Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret AtwoodThe Handmaid's Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood, Renée Nault
Format: hardcover
Source: purchased from bookstore
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: dystopian, graphic novel, science fiction
Pages: 240
Published by Nan A. Talese/Doubleday on March 26, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Everything Handmaids wear is red: the colour of blood, which defines us.

Offred is a Handmaid in the Republic of Gilead, where women are prohibited from holding jobs, reading, and forming friendships. She serves in the household of the Commander and his wife, and under the new social order she has only one purpose: once a month, she must lie on her back and pray that the Commander makes her pregnant, because in an age of declining births, Offred and the other Handmaids are valued only if they are fertile. But Offred remembers the years before Gilead, when she was an independent woman who had a job, a family, and a name of her own. Now, her memories and her will to survive are acts of rebellion.

Provocative, startling, prophetic, The Handmaid's Tale has long been a global phenomenon. With this stunning graphic novel adaptation of Margaret Atwood's modern classic, beautifully realized by artist Renee Nault, the terrifying reality of Gilead has been brought to vivid life like never before.

My Review:

I have to confess that I had never read The Handmaid’s Tale, until now. I say that even though I have used it as an example in one way or another in more than one review. The basic story, after all, is well known and has become one of the classic works of late 20th century/early 21st century dystopian science fiction – in spite of its author claiming that it is not any such thing. Science fiction, that is.

And it’s been an extremely popular TV series. Everyone knows the basic story, even if not the details. Which means that while I’m not going to deliberately set out to include spoilers, I’m also not going to worry much about it. The story has been around and endlessly discussed for 35 years at this point, after all.

Fair warning that this is also going to be one of those reviews that mostly gets into what I thought and am still thinking about this one, rather than a critique of the book as such. My approach/avoidance reaction to the story and the conclusions I’ve come to now that I have finally read it are still rolling around in my head.

I’m pretty sure that everyone has their own opinions of the book at this point, whether they’ve read it or not.

Now that I’ve read it, I understand completely why I haven’t until now and probably wouldn’t have yet if I hadn’t seen the graphic novel version in Half Price Books. The graphic novel felt like a way of getting through the story without having to wallow in the expected pain of it.

While I admit that part of my initial rejection had to do with the author’s rejection of even the idea that the story might be part of the dreaded and dreadful GENRE, in this case SF, instead of being part of the more socially acceptable and highbrow body of literary works.

Well, this certainly has all the angst that I associate with literary fiction, but it is also very definitely part of the SF genre. It’s SF of the extremely dystopian variety, set in a world that has not happened – at least not yet – and might not. And hopefully will not. And is a dystopia kicked off by climate change and ruin of the environment. (In that, it reminds me a bit of The Children of Men by P.D. James, which I liked a lot more but did not generate all the interest and awards that The Handmaid’s Tale did.)

I didn’t read this for the longest time because I just didn’t want to wallow in that angst. This situation is awful. It is supremely awful for women, but it isn’t that great for men, either. But the men are the ones who make this omelet and the women are the eggs getting broken in the process – pun definitely intended.

And it does resonate with the historical oppression of women as well as the current era of attempting to return to that level of oppression. But with a difference. Because the methods of Gilead also have parallels with the holocaust and other genocides. It’s not just that in Gilead all women have been reduced to their biological function and nothing more, but also that the government has done an all too efficient job of cutting off any and all means of escape. Not just that the borders are closed, heavily guarded and well-armed, but that even methods of suicide are almost completely cut off.

So, as a story I found The Handmaid’s Tale to be unrelentingly depressing. In the extreme. Fascinating, but a complete downer. As it’s intended to be. The situation is awful and horrible and even Offred’s possible escape doesn’t change that. Because even if she did make it out, we don’t actually see it. And she leaves all of the other women in Gilead behind, whether she does manage to escape either to Canada or to death.

This was a book where I desperately wanted a catharsis at the end, and did not feel anything of the sort. The ending felt like a bit of a cheat, as it fast forwards to a future where Gilead’s existence is well in the past, where the record that Offred left behind is studied as a historical artifact. But we know nothing of how the world reached that point, or actually how much better it supposedly is – if it is at all.

It’s an ending which left me totally cold. As an object lesson, as a meditation on how easily a group can be subjugated, it is horrific but all too realistic. As dystopian SF, it is chilling in the extreme. But as a story, it felt like it didn’t so much end as trail off.

I understand that the reader was supposed to see the ending as kind of a “Schrodinger’s escape” where all results are possible and Offred can either have escaped, been killed or come to some equally gruesome end. That it isn’t necessary for us to really know how it ended to be satisfied with what we had.

I felt more horrified than satisfied. But I still want to know what happened, a state in which I clearly was not alone, as the author released a sequel, The Testaments, last year to answer at least some of the questions rattling around in readers’ heads. I’ll get around to reading, or at least skimming that, someday, just to get some resolution on the whole thing.

Escape Rating B: The rating is kind of an average. I found the story to be absorbing but terrifying. I couldn’t stop turning the pages but I also desperately wanted to be ejected from the nightmare. And I know that I would have bounced off this one hard without the graphic novel.

The graphic novel is utterly beautiful. Equally terrifying, but absolutely exquisite.

In short, it feels like this was an important story to read for myself and not just rely on summaries – and I’d never judge a book by either its movie or its TV series. But I also know that I’ll never read it again.

Review: Finna by Nino Cipri

Review: Finna by Nino CipriFinna by Nino Cipri
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: science fiction
Pages: 144
Published by Tor.com on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Nino Cipri's Finna is a rambunctious, touching story that blends all the horrors the multiverse has to offer with the everyday awfulness of low-wage work. It explores queer relationships and queer feelings, capitalism and accountability, labor and love, all with a bouncing sense of humor and a commitment to the strange.

When an elderly customer at a Swedish big box furniture store -- but not that one -- slips through a portal to another dimension, it's up to two minimum-wage employees to track her across the multiverse and protect their company's bottom line. Multi-dimensional swashbuckling would be hard enough, but those two unfortunate souls broke up a week ago.

To find the missing granny, Ava and Jules will brave carnivorous furniture, swarms of identical furniture spokespeople, and the deep resentment simmering between them. Can friendship blossom from the ashes of their relationship? In infinite dimensions, all things are possible.

My Review:

I’ve always believed that Ikea stores and shopping mall parking lots were designed on the “Hotel California” principle. As in “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

There’s something simultaneously comforting and horrifying about the maze-like sameness of Ikea stores, or in this case, their lookalike LitenVärld ™ stores. It doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to believe that those features which make it so easy to get lost inside the store would also make it much too easy for one store to bleed into another that is almost-but-not-quite the same.

At that point, a wormhole between the multiverse of oh-so-similar stores doesn’t seem all that far out of the realms of possibility. And that seems like the place where the idea behind Finna was born. Inside one of the faux-apartment layouts at Ikea – the ones you wouldn’t want to live in even in extremis. Like Edgelord Rockabilly Dorm Room, Pastel Goth Hideaway and Nihilist Bachelor Cube..

(Seriously, the names that Ava has come up with for the various stage-set arrangements are pure gold, hilarious, mocking and much too true all at the same time. Next time I’m in Ikea I’m going to be looking for all of them and trying to make up more!)

While it seems like Ava is making the best of this ultimately dead end job, her descriptions of work life and working conditions in this minimum wage corporate box let the reader feel just how soul-killing the place is. And that’s before Ava’s day descends into the worst of all possible worlds.

She has to work her shift with her ex. Her literally just-broken-up-with ex. The wounds from their breakup aren’t just still raw, they’re still bleeding.

And then a customer’s grandmother gets lost in a wormhole. Grandma Ursula has wandered into the multiverse, and it’s up to the two employees with the least seniority – of course that’s Ava and her ex – to take the FINNA device into who-knows-where and face who-knows-what in order to get her back.

Hell just got even more hellish – and so are some of those alternate LitenVärld ™ stores. The one where they discover that the Venus-flytrap chairs ate Grandma isn’t nearly the worst.

The clone swarms are the worst. Definitely the worst – and the most persistent. But they also allow Ava and Jules to find the next-best match to their search through the multiverse. And possibly to the best match for their own futures, whether separately, together or somewhere in-between.

Escape Rating A-: Part of what allows this story to work so well, and to feel so complete, at its relatively short length is the setting. We all know that this is Ikea, we all know what Ikea stores are like, and we all have opinions about their layout, their furniture and their culture. We’ve probably also all eaten the Swedish meatballs.

So the opening setting for the story doesn’t need to be described in any depth. We’ve all been there. Probably multiple times. And probably still have the furniture to prove it. In my case it’s at least a dozen Billy bookcases – with those terrible hex screwdrivers and extra bolts in random drawers all over the house. Still.

The familiarity of that setting allows us to get inside Ava’s head quickly and makes it easy for us to see what she sees because we’ve already been there. And that’s when the story really takes off for the multiverse.

A part of me wants to call this a coming-of-age story, but it isn’t really. Both Jules and Ava are adults. Except that adulting is what they are struggling with. Their jobs are soul destroying and yet they are trapped in this life and can’t see a way out. Being an adult means being responsible for yourself, and that’s something they’re both ultra-aware of and equally aware that they are failing at – or at least they feel that way.

That’s where their romantic relationship fell apart. Ava is anxious about everything and Jules needs to fix everything. Their clashing neuroses drove them apart as Jules wanted to fix what was wrong with Ava – making her feel even more broken and incapable – while Ava worried about everything Jules did that created chaos – which was often.

Their strange journey forces them to get past what happened and work together – even as Jules’ penchant for chaos creates even more of the stuff. At the same time, it’s Jules’ wanderlust and desire to see what’s over the next horizon – or through the next wormhole – that keeps them moving forward. And in a situation where ALL of Ava’s anxieties have literally been made manifest, her very real worries allow her to let her self-created worries slip to the background.

In working together they discover that they still mean something to each other – just not necessarily what their all-consuming, über-fast slide into romance thought that might be, or ought to be.

In the end, they manage to reach out for a future that might include each other, or it might not. It’s Schrödinger’s relationship, with all of the possibilities still there in the box. All possibilities exist simultaneously – they just have to pick one.

Just not the one with the swarm of bloodthirsty clones.

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark

Review: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli ClarkThe Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: alternate history, fantasy, steampunk
Pages: 130
Published by Tor.com on February 19, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 returns to the alternate Cairo of Clark’s short fiction, where humans live and work alongside otherworldly beings; the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities handles the issues that can arise between the magical and the mundane. Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr shows his new partner Agent Onsi the ropes of investigation when they are called to subdue a dangerous, possessed tram car. What starts off as a simple matter of exorcism, however, becomes more complicated as the origins of the demon inside are revealed.

My Review:

As I said yesterday, some of this week’s choices reflect the recent announcement of Finalists for the 2019 Nebula Awards as well as my own need to fill out my Hugo nominations list with books I’ve actually read and not merely intended to read. Which led me to The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark. And I am very glad it did.

Unlike yesterday’s book, which was beautiful but had more than a bit of an elegiac tone to it, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 was just plain fun in a steampunkish, urban fantasy-ish, alternate history-ish kind of way.

As those are all “ways” that I enjoy, this was a fun read from beginning to end.

The story draws those steampunk/alt history from the setting that the author has created. This is Cairo, Egypt, in 1912 or thereabouts, but it is a very different Cairo from our history. This Cairo is a modern, metropolitan city at the top of its world, right along with London and Paris.

That change is a result of a singular 19th century event. A Egyptian wizard, or mystic, or inventor, or all of the above, broke open the wall between our world and the world of the djinn of myth and legend. That’s right, genies. Not the cartoon genie of Disney’s Aladdin, but a wholly magical people with powers, politics and motives of their own.

We only get hints of what the djinn are capable of in this story (I hope there’s more in the author’s previous work, A Dead Djinn in Cairo) but the effect of their introduction, and the magic they returned to our world in their wake, has been profound.

Instead of the British Occupation that Egypt suffered in our history, the country is in the ascendant as the heart of this magical revolution. But this does not change the nature of humanity one little bit, a fact that has multiple effects on the story.

Because this is where those urban fantasy elements come into things. Not just because we have magic in the city of Cairo, but because we have a mystery in that magical version of the city that needs solving. And wherever there is mystery, there are detectives.

In this case, Agent Hamed al-Nasr and trainee-partner Agent Onsi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities. It is they, and their department, who are charged with figuring out who or what is haunting Tram Car 015 and either negotiate or exorcise that being’s removal from the tram car before more passengers get hurt.

Their search takes them from a greedy stationmaster to screeching banshee to the middle of Egypt’s burgeoning feminist movement. The literal middle, exactly where the mythical being usually finds her prey.

But not this time.

Escape Rating A: I had an absolutely grand time with this book. I loved the setting, both in its alternate history, its way of incorporating magic and magical beings into a world that was once like our own, and especially in the way that the everyday tools of investigation both get used and get set on their pointy little heads at the same time.

Even when whodunnit becomes whatdunnit, figuring out just who or what agency is doing the deed – and why – feels familiar and comforting no matter how unusual the thing being investigated might be.

At the same time, this story rang bells for books that I read long ago. Stories that I loved at the time but would now raise all sorts of red flags regarding cultural appropriation that they did not back then. But I offer them as interesting comparisons to the book in hand.

Michael Pearce’s historical mystery series about the Mamur Zapt, a British official who served both the British and the Egyptian government, occurs in real history at the same time as The Haunting of Tram Car 015. It is interesting to compare the perspectives and the period between the two books, as Pearce’s protagonist is part of the Occupation, although he would consider himself an enlightened one. While the independence movement that the earlier series touches on did not occur in the background of Haunting, the Egyptian feminist movement is common to both.

Just because history changes does not mean that underlying forces won’t still underlie – and rise up.

Another series that occupies a similar space to Haunting is Liz Williams’ Snake Agent series. This takes place in another world where magical, mythical and even celestial beings walk among us and are just as prone to being either the victims or the perpetrators of crimes as original recipe humans. And, like Agents Hamed and Onsi, Williams’ Inspector Chen is a member of the department tasked with investigating crimes that involve those other-than-human.

I recognize that some of my enjoyment of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 is an echo of my long-ago love for both of those series. It felt like it contained the best of both of those worlds, the early 20th century cosmopolitan Cairo, the world where magical beings walk among us, and the criminal investigation that uses standard methods to investigate a crime that is anything but.

But the ending of The Haunting of Tram Car 015 set it above the others in ways that I can’t begin to describe without totally spoiling the ending. You’ll just have to read the book and see for yourself!

Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes

Review: The Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan SnipesThe Deep by Rivers Solomon, Daveed Diggs, William Hutson, Jonathan Snipes
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Afrofuturism, fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 166
Published by Gallery / Saga Press on November 5, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

My Review:

In this Sunday’s Sunday Post I mentioned that the recently announced list of 2019 Nebula Awards Finalists had, let’s call it informed, this week’s reviews. Particularly as the titles that make the Nebula list are generally eligible for the Hugo Awards, and the nominations for that are due in three weeks.

So we come to The Deep, a novella that was on multiple “best of” lists at the end of the year and looks to pick up a few more kudos by the time the book world has wrung the last of the juice out of 2019.

The Deep was nothing like what I expected. It is as strange and marvelous as the wide, deep ocean that serves as its setting, It’s as intimate as one singular being’s pain, and as vast as the broad sweep of history.

From one perspective, it is the story of Yetu, the historian of her underwater-dwelling people. From another, it is a reclamation of the holocaust of the African-American experience, that of the deaths and depredations of the slave trade. From a third perspective, it is a parable about the greedy rapine of the seas – and of the land – by those who only see the Earth as a resource to be exploited until it is sucked dry.

As is fitting for a story with so many creators, the narrative is braided so that all of those perspectives bleed into one single story – and yet have arteries that reach into all its corners.

However we come to The Deep, the story is told through the eyes of one particular wajinru, the relatively young Yetu. While Yetu is young, she feels old, at least from her own perspective. Old, worn and tired.

Her people are conditioned to forget all the traumas of their species’ creation and existence. But, as the saying has so often been paraphrased, those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it. It is Yetu’s job, her duty, to remember her people’s past in all of its bloody, grief-stricken and traumatic detail, so that her people can live joyously in the “now”. Once each year, the wajinru gather so that the historian can transmit the entire “Remembrance” to all the people, so that they can hold onto just enough of who they came from to continue as a species.

But at the end of the gathering, Yetu has to take all those memories, centuries of memories, back into herself, burdening herself with the weight of all that history, while unburdening everyone else.

It’s a weight that is killing her, as she loses herself in the pain of the all-too-vivid past and forgets herself in the here and now that is the life of her people. Until it breaks her.

Yetu runs away, leaving her people behind, leaving them lost in those deep memories that she has learned to bear, however badly, and goes off to find herself. To figure out if she even has a self without her burden and her duty.

While Yetu heals, she learns to reconnect with the world, even as her people, roiling under the weight of her burden, nearly destroy it.

Escape Rating A: This story has been presented – and marketed – as fantasy/historical fantasy, and that’s the angle that initially reached out to me as a reader. The Nebulas are awards for science fiction and fantasy, so the voters for that award – the members of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America – clearly viewed it through that lens as well.

And I’m beginning with that as kind of a distancing mechanism, because this story reached out to me in so many different ways that I’m having a difficult time articulating it.

Yetu’s story as an individual is the most accessible part of the story. She is the lens through which we view her people and their world. Seeing the world through her eyes allows us to view her people as people and not creatures, because the articulation of her thoughts is human enough to allow us to identify with her. While her society’s structure – that she has to remember so that everyone else is allowed to forget – is alien, her difficulties with her portion of that dichotomy resonate with us – even as we wonder if that structure isn’t a double-edged blade aimed at her people’s ability to grow, change and ultimately survive.

Her ability to peer back into the past – to actually live the memories that she holds inside her, allows the reader to see the tragedy that gave birth to her people. That the wajinru, capable of breathing both water and air, were born water-breathing from the bodies of pregnant slave women who were thrown off the slave ships because their pregnancies made them too troublesome, or too ill to survive the horrific conditions they were subjected to.

It’s that history that grounds the story in the past, and reclaims that past as it births an entire species out of that tragedy.

At the same time, the wajinru are also a people of the here and now, and they are under threat by the land-dwelling two-legs who have raped the sea for its abundant life, and now want to suck the resources out of its depths. In order to understand the need to fight back, the wajinru will have to remember their past so that they can protect their future.

And in that, Yetu’s “rebellion” provides a renewal both for herself and her people, giving the story a hopeful, hoped for, and beautiful ending.

Review: Children of the Stars by Mario Escobar

Review: Children of the Stars by Mario EscobarChildren of the Stars by Mario Escobar
Format: ebook
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, Holocaust, World War II
Pages: 368
Published by Thomas Nelson on February 25, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

From international bestseller Mario Escobar comes a story of escape, sacrifice, and hope amid the perils of the second World War.

Jacob and Moses Stein live with their aunt in Paris until the great raid against foreign Jews is unleashed in August 1942. Their parents, well-known German playwrights, have been hiding in France, but before their aunt manages to send them south, the gendarmes stop the boys and take them to the Velodromo de Invierno, where more than 4,000 children, 5,000 women, and 3,000 men had to subsist without food or water. Jacob and Moses manage to flee, but the road will not be safe or easy. This novel by internationally bestselling author Mario Escobar follows two brave young Jewish boys as they seek refuge in the French town of Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon and eventually Argentina.

My Review:

The English title of this book, Children of the Stars, sounds bright and hopeful. And most of the time when that title has been used, it is just that. This book certainly does have its bright and shiny bits as well, although there’s plenty of parts that are not remotely so.

Yellow badge made mandatory by the Nazis in France

The thing is that the title is also a kind of a pun. At least in the gallows humor sense. Because the stars that Jacob and Moses Stein are the children of are the yellow Stars of David that the Nazis and their French collaborators, forced all Jews to sew on their clothing.

The title of this book in the original Spanish is Los Niños de la Estrella AmarillaThe Children of the Yellow Star, and so they were.

Children of the Stars takes place during the Nazi occupation of France, and Jacob and Moses begin the story wearing those yellow badges – and being rounded up and sent to horrific conditions in the Velodromo de Invierno outside Paris. A place where those same Nazis expected as many Jews as possible to die, before rounding the survivors up and sending them to concentration camps inside the Reich, where they were expected to die or be killed in the gas chambers.

Instead, these boys, 13-year-old Jacob and 9-year-old Moses, escaped the Velodrome and began a trek across France that was hopeful and heartbreaking in equal turns, hunting for their missing parents. Parents they believe are somewhere south of Lyon, but are actually much, much further away.

Across the Atlantic Ocean. In Argentina.

It will be a challenge for two young boys, alone in the world, to hide from the Nazis, the gendarmes, and the collaborators, all while making their way across hostile territory to an unknown future.

They find help along the way, as well as betrayal, along with more than their share of both good and bad luck. There are enough setbacks to challenge anyone, let alone two children.

And at the end, there is triumph.

Escape Rating A-: There is more than one way to look at this story. On the one hand, it is a story about the triumph of not just the human spirit, but of humanity itself over, under and around the bootheel of oppression and tyranny. And that’s a hopeful story, celebrating those who stand up to be counted even at the cost of their own lives.

But it is also a story about those who, as one of the characters in the story says, surrendered their souls and looked the other way.” Those who gave into the lies. The ones who kept their heads down and hoped that the ax would fall on someone else.

As that same character continued, “The worst friend of the truth is silence. The worst lie in the world is that ordinary people are powerless against tyranny.” The Stein boys, and those who helped them along their perilous journey, are the ones who stood up. But it is also the story of a world gone, not mad, but silent, allowing the evil to happen – even participating in that evil out of either cowardice or complicity.

The Stein brothers are fictional. But they are also a composite of many children who undertook the same journey, or similar. Thousands of children who managed to escape and find shelter, sometimes temporarily, sometimes long enough to outlast the war, and sometimes to escape it outright, as they did. And just as many who failed.

While the details of this journey are the product of the author’s imagination, the historical events that underlie it happened in history; both the horrors of the Velodromo de Invierno and the heroism of the town of Le Chambon Sur Lignon.

In the end, Children of the Stars is both a triumph of the human spirit, and a condemnation of the conditions that required it. And it is a story guaranteed to haunt any reader who lets it into their heart.

TLC
This post is part of a TLC book tour. Click on the logo for more reviews and features.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 2-23-20

Sunday Post

It’s Sunday and I seem to have fallen down a fanfiction rabbit-hole. Climbing out is always hard. I was having such a good time! But I have more books to read! And a cat who suddenly wants ALL the attention. As they do. Where did the weekend go?

I was also flailing around a bit about this week’s reads – at least until the list of Nebula Awards Finalists came out. That switched things around a bit, especially as I’m trying to decide what to put on my Hugo nominations. I’ll have some answers at the end of the week. Well, some more answers, anyway.

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the OMG It’s a Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of Wild, Wild Rake by Janna MacGregor is Andrea C.
The winner of the Cat’s Meow Giveaway Hop is Shelly P.

Blog Recap:

A+ Review: The Fated Sky by Mary Robinette Kowal
A Review: The Beast Hunter by Lindsay Schopfer
A Review: Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker
A- Review The Orchid Throne by Jeffe Kennedy
A Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages
Stacking the Shelves (380)

Coming This Week:

Children of the Stars by Mario Escobar (blog tour review)
The Handmaid’s Tale: The Graphic Novel by Margaret Atwood (review)
The Deep by Rivers Solomon (review)
The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark (review)
Sinister Magic by Lindsay Buroker (review)

Stacking the Shelves (380)

Stacking the Shelves

I picked up some interesting books this week. Especially since Audible had a sale – again – and I had a $5 Audible gift card burning the proverbial hole in my pocket.

But the book I really want to talk about isn’t exactly new, not even to me. But maybe it will be to you. I read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford when it first came out back in the early 1980s. I still have my original paperback, because I just loved it so much. It was the perfect blend of history with fantasy, focusing on a historical period that I had studied excessively because I adored it. It was the Wars of the Roses, but with wizards and vampires. It’s one of those books that lived in memory, and I always intended to read it again but just never got a round tuit. Ford was a writer who was quirky and beloved and who died much too soon. Then his work – except for his Star Trek novels which were marvelous – disappeared. After a long but ultimately fruitful investigation into “where the books went” or “where the rights to the books went”, outlined in Slate last November, the tangle was finally unwoven, and Tor Books is able, at long last, to bring Ford’s work back in print and finally bring it into ebook. Which I pre-ordered as soon as available. That dragon has been waiting a long time, and I’m finally going to get to visit him again.

For Review:
Catch Me When I Fall (Falling Stars #1) by A.L. Jackson (audio)
A Forgotten Murder (Medlar Mystery #3) by Jude Deveraux
The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer
The Haunting of H.G. Wells by Robert Masello
Matzah Ball Surprise by Laura Brown
The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
The Taste of Sugar by Marisel Vera
To Catch an Earl (Bow Street Bachelors #2) by Kate Bateman

Purchased from Amazon/Audible/Kickstarter:
The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford (pre-order)
The Emperor’s Blades (Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne #1) by Brian Steveley (audio)
Escaping Amnthra (Diving Universe) by Kristine Kathryn Rush
The Science of Sci-Fi by Erin Macdonald (audio
Terms of Enlistment (Frontlines #1) by Marko Kloos (audio)

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen Klages

Review: Passing Strange by Ellen KlagesPassing Strange by Ellen Klages
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, LGBT, magical realism
Pages: 220
Published by Tor.com on January 24, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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San Francisco in 1940 is a haven for the unconventional. Tourists flock to the cities within the city: the Magic City of the World's Fair on an island created of artifice and illusion; the forbidden city of Chinatown, a separate, alien world of exotic food and nightclubs that offer "authentic" experiences, straight from the pages of the pulps; and the twilight world of forbidden love, where outcasts from conventional society can meet.

Six women find their lives as tangled with each other's as they are with the city they call home. They discover love and danger on the borders where magic, science, and art intersect.

Inspired by the pulps, film noir, and screwball comedy, Passing Strange is a story as unusual and complex as San Francisco itself from World Fantasy Award winning author Ellen Klages.

My Review:

This is a short, sweet, lovely and magical story that tells its tale by going full circle. It starts in the present, goes back in time to show how that present came to be, and then returns to the present to explore the ultimate result of those past events.

And it’s absolutely beautiful in its telling.

It’s also a story about San Francisco as a liminal place, a city that is the threshold of many times and places and states and statuses without being a part of any of them. Or being a part of all of them, as the case may be. (New Orleans feels like another such place, which may be why so many urban and/or dark fantasy stories are set there)

There are multiple interstices in the San Francisco of 1940, where the bulk of the story, its past, are set. 1940 was, of course, the eve of World War II in the United States, while the war was already fully engaged elsewhere. History stood on a threshold. San Francisco’s own history also seems to be on a threshold of another kind, as the Great Fire of 1906 is still within living memory but is fading in the city’s consciousness as the coming war takes its place.

San Francisco itself is always on a threshold, as a port city and gateway between the East and the West. It’s population occupies multiple thresholds, as the upper-crust denizens of Nob Hill and the densely packed citizens of Chinatown both do and don’t live in the same city – with the tourists in the middle looking to view the exotic sites on all sides.

The characters of this story are also liminal. They are living on thresholds between respectability and what that time and place referred to as “deviance”. They all make their living on the margins of their world, presenting multiple pretenses to society while only able to be themselves among their own kind.

They are all women who love other women. Some dress as men, some dress as women, some are completely androgynous, and all skirt the edge of the law, sometimes by subterfuge, sometimes by bravado. Always balanced on a knife’s edge between living their authentic lives and a prison sentence.

And this is the story of the last survivor of that strangely beautiful time and place, honoring her promises to those she left behind. Or perhaps they left her. And that’s the beauty, and the magic, of the whole thing.

Escape Rating A: This was lovely, and I wouldn’t have minded a whole lot more of it. But the story that is here is very choice indeed.

I came into Passing Strange both for its historical elements and for its dip into magical realism, as well as for its sidelong glance at the pulps of the Golden Age of SF. And I’m a sucker for the kind of story that comes full circle as this one does.

But I stayed for the characters. The indomitable Helen, the artist Haskel, the writer Emily and the cartomagical Franny. Because it’s their magic, all of them together, that powers the story.

These four women, and two friends who I must admit were not as memorable, form a “Circle” that gives them a place to be themselves and provides support when the world, as it did and does, railed against them for who and what they were. (Not that this has changed nearly enough in the intervening decades.)

On the one hand, this is very definitely a love story. It’s the romance between Haskel and Emily, and displays just how much society was against them as well as just how much they were for each other – and for their circle of friends. Their romance becomes the heart of the magic that creates the mystery.

A mystery that Helen exploits in the present, both to get her revenge on a dealer who swindled a friend, and to make sure that her friends are taken care of, as she promised them so long ago.

With Franny’s magic giving just a hint of just how much that is strange and wonderful still exists in the world. (A bit more of Franny’s story, with a tiny bit more explanation of her map-magic, is, well, not explained exactly but illuminated a bit, in the very short story Caligo Lane, available for a free and quick read at Tor.com.)

In the end, Passing Strange is a haunting thing, a look back on a world that was, a view of a group of women who not merely survived but thrived with a little bit of magic and help from their friends, ending with a surprising bit of epically chilled revenge served with a promise and kiss goodbye.

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe Kennedy

Review: The Orchid Throne by Jeffe KennedyThe Orchid Throne (Forgotten Empires, #1) by Jeffe Kennedy
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, fantasy romance
Series: Forgotten Empires #1
Pages: 362
Published by St. Martin's Press on September 24, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazon
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"The Orchid Throne is a captivating and sensual fantasy romance you won’t want to miss! High stakes. Remarkable worldbuilding. Unique and compelling characters. A slow-burn romance that’ll make you combust.” — Amanda Bouchet, USA Today bestselling author of The Kingmaker Chronicles

"The Orchid Throne captures from the first page and doesn't let go as Jeffe Kennedy weaves a timeless tale of love and survival amidst a lush backdrop teeming greed and deceit. You will fall for Lia and Con and root for them with every breath you take. This is a book that will linger in your thoughts for a very long time."- Darynda Jones, New York Times bestselling author

Welcome to the world of Forgotten Empires from award winning author Jeffe Kennedy that begins with The Orchid Throne.

A PRISONER OF FATE

As Queen of the island kingdom of Calanthe, Euthalia will do anything to keep her people free—and her secrets safe—from the mad tyrant who rules the mainland. Guided by a magic ring of her father’s, Lia plays the political game with the cronies the emperor sends to her island. In her heart, she knows that it’s up to her to save herself from her fate as the emperor’s bride. But in her dreams, she sees a man, one with the power to build a better world—a man whose spirit is as strong, and whose passion is as fierce as her own…

A PRINCE AMONG MEN

Conrí, former Crown Prince of Oriel, has built an army to overthrow the emperor. But he needs the fabled Abiding Ring to succeed. The ring that Euthalia holds so dear to her heart. When the two banished rulers meet face to face, neither can deny the flames of rebellion that flicker in their eyes—nor the fires of desire that draw them together. But in this broken world of shattered kingdoms, can they ever really trust each other? Can their fiery alliance defeat the shadows of evil that threaten to engulf their hearts and souls?

My Review:

A couple of weeks ago I finished The Fate of the Tala, this author’s marvelous wrap-up of her long-running epic fantasy romance series, The Twelve Kingdoms and it’s followup, The Uncharted Realms. I loved every minute of it, and was seriously sorry to see the whole thing end.

Then I remembered that the author had just started another epic fantasy romance series, that I had the first book and hadn’t read it, yet. And wondered what I’d been thinking that I hadn’t gotten around to it.

That oversight had to be rectified, and here we are, at the very beginning of the Forgotten Empires series, with The Orchid Throne. And what a beginning it is!

As the story opens, our hero and heroine are far apart – in position, in outlook and in distance. But not in purpose. Both Euthalia, Queen of Calanthe and Conri, King of Slaves have one driving motivation in common. They will, separately if not together, do whatever they believe is necessary to throw down the usurper Anure.

Anure sent Conri to the deadly vurgsten mines as a slave, and trapped Euthalia in a betrothal that will bring legitimacy to his usurpation of all the kingdoms while most likely sending Euthalia to her death – if not a fate worse than that.

The action and the perspective in The Orchid Throne moves back and forth from Euthalia, trapped in a gilded cage as the Virgin Queen in a court otherwise dedicated to hedonistic pleasures of all types – to Conri, leading his army of slaves and rebels on a collision course to the capital – with Euthalia’s kingdom the last stop on his way.

Each of them has fought the long defeat against the seemingly unstoppable emperor, Conri with battle after battle, Euthalia with spies, honeyed words and the magic that the emperor claims is a fraud.

She’s supposed to capture Conri and present him to the emperor as proof of her loyalty – and as one more delaying tactic in her underground strategy. Conri’s wizard, on the other hand, believes that Con and Euthalia are prophesied to marry and defeat the emperor – but only if they work together for that defeat.

He is the irresistible force, and she is the immovable object. Together they can topple an empire.

Apart, they will smother the last hope of victory. Or they will smother each other and destroy pretty much everything.

Escape Rating A-: There are two ways of looking at this book, depending on whether you picked this up as epic fantasy that included a romance or thought you were getting a fantasy romance in an epic fantasy setting.

The story so far reminds me of a lot of recent fantasy, particularly the Crown of Shards series by Jennifer Estep, The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher, and of course the author’s own Sorcerous Moons series. All of those are fantasies that are epic in scope and just so happen to include a romance as part of the story. And that’s what I was looking for, a fantasy, chock full of battles and politics, with a romance as part of the story but not necessarily the central story. So I loved The Orchid Throne. It had all the scope and worldbuilding of an absorbing epic fantasy.

That it looks like the hero and heroine are going to find something like an HEA by the end is icing on the cake for me. But if you’re looking for that eventual HEA to be at the center of this story you might want to wait until the rest of the series (projected to be a trilogy) comes out. Because the romance so far is a very slow build. I think this will eventually be enemies-to-lovers, but as this installment comes to a close we’re at reluctant-allies-with-benefits. So we’re not there yet and certainly neither are they.

But the world that is built so far is big and desperate and dangerous and awesome. Anure the usurper emperor conquered all the kingdoms with engineering instead of magic – and then wiped out all the wizards so that no one could try and take their kingdoms back. The world we enter is the world his conquest has made – tyranny and fear with only two bright spots – the rebellious King of Slaves and the pleasure kingdom of Calanthe. And Anure already has his hooks deep into Calanthe. The situation looks extremely bleak – only because it is.

A lot of the politics of this story is displayed through Euthalia’s rule of Calanthe, and her ever more desperate attempts to keep Anure at bay. If you like stories of court politics, this part of the story is intricate, fascinating and chilling by turns. There are secrets within secrets and wheels within wheels, to the point where even when this story ends we know little of what Euthalia is really hiding – only that there is a LOT of it.

Conri’s campaign is much more straightforward. His is a brute force conquest because he feels that’s all that’s left to him after the mines. He’s not hiding either his goals or his methods. Instead, he’s hiding his heart.

And we have a meddler in the wizard Ambrose. He’s trying to create the future he wants by manipulating the players of the game – in this case Conri and Euthalia. Players who are stubborn and have minds and motives of their own.

The one point where The Orchid Throne left me grasping at storytelling straws, just a bit, was in the character of its villain, Anure. That Anure is evil is unequivocally true. But why? And, for that matter, how? At the moment he’s like Supreme Leader Snoke in The Force Awakens. We don’t know where he came from or what motivates him into being the evil bastard he so obviously is. I hope his character picks up a little more nuance before he gets his much deserved comeuppance at the end of the series.

But I’m all in for the Forgotten Empires. I already have an eARC for the second book in the series, The Fiery Crown, and I can’t wait to read it!

Review: Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker

Review: Prosper’s Demon by K.J. ParkerProsper's Demon by K.J. Parker
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, horror
Pages: 104
Published by Tor.com on January 28, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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In a botched demonic extraction, they say the demon feels it ten times worse than the man. But they don’t die, and we do. Equilibrium.

The unnamed and morally questionable narrator is an exorcist with great follow-through and few doubts. His methods aren’t delicate but they’re undeniably effective: he’ll get the demon out—he just doesn’t particularly care what happens to the person.

Prosper of Schanz is a man of science, determined to raise the world’s first philosopher-king, reared according to the purest principles. Too bad he’s demonically possessed.

At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.

My Review:

Prosper’s Demon is a compact little novella that exists in an appropriately small space bounded on four sides by Leonardo da Vinci, Good Omens, and the competing definitions of the word “collaboration”, which can either refer to working with someone else to produce something, or working with an enemy to destroy something one is supposed to hold dear.

Prosper of Schanz is very definitely this world’s avatar for Leonardo da Vinci, the genius, inventor and artist of the Renaissance. The ultimate Renaissance man who seemed to excel in every field he touched.

While Prosper of Schanz seems to be equally gifted, as our narrator discovers in the course of this gem, Prosper has a bit of help. Prosper’s genius is, maybe, possibly, as much as 40% Prosper. And 60% the demon that is currently taking him for a ride.

How do we know this? Our narrator, who never is named in the story, has a lifetime of experience with demons. That is, after all, his job. He’s a demon extractor. His duty is to remove demons that are infesting humans. The extraction will certainly cause the demon an excruciating amount of pain. It’s been estimated that the demon will experience 10 times the pain that the human will during the extraction. But demons are immortal, they can survive that pain. They can survive anything. Their human hosts, on the other hand, are not and will not.

It’s one of those “greater good” situations, or the needs of the many outweighing the needs of the few or of the one. Because while the demons are host-less they can’t do any damage. But it’s also a Kobayashi Maru, a no-win scenario, because the human will be seriously damaged by the extraction – if they manage to survive at all.

And it seems like many, possibly even most, don’t. While the demon will eventually find another host and start all over again.

So our demon extractor makes a bargain with the demon he’s supposed to extract. And this is where the reference to Good Omens comes in. Both because the seemingly ultimate implacable enemies are colluding and because the demons have a long-term, an exceedingly long term “Plan”. They are all immortal, they can afford to play a very long game.

Extracting the demon will remove 60% of Prosper’s genius, rendering him pretty much below average. If he survives losing 60% – or so – of his mental capacity. All of the things that he, or rather his demon, have hinted at him producing will never happen. No more art, no more engineering, no more inventions. In the short term, life will be much poorer for many people because Prosper is no more.

The deal is struck. The demon hunter will leave Prosper’s demon in place while Prosper creates a marvel of art and engineering. It will be beautiful and awe-inspiring. The Great Plan that the demons have for mankind would not truly be impacted by the removal of Prosper, but mankind definitely would.

But about that deal. And about that narrow space between collaborating to create a work of artistic genius and collaborating with the enemy. The demon believes that the demon extractor has been convinced to the creation side of that equation, while the demon extractor ruefully opines that he has given into the other.

Or has he?

Escape Rating A: This story is absolutely perfect at its length. Nothing more needs to be said. And at the same time, I wish I knew more about this world and how it works, and just exactly who our unnamed demon-extracting narrator really is. We know more than enough to be absolutely sucker-punched at the end, but I just got sucked into this world and this character and wasn’t ready to be spit out, at least not yet.

Part of that “not ready yet” is that even from inside the protagonist’s head we STILL don’t know what he’s thinking. We’re fooled right along with the demon.

At the same time, this whole thing is a thoughtful exposition (in a marvelously snarky voice) on whether the ends justify the means – and who gets to decide those things. Our narrator seems to enjoy the fear he engenders and the destruction he causes – to the point where it makes his an extremely uncomfortable head to be in. He tells us at the very beginning that we’re not going to like him – and he’s right.

But we also kind of sneakily do. Like him in spite of ourselves, I mean. It feels a bit like he cheated the system, and reprogrammed the Kobayashi Maru. But then, that’s been done before, too. Sometimes the hero cheats. Sometimes the cheater is a hero. Sometimes the hero is a villain. And sometimes the villain is a hero.

It all depends on who sits in judgment. I’m still judging – and shaking my head in amazement at it all.