Fantastic fantasy: book reviews

The Mythic Dream by John Chu; Leah Cypess; Indrapramit Das; Amal El-Mohtar; Jeffrey Ford; Sarah Gailey; Carlos Hernandez; Kat Howard; Stephen Graham Jones; T. Kingfisher; Ann Leckie; Carmen Maria Machado; Arkady Martine; Seanan McGuire; Naomi Novik; Rebecca Roanhorse; Alyssa Wong; J.Y. Yang. 5/5
This is a superb collection of short stories that retell myths and legends from various cultures, including ancient Greece and Rome, India, Jewish tradition, and many more. I absolutely loved it–there are no weak stories here. Every one is interesting and well-written, and they all offer fantastic new takes on previously existing work. I recommend it highly for all readers of SFF and those who enjoy reworkings of traditional tales.

Fall Rotten by Eric Serrell. 1/5
This is meant to be a witty adventure about stealing from the Nazis, but unfortunately it’s slow and talky and the talk isn’t really that clever or witty or even interesting, and the plot drags like a child who hates school on a snowy morning, I’m sure others will enjoy it, but I didn’t, and wished it was both better-written and heavily edited.

People of the Lake by Nick Scorza. 5/5
This is a great supernatural mystery for YA and adult readers, full of interesting twists and turns. Clara’s spending the summer with her dad in the small town he grew up in, but the locals are unfriendly and there’s a certain amount of local lore about ghosts and monsters. When Clara encounters the things that haunt the place and a local teen dies at a party, she, another outsider, and the dead boy’s ex-girlfriend team up to figure out what’s going unsaid about the town, its colonizing families, and the powers that lurk in the lake. The issues of colonization, racism, and forced/normate heterosexuality are handled very well, and the big finish is exciting and well-written. I do think the book would benefit by having a catchier title; “People of the Lake” is a bit meh.

The Rift by Rachael Craw. 5/5
This is a beautifully-crafted, -imagined, and -written novel. On an island that is home to a dimensional rift, the deer have magic in their antlers, the land is full of surprises, and the threat of giant Rift Hounds looms. Culled yearly, the deer are cared for by rangers who are often gifted with special sight, healing, and hearing powers. When Meg, a young woman, returns home to the island after many years away, she arrives at the same time as those who hunt the deer for a pharmaceutical company. This year’s cull, though, goes awry in multiple ways, leaving Meg and a group of apprentice rangers to help repair the island and save the herd. I absolutely loved the world-building here, the facts of magic without the trappings of sentimentality, and the story’s quick pace. Anyone who has liked Garth Nix, Margaret Killjoy, and similar authors will also enjoy this fantastic book.

Choosing to Live, Choosing to Die by Nikki Tate. 1/5
This was a disappointment, although to be fair, the author does warn readers that while writing the book, their own thoughts we all over the place. Unfortunately, those thoughts have yet to be edited into something coherent and readable. There are asides and asides to asides. There are examples without context. There is very little factual information about how the body dies. There is even less about legal matters. This should come off any shelves it is already on for a big round of editing, preferable starting with an outline and clear purpose.

Echoes by Ellen Datlow; Dale Bailey; Nathan Ballingrud; Aliette de Bodard; Richard Bowes; Pat Cadigan; Siobhan Carroll; F. Marion Crawford; Indrapramit Das; Terry Dowling; Brian Evenson; Gemma Files; Ford Madox Ford; Jeffrey Ford; Alice Hoffman; Carole Johnstone; Stephen Graham Jones; Richard Kadrey; John Langan; Alison Littlewood; Bracken Macleod; Nick Mamatas; Vincent J. Masterson; Seanan McGuire; Garth Nix; Joyce Carol Oates; M. Rickert; M. L. Siemienowicz; Lee Thomas; Paul Tremblay; A. C. Wise. 3/5
A solid collection of ghost stories, old and new. As with all collections, some of the stories are more effective and better than others, but overall the mix is decent. This could serve as a good introduction to writers like Seanan McGuire, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Hoffman, and Garth Nix for those not yet familiar with their work.

The Words I Never Wrote by Jane Thynne. 3/5
Two English sisters find themselves working against the Axis during WWII, but one is married to a Nazi while the other is a government spy, and neither knows what the other is doing. Not a bad story in itself; the framing device, though, set in the present, is tedious and boring to the point where it threatens to sink the entire novel. Skip the modern parts and read just the historical part.

Forgotten Bones by Vivian Barz. 2/5
This is a mash-up of a horror novel, a ghost story, and a police procedural, and the result is a hot mess. Little of the procedural part is rooted in reality; the plotting is lazy; and the characters are problematic at best–the author creates a mentally ill protagonist without, apparently, having any understanding of why #ownvoices matters and without consulting actual schizophrenics about their experiences. This might have been an ok book if it had gone through a diversity read and a heavy round of developmental editing, but as it is, I can’t recommend it.

The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre, translated by Stephanie Smee. 2/5
I know this has gotten rave reviews, but this short novel about a French translator who uses conversations she translates for the police to become a drug lord didn’t do much for me. The protagonist’s abrasiveness isn’t balanced by charm or wit, nor is the business she gets into particularly interesting or compelling. Mostly I felt sorry for her dog.

Foul Is Fair by Hannah Capin. 3/5
This novel adapts Macbeth as a revenge tragedy set at a California prep school. The putative Lady M and her coven members–three other young women–attend a party held by members of the school’s lacrosse team, where the narrator is drugged and raped. Vowing revenge, she changes her appearance and enrolls at their school in order to cause them to kill one another. She succeeds. The novels is extravagant and over-the-top, and has some commonalities with Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy, in which she retells the story of Othello in a similarly short timeline and among schoolmates. Foul is Fair works as long as you read it as fantasy and don’t expect realism of any kind, which is a bit difficult at times because of the way the author tries hard to situate it in the real world. If you’re a fencer, expect to roll your eyes a lot: the fantasy even runs to that. Overall it’s a dark romp through Macbeth with a backstory and alternate POV, and might appeal to readers who already know the play well.

Give the Devil His Due by Sulari Gentill. 3/5
This mystery, set in Australia in the 1930s, follows a wealthy painter and his friends as they try to solve the mystery of an acquaintance’s death while managing relationships, creative work, and a charity car race. It’s an interesting enough snapshot of the time period and a decent mystery, but it doesn’t really make me want to read the other books in the series.

The Illness Lesson by Clare Beams. 3/5
With the shadows and ghosts of the Alcotts and Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women in particular populating its pages, this novel captures a brief span in a young woman’s life during which her father, having been part of a failed self-sufficient utopia, decides to open a school. Recruiting a handful of girls for an experimental education, Caroline, her father Samuel, and teacher David embark on an adventure that turns sour as David’s pious wife arrives, spoiling Caroline’s hopes for a romance with David; and as one of the students, the daughter of Caroline’s long-deceased mother’s lover–begins to dictate the social order of the pupils. Finally, having fallen in to a mass hysteria, the girls are treated by one of Samuel’s former utopian colleagues, a doctor who decides that the students all just need to release their tension through “paroxysms”–or orgasms, manually stimulated by the doctor. In the end, Caroline decides that this is wrong, and leaves her father for city life.

The book is well-written and often beautiful and evocative, but the plot was too predictable for me, and the remove with which the author’s manner prose separates the reader and characters is too distant, and the characters too thin, for me to have gotten very invested in the outcome.

The Old Success by Martha Grimes. 2/5
While I thought the basics of this mystery, which involves a recent murder and a suspicious death in the past, were ok, I felt like I was dropping into a conversation in progress between several very close and insulated friends. Not having read Grimes’s other books in this series, I’m certain that I missed out by not knowing some of the references in the book or the series’s underlying arc. This installment, though, was not quite enjoyable or interesting enough to convince me to go to the beginning of the series and read the rest of the books. The characters aren’t particularly interesting to me, their processes rely heavily on connections and power rather than personal investigation, and the predominance of male characters in power over female characters in less powerful roles or as victims didn’t help.

The New Voices of Science Fiction by Nino Cipri; Darcie Little Badger; S. Qiouyi Lu; Sam J. Miller; Samantha Mills; Suzanne Palmer; Sarah Pinsker; Vina Jie-Min Prasad; David Erik Nelson; Kelly Robson; Amman Sabet; Jason Sanford; E. Lily Yu; Jamie Wahls; Alexander Weinstein. 5/5
This is a great collection of SFF by relatively new writers. While many of them have become well-established by now, getting major awards and big publishing deals, this is still a good introduction to the work of Rebecca Roanhorse, Amal El-Mohtar, Alice Sola Kim, Sam J. Miller, E. Lily Yu, Rich Larson, Vina Jie-Min Prasad, Sarah Pinsker, Darcie Little Badger, S. Qiouyi Lu, Kelly Robson, and others. I love the diverse viewpoints and characters created by this group of writers and recommend this highly for anyone interested in the current state and trends of SFF and its future.

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