The Sudden Appearance of Hope, by Claire North

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 17, 2016

Summary: My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. But we’ve met before-a thousand times.

It started when I was sixteen years old.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A friend who looks at me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the crimes I commit, you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life difficult. It also makes me dangerous.

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of a girl no one remembers, yet her story will stay with you forever.

Review: Claire North writes some amazing genre-defying books. They seem to exist in that small range that can only really be called “speculative.” It’s not really sci-fi, it’s not really urban fantasy, it’s not really anything other than some amazingly-written “what if” stories that always engage me and get me thinking about things differently.

In The Sudden Appearance of Hope, we see through the eyes of Hope Arden, a woman who, for some reason, can’t be remembered. Once she’s out of sight, your brain will just filter her out, leaving you with the impression that you ate dinner alone, didn’t meet a fascinating person, just generally went on with life without interacting with anyone. A few moments and gone are your memories of her.

Which is why she’s such an excellent thief.

But Hope gets in a little over her head when she encounters Perfection, an app that transforms lives by incentivizing socially-approved improvements. Link your bank account so the app knows you’re only purchasing vegan non-GMO food? Have 5000 points! Get a nose job so you look more attractive? Here’s a coupon for an hour at the spa! But Perfection is insidious, and Hope’s interest is sparked after it contributes to the death of someone she knew. She goes on a mission to steal the information and coding behind Perfection, to unravel its secrets, and in so doing, unleashes something terrifying and deadly against the app’s most successful users.

If you’re not a fan of stream-of-consciousness writing, then there’ll be a lot about this book that doesn’t appeal to you. We’re seeing it all from Hope’s perspective, not so much sitting on her shoulders and being inside her head, privy to her thoughts, and, as thoughts sometimes get, things aren’t always coherent. Stops and starts, run-on sentences, inappropriate humour and random song lyrics, the rules of punctuation flying right out the window at times. And it’s intentional. It’s a pretty accurate portrayal of thought, especially when someone’s frantic or stressed. Personally, I’m a fan of it. It’s refreshing, especially after seeing so many first-person POV stories where characters notice too much random detail or think extremely coherently, which makes for a very clear mental picture for the reader, but never actually reads as if it’s all coming from insider someone’s head as it all happens. This stylistic choice may not appeal to everyone, but it definitely appeals to me.

North has superb ability to write a complex story with brilliant realistic characters who exist outside the mainstream for various reasons. When she wasn’t tackling different kinds of immortality in Touch and The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, here she’s writing about not only someone who’s not only an accomplished thief, but someone who by definition cannot exist within the mainstream when nobody ever remembers her. She goes into detail about the trouble this causes, from not getting service at a restaurant to not getting care at a hospital, to the constant loneliness caused by not being able to make friends or by having your own family forget you were ever part of them. Her story is heartbreaking, and her fire understandable. You may not always agree with her actions, but you can always see the motivation behind them.

This is an amazing book, and in the manner of amazing book, it’s incredibly difficult to unpack. You’ve got themes of social engineering, racism, sexism, loss, suicide, risk-vs-gain, what people will do to survive, economic class struggles and the opportunity for advancement, whether it’s right to encourage people toward a damaging ideal even if they want to be that damaged… There’s a lot here about taking life into your own hands, for good or for ill, and it presents no clear side as unambiguously right or wrong. Morality wars with survival, advancement wars with acceptance, with all sides of the arguments having their pros and cons. North presents some interesting debates here, and over and over again I see it comes back to limits. What’s the limit on what somebody should do to further their goals? Where do the lines get drawn?

Also interesting is that The Sudden Appearance of Hope doesn’t really get a resolution at the end. You see the end of Byron’s story more than you see the end of Hope’s. Hope ultimately doesn’t get what she wanted, and goes through hell in the process. It’s less the story of Hope and more the story of how Hope participated in the destruction of a problematic app and social movement. Less her story and more her part in something else’s story. Which is an uncommon approach to take, I think, but for my part, I think it worked well. Even if it left me feeling horrible for Hope in the end.

North tells the story well, captivates the reader and draws them in with vivid details and fascinating realistic characters. It’s the kind of story that gets under your skin and forces a perspective shift, forces you to confront uncomfortable issues and face down the things you take for granted, pushing you outside your comfort zone. It’s a story that stays with you long past the final page, keeping you asking questios and reconsidering what you once thought. It’s a book that, similar to North’s other novels, defies categorization, with the exception of being firmly in the You Should Read This, It’s Good category. It’s uncommon, special, and very much worth the time and effort you put into it. My hat’s off to Claire North once again for telling so poignant a story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Language of Dying, by Sarah Pinborough

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 2, 2016

Summary: In this emotionally gripping, genre-defying novella from Sarah Pinborough, a woman sits at her father’s bedside, watching the clock tick away the last hours of his life. Her brothers and sisters–she is the middle child of five–have all turned up over the past week to pay their last respects. Each is traumatized in his or her own way, and the bonds that unite them to each other are fragile–as fragile perhaps as the old man’s health.

With her siblings all gone, back to their self-obsessed lives, she is now alone with the faltering wreck of her father’s cancer-ridden body. It is always at times like this when it–the dark and nameless, the impossible, presence that lingers along the fringes of the dark fields beyond the house–comes calling.

As the clock ticks away in the darkness, she can only wait for it to find her, a reunion she both dreads and aches for…

Review: For being such a short book, The Language of Dying is impressively hard to review, especially from an SFF standpoint, since the fantastical elements are rather vague and may in fact not even be real. It reminded me very much of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls, in the way that both involve characters coping with impending death, and both also ripped me to emotional shreds.

Her siblings are coming together to be with their father during his last days. The family is broken, breaking further, and all of them have problems of their own to deal with, but they come. And in times of grief, like this one, like times before, the protagonist of the novella finds herself staring out windows, drifting off, waiting for the return of the thing she saw as a child, the dark unicorn-like thing that calls to her.

I mentioned earlier that this novella is short, a hair over 100 pages, and it’s impressive that Pinborough can tell so poignant a story in so little space. Not a word is wasted; you feel the weight of everything as the protagonist struggles with caring for her father, reuniting with her siblings, reflecting on her own traumatic past. Dealing with the guilt of wishing the pain was over for everyone, wishing her father’s life would end so that the healing could begin, while also hating that he’s dying and will soon leave everyone behind. Anyone who has been there for the death of someone or something you’re close to understands this, though we don’t often talk about it, and seeing it addressed so openly was, honestly, a bit of a relief. But it was also part of the gut-punch that The Language of Dying delivers. It forces the reader to confront the unpleasant realities of watching and waiting for someone to die, the internal and external struggles. It’s not an easy read. It isn’t meant to be comforting.

There are elements of fantasy to this book, though they’re extremely downplayed. The story isn’t about a woman who sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. It’s about a woman whose father is dying. And incidentally, also sometimes sees a dark mysterious beast. To say this book is primarily fantasy is like saying that this review blog is actually a cat blog because I mentioned a few times that I have cats. It’s an element, but it’s not the primary focus. And it’s not entirely clear if the creature is real or whether it’s the product of combining imagination with grief. It’s left vague, open to some interpretation, and it works well. It means the novella is hard to categorize into a particular genre, but some stories defy those boundaries, breaking out to tell a story that can appeal to different people for different reasons.

The Language of Dying needs to be read. It’s powerful and evocative, it’s brutal and honest, it’s painful and cathartic. It’s so much story in so few words, and it’s the sort of story that stays with you long past the final word. It seeps into you and alters you, and whether you read it for the speculative elements or because you’re looking for literature that deals with death, you should still read it. It’s one of those rare books that’s an experience more than anything else, difficult to properly describe, but I can imagine the knowing nods that pass between people who have read it. For some experiences, no words are really needed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Flux, by Ferrett Steinmetz

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – October 06, 2015

Summary: Love something enough, and your obsession will punch holes through the laws of physics. That devotion creates unique magics: videogamemancers. Origamimancers. Culinomancers.

But when ‘mancers battle, cities tremble…

ALIYAH TSABO-DAWSON: The world’s most dangerous eight-year-old girl. Burned by a terrorist’s magic, gifted strange powers beyond measure. She’s furious that she has to hide her abilities from her friends, her teachers, even her mother – and her temper tantrums can kill.

PAUL TSABO: Bureaucromancer. Magical drug-dealer. Desperate father. He’s gone toe-to-toe with the government’s conscription squads of brain-burned Unimancers, and he’ll lie to anyone to keep Aliyah out of their hands – whether Aliyah likes it or not.

THE KING OF NEW YORK: The mysterious power player hell-bent on capturing the two of them. A man packing a private army of illegal ‘mancers.

Paul’s family is the key to keep the King’s crumbling empire afloat. But offering them paradise is the catalyst that inflames Aliyah’s deadly rebellious streak…

Review: I was intrigued by the very concept of magic when I first read Flex. The idea that someone’s obsession can be so powerful, so focused, that it can warp the universe, essentially telling reality that no, I believe so strongly that this is how things should happen that indeed it does. That the consequences of rearranging the laws of reality like that is that reality can break down and extradimensional beings can break through and cause untold havoc. I can’t say it appealed to me in the sense of wanting to be a ‘mancer like that, but I can say that, as someone who has struggled with keeping their passions and interests in check so that others don’t get bored/intimidated/weirded out because I’m not being socially appropriate, I can at least say that I can relate a little to what it might be like for someone to have something they cling to that powerfully. And from there I was drawn in.

Last time, we saw Aliyah become the youngest ‘mancer in history. We saw Paul struggle desperately to shield his family from the danger of his ‘mancy, fail to hold his marriage together, defeat and survive any number of deadly issues. This time, in The Flux, we see Aliyah a little bit older, still conflicted about her ‘mancy, trying to make sense of the world that has created her and where she fits in it. Paul, for his part, uncovers a sort of safe haven for ‘mancers, but that safe haven comes at a price, and it’s one that Valentine, at least, doesn’t really want to pay even as Paul argues that it’s best for Aliyah’s sake. The King of New York has his own agenda, one that often intersects with Paul’s desires, and it’s plot twist after plot twist as the story unfolds and everybody suffers along the way.

Everything I liked about Flexis back in The Flux. Valentine is still a kick-ass awesome woman who doesn’t need to be model-thin to be that way, perfectly at home with her kinky sexual expression, a friend to Paul and mentor to Aliyah, and I love her to death because she’s the kind of character SFF needs more of. Paul is still a devoted father who doesn’t do things perfectly and makes frequent mistakes, but he tries to make amends and does what he thinks is best even when it’s a hard call. Aliyah goes through moment of being far too bratty and then far too insightful, but I also admit that’s what happens when you have a troubled kid who has plenty of evidence that the world really is out to get her, who has powers that are hard to control, and when the only person to give her what she wants is a psychopathic pyromancer. I’d be bratty myself, no matter what my age, if all that was heaped on me.

Steinmetz is very good at writing a believable reality that you fall into. Whether it’s through the little name-drops of brands to centre a reader on familiar things in the world, to characters that tug at your heartstrings (who didn’t feel emotion at reading Paul’s attempt to leave Aliyah for her own safety, or at the fate of K-Dash and Quaysean?), it all feels so very real. There’s more to realism than just a high level of detail and clear descriptions, and Steinmetz knows how to bring it all together to create a strong world that readers care about. It’s been a long time since I’ve read an urban fantasy that I want to share with people as much as the world that has ‘mancers in it.

Speaking of emotion, really, The Flux has it in spades. It’s an emotional roller coaster from beginning to end, mostly thanks to Aliyah’s development. Aliyah starts off with her continuing love/hate relationship for ‘mancy, which turns into disdain for those who can’t do ‘mancy and thus, to her mind, will never understand her and she won’t understand them, to being angry at her father for all the times he needs to be saved. But the real heartache for me was seeing Aliyah’s relationship to Imani, her mother. Aliyah craves her mother’s love and attention in the same way most young children do, but at the same time is truly afraid that if Imani discovers Aliyah is a ‘mancer, Imani will want to kill her. And given some thoughtless comments that Imani or David made in the past, her fear isn’t an overreaction. It’s heartbreaking to see that kind of conflict in anyone, let alone such a young child.

The story in The Flux feels like it’s got a bit of second-book syndrome. It is a complete story in its own right, a good continuation of the events in Flex, but it feels more like an interlude, the necessary setup and establishment for things that need to happen in the third book later. There was plenty of tension, great pacing, the snappy dialogue I love so much, but a lot of it felt like a book in which this character gets introduced, that realization occurs, to prop up a novel to come. This doesn’t make it a bad book — far from it! — but it does make it feel less important than the first novel, by far.

But I’m in love with the world that Steinmetz has created, and the characters within it, and the overarching story in this series so far is pulling me along at breakneck speed and I don’t want to stop. It’s a wonderfully creative take on magic, has a weird and varied cast of characters, and I can’t wait to dive into Fix to continue the story!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Strangers Among Us, edited by Susan Forest & Lucas K Law

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Forest’s website/Law’s page | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 8, 2016

Summary: There’s a delicate balance between mental health and mental illness . . .

Who are the STRANGERS AMONG US?

We are your fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, friends and lovers. We staff your stores, cross your streets, and study in your schools, invisible among you. We are your outcasts and underdogs, and often, your unsung heroes.

Nineteen science fiction and fantasy authors tackle the division between mental health and mental illness; how the interplay between our minds’ quirks and the diverse societies and cultures we live in can set us apart, or must be concealed, or become unlikely strengths.

We find troubles with Irish fay, a North Korean cosmonaut’s fear of flying, an aging maid dealing with politics of revenge, a mute boy and an army of darkness, a sister reaching out at the edge of a black hole, the dog and the sleepwalker, and many more.

After all, what harm can be done…

Review: I was thrilled to hear about this anthology, and yet disappointed at the same time when I realized that it wasn’t exactly getting much advanced attention, especially when social reform and visibility for those with disabilities are hot topics on so many lips these days. Maybe it’s because the book’s primarily Canadian, I don’t know, but either way, I haven’t heard nearly as much as I’d hoped about this anthology, and it’s a damn shame because it’s a great collection filled with powerful stories from some amazing authors.

And with Strangers Among Us shining the spotlight on mental illness and society’s outcasts, well, let’s just say that it has some material that hits pretty close to home.

Some background – I’ve struggled with mental health issues pretty much since hitting puberty. A diagnosis of depression and poor treatment of that when I was a teenager kicked off the whole thing. Throw in a batch of neuroatypical issues as I grew older (obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Tourette syndrome, social anxiety, other things that put me squarely on the autism spectrum, and an unpleasant dose of psychotic depression — also called depressive psychosis), and yeah, it’s no surprise that awareness of mental health issues is important to me. I could go on at length about how all this has affected my life, but I know that’s not really what you’re here for. You’re here for the book review. But I wanted to make it clear that I have experience with being one of society’s outcasts myself. I know what it’s like to doubt your sanity, the very essence of yourself, and I know what it’s like to face discrimination from others over said issues. It’s not fun. The more awareness that can be raised about what mental illness is actually like, the better.

Plus, I’m all about trying to share Canada’s great literary talent. This entire anthology is written by authors who are Canadian or who have a connection to Canada; some of the stories are set in Canada, which is a nice change of pace when the majority of what I see in SFF takes place in the US (or what used to be the US) when it’s set in this world.

So Strangers Among Us focuses on issues just like that. They’re all written by authors who write speculative fiction, and indeed most of the stories sit under the genre headers of fantasy or sci-fi, but not all of them. One rather memorable story is about a man who cannot leave his apartment, who spies on people through a payphone, learning about their lives and fantasizing about heroically saving an abused woman, until the time comes when he is pushed beyond his agoraphobia and steps outside to actually do so. Nothing fantasy or sci-fi about that, but it was a strong story nevertheless, and it definitely earned its place among all the others.

There were a couple of stories that dipped into the old well of, “People see things that aren’t there, only wait, those things actually are there and that person’s really special!” A dangerous well to dip into, really, since there have been so many stories done in the past that almost present that as a handwave to mental illness, downplaying what many people actually suffer through in the attempt to provide some sort of supernatural reason why these people aren’t ill, just misunderstood. The stories that did that, though, did it well, I’m happy to say. One, which blended multicultural mythologies in a school setting, legitimately did feature a character who could see things others couldn’t, but that story didn’t seem to tackle mental illness so much as it tackled the idea of being deliberately outcast from ones peers. Another, in which a young Irish girl could see fay and was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, of course turned out to be schizophrenic, but the story didn’t say that schizophrenia isn’t a real condition. It absolutely is. It’s just that some people get misdiagnosed with it because that’s what fits the pattern of modern human understanding.

There’s a sense of both fear and hope in each story. Fear of the unknown, the things we can’t understand, the things that seem different; hope for a better experience and for better understanding. The little boy who can’t speak and would probably get a diagnosis of autism were he not living in a secondary world, he’s sold like an object and overlooked as being too stupid to understand, until someone hurts him and the things and people dear to him and he gets his revenge, however subtle and historically overlooked that revenge may be. The thread of mental illness that runs through generations of family, tearing apart relationships as a sister feels excluded and ignored by those around her as she sees how that commonality brings others closer together. A dystopian future in which the imperfect are Culled, either killed outright or else just cast into the wastes beyond civilization, only to find that there’s a future out there, and people who are accepting and accommodating of those who aren’t what society deems normal. The person who has no bionic upgrades or implants, referred to as a dog, is the only person awake to repair damage to a spaceship, and he’s forced to wake up someone whose upgrades are offline in order to assist him, forcing that person to be thrown into his unaugmented (and, by that society’s standards, pitifully disabled) world. There’s the idea that mental illness can strike at any time, to anybody, and it can change your life, but in every story there’s a repetition of the idea that it doesn’t mean you’re down for the count. You can contribute. You can make a difference. You can maybe make all the difference.

It’s rare that I find an anthology that I like every single part of equally; there’s nearly always one or two stories that just don’t resonate with me the way the others do. And this is no exception, really. There were, I think, two stories that just didn’t do it for me, though objectively they were still quite good. They just weren’t to my taste. Some stories took a little while to get going, but I ended up liking them in the end, more than I expected to. And I can’t deny that the subject matter they tackled was important enough to keep me reading each one even when I wasn’t enjoying them as much as I’d enjoyed others.

Overall, I’d say this was a fantastic collection of short stories, and one that’s absolutely worth reading, even if mental health issues aren’t a pet passion of yours. The publisher donates a portion of the profits from this book’s sales to mental health initiatives, too, which is a wonderful bonus, and it makes me doubly glad that I was able to get my hands on this and be able to spread the word about it a little bit more. It’s an important collection, a great one to dive into, and that uplifting thread of hope that ran strong was, to be perfectly honest, what I needed during a stressful time. Definitely check this one out if you can; it’s worth it, and you won’t be disappointed.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Chimes, by Anna Smaill

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 3, 2016

Summary: After the end of a brutal civil war, London is divided, with slums standing next to a walled city of elites. Monk-like masters are selected for special schooling and shut away for decades, learning to write beautiful compositions for the chimes, played citywide morning and night, to mute memory and keep the citizens trapped in ignorance.

A young orphan named Simon arrives in London with nothing but the vague sense of a half-forgotten promise, to locate someone. What he finds is a new family–a gang of scavengers that patrols the underbelly of the city looking for valuable metal to sell. Drawn in by an enigmatic and charismatic leader, a blind young man named Lucien with a gift for song, Simon forgets entirely what originally brought him to the place he has now made his home.

In this alternate London, the past is a mystery, each new day feels the same as the last, and before is considered “blasphony.” But Simon has a unique gift–the gift of retaining memories–that will lead him to discover a great injustice and take him far beyond the meager life as a member of Lucien’s gang. Before long he will be engaged in an epic struggle for justice, love, and freedom.

The Chimes is an impressive work of speculative fiction, an imaginative adventure elegantly told. The Chimes reveals the human capacity to create both beauty and terror, in art and in life.

Thoughts: Imagine a world without memory. Imagine waking up in the morning and knowing the people around you, their names, what they do, how they react, but not being able to remember meeting them. Things are how they’ve always been. Muscle memory gets you by, habits born of repetition rather than decision. Imagine a time where the idea of before and after are anathema; there is only today, only now.

This is the world of The Chimes. A world in which memory is destroyed on a daily basis, in which music is communication, and the world in which Simon lives. We see him in the beginning, fleeing to London, and shortly after arriving he cannot remember being anywhere else. He has a bag of objectmemories that prompt him, that tell him that there really was a before, but so much of his life relies on patterns of habit. And everywhere there is music. Tunes to teach maps, to put down patterns into someone’s mind. The music of the Order, those privileged people who compose the Chimes and who are, for all intents and purposes, the ruling elite. This is Simon’s world.

Simon is special. When he touches those objectmemories, he sees what was, as clearly as if he was living it again. Most people can’t do that. Most people keep objectmemories as reminders of the fact that there was once a thing to remember, a piece of comfort from a time that is both gone and never was to begin with. He keeps a lot of this to himself, since memory — anything to do with before — is forbidden, but Simon’s talents do not go unnoticed by Lucien, blind boss of the mudlarking gang that Simon found himself in after his arrival in London. And Lucien himself has a secret history, one that connects to the Order, to the music they make and the effect it has on people. And he’s not about to miss an opportunity when he sees one.

I found myself captivated by The Chimes, in no small part for all the subtle details that Smaill weaves into the narrative. Musical terms are peppered through the text casually: presto, lento, all good terms for describing ways to play and what music sounds like, because music is such an integral part of the world that language has changed around it. How it’s written in 1st person and so the descriptions sometimes become like a stream of consciousness, poetic and chaotic but still clear. The plays on words like blasphony and turning palladium into the Pale Lady. There are times when Simon sees writing that comes across to readers as perfectly legible, but he can’t understand it; it’s “code” and useless, meaningless, and ultimately forbidden by the Order because it came from before and was a way of storing memory.

Things like this were what revealed Smaill’s talent for storytelling, piece by tantalizing piece. Reading The Chimes doesn’t just involve sinking into a new story. It involves having to restructure the way you think about thought and communication. To live without memory is to live without context; without context, so much lacks meaning that we now would give to it. The line about writing being a way of storing memory really stuck with me, because it’s true. At any moment I can write down what I did, a thought I had, and revisit it at any time. In the same way that oral storytelling in preliterate cultures connects them to the past and shapes the way they interact with the world, so too does reading and writing for us. It’s integral, to the point that most of us think little of it because we do it by reflex. The idea that the past can be stolen, effectively erased by a sonic weapon that acts daily to take away the chance of someone forming contextual ideas and thoughts about the world around them, is frankly terrifying.

Simon’s personal growth as the story advances is subtle but obvious in hindsight. Thought the narrative is beautifully written, there’s something about the early parts of the story that feel almost dull and hazy, a little bit unformed. This contrasts well with later parts of the book, as Simon slowly explores his talent with holding memory and gains more context of himself and awareness of the world around him. The imagery is the same, but it feels so much more clear later on, and I loved that touch. His growing affection for Lucien… Well, let’s just say that I caught that spark pretty early on, and spent more than half the book wondering if anything would come of it or whether I was just grasping at straws. You see Simon grow up, from an unaware boy to a young man with a sense of righteousness. This doesn’t happen over years, but over a much shorter span that, as I said, has more to do with his growing memory than the passage of time.

Looking at the progression of the story, in which Simon recognizes his talent with memory and becomes a part of Lucien’s drive to overthrow the forgetful tyranny of the Order, discovering a secret group dedicated also to doing that same thing, it would be easy to read reviews and think that this book is trite, derivative of so many “young man takes on the world” stories. But to see it that way does it a great disservice. The Chimes is evocative, poetic, and above all set in a brilliant future that is at once cautionary and compelling. Even if the story had been lackluster (and it wasn’t), the level of detail in the setting would have drawn me in and on.

Beautifully ironic for the subject matter, The Chimes is one of the most memorable books I’ve read this year. It’s poignant, breathtaking, full of passion and discovery and a refreshing variation on a common theme. It is, in short, one of those all-important novels that you need to experience, to let change you. I simply can’t recommend this one enough.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Regeneration, by Stephanie Saulter

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 3, 2016

Summary: The gillungs – waterbreathing, genetically modified humans – are thriving. They’ve colonised riverbanks and ports long since abandoned to the rising seas and the demand for their high-efficiency technologies is growing fast.

But as demand grows, so do fears about their impact on both norm businesses and the natural environment. Then, a biohazard scare at Sinkat, their colony on the Thames, fuels the opposition and threatens to derail the gillungs’ progress. But was it an accident, or was it sabotage?

Detective Sharon Varsi has her suspicions, but her investigations are compromised by family ties. And now there is a new threat: Zavcka Klist is about to be released from prison – and she wants her company back.

Review: Since first being utterly blown away by Gemsigns, I’ve been a huge fan of this series. The way it explores what it means to be human, the way people fear and hate what they don’t understand, the injustices done to people who are often just trying to live their lives peacefully but who don’t fit societal standards of normalcy… All of it strikes chords and resonates deep within me. On the surface it may seem like just a story about genetically modified humans and the future of humanity after a catastrophe, but so much of the series has its ties in what’s happening today, and what has happened in the past. The story of humanity repeats itself a dozen times over.

Saulter took us through gems gaining independence and no longer being slaves to the companies that made them. She took us through the early days of that independence, and the ups and downs of having to hold their own in a hostile culture. And now she lets us jump ahead to a time when Gabriel is an adult (or near enough to), to a time when gems are moving forward and working on projects that make the best use of their unique abilities, and to a time when certain people will go to any lengths to stop gems from holding the ground they’ve fought for inch by inch.

Business as usual, then.

Most of Regeneration focuses on the development on Thames Tidal, a gillung-developed power plant that aims to use the power generated by the natural flow of water through the Thames river, storing it in quantum batteries and releasing it as needed. It’s new tech, advanced and poorly understood by most, and so unsurprisingly there’s some opposition. The fact that gems are heading the project ruffles no few feathers, either. But as the setbacks keep mounting, it becomes clear that somebody has taken it upon themselves to sabotage not just the project but to endanger all those associated with it. The bulk of the story is something of a corporate espionage mystery, something that normally I think I’d find little interest in, but I suppose this just goes to show that most things can be made interesting with the right tweaks. Show me a story with a modern-day setting where the story involves a corporate espionage plot between Picrosoft and Gapple, and meh, I doubt I’d be too interested. Set the story in a power plant from the future and have the cast be genetically modified humans trying to adapt to a culture that still doesn’t much like them? Sold!

The Thames Tidal plot isn’t the only one, of course, because where would a story be with no subplots to keep interest going? You see more of Gabriel now, grown up and employed, keeping a rein on his telepathic abilities and trying to unravel what’s behind a smear campaign. Zavcka Klist has been released from jail and is under house arrest, but that certain won’t stop her from doing what she thinks needs to be done to protect her investments and regain some traction for her own agenda. Eve, a precocious little girl with far too much arrogance, hides much from her parents and becomes the focus for a group attempting to uncover Klist’s secret of immortality. It all comes together quite wonderfully, since everybody’s really tied up in the main plot one way or another, and every character is one I could quite happily read an entire novel starring and I doubt I’d be bored for a moment.

It’s really the characters that make it all come alive for me, as it has been in the trilogy’s previous books. I love the themes of social justice, of adaptation, of fighting to be acknowledged as worthy of respect and rights that others take for granted. I love that these themes are so relatable and applicable to current events but aren’t put across in a heavy-handed way. (As I said previously, it’s just the story of humanity repeating itself once again, not just a thinly-veiled metaphor for only what’s happening nowadays.) But as great as these themes are to discuss and explore, some explorations just fall flat on their faces if they don’t have a great cast of characters to move the plot along. The world can be on the brink of great chance, and if you’re writing about people who just sit back and let it all happen, chances are you’re not going to engage many readers. But all of the characters Saulter writes about are active, engaged, and whether or not you agree with them, you can’t deny that they’re all part of that great force for change, for good or ill, and you know that every one of them is playing or will play a part in how the future in written. Gabriel was remarkable as a child for his telepathy, something that shouldn’t be able to occur even with genetic modification, but as an adult, he’s remarkable for his tenacity and ability to spot patterns and to do what needs to be done when it needs doing.

That’s what I find so very interesting about the characters in these books. They have abilities above and beyond what most humans can do, and while these things often come with severe drawbacks, they’re practically poised to be superheroes, to turn what was done to them into something that thrives on vigilante justice, clandestine meetings and thwarting great enemies at every turn. And yet, they don’t. They strive to live, not to become superheroes. They’re remarkable for their gem-related traits, but they’re amazing for all the things they go that have nothing to do with those enhanced abilities. That they overcome a boatload of opposition, both from social views and from carving out a place in a world that wasn’t built to accommodate them, adds to their stories, but it doesn’t define them, it doesn’t reduce them to caricatures or stereotypes.

Even Zavcka Klist, someone who I alternately feel pity for and then want to strangle because she embodies so many things that I hate about ruthless abusive people and companies, someone who could do easily just remain a token villain in Regeneration, shows far more development and compassion toward the end of the book that I expected, so much growth that really only shows when something she’s passionate about might be taken away. As the antagonist, she was interesting. As the human being we’re made to confront near the end, she’s somebody that prompts reexamination, conflicted emotions. She’s still very much herself, but who we see her as has changed to a degree. I really have to give Saulter some praise for pulling that scene off in a very realistic way that still left me going, “Wait, did I read that right?” Making me reconsider what I thought I knew about what a character might do is definitely worthy of note.

As always, I feel like I could go on at length with my praise. But Regeneration — the whole series, really — is something best explored for yourself. It’s the kind of future that makes you think twice about the things you thought you knew, changes how you look at the world around you, and does so in a way that’s phenomenally entertaining and brilliant. The characters are wonderful, the story is compelling, the pacing and development smooth and fascinating; it all comes together as a rich tapestry that draws you in and doesn’t let you easily. The ®Evolution series has left its mark, and its influence will be felt for years to come.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 26, 2016

Summary: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Review: Sleeping Giants is a book that seems to be getting a load of very positive reviews, especially considering that this is apparently the author’s debut novel. It’s a shame, then, that I won’t be another voice chiming in with that positivity. This is a time when my voice is going to go a bit counter to others, because I really just didn’t enjoy Sleeping Giants that much.

I’m going to start out on a positive note and say that I can’t deny the premise of the novel is a really interesting one. The hand of what looks like a giant statue is discovered purely by accident as a young girl falls into the hole that reveals it. With that starts something that spans decades, following the discovery of the rest of the statue’s pieces, putting them together, and learning just what it’s all for in the first place. It comes across as something very much inspired by mech anime, and for those who are fans of such, then I can see that Sleeping Giants would be very appealing. And really, even for people such as myself, for whom mech-heavy anime holds very little appeal, the story and the slow reveals were decently interesting, and I was curious about how it would come together in the end. The statue appears to be older than any human civilization that could have built it, is made to be controlled by people with different physiology than humans possess, and that’s even before you bring the fun ramifications of international politics into the mix, since the statue’s pieces were scattered all across the planet, requiring often-illegal trips into foreign territory to recover them.

But premise and story alone aren’t always enough to carry a novel. As much as I prefer substance over style, there are times when particular styles can get in the way of enjoyment, and this was one of those times for me. The story is unveiled not through typical narration but through a collection of reports with a couple of journal entries thrown in along the way. The reports are mostly interviews and briefings with the team members working on the statue, and the occasional politician. So nearly every single piece of this book is told, essentially, through dialogue. Which, on one hand, may set it up to be a fantastic audiobook experience, but I don’t think it worked very well as a written one. The dialogue felt clunky at times, more like how people write rather than how people speak, and rarely did it feel like I was actually reading what people said so much as I was reading a cleaned-up version transcribed by someone who got creative with editing. There were no “um”s and “er”s, no idiosyncrasies of real speech, except when reading the interviews with a character who stutters. So even the representation of speech was inconsistent.

(The stutter issue is one that comes up a lot in books, I find, where authors attempt to convey speech disorders through text only when it’s a chronic issue, and rarely doing the same thing when non-stuttering characters fumble words. It has the unfortunate effect of presenting things as normal vs abnormal, notable only in how it divides a character with a speech disorder from other characters who don’t, and I’ve noticed such portrayals talked about as sore spots with people who have trouble communicating verbally. Something to consider, I guess.)

It was, to be fair, a bold and unconventional way to convey the story. Breaking away from standards and expectations, and I do have to give Neuvel credit for taking an unusual approach and experimenting with presentation, but it really just didn’t work for me. The style felt too weird for me to properly get at a lot of the substance.

Add to that the fact that it was a slow-moving story to begin with, with a sense of time that’s hard to pin down because it spans years and the only way you can tell is because characters literally mention that it’s been so many months since something previously mentioned (none of the reports were dated), and you’ve got a novel that I think can appeal to a particular type of person, but not every type. Even the action sequences felt ponderous and unclear, because I knew I was only reading transcriptions of dialogue spoken during events and not really seeing the events themselves. You have to infer a lot, you never really get clear images of people or places, and it feels very sterile.

And for its part, that does work in context. To expect great emotion and detail with such a format would be like expecting to know a child’s feelings on school by reading their report card. It’s just unrealistic to expect the same kind of immersion and understanding; the format really just doesn’t allow for it. The journal entries written by characters do, but those are few and far between, and mostly only show up in the first half of the book, when the plot really hasn’t picked up pace yet.

So between the slow story and my disconnect with the style, I didn’t really end up enjoying Sleeping Giants. It dealt with some interesting concepts, and there’s enough left unsaid to provide plenty of material for future novels in the series, but that wasn’t enough to get me past the problems I had. Those who have an easier time looking past stylistic issues may well get more out of the book than I did, and as I mentioned earlier, I can see it having a great appeal to those who love stories and shows about giant robots. It has a fair bit going for it in terms of creativity, but at the end of the day, it simply isn’t for me.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Fellside, by M R Carey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It’s not the kind of place you’d want to end up. But it’s where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life.

It’s a place where even the walls whisper.

And one voice belongs to a little boy with a message for Jess.

Will she listen?

Review: I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading Fellside. The author apparently did a fantastic job with another well-known and popular novel (I haven’t read it, which is why I say ‘apparently’), but that didn’t mean this one would be equally as great. Still, I was more than willing to take a chance and see where it all led me, to see if Carey could weave a story as complex and compelling as I’d been told by other reviewers.

Turns out the answer is yes. Yes, Carey can. Fellside turned out to be more than a murder mystery with a twist, more than a prison ghost story, but an exploration of expectations and falsehoods, of the lengths to which people will go to get what they want, and a story in which nobody is blameless.

The story starts with Jess waking up in a hospital, badly burned from a fire she’s being accused of starting, a fire which claimed the life of a young neighbour boy. She remembers this only vaguely, having been high on heroin at the time. Consumed by guilt and knowing that she’ll spend the rest of her life in a high-security women’s prison anyway, she makes the decision to end her life by starvation, a slow suicide to atone for her crime. That is, until she makes happenchance contact with a ghost, a ghost she firmly believes to be the boy she killed, who himself is convinced that Jess was not to blame for his death.

Murder mysteries in which a dead person helps the accused uncover the identity of the real killer aren’t unheard of, but they’re uncommon enough that even if the rest of the novel had focused solely on this plot, it would have held interest for me. But there’s so much more to Fellside than that. Life in Fellside prison isn’t exactly kind to Jess, though there are most certainly moments of rough kindness going on, but between a long-running drug-ring and other abuses of power, to Jess’s attempts to not only prove but also believe her own innocence, there’s a rich and varied tapestry of story at work here, told from multiple viewpoints of some extremely messed-up and flawed characters. Even when you sympathize with some of their positions, they’re often hard to sympathize with as people. Everyone is guilty of something, even if that ‘something’ is cowardice that allows a rotten situation to continue when they know a well-timed word could end it.

But some characters are more sympathetic than others, for certain. It’s hard to find much to like about Devlin or Grace, as they’re extremely self-centered and out for each other. The only point of sympathy I can find for Devlin is that he genuinely seems to want to please Grace and believes that the feeling is mutual, but even then, that’s slim sympathy, and he’s still someone I think would be better off dead. But even characters like Liz, scary as she is, become far more sympathetic when you learn more of her history, and when she was first introduced, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to feel so much for her character by the end. She’s a deeply hurt human being, struggling with numerous terrible scars, and while she’s still not exactly a character you want to root for, her story is brilliant and as compelling as Jess’s, in its way.

And then you get characters like Paul Levine, who is undeniably creepy with his misplaced affection for Jess, which drives his desire to do anything he can to please her, even when it means possibly sabotaging her appeal by finding irrelevent-to-the-case info. But that obsessive affection turns out to be the thing that has him looking in all the weird places and results in evidence coming to light that ultimately proves Jess’s innocence. With him it’s a weird case, because people like Paul are rather disturbing in their desires, but you can’t deny that those twisted emotions led to a good place in the end. How much does the end outweigh the means, or the motivation? How much bad gets to be done in the name of goodness and justice?

That’s not a one-time theme in Fellside, either. You see that thread run through multiple story arcs, in one form or another. It’s never a clear-cut issue, either. There’s a prison nurse who treats Jess extremely badly in early sections of the book, believing her to be a child-killer and thinking that Jess certainly didn’t need any gentleness as she was starving herself to death. And many people, I think, would agree with her assessment of that; why make comfortable somebody who committed a heinous crime and is trying to die in penance anyway? Only hindsight and third-person omniscience show that Jess didn’t commit the crime she was convicted of. Morality is a complicated issue, truth can be subjective, and yes, some people do terrible things in the name of justice. Everybody is guilty of something.

But my favourite theme of the book was how expectations shape reality. I suppose that ties back in with what I just said, given that whether or not Jess committed a crime, people believing she did affected how they behaved toward her. Jess’s expectation of her own guilt and punishment nearly led to her death. Paul’s expectation of Jess’s gratitude took him to extraordinary lengths to find evidence of her innocence. But far more than that, there’s the issue of Alex’s ghost, who keeps giving Jess contradictory information about his own life, about Jess’s hand in his death. How he and Jess are capable on influencing the dreams of people around them, and the far-reaching effects of that. I don’t want to give away too much of the story or too many big reveals, but suffice it to say that little is what it appears to be when it comes to Jess and Alex, that their stories run fascinatingly deep, and that perceptions can be true and yet still wrong.

So after all that, Fellside turned out to be an unexpectedly great novel that approached multiple complicated issues from multiple angles, and for that I think it deserves some praise. For the author being able to keep track of everything and make it a properly coherent story, if nothing else! It won’t appeal to all readers, since as much as I can say that depictions of brutality in prison were apt, they weren’t really to my taste in reading, and some scenes were very emotionally charged and difficult to get through. But it was, regardless, a wonderful mystery that kept me guessing on some things right to the very end, and it managed to wrap things up with only a couple of minor dangling plot threads when all was said and done. I’m certain now that I want to see more of Carey’s work in the future; if it’s anything like this, I expect nuance and complexity all over the place, in the right amounts to keep me intrigued and entertained until the last page. Recommended for those who enjoy a good supernatural murder mystery and are up for some frank discussions of unpleasant prison realities along the way.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

A Daughter of No Nation, by A M Dellamonica

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – December 1, 2015

Summary: As soon as Sophie Hansa returned to our world, she is anxious to once again go back to Stormwrack. Unable to discuss the wondrous sights she has seen, and unable to tell anyone what happened to her in her time away, Sophie is in a holding pattern, focused entirely on her eventual chance to return.

With the sudden arrival of Garland Parrish, Sophie is once again gone. This time, she has been called back to Stormwrack in order to spend time with her father, a Duelist-Adjudicator, who is an unrivaled combatant and fearsome negotiator. But is he driven by his commitment to seeing justice prevail, or is he a sociopath? Soon, she discovers something repellent about him that makes her reject him, and everything he is offering.

Adrift again, she discovers that her time spent with her father is not without advantages, however, for Sophie has discovered there is nothing to stop her from setting up a forensic institute in Stormwrack, investigating cases that have been bogged down in the courts, sometimes for years. Her fresh look into a long-standing case between two of the islands turns up new information that could get her, and her friends, pulled into something bold and daring, which changes the entire way she approaches this strange new world…

Review: I have every reason to have loved Child of a Hidden Sea when I read it in 2014. Circumstances conspired to have me read it at the same time that things were going well in life, and I was at a bit of a happy high. It was, as I called it, “pure indulgent fantasy,” the concept reminiscent of many old daydreams that used to entertain me when I was younger. And it was written by A M Dellamonica, an author I’d previously established was a damn good writer and who had great talent for writing phenomenal characters that I want to spend time with. It was set up for success in my mind.

So unsurprisingly, I was excited to be able to read the sequel, and I had very high hopes for it.

The book starts with Sophie doing her level best to prepare for an eventual return to Stormwrack. She’s taking self-defense lessons, learning what she can about nautical navigation, trying to find a way to make sure she can take full advantage of everything when she returns to that other world. But when she does return, all her preparations seem pointless when she’s expressly forbidden to actively learn anything. No access to books, people aren’t to give her too much information about science or geography or the like, and Sophie’s frustration is pretty understandable when put up against people who want to keep her in the dark about the world she’s determined to be a part of.

On top of that, her biological father wants to reconnect, and Sophie’s not at all averse to this idea, especially when it seems that he’ll actually encourage her in learning about Stormwrack rather than stymie her.

I have to say that A Daughter of No Nation wasn’t quite what I was expecting. While the previous book in the series did heavily feature exploration and discovery, it was better mixed with action and tension than this one. Here, most of the story is just about Sophie learning, getting into arguments with people, and trying to solve a couple of mysteries that present themselves along the way, one of which she latches onto like a dog with a bone despite having little reason to beyond a hunch. Turns out it was a bigger deal than everyone else thought, and it seemed like many of them followed leads just to indulge her, so that subplot felt a bit forced and incidental than necessary. It would pop up from time to time, a small new revelation would occur, then the story would go back to the main focus.

I’m no expert, but I suspect I’d have been more interested in developments had that all been conveyed more actively than passively. Other people did the investigation, out of sight, while Sophie did other things, and so it felt very divorced from, well, just about everything. It had its purpose, but it was nearly all background stuff until it came to a head, so it came across rather like a small series of unimportant things that suddenly became huge, out of nowhere. Despite Sophie wanting it investigated, and despite other characters investigating and updating her. It was easy to ignore because it was sidelined so often, only to rear its head half a dozen chapters later for maybe a few paragraphs.

But enough of that. What about the rest of the book?

If you’re looking for an action-packed tale of adventure on the high seas, you won’t really find too much of it here. Rather, this is more of Sophie discovering who she is and where she fits into a world that she’s only recently discovered but still has many ties to. It’s like a combination coming-of-age story, a political debate, and a crime drama, rolled into one and set in a fantasy world. As such, while it definitely appealed to me (and will thus probably appeal similarly to those who really enjoy some good solid culture-building), it won’t appeal to everybody, and I suspect some readers will be left rather bored at the lack of development in much other than Sophie’s personal life.

But Dellamonica’s presentation of multiple different culture clashes gave me plenty of food for thought. Is it better to allow a lesser evil if it means a greater evil can’t endure, or is it better to hold true to shared ideals and to fight against what you see as immoral rather than embracing it with concessions? How much of your own morals might you sacrifice in the pursuit of something you hold dear? Sophie and Parrish’s love life was a bit of an echo of Fleet politics: in some ways they hold different opinions on certain matters but are still willing to make a go of being a couple. This is generally see as a good and healthy thing, the willingness to make compromises, but this being something of a mirror of how the Fleet views different nations (and Sophie finding some concessions abhorrent), I found it interesting that what we praise as individuals we often frown on when presented politically.

I also love how we get a much deeper understanding of what Stormwrack really is. In my previous review I speculated that it was an alternate world, since there were elements of shared mythology. And this isn’t an issue that Sophie overlooks; through her research she speculates that most likely Stormwrack is the world of the future, or at least A future, which which massive climate changed caused equally massive flooding over the whole planet. Add to that her investigations into evolution, and some of the book starts to look an awful lot like science-fiction, although a kind that isn’t particularly common since it has its strongest roots in fantasy. Sci-fi that looks like fantasy tends to get a lot of criticism unless it’s game-changing for both genres, but really, I rather like it. It’s in the same way that I enjoy the way authors establish firm rules for how their fantasy worlds work, not just in geography and a few different cultures but in how magic happens and affects things and how technology develops and all of little aspects of life that can get taken for granted in a lot of fantasy novels. Approaching fantasy in a scientific manner has always fascinated me, so I loved that I got to see more of how it all works behind the scenes. Sophie’s inquisitive mind and determination to learn more about things works extremely well to convey all this to the reader, and we discover it exactly as she does, lending another connection between reader and protagonist.

So while this book isn’t heavy on action, or real forward motion in terms of a over-arching series plot, it was still a good book that has its appeal to certain audiences, and I still enjoyed reading it. I lover Dellamonica’s writing style, and the way she writes people as wonderful flawed complex creatures will never cease to entertain me. For those who enjoyed the first book in the series, depending on which parts of it you liked best, then I recommend continuing on with A Daughter of No Nation. Others may find its lack of active tension a major drawback, however. But for my part, the world intrigues me, the characters fascinate me, and I’ll be continuing my journey of discovery right alongside Sophie in any future novels Dellamonica writes.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

Every Heart a Doorway, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – April 5, 2016

Summary: No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.

But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.

Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.

No matter the cost.

Review: Seanan McGuire is a name you can’t really avoid when it comes to urban fantasy. And yet, I don’t think I’d actually read anything of hers until now. I knew the name, but not the works, and after having read and adored Every Heart a Doorway, I have to say that I’m a bit disappointed in myself for not making the time to do so sooner.

What we have is the story of Nancy, and let me take a moment to just right in with the praise because Nancy is one of the few asexual characters I have ever found in fiction. There have been a few, but often when present, authors fall back on explaining a character’s asexuality away as a result of trauma or that it was traded away for something (usually a religious something). McGuire is quick to mention that there’s a difference between celibacy and asexuality, that someone who’s asexual can absolutely have romantic feelings for someone, and in only a few short lines, scattered here and there throughout the novella, eradicate many of the assumptions that people often have about ace individuals. So many thanks to McGuire for improving visibility and representation for people like myself.

Anyway, this is Nancy’s story. And Nancy now finds herself at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, after having disappeared for a time into a different world, and when her parents have no idea how to bring back the person she used to be. But Eleanor’s establishment isn’t just a rehab place for emotionally unstable teens, as Nancy suspects. It’s actually for people just like her, people who has crossed over into other worlds and have been changed for the experience. Bit by bit Nancy learns that she’s not alone in her experiences, that everyone at Eleanor’s has traveled elsewhere at some point in their lives, and that there are countless worlds, all different but all, in their way, quantifiable. Although Nancy can’t return to the world that gave her such comfort for a time, it seems her life might be starting to look up.

That is, until the murders begin.

The story that follows has Nancy and her newfound companions attempting to catch the culprit and figure out why they’re killing off teens at the house. McGuire does a great job of building suspense and laying out the mystery piece by piece, leaving the reader narrowing down the list of suspects as events unfold. It wasn’t so much a case of “Is it this person? No? How about that person?” so much as it was, “It could be these people. Okay, now I know it can’t be that one… Or that one…” And so on. It’s not always a comfortable story. The characters are not your typical teens, even by urban fantasy standards. There are gruesome circumstances, frank talk of death and dismemberment, and sometimes you end up liking characters even as they frustrate and repulse you. But it’s still a fantastic story with a fantastic cast (one of whom is a well-presented trans guy, and yes, there is some antagonism from some of the other students over it all, because people are people and that means they can be ignorant sometimes), and I loved sinking into it all.

On a personal level, this story resonated with me in a far deeper way than I expected it to. Each of the characters who had gone to different worlds found that the new world suited them on a soul-deep level, that however much they had to change and learn new behaviours, there was something right about it, even when it was difficult. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never had that kind of experience myself. It was a long-ago dream, but in it I went somewhere else, somewhere out of time, where I didn’t have to worry about mundane problems, where I had an endless amount of books to read and video games to play, where I could stay always, and the proviso is that I had to stay silent. People there had an hour a day to interact, to talk quietly with each other, but for the most part, we stuck to ourselves, passing endless time in silence, happy because that was what suited us. I told my friends about that dream, how it felt so comfortable for me, almost ideal, and it worried them rather than intrigued them, because, well, most healthy people don’t dream about leaving everything behind and being silent forever. And I guess I can see that. But to me, it was still comfort. A place to go to in my mind that was still and peaceful and had no worries with it, and it was mine.

That was years ago. I still think of it, and I still remember the peace that came along with what I eventually just called the Silence.

And then along comes Seanan McGuire, writing about a bunch of people who found worlds that fit them as well as the Silence fit me, and so you might be able to understand why reading this hit me so hard.

Anyway…

The ending of Every Heart a Doorway is a bittersweet one, one that I didn’t know if McGuire would do. On one hand, Nancy desperately wants to return to the Halls of the Dead, though she’s told it’s highly unlikely she’ll ever be able to do so. Few people return to their worlds. On the other hand, you do see her form bonds with people in this world, bonds that she would have to give up if ever she did return. So no decision is without its drawbacks, and without giving away too much of what happens at the very end, I have to say that I think the author handled it well. As I said, it was bittersweet, full of calm-but-deep emotion, and as satisfying as it could get.

This is a novella for the misfits, the people who don’t belong, the people who hope that there’s a place for them out there, even if it’s a strange and fantastical place that nobody else understands. It’s a story for the curious and the brave, for those who enjoy urban fantasy and magical realism but who are looking for a different flavour in their reading. It’s short and wonderful, it’s an adventure in both clarity and obscurity, and I know that I’ll be rereading this one again in the future. In all, an amazing introduction to McGuire’s writing!

(Received for review from the publisher.)