasn’t fair.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s friends are also very likable. In addition to sweet best friend Seth, Nick hangs out with Gibby, a badass I wish I could be more like, and Jazz, the constantly underestimated rich cheerleader who is more supportive than you’d think a character with that shorthand description would be. The adults are very much portrayed from a teen POV, but they are, for the most part, positive folks, with a couple of glaring exceptions.

That’s the one thing you don’t expect. How lonely it is. Because you can’t tell anyone about it. You can’t tell your family because they wouldn’t understand. You can’t tell your friends because they could become targets, and you don’t want them to get hurt.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The pace is brisk and the tone teenage snark. The narrator is a bit over the top, but it worked for me. I could have done without the Jack Nicholson impression for ex-boyfriend Owen and his father, and two accents of BIPOC that are problematic. Granted, if you’ve got one narrator for a book and a diverse cast, there’s a potential for problematic voices no matter how well-intentioned you are; it’s a question of impact that I defer to people of that community to resolve.

Just because you did something wrong doesn’t mean that’s who you are. And even if you keep doing the wrong thing, you can still be saved. Maybe they just need someone to listen to them, to hear the storm in their heads.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Not all is fun and games. Nick’s mom is dead, and that fact hovers over his life profoundly and pervasively. Klune handles the multifaceted nature of grief deftly and that grief informs one of the intriguing themes of the book: “What are you willing to do to keep your loved ones safe?” I’m not sure how I feel about the way that question is resolved in this book, and am interested to see if Klune picks it up in the next volume, because it’s a good question to ask. The knee-jerk answer is “Anything,” but even that virtue can become a vice under the right circumstances, something that Klune alludes to, but doesn’t address as deeply as I thought he was going to with the various references to that question.

Life isn’t a comic book. Extraordinaries aren’t everything. So what if they can do things others can’t? That doesn’t make them more special than the rest of us. It doesn’t work like that.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

The more complicated question is that of the depiction of police. Nick’s dad is a cop. As I’ve mentioned before, my husband is a retired police officer. I haven’t gotten my kids to read this yet, but from my POV, the portrayal of the police dad and his relationship with his kids is spot-on. In fact, there were a couple of incidents that were very close to some we went through during my kids’ teen years.

It’s well known that regardless of what else they are, teenage boys are inherently stupid.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

There were only two quibbles I had when I finished the book as it pertained to the accuracy of depiction: first, that the police utility belt wasn’t called by its name, a Sam Browne. However, neither of my kids remembered that term, so I discarded that quibble. The second I’m going to add below the “check the price” button, as it could be a spoiler.

In the mystical time known as Before, Dad would regale him with stories of grotesque injuries he’d seen on the job, much to Mom’s dismay.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Nick’s dad, Aaron, is a gruff but good guy. The story is told from Nick’s POV, so it makes sense that as a junior in high school, he hadn’t yet developed a critical eye when looking at cops. But the events of the book portray police in an uncritical way, showing almost exclusively the admirable aspects to police work: the times that an officer will put his own life in danger to save a stranger, the dedication to the law over vigilantism, and the sense of service to the community and each other. All of these things happen, but it’s clearly not the complete picture.

‘Police officers are woefully underpaid,’ Nick agreed. ‘Especially for the line of work they’re in. It’s dangerous on a daily basis, and they should be compensated.’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Given that Klune introduces the idea that superheroes would be more complicated than good vs. evil, it’s hard to argue he couldn’t have artfully placed the argument that the police and policing are also flawed. The book was written before George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers and published a few months after. Although Black Lives Matter predates the Floyd tragedy, the video of that event has signaled a seismic shift where uncritical portrayals of police feel a bit tone deaf. 

You’ll be an officer of the law, they said. You’ll help people, they said. You’l get a Taser, they said, even if they also said you couldn’t use it whenever you wanted.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

This complicated my relationship with the book, as it brought back many familiar and rather cozy memories of a time when I felt like police were generally good, and the problems were that of a few bad apples—we always knew guys “like that.”  However, there was no way to watch the protests last summer, with all the videos of attacks against protestors and journalists, and keep that point of view. 

Dear ol’ Dad straps a gun to his waist and a badge to his chest and goes to work every day knowing there’s a chance he might not come home. And that’s scary.

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Perhaps the use of a Black police chief was meant to signal that this particular department in this alternate reality doesn’t have those issues; we see that in other fantasy fiction, where some social issues of our current day are not a problem so that others may be addressed. Indeed, none of the officers in the book have any issues with the fact Nick is gay, which also strikes me as improbable, so this may be a conscious decision on Klune’s part. I can also see how using a “good” police department or an unambiguously evil antagonist are useful in conducting the kinds of extended thought experiments that are part of what I find so appealing about SFF. But I’m having a hard time arguing to myself that it’s sufficient reasoning not to address the police depiction here.

‘Maybe I’ll give it a go,’ Cap said, rubbing his mustache. ‘My secretary says your dad is dreamy, whatever that means. Think I got a shot?’

T.J. Klune, The Extraordinaries

Police are alternately lionized as the keepers of justice and vilified as corrupt in popular media. But the reality is far more complicated and ugly than either extreme, and in this period of debate about what to do to untangle the racism inherent in modern policing, it feels somehow irresponsible to promote a book that does not raise these issues.

So that’s the bottom line, I suppose. I loved this book, but did so with some sense of guilt for loving it, because although the bulk of the story is Nick’s obsession with the Extraordinaries, his love life, and his ways of dealing with fear and loss, the police depiction is a key piece of the story. If you read it with a full awareness that the police depiction is as fictional as flying crimefighters in tights and capes, then you’re good to go.

Postscript: Just to make sure you don’t miss the comment from Dianthaa, I wanted to move the link she shared here: http://www.tjklunebooks.com/new-blog/2020/7/29/a-message-about-the-extraordinaries. In it, Klune talks about the portrayal of police, taking responsibility and planning to address the issue in the next installment in the series. This stance is consistent with the general sensitivity Klune has to social issues, and the timeline of the writing and publication makes sense as well. Thanks, Dianthaa!


The second, spoilery quibble: Although I can see how it makes sense from a story perspective, there would not be a hospital corridor lined with uniformed police officers waiting around when a fellow cop was injured in the line of duty. Cops will come and go all day (and night) to check on the wounded buddy, but you won’t see them filling the hallway and waiting around. Been there; done that.

Exiled between worlds

Big 4+ prepublication review: The Unbroken by C.L. Clark

r/suggestmeabook: I want a political novel seared by the trauma of colonialism as experienced by a woman of color acting as an officer for the colonizing power.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 442

Publisher: Orbit

Publication date: 3/23/21

Series: Magic of the Lost

From the publisher: Touraine is a soldier. Stolen as a child and raised to kill and die for the empire, her only loyalty is to her fellow conscripts. But now, her company has been sent back to her homeland to stop a rebellion, and the ties of blood may be stronger than she thought. Luca needs a turncoat. Someone desperate enough to tiptoe the bayonet’s edge between treason and orders. Someone who can sway the rebels toward peace, while Luca focuses on what really matters: getting her uncle off her throne. Through assassinations and massacres, in bedrooms and war rooms, Touraine and Luca will haggle over the price of a nation. But some things aren’t for sale.

This novel, graphically demonstrating the ills of imperialism, made me dream of the Amritsar Massacre and the Sepoy Rebellion (which was the name given back when I first learned of it) when I was in the midst of it, not sure which way the story was going. However, there are little frills of French, so I probably should have been thinking the Battle of Algiers. C.L. Clark’s book is that vivid, thrusting you into the point of view of what it would be like to feel trapped between a world that had trained you and an unremembered land that gave you birth.

The Balladrians could—would—flay them all alive. Or whip them just as near. It baffled her, how stupid the rebels were about the balance of power: The Qazali had nothing. Balladaire had numbers, equipment, supplies—they were winning, had been winning for decades.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Touraine has long been caught between her ambition to make something of herself in the Baladaire empire for which she has fought in many wars and her desire to protect her fellow Sands, other conscripts from her homeland. That tension is pulled to its utmost when her unit is deployed to the land of their birth, Qazal. No one wants her—not the country she’s bled for or the country she was pulled from with no say in the matter. Sometimes you just want to shake her to see things as they are (and occasionally yell at her for some ill-considered choices), but you can’t help feeling for her predicament.

Always, always someone weighed her. Always, someone looked for the flaw.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Luca, princess and arguably rightful ruler of the empire, has been sent to deal with local disturbances. I had less sympathy for her and her inability, at times, to empathize with the colony she’d come to. Having a disabled protagonist who was quite functional despite the condition that made walking or dancing difficult was a plus, but her self-centeredness was a bit off-putting. She can dress it up as beneficial to all her subjects, but those claims felt hollow.

It made Luca wonder what new boundaries people would have to make in the future—how they would call themselves, what they would find to separate themselves from each other.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It’s an absorbing story, full of devious actors. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, and the otherness that Touraine always feels is convincing and heart-rending. There’s also a lot of questioning about who is responsible for what and how to handle competing priorities and loyalties. There are some occasional abrupt shifts in pace, and times when the motivations for actions seem less than convincing. The mood is grim most of the time.

People like you and me have to remind people like her the difference between what’s important and what’s possible.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

As well as the unusual storyline, The Unbroken features a cast that’s overwhelmingly female. They all have their own quirks and personalities, and almost all of them are strong (and fragile) in unique ways. Lesbian relationships are taken as a matter of course, a pleasant feature in an alternate reality.

They never chose this. They’re not getting rewarded for valor with ribbons and raises. We just die, and when we die, we’re not even worth the wood to burn us.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

Another interesting feature is that Balladaire has eliminated religion, if not by law, by a pervasive social view that it is “uncivilized.” The imperial view is in opposition to the religious nature of most of the subject countries, although the religions portrayed remind me more of the contractual types of religion (do this for me and I’ll do that for you) rather than any mystical-type connection.

Magic was a tool, perhaps even a weapon. Religion was folly dressed as hope.

C.L. Clark, The Unbroken

It takes a while for any fantasy aspect (other than an imagined reality) to appear, and it may be too limited for some fantasy junkies. But I found it a compelling, if at times disturbing, read.


Love, healing, and betrayal

Blood and Chaos by Nicole Sallak Anderson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want a tragic tale soaked in mysticism and warfare set in Ptolemaic Egypt.

Movie rating: R

Pages: 398

Publisher: Literary Wanderlust

Series: Song of the King’s Heart

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

Historical fantasy

From the publisher: Prince Ankhmakis has left his beloved Natasa for war and treacherous obstacles block his path to becoming Egypt’s last native king. He is the warrior that the men revere, and his orders are followed without question. He is strong and powerful with Natasa on his side, and the fear that breeds in those around him is more dangerous to Ankhmakis than the swords of the Greeks.

The second book in a trilogy, Blood and Chaos almost succeeds as a standalone. The pacing and story is more compelling than the first entry in the series, Origins, and if it had not stopped at point where it feels incomplete, I’d readily champion it as a very good standalone.

There was music and revelry in the distance—the sounds of men letting go of the horrors of battle.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

I’m still not convinced a reader wouldn’t be able to start with this volume, though. The reasons for Hugronaphor’s rebellion against the Ptolemaic pharaoh Philopator might be hazy, as the story begins after the fight for independence has begun, but the story is focused far more on the internal politics of Hugronaphor’s court than on the war itself. There is a good deal of backstory that would enrich a reader’s understanding of some of the characters’ motivations, but those motivations still are recapped in this installment.

The divine pair is what humanity longs for. no man should have to settle for less.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

Nicole Sallak Anderson generally does a convincing job summoning up a culture of which little is known, despite the occasional word choice that sounds a little too modern and pulls me out of the world she’s woven. The Egypt of the Ptolemaic pharaohs began in 305 BCE with the division of Alexander the Great’s empire among four of his generals. Ptolemy Philopator was the fourth of these pharaohs, and many would argue he was the beginning of the decline of the Ptolemaic kingdom. He was also the first of the Ptolemies to have his heir borne by his sister-wife.

The world yearns for a warrior to save us, and the gods send us a little, half-breed girl. Alas, even the gods can be wrong about these things.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The historic accounts of what has been called the Great Revolt of the Egyptians or the Great Theban Revolt are sparse, and the causes just as hazy in reality. The immorality of Philopator was mentioned in old sources, but probably didn’t have much affect on most Egyptian citizens. The Greeks were definitely the elite, but hellenized Egyptians could find jobs within the Ptolemaic bureaucracy. Egypt was under foreign rule, but it had been for the majority of the preceding 320 years, when Persia first conquered Egypt, with the exception of a period of 61 years well over a hundred years prior to the period of this novel

It is a sin against the goddess to govern a woman’s sexuality…It is wrong to buy women to be sex slaves and concubines…but to force a priestess of Isis to pair with a man she doesn’t love is a sin.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

However, Anderson does a good job of elaborating on what is there to make a convincing world. She recreates two primary sects, that of Isis and Set, representing love and chaos respectively, and gives each an extensive belief system. She recreates a plausible court, with many rivalries and jealousies.

You see the world different than I do. I don’t try to change you, so stop trying to change me.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

The two protagonists, Ankhmakis and Natasa, are well-developed and easy to relate to, and the villains are easy to hate. There are fewer prolonged scenes of graphic sex between Ankhmakis and Natasa in this volume, which I preferred, focusing more of the spiritual connection between them outside of the physical relationship. The petulant sister-wife of Ankhmakis (a purely political union) is particularly well done, as is Eleni, Natasa’s sister, who exudes all the outraged naivete of a tweenie.

Like me, you have no power here. You serve by command of the pharaoh, and we are objects to these people. Nothing more.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

One minor character that really stands out to me is the Ethiopian general who arrives as an ally, Khaleme. As a moral outsider, he seems to have the most clear-eyed view of what is going wrong in the court, and doesn’t hesitate to call them out.

There are many types of people in the world, and each has a right to live. My men will not kill civilians.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

There is a fantastic element to these novels as well: astral travel, telepathy, psychic attacks, and precognition all make appearances. These elements are all linked to the religions of those exercising these powers, and abilities seem predicated more on discipline and practice than mere talent, although the most powerful are also those with a priestly lineage.

The world behind the world is the origin of every action on Earth. We can approach it with humility, ask to be a part of it, and co-create with the divine.

Nicole Sallak Anderson, Blood and Chaos

All in all, this is an absorbing visit to a little-known and rarely discussed period of Egyptian history, and I recommend checking out this installment in the tragedy of Ankmakis.


More things in heaven and earth

A Man of Honor, or Horatio’s Confessions by J.A. Nelson

 Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

r/suggestmeabook: I want to read something inspired by Hamlet, but from his best friend’s POV and set in the aftermath of Hamlet’s actions.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 416

Publisher: Quill Point Press

ARC provided by Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours

16th century Europe alt-hist


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From the publisher: Surrounded by the bodies of slain monarchs, a dying prince extracts a promise from his friend, Horatio: “Tell my story.” Rival kings of warring nations strive to lay claim to the throne, now vacant, but what will happen to the people who live there, at Helsingør’s Krogen Castle? How will Horatio preserve his honor and the prince’s legacy while surviving this murderous kingdom and the men who would rule it?

It will probably seem odd that I chose to read this book when I have never been a big fan of Hamlet. There are amazing soliloquies within the play, including the arguably best known in the English language, “To be or not to be.” I’ve taken multiple courses that have included study of the play. But I’ve never liked the eponymous “hero.”

Even the most steadfast, loyal friend could never make Hamlet walk a straight, logical line. No one could have saved him from himself, or from fate.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

So I chose this book out of a hope that I’d find something or someone more likable. I’m unchanged in my views on Hamlet; I still don’t like the guy. But starting with the survivors when the curtain fell and the reality of a rather convoluted path to the bodies all over the room which had to be explained to the new ruler was appealing.

“Pah. You know nothing about the games between a court and a new king taking his enemy’s throne. You have never seen cats claw the dogs, dogs chew the rats.”

“I’ve seen much of that. You know nothing of academia.”

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

J.A. Nelson has taken on an audacious task in retelling a play so familiar to so many, and she has chosen language that usually works to convey an echo of the Shakespearean pentameter. Occasionally, though, I found it seemed to push over the top, resulting in a reaction counter to the intent. The fact that it didn’t happen frequently is a testament to the skill with which Nelson told the story.

Failure’s cursed tendrils squeezed my heart. My legs were as weak as sea froth. Grief burrowed deeper, doubling its possession of me.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Using Hamlet’s bestie, Horatio, as the protagonist works well. It’s been a while since I last read or saw Hamlet (see “not a fan” above), but IIRC, Horatio is pretty much just a straight man for Hamlet, so it was he was a good vehicle for this expansion. Nelson does a nice job of adding backstory, character arc, and new characters to this post-Hamlet scenario. Nelson also places the story of Hamlet around 1513, with the main action of the book occurring thereafter.

Soon the massive table was crowded with disgorged boxes, their brittle organs extracted, examined, and discarded.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

This is where the alt-history part comes in. Although the play was performed as if it occurred around that time, the legend of Hamlet is much older, and there’s much debate about the extent to which Hamlet came directly from the Gesta Danorum or through other sources. In the Gesta Danorum, the Hamlet character is Amleth of Jutland, and recorded prior to the 13th century. So to make the Hamlet story actually occur in Helsingor, Zealand, Denmark, in the early 16th century, Nelson takes some interesting liberties with the actual history, as the thrones of Denmark and Norway were held by the same person both before and after 1513, Hans and then Christian II.

Reynaldo looked every bit the illegitimate spawn of a wasp and an ass. But he was not stupid.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

Nelson does address that, albeit a little briefly, in her Author’s Note, acknowledging that those plot points do fall outside what facts are known. However, this alternative history doesn’t do too much violence to the real one, as Nelson chooses many actual historical circumstances to weave into her tale, giving it a high degree of verisimilitude.

A shrinking world expanding with idiots.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

However, for all the objective things right with this book, it still fell a little flat with me. I had difficulty in the beginning, when the main plot points of Hamlet are rehashed with my concomitant annoyance at Hamlet. Once that was over, I felt like things picked up a bit, but there were various plot points that I didn’t quite buy, mostly the speed at which relationships developed (positive and negative) and Horatio’s propensity for mastering skills at an unreasonably fast pace. I know time is collapsed in fiction, and I generally can overlook that compression, but there are times where the perceived time still doesn’t gel, usually when those items develop at a different pace than the other aspects of the story.

Chivalry’s stiff etiquette and battery of skills were not taught to commoners. I did not care for the challenge of honesty that Margrete favored, but I would apprentice in knighthood if that meant I could pursue her.

J.A. Nelson, A Man of Honor

If you’re a Hamlet fan, you’ll probably find more to like than I. Nelson displays considerable skill in how she crafts the language so that it resonates with Hamlet without mimicking it, and aficionados of the Bard should include it in their reading.


Philadelphia freedom: magic and mayhem

Big 4+ review: The Conductors by Nicole Glover

r/suggestmeabook: I want a book about a formerly enslaved couple, previously conductors for the Underground Railroad, who practice magic and detection in Philadelphia.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 432

Publisher: Houghton Millan Harcourt

Series: Murder & Magic

Publication date: 3/2/2021

Historical fantasy mystery

From the publisher: As a conductor on the Underground Railroad, Hetty Rhodes helped usher dozens of people north with her wits and magic. Now that the Civil War is over, Hetty and her husband, Benjy, have settled in Philadelphia, solving murders and mysteries that the white authorities won’t touch. When they find one of their friends slain in an alley, Hetty and Benjy bury the body and set off to find answers. But the secrets and intricate lies of the elites of Black Philadelphia only serve to dredge up more questions.

Nicole Glover has executed a wonderful debut novel, creating a world in which there are two magic systems, as segregated as the society in which they are found. Despite the suggestion of the cover and title, this story does not live in the period of the Underground Railroad, but in the immediate aftermath, with a couple celebrated as conductors trying to get on with their lives in a community that seems to wish to forget the past.

Sorcery overpowered. It devoured. It put people in chains and destroyed nations in the name of gold.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

There are many layers in Glover’s world, with Hetty and Benjy not quite at the bottom of their social order, but not near the top, either. The formerly enslaved and the always freedman don’t always mix, and Hetty and Benjy’s old friends, many of whom they personally conducted out of the slave states, seem to be trying to rise to the top of Black society, which means downplaying their former condition.

Hetty took another deep breath, and as she had done many times in the past, she pushed down her thoughts and feelings until they were tucked away and out of sight.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

It’s a dark world in this Philadelphia after the Civil War, and they are troubleshooters within it, trying to make sense of murders and kidnappings and body snatching. Not surprisingly, there’s bigotry to contend with, but also how to make a society among the various Blacks in this population: always free, freed by buying themselves out, freed by running away, and freed in the wake of the war. This particular story revolves around the murder of one of the first men they brought to Philadelphia, a man all about making a fast buck, feeling that money will make him more secure, but many other concerns radiate from that central story.

We aren’t slaves anymore. No more slipping away in the night to hastily dig graves and whisper prayers. We should be able to take care of our dead.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

As a typical admirer of the Underground Railroad, it threw me when there was a scene where a woman excoriates them for having helped people escape slavery. But it makes sense; those left behind probably did have to endure more for the sin of deliverance of a few, and some were probably bitter, either because they were left behind or they had complex feelings about not running. I just hadn’t thought of it as being anything more than inspiring, and it was good pause for thought that no matter how we now take something for granted as a positive, most activists in any era have detractors, even from those they are trying to benefit.

All these conductors. They were looking for a fight and didn’t care about the harm it caused, and they still are. Pushing people to vote, staging protests, making too much noise, attracting too much attention, and then they die.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The magic systems are quite interesting. There’s Sorcery, used by wand-wielding whites and forbidden to Blacks. There’s not too much about it, which makes sense, as neither Hetty nor Benjy practice it. Then there’s Celestial magic, which Hetty and Benjy practice, based on drawing sigils based on the constellations, which can be used for mundane tasks or impressive feats of defense. The magic takes discipline as well as talent, and appears to mostly be generationally transmitted.

No laws stopped white folks from trying to use Celestial magic, just jeers and taunts. There were stories of genuinely curious who attempted to learn, and books written by well-meaning abolitionists talking about what they called Primal magic found in slave quarters. In these same books, the writers were puzzled by this branch of magic. But that was their own fault. They had this idea that magic existed to make their lives easier.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The protagonists are complex, and even after the conclusion of the book, it feels as though there’s more to learn about them. I had difficulty at first keeping the other characters straight, as the in media res choices lead to the narrative reeling off names as if you should know who they are, so it took a while to get into it because I was busy trying to figure out who was being discussed. However, after a few chapters I started getting more comfortable with them and enjoyed the cast.

Benjy was smart in a way Hetty did not have words for. It was something greater than the books he read, or his ability to craft something out of metal. It was in how he saw the world, not just for what was there but what it could become.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

The other quibble I have is with the denouement, which felt a little hurried and not as clear as I would have liked, and the clues to the murderer were a little murky, but there, once you know the answer. But this was a book in which I had over 30 passages highlighted, so it’s truly just a quibble. Glover touches on so many social aspects of the world with insightful observations that it was a challenge to decide which ones to include here.

A story is a living creature, and they need a personal touch to live on. You breathe in your woes, your loves, your troubles, and eventually they become something new.

Nicole Glover, The Conductors

All in all, an engaging book in an interesting alternate reality and a world I’ll be happy to return to.


Seriously, don’t judge this book by its cover

Big 4+ review: Transformation by Carol Berg

r/suggestmeabook: I want a character-driven tale of a man who’s lost everything having to help those who took it.

Movie rating: PG

Pages: 452

Publisher: Roc

Series: Rai Kirah

Fantasy

From the publisher: Seyonne is a man waiting to die. He has been a slave for sixteen years, almost half his life, and has lost everything of meaning to him. Seyonne has made peace with his fate.  With strict self-discipline he forces himself to exist only in the present moment and to avoid the pain of hope or caring about anyone.

I’m glad I didn’t pass this up because of the execrable cover (a different edition is on the banner, but the one I had was the terrible one). If Para hadn’t recommended it, I’d not have looked again after an initial shudder. I’d have missed out on a great book.

How could something so complexly wonderful and mysterious as human intelligence devise a world so utterly, absolutely absurd?

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne has a terrible dilemma. He’s been a slave of the Derzhi since they conquered his homeland and took him as part of their profit for doing so. He’s been stripped of all the rituals that his people taught him would keep him clean before the gods, as well as the talents and powers he once had. He keeps alive by suppressing his past through a visualization taught to him by an experienced slave. Now sold to the crown prince of the Derzhi, he’s looked into the man’s soul and found that he will have to help him retain his birthright.

I am indeed afraid, Your Highness. Every moment of my existence carries such a burden of terror you could not imagine it. I fear I have no soul. I fear there are no gods. I fear there is no meaning to the pain I have known. I fear I have lost the capacity to love another human being or ever to see goodness in one. Among such fears as these, my lord, there is little room for you.

Carol Berg, Transformation

That premise is an amazing one to work through: having to willingly help a person directly benefiting from your suffering. How does one find the will, not to mention the compassion, to do something like that? Wouldn’t it be easier to curse your gods and refuse? The idea of gritting your teeth and serving a higher purpose, even if it assists your personal enemies, is explored at length in this lovely book, but not at the expense of an absorbing tale that moves forward at a pace to make the transformation indicated by the book’s title believable.

It was the ultimate expression of subjugation—to be forced to give up the most personal, most private self to one who had no claim, no right of friendship or kinship or guesting, to one who had no idea of the power of names or the dangerous entry they gave to the soul.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Seyonne is a protagonist to root for. He has too much experience with pain to invite it lightly, and still wants to survive, despite the seeming hopelessness of his predicament. When life has taught you that to trust is to be betrayed, and loneliness is a shield, how much harder to open yourself up to anything or anyone new?

The Derzhi were a warrior race, and though they prized the literacy of their scholars and merchants, it was much in the way they prized their dogs who did tricks, or their birds who could carry messages unerringly, or their illusionists who could make rabbits turn into flowers or sultry maidens disappear. It was not something they would want to do themselves.

Carol Berg, Transformation

And his prince? Aleksander is a reckless, petty prince. The idea of Seyonne having to help him fills him (and the reader) with disdain. No wonder you would wonder at whether gods exist, when they seem to snicker at you from their lofty heights by giving you the burden of helping this bastard at the expense of your own heart.

Ezzarian prophets say that the gods fight their battles within the souls of men and that if the deities mislike the battleground, they reshape it according to their will.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Slavery is difficult to write. Berg has chosen to go with the type of slavery more commonly found throughout history: making slaves of war captives. She doesn’t go into enough detail to let you know if the slavery is hereditary, but, on the face of it, there’s no indication that it is. It may be a little quibble for many readers, but for me, it was easier to cope with a civilization with that kind of slavery than the chattel slavery of the 17th-19th centuries of the Western Hemisphere. However, it isn’t an easy life, and Berg does a good job of portraying the powerlessness, pain, and isolation that slavery would inflict.

The merchants glared at me in warning, but a slave learns quickly to pick and choose the points of honor for which he is willing to suffer. As the years of servitude pass, those become fewer and fewer.

Carol Berg, Transformation

The world-building is convincing, with enough details to make you see a world with civilizations not unlike our own, but with different outcomes. Berg doesn’t litter the book with a huge cast, but enough to give you an idea of the complexity of the society. It works; with this first person narrative, Seyonne wouldn’t have interacted with all the various segments of the world, and his keyhole view is sufficient.

Survival was still of interest to me, though it was not the passion it had been when I was eighteen and still learning what manacles and whips were all about.

Carol Berg, Transformation

Demons, sorcerers, believers and unbelievers all populate this book. Berg doesn’t offer easy hope or redemption, but she does offer both, convincingly. If you want a book to affirm that good can still be found in the worst of situations, or, in Peat Long’s terms, a tale of healing, this is the read for you.