The House of Shattered Wings, by Aliette de Bodard

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 18, 2015

Summary: A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

Thoughts: It’s not secret that I have a thing for fallen angels. So when I heard the synopsis of Aliette de Bodard’s The House of Shattered Wings, I knew it was going to be a novel I’d have to look closely at. And this book is simply unlike anything I’ve ever read before, making it a stand-out addition to my personal library.

Paris has been devastated, thanks to destruction caused by warring fallen angels. The city is in ruin, gangs roam the streets, angel body parts and blood get sold on the black market, and the Great Houses still stand. House Silverspires was once the House of Morningstar, the architect of the falling of the angels, guiding followers in their survival. That is, until he vanished, leaving Silverspires with failing magics and slowly weakening defenses, with other Houses circling it like sharks closing in for the kill. But Philippe, a non-angelic (Fallen or otherwise) immortal with a mysterious past, might be the key to changing the fortunes of House Silverspires and everyone within it. For good or for ill.

This is an odd book. It’s slow, bordering on ponderous, and it’s largely free of the typical action scenes most readers of SFF come to expect in novels. That being said, there’s still a lot to take in, and the story itself is complex and full of spectacular levels of world-building. It combines myths from various religions and regions, some interesting takes on those myths, an alternate history, and all that’s before you even get into the diverse cast of characters who drive the story along. Selene, the leader of Silverspires, hard because she has to take up the mantle of a legend and keep her House and its dependents safe. Madeleine, hiding her addiction to angel essence, which is understandably taboo in Houses when you consider that it involves consuming pieces of an angel’s body.

And then there’s Morningstar. Morningstar, known more to us as Lucifer, appears mostly in flashbacks and memories, the founder of House Silverspires and Selene’s vanished mentor. Morningstar, so charismatic that people, be they angel or human, flocked to him. Morningstar, whose House is now crumbling and who is still somehow related to the events occurring, only just how he’s connected doesn’t really make sense until you have all the pieces of the puzzle. For a character who’s pretty much only there in spirit, he’s definitely a favourite of mine, and I found myself looking forward to Philippe’s looks into the past so that I could see more of the mysterious fallen angel himself.

The writing is downright lyrical at times, evoking some powerful imagery and emotion as the story progresses. It’s a very character-driven story in many ways, since although some plot points were put in motion long before the characters in question ever came onto the scene, it’s Philippe and Selene and Madeleine and Isabelle that move it along. Their mistakes, their curiosities, their fear and desperation and drive, all influence Silverspires. In a way, the House is the novel’s real focus, almost a character in itself, since the story is all about its slow decline and everyone’s attempts to keep it safe and overcome the darkness threatening it.

It’s hard to discuss this book without mentioning spoilers all over the place, honestly. Some books I can manage just fine with in reviews, and others are so rich and sense that it’s hard to say, “This whole section is great because…” or “It really hit home when this character did…” I’ve said before that some of the best novels are the hardest to review, for this very reason, and The House of Shattered Wings is definitely one of those books. There’s so much to it, layers of story and myth and characterization, plots that intertwine, breaking off sometimes but always coming back in the end, and while it takes a few mental twists to follow along at times, it’s worth the effort.

It’s a slow-burn kind of novel, and definitely not for everyone. I imagine that the slow pace would turn away some readers, as well as the fact that it’s set in an alternate past that was affected by various aspects of different myths. It’s a bit trick to wrap your head around exactly where and when this takes place, beyond, “Paris, ruined, with people dressing in fashions from decades ago.” Which, looked at more objectively, goes to show the fine attention to detail that de Bodard put into creating this fascinating setting. It’s a dark and beautiful book, filled with fear and hope in equal measure, and it certainly was unique. An acquired taste, perhaps, but one that suits me very well. If this is what I can expect from other things the author has written, then consider me a fan right from the outset!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Announcing a writing contest for SFF micro fiction

Amid the Imaginary is holding a contest for SFF-related micro fiction, 500 words or less, geared to self-published authors.

Why am I announcing this here? Because if you hop on over to the page and scroll to the bottom to the list of judges, you might just see a familiar name in the mix.

Also because I’m participating in the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, and I know that has gained me a few self-published authors as regular or semi-regular readers of my blog, and I figured there’d be a few people reading this that may want to get their submission in before the deadline.

Guidelines:

1. Must have at least one self-published book (please provide a link in your e-mail)

2. Must be a subscriber to the Amid the Imaginary newsletter published through Fine Fables Press

3. Story must be 500 words or less and in one of the genres of the blog (Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Paranormal, Dystopian, Steampunk)

4. One entry per person and once submitted the entrant cannot resubmit

5. Story format can be in PDF or Word

DEADLINE to submit: Noon, 12:00 pm (U.S. Central Standard Time) on Saturday, August 22nd. No exceptions.

Email your submission to finefablespress@gmail.com, Subject: Writing Contest Submission

A full list of rules and prizes can be seen on Amid the Imaginary, so head on over and see if this contest is one you’d be interested in submitting something to.

GIVEAWAY: Pathfinder Tales: Liar’s Island, by Tim Pratt

It’s been a while since I last hosted a giveaway here, so I’m glad to say that the dry spell is broken! Thanks to the good people at Tor Books, I have a copy of Tim Pratt’s upcoming Pathfinder Tales: Liar’s Island up for grabs to one lucky US or Canadian winner!

Rodrick is a con man as charming as he is cunning. Hrym is a talking sword of magical ice, with the soul and spells of an ancient dragon. Together, the two travel the world, parting the gullible from their gold and freezing their enemies in their tracks. But when the two get summoned to the mysterious island of Jalmeray by a king with genies and elementals at his command, they’ll need all their wits and charm if they’re going to escape with the greatest prize of all-their lives.

From Hugo Award winner Tim Pratt comes a tale of magic, assassination, monsters, and cheerful larceny, in Pathfinder Tales: Liar’s Island, set in the award-winning world of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

So what do you have to do to enter for a chance to win? Just comment on this post, telling me what character class you prefer to play as in fantasy RPGs. Or if you don’t play any, tell me what class would you’d prefer to be if you did play?

Rules

  • Must have a US or Canadian mailing address; no PO Boxes
  • Must provide mailing address if chosen as a winner, which will be sent to the publisher for shipping and not retained by me
  • Comment on this post to enter; must provide valid contact info in the comment in case you win
  • Limit of 1 (one) entry per person
  • Giveaway closes at 11:59 PM, PST, Sunday August 9, 2015
  • Winners will be drawn and announced on Monday August 10, 2015

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 3

Week 3, and we’re now three-quarters through the novel and the readalong. This week’s questions were provided thanks to Heather of The Bastard Title.


1. Kai and Izza finally meet face-to-face. What do you think about their confrontation? Did it go as you expected, or did they surprise you?

Well, I certainly didn’t expect them to meet the way they did, but I can’t really say it surprised me, either. Izza’s definitely the type to do what she did, when the need arises, and given what she’d just seen with Margot, and seen his connection to Kai, it’s not entirely surprising that she jumped to the conclusion she did.

And it was definitely more dramatic than, say, having them bump into each other on the street, or to have Margot connect the dots and arrange an introduction for them both, or some other such thing. And it definitely provided Kai the incentive to let Izza explain her side of things!

2. Poor Margot. Do you trust that Claude just did a stupid thing and didn’t believe Kai when he needed to, or do you think he has a bigger role in the conspiracy? And who is behind the mysterious murdering Penitent?

You know, I think I do believe him. The impression that I got from him in previous scenes wasn’t one of general maliciousness, or even specific maliciousness. I think he just acted thoughtlessly because he didn’t really take Kai seriously. Which seems to be a bit of a running theme with those two. So while I think he’s innocent of deliberate wrongdoing, I still think he bears a bit of blame for what happened. Culpability rather than guilt, if that makes sense.

As for the Penitent, I have no idea who could be behind that. I have a handful of different theories, and too few facts to actually lean toward any more than others. It could be a deliberate order coming from someone in law enforcement. It could, weirdly, be someone disguised as a Penitent, because there was definitely something weird about it beyond “Penitents don’t kill people,” and it killing someone. It could be that Penitents do kill when ordered, but that’s not widely publicized because that would make citizens too fearful and it might be deemed completely unjust to force the people inside to experience the kill.

It could be that it wasn’t a Penitent at all and it was a god that looked like one. Hell, maybe it was Smiling Jack!

Yeah, I’m going to sit back and let the book explain this one to me outright, rather than theorize any more.

3. Kai and Teo’s conversation about evolution and creation myths, science vs. belief, was really striking. Which side of the philosophical argument would you lean towards?

Let me just say that I loved that argument. I love debates like that, ones that look at both sides of a coin and yet neither of them is right nor wrong. They’re each arguing a different side like it’s the whole truth, and missing the fact that they’re still arguing about a coin in the end.

Personally, I’ve always tried to meld science and religion, at least when it comes to my personal religious beliefs. So in that regard, I can see both sides. Teo’s absolutely right that you can’t really refute all the scientific evidence regarding where humanity came from, where we were and how we got here, if you look at history and fossils and all that stuff. But Kai is also right, I figure, by interpreting humanity in a different way that Teo. She made a very good point when she said that sure, people were all over the place way back when, but when people got to Kavekana, then somehow they became human, as they know humans. And that reconciling that is exactly what her job as a priest is: to fill in the gaps with spirituality when other evidence can’t give you answers.

Here’s what I think regarding creation myths: they’re not meant to be taken literally. Religion is couched in metaphor, and always has been. Those myths are our way of trying to make sense of the world around us, to answer questions we have that we have no real way of discovering. So we see what we have and we go, “Aha, that must be tied to how we were made!” Interpreting it literally is pointless, because there’ll always be tons of evidence to the contrary, and easy-to-find stuff to boot. But taken metaphorically, understood as a historical interpretation of spirituality and physicality, it’s easier to understand sometimes. Maybe some myths say we came from a deity diddling himself because early humans understood that was related to life.

Or otherwise, melding that with Kai’s comment about Kavekana being where people became human, looking at creation myths and all the different ones all over the place makes sense even then. It’s established that there are different gods in the world of these books, and there were more. Who’s to say that all the myths aren’t true, exactly how they’re told? That god’s eventual people lived in spiritual darkness until whatever the creation myth says happened happened, and then people were enlightened and understood things and could comprehend deities at all. To those people, wouldn’t that sudden epiphany look like the world hadn’t existed before that moment?

(This is giving me flashbacks to a philosophy course in which I attempted to show why Christianity and evolution were largely incompatible, because any melding of the concepts would prove that God is a giant monkey. Amazingly, I got pretty good marks on that essay… :p)

And that’s my religious diatribe for the day!

4. So we know now that all of the idols and Izza’s gods are different facets of a single goddess. How do you think this development might affect the different characters, and Kavekanese society as a whole?

I think it’ll blow a whole lot of minds. Kavekana’s not supposed to have any gods at the moment. The idols filled a need, in a way, but definitely weren’t gods. And suddenly there is a god, one that’s been there for a long time now, existing under everyone’s noses and nobody knew about it. I think that’s going to cause some major upheaval.

Some would deny it. Some would try to destroy the god that rose from the idols in an attempt to keep the land pure. I’m sure some would insist that this new god is their old god returned, just in a different form. It’ll be divisive and scary to a lot of people, because it overthrows something that people were adamant about for so long.

5. Why do you think Teo threw her bracelet into the pool?

Now, on this I actually have no idea. I thought at first it might have been just to get Kai’s attention, but that seemed an odd thing to do when Teo could just talk to her. Maybe to get her attention silently because Jace was there now? I don’t know. Weirdly, I was on more solid ground for the creation myths question than this one.

6. Uh, oh, Jace. All signs are starting to point to Jace being the architect of this conspiracy. Signs can be wrong, of course. But where do you think we’ll go from his surprise appearance? If he did know about the goddess in the pool all along, why do you think he would have covered it up?

If he did arrange all of this and he knew about the goddess in the pool, it makes sense that he’d want it covered up. For one thing, there’s the bit about Kavekana not having gods, and the goddess would throw a monkey wrench in that belief. For another, the idols were never supposed to gain sentience. They were designed to not have sentience, to not be another more than little mini-myths and soul storage. If that were revealed, everything about idols would be called into question, as well as the people who created them, and the whole arrangement would sink in a heartbeat. From a business standpoint, it makes sense to cover up blips in the data, to make the business model look as secure as it’s ever been.

I don’t think he knew how large it had gotten, though. I think he knew about some idols seeming to gain sentience, and arranged to have them terminated accordingly, but not that they’d all linked together and were facets of one larger deity. But I guess this last part of the novel will show if I’m right or not.

Bonus (silly) question: what possible reason could a skeleton Craftsman have for poolside tanning?

Bleaching. Everyone knows that pale is in this season.

July in Retrospect

I don’t know where July went. One day I was marveling at the fact that it had arrived, then poof, it’s over.

Life-wise, it brought some changes. My roommate is now on an overnight schedule at work, and because my work (read: blogging) is flexible and can be done at any time of the day and because my past has shown that overnights work really well for me, I’ve switched to the same schedule. So now we’re both awake at night and sleep for most of the day.

Like vampires.

Combined with my allergy to sunlight, this is working well for me.

Did I mention vampires?

Okay, in all seriousness, let’s take a look at what I accomplished here last month.

Reviews

In Midnight’s Silence, by T Frohock
We Are Monsters, by Brian Kirk
Tainted Blood, by M L Brennan
Dark Orbit, by Carolyn Ives Gilman
The Affinities, by Robert Charles Wilson
Dark Ascension, by M L Brennan
The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber
The Fifth Season, by N K Jemisin

I read 8 books and reviewed just as many! I was hoping to actually read more, but a large chunk of my days lately has been taken up trying to readjust my sleep schedule, leaving me tired and occasionally unable to do much beyond staring vacantly at a TV, so reading hasn’t been top of my priority list for the past week-and-a-bit. It’s getting better now, I’m adjusting, so hopefully next month will be better!

Guest Posts

My Favorite Fallen Angel, by T Frohock
Max Gladstone on writing urban fantasy in a secondary world

Other Stuff

I looked at 6 books that are On the Watchlist, 1 of which I’ve received for review since then, which makes me pretty happy! I looked at some of the books that I didn’t have a chance to read and review before their release date, too, which makes me less happy, but sometimes that happens.

I reviewed a very weird Hong Kong horror movie called Baby Blues.

I announced the winner of the first round of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off! I’m happy to see Barbara J Webb’s City of Burning Shadows passed on to round 2, and I look forward to seeing what everyone else in the challenge thinks of it.

The Full Fathom Five readalong has started, and I posted by Q&A sessions for weeks 1 and 2.

I wrote The Great Divide, which looks at gender issues and visibility in SFF, and the logic people try to use to excuse the lack of balance.

Upcoming

I look back on July and think, “Wow, I didn’t actually think I’d done that much.” Possibly because the month just flew by for me, so it didn’t feel like much could have been accomplished. But really, I’d be happy if I had months this good more often!

So what’s on the table for August? Well, I want to do the usual review goal of 8 books, of course. I’m hoping for another guest post or two, because they’re always good to read! Weeks 3 and 4 of the Full Fathom Five readalong will be in August, so there’ll be those posts too. I definitely want to look at some more movies to review, because I’m enjoying that more than I thought I would (and I thought I’d enjoy it right from the outset)!

I’m also going to be starting an in-depth look at certain older SFF novels, a chapter-by-chapter commentary, because I find that very often during the reading of a book I end up thinking a lot about certain scenes or themes and I want to talk about them, but there’s not always a good place in an overall review. So in-depth stuff is what I’m going for. Since my Patreon supporters get this news early, it won’t be a surprise to everyone, but starting in August I’ll be reading C S Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy. 5 chapters a week, with the commentary and analysis being posted on Fridays, until the whole trilogy is done.

I’m aware that this will take a long time, but it’s a project that I think I’ll enjoy and will help me better flex some analytical muscles. So readers can look forward to that, starting on August 7th.

So that’s my plan for August! Plenty of content, plenty of awesome books!

How did your July go? Any big plans for August? Let me know in the comments, or link to your own similar blog posts on the subject!

The Fifth Season, by N K Jemisin

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

Thoughts: Since reading the Inheritance trilogy, I’ve been a fan of Jemisin’s writing, and I lusted after this book for well over a year. So when it finally made its way into my hands, I had extremely high hopes for it. I spent that time happily sheltered from any spoiler more detailed than the release date, so I went into it blind, knowing only that it was written by an author whose work I love.

I can’t even begin to say how even my legendary expectations were blown out of the water.

The story starts with Essun, a woman whose husband has murdered their young son and kidnapped their daughter, because he found out that Essun and her children were orogenes, those hated and dangerous manipulators of the earth. Essun sets out on a quest to kill her husband and recover her daughter, but a powerful seismic event has just happened, starting an unprecedented Season and changing the fate of humanity. Told alongside Essun’s story are the stories of Syenite, a young orogene on a mission with the most powerful orogene alive, and Damaya, an orogene just starting her training at the Fulcrum. Over time we see how these stories converge, but it’s not in the way many readers might first expect.

What to say about the world of The Fifth Season? The planet, or at least the known inhabited land, is one large continent called the Stillness. Nobody has much inclination to seek potential land elsewhere, because seismic activity is common and devastating, and tsunamis are a very real and not uncommon danger for people living in coastal communities, let alone those at sea. Humanity has survived disaster after disaster, civilizations crumbling and new ones arising, and the Sanze empire has been in power for most of recorded history. It is, on its surface, a fascinating and unique fantasy world.

But scratch below the surface and you see that it’s more complicated than that. It isn’t said outright, but there are strong hints dropped that it’s not a secondary world so much as this world, and that the whole story is post-apocalyptic fantasy. (Highlight to read spoilers) Long ago, humanity managed to destroy the moon, and with it went all we know about its effects on seismic activity. Tidal patterns changed. Earthquakes and volcanoes became more common. The degree to which this happens may be a bit of artistic license, but it all fits so very well that it’s hard to question too much of the hypothetical science while reading The Fifth Season.

There are so many wonderful and subtle things I loved about this book. It’s worth pointing out that treatment of gender and sexuality were two of the things that resonated strongly with me. Transgender people are encountered, and nobody makes a big deal of it. Someone presents as a woman, and whether or not they have a penis, you treat them like a woman. End of story. Alabaster prefers to sleep with men, Innon is happy to sleep with men or women. Things that this society still treats as odd and worthy of stares are treated as just part of people, no more odd than being cisgender or heterosexual. You can almost here the, “Yeah, what of it?” being asked every time it crops up in text, because the subtlety is so blatant that it’s practically challenging the reader to make a big deal of something that shouldn’t be, if they dare.

Of all three stories being told, I think I found Syenite’s and Damaya’s sections the most interesting. It wasn’t that Essun’s chapters were boring or poorly written, but from the perspective of personal taste, I found them less appealing than the others. Syenite’s chapters had quite a bit of action to them, which helped, and I’ve always had a draw to stories of kids encountering unique school-like settings like Damaya did. Essun’s story of vengeance in a world being slowly destroyed was compelling, and it being told in from the second-person viewpoint made many of the emotional scenes hit powerfully hard, and maybe that was part of why I liked the other sections more, too. Some things aren’t exactly enjoyable to read, given their subject matter, even when the skill that crafted the scene is first-rate and deserves to be read and appreciated.

The Fifth Season is Jemisin at her finest, and is a stellar novel not to be missed by fantasy fans. It hits hard, an earthquake to the soul; it wrings you out and puts you back together again. Powerful prose, amazing world- and culture-building, high emotional investment, all put together by a master of the writer’s art. This is a legend in the making!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Night of the Long Knives, by Fritz Leiber

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s GoodReads page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – 1960, reprinted July 15, 2015

Summary: I was one hundred miles from Nowhere ― and I mean that literally ― when I spotted this girl out of the corner of my eye. I’d been keeping an extra lookout because I still expected the other undead bugger left over from the murder party at Nowhere to be stalking me.

Welcome to Deathland, a postapocalyptic nuclear desert where kill or be killed is the law of the land. The radiation-damaged survivors of this ravaged region are consumed by the urge to murder each other, making partnership of any sort a lethal risk. But when two drifters forge an uneasy truce, the possibility of a new life beckons.

Written by a multiple Hugo Award–winning author and one of the founders of the sword-and-sorcery genre, this novel-length magazine story first appeared at the height of Cold War paranoia. Fritz Leiber’s thought-provoking tale addresses timeless questions about the influences of community and culture as well as the individual struggle to reform.

Thoughts: Ray is a murderer, wandering the Deathlands alone. If he sees another human being, he must fight down one of two primal urges: to kill or to copulate. That’s just how life is. Sure, there may be people out there who don’t do that, who live in social groups and cling to post-apocalyptic life in any way they can, but that’s not Ray’s way. And it’s a chance meeting with Alice, and then with Pop, that changes how he looks at his life, and the world in which he lives.

Night of the Long Knives is one of those stories that gives me a lot of difficulty when trying to review. It’s good. I can see that it’s good, full of interesting thoughts about religion and death and culture, much of it unsaid but still implied. It’s told from an interesting perspective, a man who’s very much a loner and part of a culture of death. it had a fun twist at the end whereby you think there’s going to be mass deaths, only instead it turns out to be mass salvation from a plague.

I should have loved it. Instead I viewed it as… okay. Objectively good, but really not my cup of tea.

I liked the themes more than the execution, really. Ray and Alice are murderers by culture, life in the Deathlands shaping them into people who kill people just because primal human instinct tells them to. Pop is an ex-murderer, someone who has made a choice not to kill and who struggles with fighting that urge. Like Ray, he played a part in the Last War, the war that brought North America, at least, to its knees and remade it into something desperate and harsh. There’s discussion over why someone would choose to go against their urges, whether remote mass killings in war count as murders or not, treating part of the accepted human condition as merely another thing to be overcome. These are some great theme, fertile ground for discussion and reflection.

But the story just didn’t do it for me.

Perhaps it was because as fascinating as those themes are, I felt such a disconnect from them that it was hard for me to really appreciate that way of life and the struggle to change it. The fact that Leiber is also hailed as such a phenomenal writer made me feel, through the whole thing, that this was just utter allegory for something else entirely, and I just wasn’t smart enough or insightful enough to figure out what. Stories that leave me wishing I was more intelligent are great, because they give me drive to better myself, but they are pretty frustrating during the initial read.

At fewer than 100 pages, The Night of the Long Knives flies by despite the dark concepts it deals with, and so even when it may not be an enjoyable read, per se, it is still objectively good, stylistically worthwhile and set in a fairly common but still unique post-apocalyptic setting. It does hold up and is good reading even over half a century since its initial publication, and you don’t find too many works that you can say that about. Older sci-fi tends to suffer from the limitations of its day, and while there was a little bit of that in here, it was only a touchpoint, and a subtle one, to show the difference of North America after a massive war. A few phrases here and there that sound dated or awkward to modern ears, but nothing that isn’t easily handwaved as just another part of the story and the time it takes place in. So even if, like me, you don’t end up that fond of this novella in the long run, I’d say it’s still worth reading just to see a good example of something that stands the test of time and raises some interesting questions about morality and instinct.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

READALONG: Full Fathom Five, by Max Gladstone: Week 2

It’s time for another Q&A session for the Full Fathom Five readalong! This time, we’re looking at chapters 14-32, and this week’s questions are brought to us by Lynn from Little Lion Lynnet’s.


1) So Margot too is hoping that Izza can lead him to the Blue Lady. What do you make of his vision? Especially in relation to the nightmares that Kai is having. Do you think they’re related?

I hadn’t thought about the two being connected until reading this question, but really, it wouldn’t surprise me. There’s definitely more going on here than either side of the triangle is seeing, though Margot comes closest to seeing it all. He’s talked to Izza about the Blue Lady, and he’s heard Kai’s tale that he somehow managed to siphon energy from the idol, though I suspect he hasn’t really put the two things properly together at this point.

But that’s the part of this mystery that’s intriguing me most of all. If Margot’s vision really did come from the idol, then it gained a level of sentience that it certainly wasn’t intended to, and not only that but was able to reach outside its very limited sphere of influence and give inspiration and strength to someone in need. Essentially, it was like a mini god.

Which brings up thoughts and theories I’ve been having since I read the premise of this book. What’s the difference between an idol and a god? If idols are just made things to hold soulstuff, which is essentially life and essence and all that comes with it, isn’t it entirely possible that an idol with enough soul would gain a degree of sentience and power and become like a small god, because enough people worshipped it and gave it the power to do so? Where’s the tipping point?

2) Teo! Did anyone expect to see Teo? What role do you think she’ll play in the rest of the story?

I didn’t expect to see her at all! This is starting to become the cameo novel!

Much like with Cat, though, I had a moment of wondering if this was a new character that coincidentally had the same name as another character. Not everyone in the world can have a completely unique name, after all. You’d think I’d have learned better by now…

Knowing Teo, she’s probably going to be the stubborn element that aids Kai in getting closer to the truth of the whole matter. Probably in ways that are less than safe and ideal. But therein lies the fun!

3) Kai is worried that Mara has set her up. Do you think it likely?

I’m not sure, at this point. It’s also possible that Mara planted some evidence for Kai to find. Not to set her up, but to give Kai a clue that there’s something going on that Mara isn’t in a position to investigate but that Kai is. I’m leaning more in that direction, honestly, though I couldn’t quite tell you why. Too little evidence in the story so far, and it’s just a hunch.

4) It seems everyone is having discussions of faith with one another. That’s not particularly surprising given the tenor of the books, I know, but still. How does what we’ve learned from Cat and Margot in these chapters affect your feelings on the idea of gods, Craft or Idols that Allie asked?

I’m mostly fascinated with the difference between gods and idols at the moment, and that hasn’t changed from earlier chapters. I do love how everything in this series gets revealed little by little, peeling back the layers until you have the whole picture. Or until you think you do, and then some other new piece of info is given to you that forces you to readjust what you previously were so sure of.

Much like real life, actually…

5) We’re getting a better idea of what Penitence means for the people of Kavekana. What do you think of their idea of punishment now that you have a better idea of how it works?

Penitence scares the ever-loving crap out of me! In a purely practical and unemotional way, I can see why it would work as a punishment. Rightminding while still being useful and productive to society. You commit crimes, you get punished, and you come out the other side as a more law-abiding citizen with plenty of incentive not to commit crimes again.

On the other hand, I’m not a fan of brainwashing or torture, which is exactly what Penitence is. It’s a twisted punishment, one that really doesn’t fit the crime, and it makes me feel a little bit sick to think of people going through that.

6) Kai has built up an idea of what’s going on, but what do you think happened? Did Margot really steal soul without realising it or is there something else going on?

Something else going on. Without a doubt. We only have pieces of the puzzle at this point. Margot definitely did get soul that wasn’t his to take, but what’s strange about that is that a) there’s a record of it, and b) it was directed by somebody (himself, the idol, or a third party). Even if it was a pure accident, that still leaves Margot in the awkward position of having done something that was supposedly impossible, and there’s got to be a good explanation for that. He may have taken it by accident, not meaning to, but the channel to do so had to be opened somehow. Malice or negligence: either there’s some loophole in the idol’s design and contract that allows this, or somebody with the authority to do so sent the soul Margot’s way.

There are questions unanswered (obviously, since the book’s only half done), and no good book gives away everything at the outset.

And we know this is a good book!

Dark Ascension, by M L Brennan

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 4, 2015

Summary: After a lifetime of avoiding his family, Fort has discovered that working for them isn’t half bad—even if his mother, Madeline, is a terrifying, murderous vampire. His newfound career has given him a purpose and a paycheck and has even helped him get his partner, foxy kitsune Suzume, to agree to be his girlfriend. All in all, things are looking up.

Only, just as Fort is getting comfortable managing a supernatural empire that stretches from New Jersey to Ontario, Madeline’s health starts failing, throwing Fort into the middle of an uncomfortable and dangerous battle for succession. His older sister, Prudence, is determined to take over the territory. But Fort isn’t the only one wary of her sociopathic tendencies, and allies, old and new, are turning to him to keep Prudence from gaining power.

Now, as Fort fights against his impending transition into vampire adulthood, he must also battle to keep Prudence from destroying their mother’s kingdom—before she takes him down with it…

Thoughts: It didn’t take too long for the Generation V series to cement itself as my favourite urban fantasy series. I can’t get enough of it, and there’s so much here that appeals to me. Interesting characters, great geeky humour, a wonderfully unique take on different mythologies and supernatural creatures. It stands out from other series, and it’s got a lot of very loyal fans, and I count myself among them. And even though I’ve been stupidly slow at actually reading and reviewing them (I seem to have gotten into the habit of reading one right before the following book is scheduled to be released…), I love them to death, and I couldn’t keep up my old habits of bad timing. I had a review copy, and I needed to dive back into this world.

Was I disappointed by Dark Ascension? Not in the slightest.

Unlike the other novels in the series, the central plot is more of a coming-of-age story than a supernatural mystery to be solved. Previously Fort ended up mixed up in a situation that needed dealing with, or actively investigating some odd happenstance, but here, most of what he’s dealing with are the ways his life has changed and continues to change. Fort ends up taking care of far more of his family’s affairs than he ever expected, and with his modern liberal way of thinking, he butts heads with both Chivalry and Prudence on certain issues. Which isn’t surprising, if you’ve read the other 3 books in the series. But a tragedy forces them all to cooperate on a whole new level, and Fort’s transition to full vampirism speeds up, and things will never be the same for him.

While I loved this opportunity to see more of Fort’s transition and to see him really come into his own, those who maybe got used to the series being a bit more action-oriented with a stronger mystery to deal with may be a bit disappointed in the way this novel doesn’t really present those things. There is action, and some of the usual high-stakes fight scenes (especially at the end), but the closest thing to a mystery is really the matter of how Fort will handle the supernatural politics that he’s forced to juggle. It’s a story of little stories, of growing up, of taking a stand and doing what you believe is right, no matter the consequences. It’s a story of figuring out yourself, and the people around you.

And it’s an odd tactic for the fourth book in a series, but it really works! Fort’s transformation comes alongside some truly heartbreaking scenes, scenes that actually had me shedding some tears halfway through the book, and there’s this sense that maturity often goes hand-in-hand with grief and loss. This is probably the most mature of all the Generation V novels for that reason; you see Fort experience things that can hit hard to anyone who’s ever endured the death of a loved on, to those who have had to make the hard choice between the status quo and a potential improvement. Things that are human to the core, a part of everyone’s life, and to incorporate them so well into the struggles of a man who’s wrestling with the unseen supernatural world, tangled alliances and twists on myth, is something that’s often attempted and rarely done well. Fort’s spent most of his life trying to keep the mundane and the supernatural aspects of his life utterly separate from each other, but those walls have crumbled. But some things are universal, and I love the way Brennan managed to blend the two elements so well.

Of course, there’s more to Dark Ascension than just a dark heavy maturity. If that’s all there was, I wouldn’t have liked it nearly so much. As always, the banter between Suzume and Fort is pure genius! I love the way those two carry on, the way their dialogue plays out, whether the situation is tense and emotional or lighthearted and fun. I love the geeky references and odd subculture references that Brennan throws in, very few of which I don’t get, and this makes it so very easy for me to connect to the characters because — at least in the case of Fort — I think how he thinks a lot of the time. His internal monologue contains lines that I would think and say, and I love being able to say that about a character in a modern-day setting, because that’s so rare for me!

(Side note – Since Babymetal was mentioned, I wondered if Megistune was Suzume’s favourite song. It’s a better song that What Does the Fox Say, after all. :p)

What it comes down to is this: the status quo of both the in-book world and the books themselves was established, and Dark Ascension breaks it and takes things in a couple of unexpected directions. It’s got so many beloved aspects that the series has become known for, as well as some new insights that take things to a different level. It’s a great book, a worthy addition to the series, and from the ending, the ride isn’t over yet!

And I want to be right here when it starts up again!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Great Divide

(Note – These thoughts were formed, though not for the first time, after reading this Tor.com post by Liz Bourke: Conversations Founded on False Assumptions. And the subsequent comments. Because the more I read comments sections, the more I see people completely missing the point while crying that they, and only they, are the ones who can really hit the bullseye.)

I don’t pick my reading material by gender. Some would say that makes me ignorant, others would say that makes me a hero. I like to think I’m somewhere in between.

I got lucky. I almost fell by utter accident into a space where I read males and females almost equally. This year, I’ve read 35 books written by women, 23 by men, 4 where I’m not sure of the author’s gender, and 3 anthologies where the authors were both male and female and probably some that weren’t binary, maybe. I made no effort to do this. It just happened to be the way my reading material fell into my hands, picking what to read based solely on what I wanted to read.

And yet. I can’t deny that this is not representative of most people who read SFF.

Lots of people like to take the high ground, to claim that a good book is a good book, and that being male or female doesn’t influence how well you can write so gender shouldn’t matter. And if that was the whole story, they’d be right.

But that isn’t the whole story. Far from it. There are a dozen or more factors that go into it, not just what gets into your hands but what gets into everyone else’s hands along the way.

First of all, let’s look at things historically. People who are genderblind love to point out authors like Norton, Le Guin, McCaffrey, as shining examples of why gender doesn’t matter in fiction. Looks, these women all won Hugo awards, even! People saw how awesome their work was, they read it, they loved it, and they gave it awards! You can’t say that there’s a gender bias in genre!

This is, bluntly, akin to saying that racism doesn’t exist in America because of a single black President. One exception does not undo the whole system. Because looking at the rest of the story, you’ll see that the Hugos were awarded to people for 8 years before a woman got the award. By that point, some male authors had won multiple times. As recently as 2009, all the nominees for Best Novel were men. Were women just not writing anything good that year? Were all the male-written books just coincidentally better?

This stuff matters. It matters because it’s indicative of what people take seriously. And it’s like a snowball; it starts small, but grows bigger the more it keeps going. You think that women don’t really write things that men would be interested in. So you don’t read the books that women write. Thus those books don’t really sell as well. So publishers aren’t as likely to take on books written by women. Which means fewer books make it to the shelves with female names on the covers. And books written by women get marketed less because publishers don’t expect a big return on their investment. Which means you don’t read as many books written by women, and you certainly don’t consider them for awards, because by that point you’re stuck in this hideous mindset that if a woman wrote something worthy of an award, it would be here on sheer merit, and since it’s not, it must not exist.

If you look no further than the bookshelves, then sure, that’s what it seems like. But books don’t magically appear there at the whim of a single writer and single reader. There’s a process. And that process has been tainted by history.

“Okay, fine,” you say. “Maybe that’s true. But let’s just look at books published in the past half decade. In 5 years we’ve made huge strides toward equality. Let’s forget the past and move ahead to a better future.”

Spoken like someone whose past has never forced them to fight for recognition.

The past influences the present. All the time. Making your high horse stand on a soapbox doesn’t change that. But okay, let’s follow that line of thought for a moment and pretend that it makes perfect sense.

Why, then, do “Best Of” lists keep popping up with all these male authors. And why do people keep getting annoyed about it?

Oh, right, because of that pesky “history” thing.

It’s another part of that cycle. When male authors dominate the shelves for so long, it’s natural to think that the standalones and the series that stick around after so long are the ones that are really worth it. And again, out of context, you’re right. But those books come from that period of women being shoved to the back because of the pervasive thought that what they write is only of interest to women. George R R Martin and Robert Jordan and Robert Heinlein and a dozen or more authors don’t dominate those lists solely because they write a good book. They dominate it because they write a good book and because they were given a lot of visibility. You are, plainly, more likely to pick up a book written by a male author because there are more books available by male authors.

And you’re back into the cycle. Keep buying those man-written books without thought, keep claiming it’s only due to the superior quality of the story, and you’re making sure that only man-written books stay in print, with marketing budgets, on review and award lists.

This is why entire challenges exist to try to get people to read only fiction written by women. It’s not to try to force men down into some tiny box where their worth isn’t appreciated. It’s to try to even the score a little. It’s to try to convince people to break out of a comfort zone they didn’t even know they were in, to try something new and realize that hey, it really is as good as some people say it is. And when you start looking, you’ll see that there are books all over the place that are written by women.

You just have to look. Because history backs up the publishing industry’s male bias and says that yeah, men sell better than women, just look at all this data we have on hand from all the years we sold books that were 95% written by men anyway! They’re not going to do that for you, because as much as the tides are turning and equality is coming closer all the time, it’s not here yet, and the tried-and-true still makes more money even if it’s biased.

So when you proudly declare that you don’t see gender in your reading, that you only see quality, keep in mind that what you’re really saying is, “I’m trusting other people to judge what quality is before I can even pick up a book.” It’s not just about quality control, it’s just about gatekeeping, it’s about sales figures and history and the cyclical belief that women don’t write interesting things and so aren’t worth showing an interest in. You’re trusting a flawed system to judge what you want to read, and when you look at your reading lists and find that 4 of every 5 books you read were written by men, you’re trusting that somebody else judged them absolutely fairly.

Which, by the way, ignores the ripple effect before you even look at books already in line for publication. When books on shelves are overwhelmingly written by men, it puts across the message that women have a harder row to hoe to even get considered for publication in the first place. Maybe it would be better to just give up on this whole writing dream. No matter how good you are, nobody will ever buy your stuff. After all, if they were willing to look at more female-written fiction, wouldn’t they have done it by now? f things were truly fair, wouldn’t the numbers on the shelves be equal across genders?

And if you think I’m reaching for an excuse as to why women just don’t write or submit things, do keep in mind that female authors in the past have had to adopt male pseudonyms, or at least ambiguous ones, in order to be taken seriously. Andre Norton. James Tiptree Jr. It’s not enough that they wrote something good. They knew full well that the best way to getting taken seriously was to pretend to be a dude.

Still think there’s no bias? That history doesn’t affect the present? Because this is what you’re naively claiming every single time you say that good fiction knows no gender, that you’re genderblind and only quality matters. Quality matters only if you’re a dude. Only then are all things equal. Weren’t born with that dangly bit between your legs and an appropriate name to match? Then your choices were, for a long time, to either fake being a man, or just be so unbelievably brilliant that nobody could ignore you anymore. It wasn’t enough to be great. You had to be the best just to stand with the greats.

Nobody’s saying that you’re deliberately making lists of straight white cismale authors when you put together these lists. They’re saying that you’re doing so thoughtlessly. Naively. Ignorantly. Without consideration to the fact that the achievement line was set by these people and everyone else starts with a -2 penalty to all stats, which were devised by the men at the top to begin with. To ignore this says you’re okay with it. That you don’t think changing it is worth exerting any real effort over. That unfairness isn’t worth fighting to fix. That you don’t even want to hear that things might be skewed in any direction but the one that validates your opinion.

But hey, it’s all just about the quality, right?