Book reviews: P. Djèlí Clark’s Dead Cat Tail Assassins, Ann Leckie, Silvia Moreno-Garcia, and more

What the Mountains Remember by Joy Callaway. 3/5
In this romance about keeping one’s background secret for reasons of social standing, Callaway tries so hard to make her characters work, but in the end, it just doesn’t work. Belle is slated to marry Worth (god, these names, please, can we be at least a little more subtle?), but Belle comes from a poor family. Belle’s mother has obfuscated her past, and married a rich man after Belle’s father died in a mine collapse. Worth’s parents and, apparently, his fiancée, died in a fire. Both are pledged not to love, ever, because love brings pain. (Sigh.) Everyone is on holiday in Asheville, NC, to see the building of the Grove Park Inn. As they figure out their relationship, which consists of numerous broken engagements and attempts to break engagements, they fall in love. Of course. At the same time, Belle begins to write an article about the men building the Inn, which gives her the opportunity to show that laborers and craftspeople are people too! But the “article” included near the d of the book does no such thing, and while Belle is happy that her husband covers costs for the workers’ health care and housing, she’s still horrified by her own roots, except when they are useful for her to gain favor with Worth and others in their circle. You can also play Gothic bingo here: young woman in love with inappropriate man; man who is a cad; tuberculosis; poor but proud people; escaping on horseback; possible illegitimate child; charred ruins of Worth’s parents’ home; sneaking around in the dark; lots of costume changes; Worth’s manly chest. 3/5 for effort.

The Angel of Indian Lake by Stephen Graham Jones. 5/5
The third and final installment in Jones’s horror series surrounding “final girl” and horror flick expert Jade Daniels, The Angel Of Indian Lake has plenty of smarts and gore to match. Horror fans will love Jade’s inner monologue and its deep, deep knowledge of the genre, and those who enjoy Jones’s take on Indigenous lore will come away very happy from this novel, where these facets are entwined in fantastic and brutal ways. I do recommend that readers read the trilogy in order: this last book relies heavily on reader knowledge of what happened in the previous two novels. I love how Jade as changed (and not changed) since the previous book, how Jones depicts her CPTSD and responses, and how her allies have developed as well.

The Seventh Veil of Salome by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. 5/5
Moreno-Garcia never fails to amaze me. Every book has a different angle, but all tell stories of humanity and need and the darkness of the heart. Here, a young woman is plucked out of obscurity to star as Salome in a 1920s silent epic, and Moreno-Garcia weaves her story of Salome (or the film’s treatment, as it was called then) with the young actor’s life in a brilliant and compelling way. It’s old Hollywood, and all of the gossip and camp and scandal and ways to survive are on display . It’s a great read.

The Dead Cat Tail Assassins by P. Djèlí Clark. 5/5
This is a brilliant and hilarious tour-de-force from Clark, whose other work I have enjoyed to no end. Here, an assassin is sent to kill….someone who might very well be her younger self, literally. When the assassin runs, taking her quarry with her, adventures ensue, involving the world’s equivalent of mediocre, White, crypto-flogging men in tech, other assassins, and goddesses. It’s a romp through popular culture and fantasy tropes, and is glorious. (“Edgelords” had me laughing out loud.)

Lake of Souls by Ann Leckie. 4/5
This collection of short stories and novellas by Leckie brings together tales from both her Imperial Radch world and the world of The Raven Tower, as well as stand-alone pieces. For me, Leckie’s writing is best in her Radch pieces. It’s strong and clear, and the world is a place with deliberate rules and expectations. It’s crisper than her writing for the Raven Tower world, where intent and action is murkier, and where the world is less well-defined. I have to admit that I was a bit underwhelmed by the stand-alones, although the often unexpected narrators and points of view are interesting. A few of these would benefit from further careful editing to tighten them up, but overall, fans will appreciate having Leckie’s shorter pieces in one collection.

The Gilded Ones #3: The Eternal Ones by Namina Forna. 1/5
If you want to read this–which you might not–you’ll need to have books 1 and 2 fresh in your memory for it to make any sense. I really liked the first book in this series, but book 2 was repetitive and character actions and development didn’t always make sense. This installment, book 3, is even worse that book 2. There’s a lot of awkward backstory, the characters and their relationships are ambiguous–and the relationships seem to turn on a dime–and the plot is only vaguely perceptible.

Dominoes by Phoebe McIntosh. 2/5
When Layla’s best friend Sera sends Layla a video explaining that Layla’s White fiance’s racist family might have owned her Black family, Layla is thrown into doubt about race and relationships and what it means to be Black (but sometimes passing as White). Layla agonizes, Sera ends their decades-long friendship, Layla goes to visit her family in Jamaica. There, Layla learns that even Black families had slaves, and that despite them having the same surname, a professional genealogist can’t find proof that Layla’s fiance owned hers. Layla begins to recognize the microaggressions Sera has been exposed to all her life, and realizes that she needs to do a lot of thinking about how the world treats Black and mixed-race folks. She returns her engagement ring, likely bought with slave trade money, to her fiance, and they buy a new one and get married and everyone who needed to gets a little more woke.

Some of the characters are annoying–Layla, for one–but others are people you’d want to play dominoes with, like her Grandpa. The character development isn’t as dramatic as it might have been, and the wedding scenes in which Layla’s mother dances with the White father of the groom is a little bit pat. The scenes with Layla teaching are painfully awkward and cringeworthy, but the first person narration of the rest of the book works well and is easy to follow, although as a protagonist, Layla remains a bit vague and blurry.

Finally. the author chose to set the story during the first year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and because of that and the way certain characters react to the lockdowns and recommended safety precautions, the story is also about ableism and disability. I was pretty angry that characters who readers are supposed to like were so thoughtless when it came to keeping others safe. It changed how I viewed some of the characters and made me less sympathetic to Layla and others.

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