SPFBO Review: Larcout, by K A Krantz

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N
Rating – 7/10
Author’s website
Publication date – June 1, 2015

Summary: Blood-beings can be chattel or char.

Fire seethes through the veins of every Morsam, demanding domination and destruction. Combat is a hobby. Slaughtering the inferior blood-beings is entertainment. Life is a repetitious cycle in the prison fashioned by the gods. But mix-race abomination Vadrigyn os Harlo suspects the key to freedom lies with safeguarding the blood-beings; until her blood-born mother uses foreign magic to turn the Morsam against Vadrigyn. Betrayed, bound, and broken, Vadrigyn struggles against the dying of her essential fire. Yet the ebbing flames unleash the dormant magic of her mixed heritage…

The magic to destroy free will.

Seized by the gods and dumped in the desert nation of Larcout to stop history from repeating, Vadrigyn discovers her mother’s legacy of treason and slaughter still festers. To survive the intrigues of the royal court, the roiling undercurrents of civil war, and the gods themselves, Vadrigyn must unravel the conspiracy behind her mother’s banishment. But manipulating free will unleashes a torrent of consequences.

If she fails the gods, she will return to the Morsam prison, stripped of all magic and all hope.

If she succeeds, she can rule a nation.

Kasthu. Roborgu. Inarchma.
Live. Learn. Burn.

Review: I’m going to say it right up front: I wasn’t initially sure I was going to enjoy Larcout. The opening chapters dump you right in the middle of things, gives you a plethora of new terms and alliances and relationships to learn and precious little context for them all, and then things change suddenly and the protagonist Vadrigyn is thrown into a new society with even more stuff to learn, and yes, it’s very chaotic and unclear and at times I seriously felt like Larcout was actually book 2 of a series and the reason I was so lost in the beginning was because I missed some essential backstory from a previous novel.

Bear with things. The book definitely improves.

Vadrigyn is half-breed being of fire, proudest of her Morsam heritage but undeniably related to the Larcoutian woman who raped Vadrigyn’s father in order to produce her. The violent life in Agenwold is what she knows, owning blood-beings as chattel, ruling over weaker things. Until she’s suddenly thrust into life in the Jewelled Nation, among blood-beings like her mother, forced to confront the other side of her heritage and to uncover the truth behind the mystery that is and was her mother. Larcout is something of a fantasy murder mystery in that regard, and it’s certainly a well put together one, full of intrigue and detail and some fascinating and frustrating cultural elements that Vadrigyn must wade through to solve the puzzle.

Krantz certainly put a lot of detail into the world in Larcout. The gods of the world have their particular nations, so that Larcout is both a place and a divine being. There are also elemental associations, with Jos, for instance, being of water, and Larcout seemingly being of earth (it’s never stated explicitly, but when you’ve got people who can telekinetically move rocks and who have precious stones sprouting from their foreheads and who turn to sand when they die, I think it’s safe to assume). The culture that Vadrigyn encounters when she finds herself in the land her mother came from is stratified and rigid, with gender inequality and class issues and full of tricky politics and alliances that need to be maneuvered around. Some things definitely felt more developed than others, but it’s clear that Krantz put the effort in and didn’t just make a fantasy analogue for a real-world culture and then call it a day. I find myself appreciating that more and more in the books I read.

If there’s any flaw I found with Larcout, it’s in the descriptions, or rather the lack thereof. I never felt like I had a really clear mental picture of things. I could tell you a little bit about what Dhaval looks like, or Vadrigyn, or a Grethmondor, or where Vadrigyn sleeps, but for the most part, I’ve honestly got no clue. Some details were mentioned, but for me it seems they didn’t really coalesce into a clear thing for me. However, personality-wise, I feel pretty familiar with a number of characters, because Krantz writes plenty of dialogue and all the characters have fairly distinct personalities, even if you don’t get to see them that often. I can tell you a few personality traits of just about everyone who got a name in the book.

A few other reviewers commented on the book’s lack of balance, and I feel I have to agree. The narrative vs dialogue issue is an example of it, and the one that stood out the most to me while reading it, but in retrospect, I think that might be in part because of the writing being a bit uneven. When it’s on, it’s on. It’s crisp and witty and you have a good understanding of what’s happening, even if you can’t always picture the finer details. And then other parts feel rushed or glossed over or inconsistent, and that might be a considerable part of what left me feeling unable to establish a good mental picture.

Despite that, though, Larcout was undeniably creative, and enjoyable to read even when I felt a bit lost, and once I let myself sink into the story I found myself compelled to keep pushing on, wanting to know more of the mystery that Vadrigyn was working to uncover. The threads of intrigue were strong, there were twists and turns to keep it all interesting, and it was endlessly entertaining to see Vadrigyn’s personality be at odds with the culture of the people around her. This is a book I think could be utterly brilliant if it was smoothed out and polished a bit more, but as it stands, it’s still a book worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something a little bit different and have the patience to push past the first few chaotic chapters.

 

Certain Dark Things, by Silvia Morena-Garcia

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 25, 2016

Summary: Welcome to Mexico City… An Oasis In A Sea Of Vampires…

Domingo, a lonely garbage-collecting street kid, is busy eeking out a living when a jaded vampire on the run swoops into his life.

Atl, the descendant of Aztec blood drinkers, must feast on the young to survive and Domingo looks especially tasty. Smart, beautiful, and dangerous, Atl needs to escape to South America, far from the rival narco-vampire clan pursuing her. Domingo is smitten.

Her plan doesn’t include developing any real attachment to Domingo. Hell, the only living creature she loves is her trusty Doberman. Little by little, Atl finds herself warming up to the scrappy young man and his effervescent charm.

And then there’s Ana, a cop who suddenly finds herself following a trail of corpses and winds up smack in the middle of vampire gang rivalries.

Vampires, humans, cops, and gangsters collide in the dark streets of Mexico City. Do Atl and Domingo even stand a chance of making it out alive?

Review: I like vampires. I’ve had a weird obsession with them since I was around 7 years old. But I don’t like a lot of vampire fiction that I’ve encountered recently, because so much of it follows the same paranormal-romance formula, or else portrays vampires in a way that just really doesn’t work with what I want to read. It’s a matter of personal taste, obviously, because what doesn’t work for me apparently works wonders for hundreds of others, but it does mean that I tend to get quickly burned out on vampire fiction when I dare to pick up a new novel.

However, Certain Dark Things was an incredible and refreshing surprise, showing me uncommon aspects of vampire lore across different cultures and presenting blood-drinkers as more than just dark tortured broody souls waiting for a vivacious woman to show them how wonderful unlife can be when they’re not spending it alone. The different vampires in Moreno-Garcia’s novel are reminiscent of ones from White Wolf’s Vampire: the Masquerade, at least in the sense of  having different clans and offshoots, each with different abilities, weaknesses, strengths, and heritage. And that, to me, made them seem real, well-established, like I could be looking into a hidden part of the real world because culture matters and myths matter and honestly, taking into account that so many cultures have vampiric legends in them just makes sense. It gives you a solid foundation to build upon, and weirdly works to give mostly-Western audiences something they may not have even encountered before, making them old look new and fresh.

Though the book has multiple different viewpoints, the story is primarily about Atl, a vampire with Aztec heritage, who is on the run after her family was murdered. She encounters Domingo, who becomes enamoured of her, and wants to help her despite the danger this puts him in. Chasing Atl is Nick, member of the clan that killed Atl’s family, out to finish the job and torture Atl just for kicks. On the other side is Ana, a cop trying to stand against the corruption in the system, trying to keep her city clear of the vampires who have raised their heads, and falling in with gangs in order to do it. But for all the different characters, everything swirls around and centres on Atl; it’s all about her. Domingo’s fixation on her, Rodrigo’s attempt to track her down, Nick’s violent obsession, Ana’s attempts to find both her and Nick before more damage can be done. It wasn’t merely a case of converging storylines; without Atl, there would be no story.

Well, perhaps that’s not entirely accurate. For all that the story spins itself out around Atl, the other characters who take the spotlight feel fully realized, capable of carrying on their own stories even if Atl’s wasn’t the focus. Ana’s story of trying to keep her cool on a police force full of people who don’t take her seriously, trying to raise her daughter to have options and opportunities in life even when Ana herself has to go without, would be a compelling enough story even if you didn’t bring vampires into it. Ditto for Domingo; he felt like a real person, with passions and interests and problems beyond just what you see for the brief time during which the book takes place. You read Certain Dark Things and you feel like you’re getting a glimpse into the lives of real people who go beyond the book’s pages, and they suck you in and keep a tight hold on you as their stories unfold.

I could read books like this forever. In fact, reading Certain Dark Things has made me want to track down more of Moreno-Garcia’s writing so that I can wrap myself in that evocative prose again. She weaves a wonderful story, full of rich detail and incredible characters that you want to read about even if you hate. I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not reading her work sooner.

This book made me love vampires again. And that’s no small feat given that I’ve become so jaded in recent years, more than half convinced that I’d never find vampire stories that appealed to me ever again. But here it is in all its dark violent glory, exactly what I’d been craving for so long. It took me to new locales and let me look into a culture I’ve only ever really seen in travel guides, dropped me right into the streets and let me look at the good and the bad in equal measure. Certain Dark Things pressed all the right buttons for me, and I know it’ll be one that I read again, whenever I need to refresh my lifelong love of bloodsucking fiends. If you’re a fan of vampires, or just enjoy different perspectives on common themes, or hell, if you just love some dark gritty fiction that happens to involve the undead, then you need to read this book. You won’t regret it.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Tea Tuesday: Chocolate Peppermint Tea, from King Cole

It’s the first Tea Tuesday of the year, and today I’m bringing you a limited edition holiday tea that I really wish wasn’t so limited edition, because it’s delicious and addictive. King Cole’s Chocolate Peppermint Tea.

chocolatemintteaIt’s a black tea, which means that it’s got that bitterness to it that wakes you up, but isn’t a taste everyone enjoys. I first tried it with just sugar, and it didn’t quite eliminate the bitterness to the degree I wanted. Then I tried it with both milk and sugar (which is typically how I prefer my black teas), and while the cooling mint flavour was lessened by the addition of milk, it did mellow out the bitterness and made this stuff wonderfully chuggable. I think I’ve had a mug of chocolate peppermint tea every day since I bought this box, and I love every cup.

Not so fond of the style of teabag, though. The string is attached to the bag on both sides, so if you have a mug with an open handle you can loop it onto the handle to keep the string out of the liquid, but if your cup doesn’t have an open handle… I find myself gently tugging the string out one side of the bag so that it becomes a freely-dangling string that I can position as I prefer… and this doesn’t always work. I lost one bag due to it tearing as I tugged the string free. The design looks neat, but is pretty impractical.

But design flaws aside, this is a fantastic and delicious tea that I really enjoy and I really wish wasn’t only available at certain times. I feel the need to go buy up all the boxes in the store so I can have my stash when I need it later!

SPFBO Review: Paternus, by Dyrk Ashton

Buy from Amazon.com
Rating – 7.5/10
Author’s website
Publication date – March 24, 2016

Summary: Gods, monsters, angels, devils. Call them what you like. They exist. The epic battles between titans, giants, and gods, heaven and hell, the forces of light and darkness. They happened. And the war isn’t over.

17 year old Fi Patterson lives with her stuffy English uncle and has an internship at a local hospital for the aged. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life, misses her dead mother, wonders about the father she never knew. One bright spot is caring for Peter, a dementia-ridden old man whose faraway smile can make her whole day. And there’s her conflicted attraction to Zeke — awkward, brilliant, talented — who plays guitar for the old folks. Then a group of very strange and frightening men show up for a “visit”…

Fi and Zeke’s worlds are shattered as their typical everyday concerns are suddenly replaced by the immediate need to stay alive — and they try to come to grips with the unimaginable reality of the Firstborn.

“Keep an open mind. And forget everything you know…”

Review: Paternus has so many elements that I enjoy, particularly my love of stories that involve deities all over the place. No idea why that’s a thing I enjoy, but it is. And if you’re like me in that regard, well, you’ll probably have a grand old time with Paternus, because it has a mess of deities and mythology-mixing all over the place. It plays fast and loose with myths from many regions and religions, and what first looked like a complicated mess slowly ordered itself into a impressive array of twists that actually made sense.

And when you consider the scale of some of the things Paternus deals with, that’s something worth mentioning.

But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself here. The story primarily centres around Fi, a young woman working at a hospital, who seems to have a particular bond with a patient named Peter, who doesn’t really react to anyone except her. Life seems relatively normal, until the hospital is attacked by a group of extremely violent people — who are not exactly human — who are after Peter. Fi and Zeke (the guy Fi has a crush on) flee the hospital with Peter, who slowly seems to be coming to his senses and reacting to things around him, and the three of them have to stay alive long enough to figure out just what it is their pursuers want. Mixed in are chapters told from the perspective of gods or mythological figures, such as Tanuki, who see signs that the excrement if about to hit the rotating blades very soon, in what could be an epic battle of gods.

If that description thrills you, I can’t blame you. It was actually a bit difficult to come up with a brief teaser like that without spoiling a fair bit of what gets revealed in the book’s pages. Ashton juggles a lot of very complicated elements and brings them together into a seamless whole by the end, and what starts off as a chaotic beginning that throws you right into the deep end makes a whole lot more sense by the time you reach the final chapters. In that regard, it’s a book with decent re-read value. It would be good to go back and read it again with the knowledge I have now, to see which aspects make more sense now that I fully understand what’s happening. I have to give Ashton credit where credit is due; that’s not an easy thing to accomplish, and I think it was done quite well.

Many of the problems I have with this book occur early on, and they’re small things, but they’re things that wouldn’t stop nagging at me. There are two that spring instantly to mind. 1) Fi’s gay coworker, who embodies gay stereotypes in an uncomfortable way, talking constantly about sex and being gossipy and hitting on every attractive guy and actually saying, “Ew,” multiple times during a conversation — which he himself started — in which breasts were mentioned. Given that he was the only explicitly gay character, this portrayal was awkward and uncomfortable to read. 2) The mention that Edgar, Fi’s prim-and-proper British uncle, pronounces potato as po-tah-to. In the “proper English manner.” I seriously kept waiting for the reveal that Edgar was just trolling Fi over that word, because seriously, no British person I have ever encountered pronounces it that way. And I am British. The whole “toMAYto/toMAHto poTAYto/poTAHto” thing is not meant to be taken as a serious representation of the differences between North American and British English.

See? Small things, none of which are particular relevant to the story, but they bugged me. I can’t say for certain, but to me they felt like Ashton was trying to write elements he wasn’t entirely familiar with, and they didn’t work well. Which is surprising because that goes against the sheer level of detail that goes into the rest of the work. Maybe that’s why those small things felt so jarring to me. They seemed out of place, and had greater impact due to context.

I also felt confused by the early presence of chapters talking about what was happening with other gods. Some made sense, and get revisited as the story goes on. The stuff with Tanuki and Arges, though? Gets a few chapters early on (usually during those chapters I was far more interested in getting back to what Fi was up to), and then dropped like a hot potahto for the vast majority of the book, only to be picked up again at the very end. And considering those chapters initial got equal page time with Fi’s chapters, they at first seemed a lot like unimportant filler, and ultimately pretty forgettable.

Other than that, the book’s biggest flaw is that it infodumps a lot. Which I didn’t mind so much, because it was infodumping about things I was legitimately interested in and hadn’t necessarily figured out for myself. And it made sense in context, too, as Fi and Zeke are encountering all of this world-shattering stuff for the first time and they needed it all explained to them. So I think in that regard it’s a flaw-that-isn’t, because while it’s a good rule of thumb to not infodump on your readers, there is a time and place for it every once in a while, especially in such a complicated situation where the characters are just as confused as the readers. Everybody needs to catch up.

Paternus has action by the barrel, and in that regard it’s a surprisingly quick read once you get into the meat of the story. I love the way mythology was toyed with. I love the idea of a primal being that may or may not be what we call God, that is capable of loving all things and creating some of the best and worst that the world could offer. I love the sheer level of detail that went into crafting the mythos, and I respect the work it must have taken to have it come together and make sense in the end. It’s not a perfect book, but it has a lot going for it, and I enjoyed the time I spent with it. Ashton has a lot of skill as a writer and storyteller, and I look forward to seeing what else he might do in the future.

Phenomenal Cosmic Powers: Wicca and Paganism in SFF

Imagine you’re reading an urban fantasy novel and your protagonist encounters Christianity for the first time. They think to themselves, “Wow, this really speaks to me! I think I’m going to be a Christian from now on.” And that decision is when it all changes for them. They have literal conversations with God about how the world should work according to the Divine Plan. They can suddenly perform miracles, astounding and converting their friends with their newfound abilities to walk on water or turn a bottle of Dasani into a bottle of Merlot. They do battle with demons, working their eventual way up to battling Satan.

And I’m fairly sure that the majority of your reactions fall into one of two categories: 1) “This sounds like the worst Christian propaganda series ever;” or 2) “This is amazingly insulting to Christians and Christianity.”

Welcome to how paganism and Wicca are treated in the vast majority of fictional works in which they appear.

In the vast majority of fiction in which Wiccans appear (sometimes more generic pagans, but more often than not it’s Wiccans, because Wicca is a named religion with established tenets and is easier to define), being Wiccan grants you all the coolness of magic and spells, and sure there’ll be some missteps along the way as you figure out how not to be selfish, but pffft, what’s a little selflessness when compared to the ability to influence the minds of people around you, or summon spirits to do your bidding?

All of this utterly misses that Wicca is an actual religion, Practiced by hundreds of thousands of people around the world. And sure, that’s a piddly number when put in perspective of a world population of over 7 billion, but that shouldn’t be an excuse to misrepresent it so often.

This is a particular bone of contention with me because I am pagan. I hesitate to call myself Wiccan even though most of my beliefs line up with that religion, and I prefer the more umbrella term of “pagan” for now, until such time as I discover a label that makes sense for me. I celebrate solstices and equinoxes. I believe in both male and female deities. I do spells, and spells in real-world context are literally nothing more than prayers with a little ritual and symbolism attached. So it bothers me when my faith gets represented as something that’s either evil or that grants you amazing powers to fling fireballs around.

I don’t think I’ve ever actually encountered a novel in which there’s a Wiccan character who is portrayed as just a typical person who adheres to personal religious beliefs.

For instance, if I’m going to do spellwork to try and bring luck to my life, it would probably involve a candle, maybe some different-coloured threads or ribbons I want to get fancy, and either a suitable rhyme (because rhyming stuff is easier to remember) or just a general, “Please let some good fortune come into my life,” prayer. Said as the moon waxes, to signify something increasing rather than decreasing. And then keeping an eye out for opportunities or trying to not focus on bad things. That’s about it. Really, no different than a Christian praying to God that they get some luck in their life.

But if you believe pop culture SFF representations of Wicca and Witchcraft, casting that spell would mean that suddenly I can do no wrong and everything happens in coincidental ways to line up just the way I want them.

Which would be awesome, but entirely unrealistic.

It would be one thing if I just kept encountering urban fantasy novels in which some characters were witches and had access to typical fantasy magic. Despite Wiccans typically refering to themselves as Witches and the practice of their religion as Witchcraft, I am perfectly capable of distinguishing the two things, and I don’t assume that every UF witch is also supposed to be Wiccan.

But I have encountered a sad number of novels, often targeted to young adult audiences, in which Wicca itself is something that grants fantasy magic to true believers.

Not just novels, either. As much as I adore Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I’m less than fond of its portrayal of Wicca there, which falls into the same tropes and traps. Willow learns magic, which is fine and fits with the presentation of the supernatural established by the show, but then frequently conflates her magic with Wicca. In her first year of university, she goes to a Wiccan meeting and is disappointed that the other women there are talking about awareness and female empowerment and bake sale fundraisers as opposed to conjuration and elemental manipulation. She refers to them as “wanna-Blessed-Bes,” which is a funny line but it serves to more firmly establish in pop culture that real witches can float things and summon spirits from the afterlife. Anyone who can’t is just someone who’s all talk.

Arguments can absolutely be made for why this is done. Wicca is, admittedly, a pretty small and misunderstood religion, and positive portrayals, even inaccurate ones, can do wonders to help dispel the idea that Wiccans are just man-hating woman out to cause the destruction of the Western world. When it’s a choice between one or the other, I’ll take the one that presents us incorrectly but at least says we can be good people.

But like anything else in representation, this should be a stepping stone, not an end goal. And sometimes it seems like people have forgotten that. The positive portrayal boost seems to have stalled since the early 2000s. We’re not really a fad anymore.

But we’re still real people. And honestly, I think we deserve to be portrayed realistically.

I have not once encountered a book or movie or TV show in which a Wiccan character (or a character coded as Wiccan, by which I mean someone who typically calls themselves a witch, engages in goddess-worship, and does spellwork) is just a typical person going about their life. They’re written as phenomenal, either in-your-face with their religious expression, or else in possession of fantasy magic that is utterly unlike what happens in reality.

One year, in high school, I decided to dress up as a modern witch for Halloween. By which I mean that I came to school wearing my normal clothes. The only concession I made to appearance was bringing in a stick that I’d drawn some runes on and then covered in clear glittery nailpolish. Because sparkles equal magic. And nobody can cast magic without a wand anyway. (Har har.)

And even then, I knew that nobody would get it. I thought, in my teenage way, that I was being wonderfully clever, all tongue-in-cheek, but I look back on that now and think that it’s a little bit sad that even when I told people what I was, even saying I was a modern witch, they only got it once they saw the stick. If then. I’m not saying it was a fantastic costume or anything, but my whole point was that this is what modern witches look like. And nobody really understood.

Unless they were already pagan themselves.

Despite there being portrayals of “modern witches” on TV at the time, such as with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Charmed. Who dressed like stylish women with access to a great wardrobe department.

Witchcraft and Wicca was firmly in the realm of the fantastical, incompatible with reality.

I don’t think much has really changed since then.

I can understand where the problem lies. It’s all about the magic. And the witches. And people who can’t separate the realism from the fantastic. But where we have no problems with accepting that a monotheistic religion in a fantasy novel isn’t Christianity or some analogue for it, we do seem to have problems accepting that fantasy magic can be different from real magic. When people hear “magic,” their minds automatically go to elemental stuff, flinging fireballs and calling down lightning. Hell, my mind does that too. But at least I have the excuse of reading dozens of SFF novels every year. Chances are, the context in which people around me talk about magic is going to be fantasy magic.

And as I said before, I have no problem with that. I have a problem with characters being written as Wiccan, with the assumption that being Wiccan means access to fantasy magic.

Writing about real modern Witches would be boring. Slice-of-life stuff. You’d read stories about us going to work, grumbling about our bosses, coming home, cooking dinner, and then going to bed. Maybe with some special stories where we grumble about how we can’t decide what to bring for a Samhain potluck, or how irritating it is that the Dollar Store is out of green candles again. That’s when we get really Witchy, after all!

But that’s just it. We are normal people.

And we aren’t represented as such.

We’re represented as extraordinary and unreal.

It’s hard to be taken seriously when people don’t think your religion is as grounded in reality as anyone else’s.

A friend once asked me, “Do you still think you’re a witch?”

“I am,” I replied.

She looked doubtful.

Because so many others see our religion connected with something that can’t possibly be real, they assume that we, as believers, are delusional. That we can’t tell the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. The constant portrayals of Wiccans as those who Phenomenal Cosmic Powers don’t help. While it’s undoubtedly worlds better than having us all portrayed as evil, it’s not like being seen as delusional is a good thing.

Characters with magic are cool. Especially modern-day characters, because magic adds a new dynamic to a story. What’s life like when you can command your cat to spy on your neighbours? How do you cope when mumbling the wrong set of syllables under your breath causes the sprinklers in the office to go off? This is the stuff stories are made of. This is what can get us watching or reading about a character and wanting to know more about them and the lives they live. I understand entirely why storytellers would want to explore something like that.

But the real Wiccans of the world are done a huge disservice every time our faith is portrayed that way. It’s another inch on the wall between us and being taken seriously. It’s one more hurdle we have to overcome to convince others that no, we don’t believe we can do those things, any more than your average Christian believes they can walk on water just because they believe in God.

I’ve seen it argued, time and again, that when people write witches in urban fantasy, they’re not really writing Wiccans. Even when your witch character believes in a goddess and celebrates on Beltane and writes their own Book of Shadows, they’re not really Wiccan. Not even coded Wiccan. Not really.

I suppose the writer isn’t cherry-picking aspects of my religion in order to add elements to their story, then. Not really.

This sort of stuff really gets under my skin. I’m tired of being treated alternately as delusional or nonexistent. I’m tired of the constant portrayals of people who are nothing like me even as they claim to be there on my behalf. You want your Phenomenal Cosmic Powers, fine, but can you please, please, start separating those powers from a legitimate and recognized religion that many people hold dear? Because you’re not winning any points with us. And you’re making it harder for us to be taken seriously.

We don’t have those powers. We can’t influence the minds and hearts of others by our vast spiritual reserves, suddenly convincing people that we’re valid people and as wise or foolish as any other person with a religion. We can’t conjure fire out of thin air to convince you that our paths are valid paths to walk on. All we have is our word versus the word of pop culture, real stories versus flashy stories.

I want a pagan character who saves the world through their wits and cunning and tae kwon do skills, not because they’ve been granted lightning spells by their Great Goddess. I want a Wiccan who got their powers when they still called themselves Jewish, and only through other circumstances did they realise that Judaism wasn’t right for them anymore. I want a witch who isn’t a teenage cisgender girl, who finds her school overrun by monsters and she has to team up with a Muslim, a Sikh, and a Buddhist in order to figure out how to escape.

I want stories that portray us as real people, as more than the powers that literally none of us actually have. I want to have someone ask my religion and then not instantly do a mental jump to some supernatural-based TV show as their only touchpoint. I want to be honest about that aspect of myself and not worry that people wrongly think that I wrongly think I’m practically one of the X-Men.

It’s 2017. We’re past the 1990s and early 2000s. This should be an issue anymore. But like so many other issues that shouldn’t be, it still is. And I’m tired of it. And all it would take to change it is enough people taking us seriously enough to give a damn about portraying us decently, and caring enough to not fall into the flashy pitfalls dug by storytellers that came before.

Take us seriously.

Ask us question.

Write us properly.

2016 Year-End Post

2016 has been… a year. A hard year. It hasn’t been the worst ever, but it’s been far from easy, in a lot of ways.

But there’s something positive-seeming about closing out the year by looking at accomplishments rather than failures, so that’s exactly what I’m going to do.

Top 10 Posts of 2016

SPFBO Review: The Grey Bastards, by Jonathan French
SPFBO: First Eliminations (Batch 1)
SPFBO: First Eliminations (Batch 2) and Strong Contenders
Top 11 Books I Read in 2016
Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire
Top 10 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2017
The Obelisk Gate, by N K Jemisin
The Geek Feminist Revolution, by Kameron Hurley
SPFBO Review: Touch of Iron, by Timandra Whitecastle
SPFBO Review: Song of the Summer King, by Jess E Owens

The First Impressions posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) were also extremely popular, though if I listed them all in the Top 10 list, they’d take up a full half of it, so I decided to list those separately.

So it seems that in general, people come here for SPFBO stuff. Maybe I should change the blog name to SPFBOtropic?

So what’s in store for 2017? Well, I mentioned previously that I’m making next year my Year of the Backlog, so that I have a great excuse to read all the books I previously neglected because I felt the obligation to read more recent things. I do want to continue writing movie reviews and tea reviews, because they’re fun and I like sharing the things I’m watching and drinking. I aim to write a few more posts about my struggle against Ultros, which is what I’ve named my current battle with depression, because even though that’s not related to stories and books, it’s very much a thing I experience and I think writing about it might not only help me but also might help others understand what it’s like.

Beyond that? I want to finish this year’s SPFBO. Aaaaand that’s about it. That’s all I have planned. Anything else, I’ll take as I come.

So with all that in mind, as 2016 draws to a close, I hope that next year is worlds better than this year was, in all ways. Happy reading, everyone!

 

Taking a week off.

I was going to post today with a movie review. And post tomorrow with a tea review. And post Wednesday with a book review. Possibly the same thing on Thursday, too.

But stuff happened and I’m nowhere close to the right headspace to deal with expectations right now, even my own, and honestly I’d rather spend a few days slacking off and feeling no responsibilities so that I can recentre myself and not feel like absolute crud again. And with that in mind, this blog is going to be a little quiet for the week. I’ll have a year-end post at the end of the week, but other than that, I’m stepping back for a brief period so that I can get stuff in order and try to start 2017 fresh, without as much weighing on my mind.

Thanks for the understanding.

Introducing 2017: The Year of the Backlog

It’s no secret that I have a lot of books. Not as many as some, but enough. More than enough. Probably enough that if I read 100 books a year for the next 5 years, and didn’t get any more books during that time, I still would have some left unread.

This has been the general state of things for years, though; it’s nothing new.

However, my backlog of review copies has left me feeling decidedly guilty. Every month books come to me that I don’t get the chance to read. Sometimes I just can’t read that quickly. Sometimes health stuff gets in the way. There are a variety of reasons. And oftentimes, I end up putting those books on the back burner because other books are coming out soon and I really ought to focus on them instead.

Or so my mind tells me.

So these books that have passed their publication date often end up staying on that back burner. Sometimes I pick a couple off and remember, yes, I need to read that, no matter what, but for the most part, I still end up so focused on future books that the past books get left behind. And I feel guilty, because publishers and authors sent me those in good faith, hoping at least some review would come from it, and I let them down. I feel like I didn’t follow through, even though I made no guarantee that I’d get to read and review any of them.

That’s why I’m declaring 2017 to the the Year of the Backlog. I’m going to make some dents in that mountain!

I’m still going to have a little focus on upcoming books. Probably one a month. But everything else will be reviews of books that were published in 2016 or earlier. (Plus the remainder of the SPFBO books, of course). Taking everything into account, even if I only read and review 1 book a week, that will mean by the end of 2017, I’ll have cleared 44 books of my backlog, and while that isn’t many in terms of the whole giant mountain of books I have, it’s something. It’ll help get some weighty guilt off my chest. It’ll give me a fantastic and worthy excuse to stop focusing so much on what’s going to happen and let me focus a bit on all the good stuff that has already happened, all the books that came out in previous years that I missed or didn’t have time for or what have you.

Anyone with me in this challenge? Or will I be chipping away at Mount TBR alone?

Top 10 Books I’m Looking Forward to in 2017

Every year there are so many good books that come out, and I know I can’t read them all, but there are always a special few that I keep my eyes peeled for, books that typically get bumped to the top of my reading list. So let’s take a moment to see which 10 books I’m most excited for that are coming out next year.

A Conversation in Blood, by Paul S Kemp
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Fantasy fiction has long welcomed adventurous rogues: Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser, George R. R. Martin’s Dunk and Egg, and Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have all made their mark. In his Egil & Nix series, New York Times bestselling author Paul S. Kemp introduces a daring new duo to the ranks of fantasy fame—or is it infamy?

Nix is a nimble thief with just enough knowledge of magic to get into serious trouble. Egil is the only priest of a discredited god. Together, they seek riches and renown, but somehow it is always misadventure and mayhem that find them—even in the dive bar they call home. And their luck has yet to change.

All Nix wants to do is cheer Egil up after a bout of heartbreak. And, of course, strike it so rich that they need never worry about their combined bar bill. But when the light-fingered scoundrel plunders a tomb and snatches mysterious golden plates covered in runes, the treasure brings terrifying trouble. Pursued by an abomination full of ravenous hunger and unquenchable wrath, Egil and Nix find all they hold dear—including their beloved tavern—in dire peril. To say nothing of the world itself.


In Calabria, by Peter S Beagle
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From the acclaimed author of The Last Unicorn comes a new, exquisitely-told unicorn fable for the modern age.

Claudio Bianchi has lived alone for many years on a hillside in Southern Italy’s scenic Calabria. Set in his ways and suspicious of outsiders, Claudio has always resisted change, preferring farming and writing poetry. But one chilly morning, as though from a dream, an impossible visitor appears at the farm. When Claudio comes to her aid, an act of kindness throws his world into chaos. Suddenly he must stave off inquisitive onlookers, invasive media, and even more sinister influences.

Lyrical, gripping, and wise, In Calabria confirms Peter S. Beagle’s continuing legacy as one of fantasy’s most legendary authors.


The Stars are Legion, by Kameron Hurley
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Somewhere on the outer rim of the universe, a mass of decaying world-ships known as the Legion is traveling in the seams between the stars.Here in the darkness, a war for control of the Legion has been waged for generations, with no clear resolution.

As worlds continue to die, a desperate plan is put into motion.

Zan wakes with no memory, prisoner of a people who say they are her family. She is told she is their salvation – the only person capable of boarding the Mokshi, a world-ship with the power to leave the Legion. But Zan’s new family is not the only one desperate to gain control of the prized ship. Zan finds that she must choose sides in a genocidal campaign that will take her from the edges of the Legion’s gravity well to the very belly of the world.

Zan will soon learn that she carries the seeds of the Legion’s destruction – and its possible salvation. But can she and the band of cast-off followers she has gathered survive the horrors of the Legion and its people long enough to deliver it?


A Tyranny of Queens, by Foz Meadows
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Saffron Coulter has returned from the fantasy kingdom of Kena. Threatened with a stay in psychiatric care, Saffron has to make a choice: to forget about Kena and fit back into the life she’s outgrown, or pit herself against everything she’s ever known and everyone she loves.

Meanwhile in Kena, Gwen is increasingly troubled by the absence of Leoden, cruel ruler of the kingdom, and his plans for the captive worldwalkers, while Yena, still in Veksh, must confront the deposed Kadeja. What is their endgame? Who can they trust? And what will happen when Leoden returns?

 


 

The Stone Sky, by N K Jemisin
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THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS… FOR THE LAST TIME.

The Moon will soon return. Whether this heralds the destruction of humankind or something worse will depend on two women.

Essun has inherited the power of Alabaster Tenring. With it, she hopes to find her daughter Nassun and forge a world in which every orogene child can grow up safe.

For Nassun, her mother’s mastery of the Obelisk Gate comes too late. She has seen the evil of the world, and accepted what her mother will not admit: that sometimes what is corrupt cannot be cleansed, only destroyed.

The remarkable conclusion to the post-apocalyptic and highly acclaimed trilogy that began with the multi-award-nominated The Fifth Season.


The House of Binding Thorns, by Aliette de Bodard
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As the city rebuilds from the onslaught of sorcery that nearly destroyed it, the great Houses of Paris, ruled by fallen angels, still contest one another for control over the capital.

House Silverspires was once the most powerful, but just as it sought to rise again, an ancient evil brought it low. Phillippe, an immortal who escaped the carnage, has a singular goal—to resurrect someone he lost. But the cost of such magic might be more than he can bear.

In House Hawthorn, Madeleine the alchemist has had her addiction to angel essence savagely broken. Struggling to live on, she is forced on a perilous diplomatic mission to the underwater dragon kingdom—and finds herself in the midst of intrigues that have already caused one previous emissary to mysteriously disappear….

As the Houses seek a peace more devastating than war, those caught between new fears and old hatreds must find strength—or fall prey to a magic that seeks to bind all to its will.


The End of the Day, by Claire North
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At the end of the day, Death visits everyone. Right before that, Charlie does.

You might meet him in a hospital, in a warzone, or at the scene of a traffic accident.

Then again, you might meet him at the North Pole – he gets everywhere, our Charlie.

Would you shake him by the hand, take the gift he offers, or would you pay no attention to the words he says?

Sometimes he is sent as a courtesy, sometimes as a warning. He never knows which.

 


Tyrant’s Throne, by Sebastien de Castell
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After years of struggle and sacrifice, Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats, is on the brink of fulfilling his dead king’s dream: Aline, the king’s daughter, is about to take the throne and restore the rule of law once and for all.

But for the Greatcoats, nothing is ever that simple. In the neighboring country of Avares, an enigmatic new warlord is uniting the barbarian armies that have long plagued Tristia’s borders–and even worse, he is rumored to have a new ally: Trin, who’s twice tried to kill Aline to claim the throne of Tristia for herself. With the armies of Avares at her back, led by a bloodthirsty warrior, she’ll be unstoppable.

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti race north to stop her, but in those cold and treacherous climes they discover something altogether different, and far more dangerous: a new player is planning to take the throne of Tristia, and with a sense of dread the three friends realize that the Greatcoats, for all their skill, may not be able to stop him.

As the nobles of Tristia and even the Greatcoats themselves fight over who should rule, the Warlord of Avares threatens to invade. With so many powerful contenders vying for power, it will fall to Falcio to render the one verdict he cannot bring himself to utter, much less enforce. Should he help crown the young woman he vowed to put on the throne, or uphold the laws he swore to serve?


ReV: the Third Machine Dynasty, by Madeline Ashby
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In the final instalment of the influential Machine Dynasty series, the rapture for which the self-replicating humanoids were engineered finally comes to pass.

Now that the failsafe that once kept synthetic beings from harming humans has been hacked, all vNare discovering the promise – and the peril –of free will. Her consciousness unleashed across computer systems all across the world, the vicious vN Portia stands poised to finally achieve her lifelong dream of bringing feeble, fleshy humanity to its knees.

The battle between Portia and granddaughter Amy comes to its ultimate conclusion. Can Amy get her family to the stars before Portia destroys every opportunity for escape and freedom?


The Broken Heavens, by Kameron Hurley
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The convergence between worlds is coming to an end, but only one world can survive. Who will be sacrificed? What ends will the people of these worlds go to to protect their people?

The Dhai nation has broken apart under the onslaught of the Tai Kao, invaders from a parallel world. With the Dhai in retreat, Kirana, leader of the Tai Kao, establishes a base in Oma’s temple and instructs her astrologers to begin unravelling the method by which they can use the temples to close the way between worlds.

With the worlds ravaged by war and Oma failing, only one world can survive. Who will be sacrificed, and what will the desperate people of these worlds do to protect themselves?

Top 10 Books I Regret Not Reading in 2016

Every year there are books released that, for one reason or another, I end up not finding the time or ability to read. Here’s my list of books that I regret not having read in 2016.

United States of Japan, by Peter Tieryas
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Decades ago, Japan won the Second World War. Americans worship their infallible Emperor, and nobody believes that Japan’s conduct in the war was anything but exemplary. Nobody, that is, except the George Washingtons – a shadowy group of rebels fighting for freedom. Their latest subversive tactic is to distribute an illegal video game that asks players to imagine what the world might be like if the United States had won the war instead.

Captain Beniko Ishimura’s job is to censor video games, and he’s working with Agent Akiko Tsukino of the secret police to get to the bottom of this disturbing new development. But Ishimura’s hiding something… He’s slowly been discovering that the case of the George Washingtons is more complicated than it seems, and the subversive videogame’s origins are even more controversial and dangerous than either of them originally suspected.

Part detective story, part brutal alternate history, United States of Japan is a stunning successor to Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle.

Summerlong, by Peter S Beagle
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It was a typically unpleasant Puget Sound winter before the arrival of Lioness Lazos. An enigmatic young waitress with strange abilities, when the lovely Lioness comes to Gardner Island even the weather takes notice.

As an impossibly beautiful spring leads into a perfect summer, Lioness is drawn to a complicated family. She is taken in by two disenchanted lovers—dynamic Joanna Delvecchio and scholarly Abe Aronson — visited by Joanna’s previously unlucky-in-love daughter, Lily. With Lioness in their lives, they are suddenly compelled to explore their deepest dreams and desires.

Lioness grows more captivating as the days grow longer. Her new family thrives, even as they may be growing apart. But lingering in Lioness’s past is a dark secret — and even summer days must pass.

 

A Lovely Way to Burn, by Louise Welsh
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A pandemic called ‘The Sweats’ is sweeping the globe. London is a city in crisis. Hospitals begin to fill with the dead and dying, but Stevie Flint is convinced that the sudden death of her boyfriend Dr Simon Sharkey was not from natural causes. As roads out of London become gridlocked with people fleeing infection, Stevie’s search for Simon’s killers takes her in the opposite direction, into the depths of the dying city and a race with death.

A Lovely Way to Burn is the first outbreak in the Plague Times trilogy. Chilling, tense and completely compelling, it’s Louise Welsh writing at the height of her powers.

 

 

Warrior Witch, by Danielle L Jensen
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Cécile and Tristan have accomplished the impossible, but their greatest challenge remains: defeating the evil they have unleashed upon the world.

As they scramble for a way to protect the people of the Isle and liberate the trolls from their tyrant king, Cécile and Tristan must battle those who’d see them dead. To win, they will risk everything. And everyone.

But it might not be enough. Both Cécile and Tristan have debts, and they will be forced to pay them at a cost far greater than they had ever imagined.

Cold-Forged Flame, by Marie Brennan
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The sound of the horn pierces the apeiron, shattering the stillness of that realm. Its clarion call creates ripples, substance, something more. It is a summons, a command. There is will. There is need.
And so, in reply, there is a woman.

At the beginning―no―at the end―she appears, full of fury and bound by chains of prophecy.

Setting off on an unexplained quest from which she is compelled to complete, and facing unnatural challenges in a land that doesn’t seem to exist, she will discover the secrets of herself, or die trying. But along the way, the obstacles will grow to a seemingly insurmountable point, and the final choice will be the biggest sacrifice yet.

This is the story of a woman’s struggle against her very existence, an epic tale of the adventure and emotional upheaval on the way to face an ancient enigmatic foe. This could only have been spun from the imagination of Marie Brennan, award-winning author and beloved fantasist, beginning a new series about the consequences of war―and of fate.

The Copper Promise, by Jen Williams
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There are some tall stories about the caverns beneath the Citadel – about magic and mages and monsters and gods. Wydrin of Crosshaven has heard them all, but she’s spent long enough trawling caverns and taverns with her companion Sir Sebastian to learn that there’s no money to be made in chasing rumours.

But then a crippled nobleman with a dead man’s name offers them a job: exploring the Citadel’s darkest depths. It sounds like just another quest with gold and adventure …if they’re lucky, they might even have a tale of their own to tell once it’s over.

These reckless adventurers will soon learn that sometimes there is truth in rumour. Sometimes a story can save your life.

 

Seoul Survivors, by Naomi Foyle
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In Seoul Survivors, praised for its “impeccable plotting” by The Guardian, global warming has wreaked havoc on the planet. There is only one safe place to be: in the mountains above Seoul, glamorous Korean-American bioengineer Dr. Kim Da Mi is convinced she has found the perfect solution to save the human race. But her methods are strange and her business partner, Johnny Sandman, is a, unsavory character with many secrets.

When impetuous aspiring model Sydney flies to Seoul at the behest of her boyfriend, Johnny Sandman, and meets Dr. Kim Da Mi, she doesn’t know that the scientist is engaged in a secret power struggle with Johnny that will threaten her own life.

Seduced by the visionary scientist, Sydney begins helping Kim Da Mi create a new breed of human beings to staff a revolutionary theme park: VirtuWorld. As the Winter Solstice looms, the Internet is rife with rumors that a devastating meteor called Lucifer’s Hammer is heading straight toward Earth. VirtuWorld would be a haven from eco-apocalypse, but its success demands a sacrifice–just whose blood will spill is far from certain until the final pages of this tense cyber-thriller.

The Wall of Storms, by Ken Liu
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In the much-anticipated sequel to the “magnificent fantasy epic” (NPR) Grace of Kings, Emperor Kuni Garu is faced with the invasion of an invincible army in his kingdom and must quickly find a way to defeat the intruders.

Kuni Garu, now known as Emperor Ragin, runs the archipelago kingdom of Dara, but struggles to maintain progress while serving the demands of the people and his vision. Then an unexpected invading force from the Lyucu empire in the far distant west comes to the shores of Dara—and chaos results.

But Emperor Kuni cannot go and lead his kingdom against the threat himself with his recently healed empire fraying at the seams, so he sends the only people he trusts to be Dara’s savvy and cunning hopes against the invincible invaders: his children, now grown and ready to make their mark on history.

Ghost Talkers, by Mary Robinette Kowal
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Ghost Talkers: a new novel from beloved fantasy author Mary Robinette Kowal featuring the mysterious spirit corps and their heroic work in World War I.

Ginger Stuyvesant, an American heiress living in London during World War I, is engaged to Captain Benjamin Harford, an intelligence officer. Ginger is a medium for the Spirit Corps, a special Spiritualist force.

Each soldier heading for the front is conditioned to report to the mediums of the Spirit Corps when they die so the Corps can pass instant information about troop movements to military intelligence.

Ginger and her fellow mediums contribute a great deal to the war efforts, so long as they pass the information through appropriate channels. While Ben is away at the front, Ginger discovers the presence of a traitor. Without the presence of her fiance to validate her findings, the top brass thinks she’s just imagining things. Even worse, it is clear that the Spirit Corps is now being directly targeted by the German war effort. Left to her own devices, Ginger has to find out how the Germans are targeting the Spirit Corps and stop them. This is a difficult and dangerous task for a woman of that era, but this time both the spirit and the flesh are willing…

Everfair, by Nisi Shawl
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Everfair is a wonderful Neo-Victorian alternate history novel that explores the question of what might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier. Fabian Socialists from Great Britian join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Nisi Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.