In the Vanishers’ Palace – Aliette de Bodard
⭐⭐⭐⭐ (4/5 Stars)
Ah yes, the drowsy, dark days between the December holidays and New Years, where we all enjoy some well-earned time off work, soak up the love of family, and…panic about how few days there are left hit our reading challenge goals. Not sure how you’re gonna cram all of Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell into these last few twilight days of the year? Never fear, I’ve got a list of all the short works of fiction I read in 2018 so that you can pluck out some gems to affix last-minute to your 2018 reading challenge crown.
Reader, I love the novella. Just long enough to build worlds and characters, just short enough that you’re encouraged to fill in gaps with your imagination, embodying both the sparkling brevity of a short story and the languid embrace of a novel…and, uh, you can read them hella fast. Some of the works listed below are more like long short stories (A Kiss With Teeth clocks in at less than 40 pages) and I would argue that others are pushing the boundaries into novel (The Black Tides of Heaven is 240 pages but worth it). These are all fantasy stories of varying flavors and most of them Tor.com originals, but hopefully there’s a little something here for everyone, and the best part? Half of these are available online for FREE.
I am a consummate Valente devotee, and despite reveling in Space Opera this year, I think I enjoyed this Wild West fairy tale retelling even more. Here, sharpshooting mixed-race Snow White flees her racist step-mother and her poisonous trappings of “proper womanhood”, and adventures through mining towns, refugee camps, and the live-wire wilderness of an America on the brink of industrialization. It has all of Valente’s razor-sharp meditations on gender, race, and destiny, mixed in with her unbeatable prose and divine gift for fable. This one is sure to sink its teeth into your heart and not let go.
This one has been on my tbr for too long, and Yang’s silkpunk vision of an imperial family torn apart by attempted assassinations, prophetic dreams, and interpersonal conflict is at once epic and searingly personal. This world where mechanical technology clashes with a form of magic known as “slackcraft” is gorgeously realized, along with a society in which all people are born genderless and choose their gender (or lack thereof) when they’re ready. This book with thrill you, break your heart, and leave you hungry for the next installment.
This has got to be my favorite Tor.com original story of the year, maybe of all time. This tautly written send-up to the vampire genre imagines what it would be like for an immortal predator to struggle to fit into American suburbia and raise a small boy with his wife. The story is thoroughly fun but never kitchy or cliche, and it explores issues of fidelity, identity, and parenthood with deft insight. The best part? A passionate romance between a married couple. Sign me up.
Reader, I felt this one in my gut. This is a quiet, misty-edged novelette that perfectly captures the tender, aching start of new life after unspeakable trauma. Our protagonist Aphra, a devotee of Lovecraft’s old gods, has recently been released from the internment camp where she and her family were unjustly held, and is trying to rebuild herself. However, people obsessed with her family’s legacy and religion keep finding her, preventing her from withdrawing from the past forever. This book dives into the intricacies and contradictions of a childhood defined by faith of any kind, and offers a humanizing but still wonderfully weird take on the Lovecraft mythos. I’ll be picking up Winter Tide, the full-length follow-up novel, in the new year.
If you need a little sugar-dusted heartwarming holiday cheer, this queer Nutcracker retelling is for you. I’ve been a fan of Bashe’s work for some time, and their prose has only gained more glittering clarity as time has passed. The author’s particular strength for capturing deep romantic friendship between women (and in this case, a nonbinary person) shines through. I adored Bashe’s take on Drosselmeyer and found myself loving and rooting for Prince Mathilde and Clara, despite only having known them a short time. By and large, the story is easy to follow and thoroughly charming, especially for someone looking for a diverse romance to brighten up their holidays.
Yes, Valente again. If you’re looking for a shorter introduction to her work, and to her well-loved Fairyland series, this may be a good place to start. Ever-practical village witch Mallow is called into the glittering capitol of Fairyland and, with the help of a flirtatious Jack of the Wood and some wild, gossipy winds, she must uncover the secret behind Fairyland’s inevitable decay before its too late. In the process she will learn the true meaning of sacrifice and responsibility. Like all of Valente’s work, this story is a little bloody, a little quirky, and a whole lot of lovely.
And there you have it folks! Six short titles to kick your reading challenge into gear in these last four days of the year. What were your favorite short fiction works of 2018?
Title: The Beloveds by Maureen Lindley
Rating: ★★ (2/5)
Elizabeth Stash has never really loved anything in her life except Pipits, the cherished ancestral home of her childhood in rural England. Even when her mother’s favoritism for Elizabeth’s despised little sister Gloria reared its head, Pipits was there to enfold Elizabeth into a voice that spoke through creaking wood and rustling curtains. Her obsessive love for the house only grows with time, and when Elizabeth’s mother dies she is certain that she, the eldest daughter, will rightfully inherit Pipits. But when the will specifies that Pipits will pass to beautiful, beloved Gloria, Elizabeth begins to hatch an ugly plan that will soon consume her entirely.
The Beloveds is a book that flirts with the supernatural but for the most part stays staunchly psychological, delving deep into the malice which Elizabeth nurtures and cultivates. Elizabeth is a narcissist who can’t properly empathize with other people, considers herself superior to them, and is constantly convinced she’s been wronged. As far as unreliable, unsympathetic narrators go, Elizabeth held my attention, though some of her diatribes about being betrayed bordered on repetitive.
The tension in this book ratchets wonderfully as the narrator becomes more and more delusional, and as her actions become progressively more criminal and poorly disguised. However, and to my great disappointment, this suspense ultimately comes to nothing. Elizabeth character’s steadily erodes, but the lives of those around her remain largely unchanged, as as the book reaches what I hoped would be a gloriously cacophonous crescendo, it goes out with a whimper rather than a bang.
The Beloveds is an engaging read that cultivates a Gothic atmosphere without pulling in some of the more scenery-chewing tropes of the genre, but ultimately, it falls flat. It felt like one long character sketch, and Elizabeth’s family remained so unbelievably oblivious to her machinations that I supposed there must be some catch, something hidden from the narrator that would be revealed in the big finish. Sadly, there was not, and without any satisfying cherry on the cake of nastiness, The Beloveds is ultimately an unremarkable summer read.
Note: I received a copy of The Beloveds in exchange for an honest review. The Beloveds is set to drop on April 3, 2018.
Title: Ask Baba Yaga by Taisia Kitaiskaia
Genre: Poetry/Self Help
Rating: ★★★ (3/5)
Ask Baba Yaga imagines what it may be like if Baba Yaga, a fearsome and ancient witch from Slavic folklore, got hold of a typewriter and started cryptically answering the pleas for advice piling up on her doorstep. Existential crises, career crossroads, and love woes alike are stabbed at with incisive prose-poem responses juxtaposed with illustrations in stark colors. Sometimes the responses as earthy and pragmatic, other times they are macabre parables; oftentimes they are inscrutable recipes the reader is not yet wise enough to understand.
As an ambitious young woman navigating the briers of a mid-life crises and the tangled road of true love, I’m pretty sure I am Ask Baba Yaga’s target audience. I often felt like I had survived a number of strange woodland trials and had been granted a single boon by Kitaiskaia’s prickly personae, who hacks away at the weeds of mundane life with strange misspellings and turns of phrase. Some of the questions and metaphors felt repetitive by the end of the book, which ran a little long for my tastes in poetry. It’s also possible that older readers might find Baba Yaga’s advice more suitable for a younger set who are still being battered about by self-doubt and new love, but I think that people from all walks of life can glean a little wisdom, and maybe a few spells, from between the pages of Kitaiskaia’s book.
Title: A Bigger Table by John Pavlovitz
Genre: Christian Nonfiction/Memroir
Rating: ★★★ (3/5)
John Pavlovitz is a widely-read Christian blogger known for the generous hospitality of his theology and his commitment to championing honesty within the church. However, this wasn’t always the case. Pavolovitz was raised in a culturally homogeneous, shame-based Christian culture, and it wasn’t until he moved to Philadelphia in college that he began to experience humanity in all its colorful, dynamic diversity. As Pavolovitz came to love his black and latinx and queer and poor and atheist neighbors, all while discerning a call to ministry, he also began to form a vision of the table of God to which everyone was truly welcome and truly accepted.
Like many works of Christian nonfiction, A Bigger Table juxtaposes anecdotes from the author’s life and ministry with more theoretical theology. This, for the most part, works, and I enjoyed the stories about Pavolovitz’s Catholic Italian family and the troubled pastors and gay youth he has counseled throughout his career. Overall, the message of “radical hospitality, true diversity, real authenticity, and agenda-free community” comes across loud and clear, and is well supported by examples from the life of Christ. The chapter on the lies pastors are forced to tell in order to be accepted by their boards and congregations was particularly strong, and I appreciated the way Pavlovitz – though openly left of center – critiques and encourages both sides of the isle in an effort to build true Christian community.
However, the book ultimately suffers from a meandering structure and lack of concrete ways readers can help build the “bigger table”. Very little practical advice was given amidst all the excitement about doing church in a more authentic, healing way. The full inclusion of LBGTQ Christians into the church is a central theme of the book, but the chapters regarding it were separated in a way that felt random, and it seemed as though the author couldn’t decide how much time he wanted to spend on the issue. In addition, despite drawing from the life of Christ to support his model of radical hospitality, Pavlovitz effectively ignores most of the Bible, and I think he could have enriched his position by bringing in Second Testament writings and stories from the First Testament.
Despite its weaknesses, The Bigger Table will be soul-soothing to anyone beaten down by the partisanship and fake warmth of so many Christian congregations. I would recommend it to anyone looking for straight-talk from a pastor who wants to see the lavish love of Jesus spread more liberally through the world.
Note: I received a copy of A Bigger Table in exchange for an honest review.