So after several weeks without a review, I think I’ve identified at least one of the problems I have with scheduling (beyond laziness and poor time management): I tend to do the most reading and book buying when I’m on holiday, but I never review when I’m away, so I end up with huge intimidating backlogs which then stop me from reviewing any more recent stuff. As I want to do Hugo Roundups in the next week as well, I think another short roundup is in order!
I also do the vast majority of my book buying on holiday, especially when I pass through my favourite bookstores in Bangkok. I was there twice in a week at the beginning of February and, uh, this happened:
Not a sensible move for someone who needs to figure out intercontinental shipping in the next two months, but this pile – and the other things on my Physical TBR, which is my current priority – has been very good to me so far!
Instead of going chronologically (you can read my Librarything thread for that, if you want), I thought I’d organise most of the last few weeks into thematic areas. It turns out I’ve read a ton of fantasy of all different stripes recently, from pure secondary world goodness to portal fun to the magic of our own planet. It’s mostly been very good, as the ratings attest:
Falling through doors
I picked up Seanan McGuire’s Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018, Tor.com) in audiobook and was not disappointed. This is the third in the Wayward Children series of novellas, which centres around a boarding school for teenagers who have returned from different magical lands and are unable to adjust back to the “real” world. Where the first book in the series was a murder mystery, and the second a horror story, BtSS is a straightforward quest narrative, involving a band of wonderful characters hopping through portals to try and resurrect a girl who died before her daughter could be born. Complicating this quest is the fact that the instigator, Rini, is the daughter, and exists anyway thanks to her belonging to a logic-free reality called Confection. I loved the musings on baking in this, as well as the viewpoint of Cora, a fat girl who fell into an ocean world and became a mermaid. The Wayward Children books can be read out of order, but be warned that this one contains spoilers for the first – start with Every Heart a Doorway if this series appeals. 9 out of 10.
Another knockout success was In Other Lands (2017, Small Beer Press) by Sarah Rees Brennan, a story I found and lost again when she was self-publishing it on her LiveJournal a few years ago. This standalone follows Elliot Schafer, a prickly 13-year-old from our world who is brought over to the magical Borderlands and offered a place at an exclusive training camp for humans seeking to defend their territory from the elves, dwarves, mermaids, harpies, trolls and other peoples of this world. Despite being a resolute pacifist, Elliot joins the school’s (highly undervalued) diplomatic training course and proceeds to cause constant headaches for staff and other students alike, while navigating awkward teenage relationships with Serene, the female chauvinist elf girl, and Luke, the handsome, talented son of the Borderland’s most prominent fighting family. This setup could easily have been a recipe for disaster, but Brennan balances it all perfectly, lovingly eviscerating the tropes involved in fantasy teenage warrior school and foregrounding the personal development of a difficult and yet usually sympathetic main character, showing how we are all worthy of love without making excuses or rewarding the character for his more unpleasant moments. A glowing, borderline incoherent 10 out of 10.
A Tyranny of Queens by Foz Meadows (2017, Angry Robot Books) was more of an impulse buy, based on my desire to support the author after she became the focus point of some nasty internet attacks from right-wing morons. This is the sequel to an Accident of Stars, which I honestly didn’t love – I found the main character, a white Australian teenage girl called Saffron who falls through a portal to a country called Kena, too unrealistically “woke”, and some of the things that happened to her felt rather laboured. I’m happy to report, however, that I didn’t have the same problems with this sequel at all. I particularly enjoyed the scenes where Saffron, who was sent back to our world at the end of the first book with some literally inexplicable scars and injuries, is forced to return to a school where her value as a young woman is being constantly dismissed or used to benefit other students above herself, and finds herself much less able to simply swallow the tiny injustices being perpetrated against her. I don’t know if I liked this more than its predecessor because the narrative is different, or because I look for different things in books now, but either way I liked all of the characters and their journeys here, and I appreciate why Meadows chose to have an open minded protagonist whose learning journey isn’t foregrounded relative to the struggles of the other characters around her. An enthusiastic 8 out of 10.
Not Quite Our World
Like the books above, Exit West by Mohsin Hamad contains doors through which the protagonists, Saeed and Nadia, escape from their war torn Middle Eastern city into another world. Unlike the above, however, this other world is not a fantasy domain but other locations on our own planet – first Mykonos, then London, and then, eventually, something better. Using the speculative conceit of doors which proliferate throughout the world and cannot be controlled or policed, Hamad explores the experience of refugees and what might happen if more fortunate countries were literally unable to prevent them from entering. It’s a short book – basically novella length – and Saeed and Nadia’s relationship development suffers from the lack of space, but the political aspects of this are excellent, and I felt the worldbuilding was much more interesting than the similar conceit in the Underground Railroad, which also adds a fantasy touch to migration and escape but without changing the fundamental shape of the history it is telling. 8 out of 10.
Magic for Beginners, by Kelly Link (2005, Small Beer Press), is a collection of short stories which mainly fall into the slipstream/magical realism category, where everything is 80% our world and 20% strange dreamlike happenings which still have a strange logic behind them. The stories in this ranged from fantastic – the titular Magic for Beginners, about a group of teenagers brought together for love of an odd fantasy TV show, was beautiful, and The Faery Handbag and Stone Animals were also very strong – to “yeah, OK” (the cannon thing…?) – overall, I was left with a strong positive impression. 8 out of 10.
I was, however, reminded that not everything in the magical realism wheelhouse works for me, when Frontier by Can Xue sadly left me behind. This is a series of interlinked “stories” – although there’s not much in the way of identifiable plot, to be honest – from the perspectives of people living in Pebble Town, a Chinese frontier town with a mysterious Design Institute, some weird animal interactions, a park (?) and not much else. There were some excellent images in this, and, having spent time in far west China, I did recognise the “we are trapped in a desolate corporate town without a purpose, while there are actual communities somewhere around here that ours knows nothing about” vibe. But although the imagery kept me going past the point I felt I should DNF, and I’d try Can Xue in short form if the opportunity arose, I wouldn’t recommend this to casual readers. A confused 5 out of 10.
Stay tuned for part 2, in which I muse on the wintry books I read while bathed in tropical heat, apologise for not going to space enough, and attempt that rarest of feats (for me): reviewing non-genre books…