Book reviews: supernatural romance, the Birdverse, and more

Bone Weaver by Aden Polydoros. 5/5
I loved this fantasy novel about three young people trying to find the protagonist’s unusual sister and end up creating world-shaking changes through magic and love and smart thinking. The world, its magic, and its peoples are well-crafted and deep, full of detail and character. It’s easy to get pulled in by the adventure and fast pacing, and the elements of hope and resistance and persistence are part of what makes falling into this story so welcome. I also love the way the character relationships evolve, and how it models a lovely romantic trio of a straight woman, a bi man, and a gay man. I hope there will be more books set in this universe from the author.

Keya Das’s Second Act by Sopan Deb. 1/5
For a book that is about honoring a dead lesbian estranged from her family, the author of this book almost never actually uses those words. The book tiptoes around both the queer character and her death, and everything that her family and friends do is about making themselves feel better….by spending a ton of money to produce a play that the dead woman wrote with her girlfriend and endow a scholarship in her name. The characters start small and don’t grow or learn or become compassionate; they just sigh a lot and happen to have connected and/or rich friends to throw money at their guilt. They even talk about throwing money at their guilt, but they don’t talk much about the dead lesbian whose “second act” the events of the novel are supposed to be. Maybe that’s the point; I don’t know. What I do know is that if that’s the point, then it isn’t clear, and it the point is a feel-good book about honoring a woman who “passed” and “was they way she was,” then it’s a terrible, terrible book that perpetuates euphemistic, anti-queer language and indulges in the avoidance of talking about facts in factual ways.

The Unbalancing by R. B. Lemberg. 5/5
The Unbalancing is a book about survival and being realistic (even in a world of magic) and consent and neurodivergent life, all set in Lemberg’s fantastical Birdverse. There’s a lot here that is philosophical and intellectual, but Lemberg always manages to keep the storyline moving forward. The book nods to the traditional Western shape for storytelling–intro, conflict, crisis, resolution–but also avoids this form, making the book somewhat circular and focused on personal decisions, sharing, attraction, and action. It’s also a different way of approaching climate fiction, and is meditative and full of beautiful language even when describing catastrophe. I love the pace of the novel, the way the characters become involved and care for one another, and the introspection of the narrator. I’d love to read this with other people who know Lemberg’s other BIrdverse work; having said that, though, I think it can stand on its own with newcomers to the author’s writing.

Screams from the Dark by Ellen Datlow. 4/5
The typical mix of good and less good horror stories. I always look for collections edited by Datlow because I know that within them I’ll find some clever and original stories (as well as some I don’t like as much but can–when I’m not reviewing them–skip over). Here I’ve read them all, and especially enjoyed Stephen Graham Jones, Joe Lansdale, Nathan Ballingrud, and Gemma Files’s contributions.

Haven by Emma Donoghue. 5/5
This is a beautiful book about the agonies of the soul and the desperation of self-appointed religious leaders. Three monks set forth to live on a rocky and stark island today known as Skellig Michael.. Artt believes he has been chosen by God for this path, only to put faith before survival and pay the price for it; Cormac and Trian labor for Artt only to finally come to a decision that will not involve him. It’s a quiet book, capturing the natural world of medieval Ireland. It moves in a slow and steady pace and presents and develops the world and the monks with great care. Early on, I knew there was a secret–Donoghue’s books and stories often have these–that would led to betrayal, but I was surprised by the way that the betrayer realizes his mistake and seeks to rectify it in very real ways. This will be great for book groups.

A Tiny Upward Shove by Melissa Chadburn. 2/4
Filipino folklore meets serial killer lit in A Tiny Upward Shove. Marina is killed by a man who has killed many women, but her body is taken over by an aswang, an inherently evil shape-shifting spirit, But this spirt has been with Marina’s family for a long time, and as it gathers strength to avenge Marina, we learn of Marina’s family tragedies and failures. Ultimately, the aswang gets vengeance for Marina and the other victims of the killer. The author uses a non-fictional killer, Robert Pickton, as a character in the book, and this makes me really uncomfortable. Family members of his victims are still living, and this book exploits their stories and pain. It’s unclear why the author draws on Filipino culture when so many of Pickton’s victims were First Nations Women. And while I appreciate the author’s dedication to showing how federal and state institutions fail young people, especially people of color, but there’s a strange blurring of the US and Canada. Why does Marina go to Vancouver? Finally, readers should be aware that the book contains rape, including child rape, and other forms of violence that will make it hard for some readers to deal with.

Singing with the Devil by Cassandra Rose Clarke. 5/5
This is an excellent supernatural adventure with some nice erotica. I love that Clarke has taken a familiar trope–the family that hunts the supernatural–and flips it, giving us a protagonist who is estranged from her family but still believes in the dogma they instilled in her. She stereotypically falls in love with the devil–or a devil (it’s complicated)–but again Clarke twists that well-worn plot device, making it the protagonist who must truly and fully break with her family to save the devil and his friends when the hunters come calling. Oh, and his friends? A handful of amazing characters, including a rock goddess cunning woman. There are clearly more stories to be told about these characters–the end tempts us–and I am looking forward to reading them. Fans of Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, and the like will love this book.

The Last Blade Priest by W P Wiles. 4/5
I enjoyed the world-building of this novel. It’s got recognizable elements from a variety of real cultures, but employs them in subtle and respectful ways. The character-building is slow but progressive, and each character has been thoughtfully given good arcs.This is clearly the first book in a series, but even with the quasi-cliffhanger at the end, it was a satisfying read. Folks who like high fantasy will like this novel; I’m looking forward to the sequel.

Blood Money by Margaret Sankey. 5/5
Blood Money is an outstanding work of research and writing, tracing the ways in which cartels, gangs, political groups, and other Violent Non-State Actors get the money they use to attack people and buildings, create propaganda, and obstruct justice. Sankey chronicles money hiding and laundering, schemes and practices from the Irish bar’s “Derry can” to selling counterfeit goods, and how everyday individuals get caught up in the process. The research is solid and fascinating, and Sankey explains often-complicated deals and arrangements clearly and with panache. The examples she uses are memorable–some for the ineptness of the criminals involved–and help explain terror events and those who create them from all over the world. I’m recommending this to everyone interested in world politics and in making the world better, because understanding what’s going on is a first step to doing something about it.

Undelivered by Jeff Nussbaum. 2/5
A book full of speeches that while written, went undelivered. This is always a popular kind of what-if game especially among armchair historians, and now you can read some of the more recent entries in the genre. The author’s extensive context and analysis is generally too much and often dull, but I’m sure everyone knowns someone will will find this interesting.

Darling by Mercedes M Yardley. 1/5
This is one of those books where you spend the whole time reading it and shaking your head and saying “WHAT” not because of surprises in the plot but because everything from characters to descriptions of places to dialogue seems to have been written without any regard for common sense or reality or any checks or balances on the “would this person do this” or the “how does this make sense” scales. It’s a mess, and a poorly written mess, and is an excellent example for the need for developmental editing in fiction.

Renaissance by Amy Clennell. 2/5
While the language of these poems is often rich, the writer’s use of alliteration, basic rhymes, and forms in which ideas are awkwardly communicated (see the sonnets in particular) were too overwhelming for me to enjoy much of this collection. I didn’t get the feeling that the author had done much thoughtful revision or editing either of the individual poems or the collection as a whole. There are a lot of very similar poems on the same topics, and there was no clear reasoning for the ordering or inclusion of poems.

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