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: Gods of Howl Mountain by Taylor Brown
Genre: Action/Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
After losing his leg in the Korean War, Rory Docherty returns home to the wilds of 1950s North Carolina to run whiskey for the most feared bootlegger on the mountain. Here, family ties are everything, moonshine is more valuable than gold, and secrets are hard to keep buried. Rory is haunted by what he’s seen in the war and what happened to his mother, struck dumb and left unhinged after witnessing an act of horrible violence. In order to find the men responsible, he’ll have to face down federal agents, duplicitous women, snake-handling preachers, and feuding boys out to prove themselves on the racetrack in souped-up coupes. That is, if he manages to stay alive long enough.
Gods of Howl Mountain is equal parts heart-pounding action and memorable characters you can’t help but love, flaws and all. Granny Mae is the crowning achievement of the story. A (mostly) retired lady of the night whose taken up witching and remedies to help pay the bills, she’s tough, sharp as a tack, and marvelously fearless. Even though Rory is our POV character, she’s the heart of the story, and all the characters have a way of turning up at her door to seek her services or advice. She’s the best of all the world-weary, wisecracking women I knew growing up in Appalachia, and I never got tired of her.
Brown’s prose is lush as the wet, green-black forests of Western North Carolina, and he has a great talent for ratcheting the tension up to ten while taking his time with the descriptive passages. The dialogue is a wonder; so steeped in the backwoods you can practically taste the corn whiskey, and it serves to show just how clever all these characters are. There are double-crosses aplenty here, and wrenching moments of tenderness that batter your heart. I was totally gripped by this book, and Gods of Howl Mountain earned my highest rating fair and square, with no complaints on any account.
Note: I received a copy of Gods of Howl Mountain in exchange for an honest review.
Title: Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
Genre: Science Fiction/Afrofuturism
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)
Binti is the first member of her small African tribe to be accepted into the universe of the galaxy. She’s a harmonizer, a mathematics genius with a near-spiritual connection to the complex technologies and equations that under-gird the universe, and even though she’s terrified of leaving the red deserts in which she was raised, there’s nothing she wants more than to nurture her skills at the prestigious planet-sized Oomza university. But when her classmates are massacred by an alien species aboard the ship ferrying Binti to her new home, it will take every ounce of courage she has to survive.
This book drew me in right from the start and held my attention the entire time. The space travel elements felt fresh and organic, and the novel by and large avoided the old-school sci-fi tropes that give books that sterile, metallic tang. I’m not sure what else science fiction is better for than exploring what it means to be human in a galactic context, and Binti lovingly leans into themes of adolescent anticipation, cultural alienation, and trans-cultural identity.
I really liked Binti as a protagonist; she’s brave, willing to fight tooth and nail for what she loves, but ultimately, her strength is her compassion and level head for diplomacy. Her Himba heritage plays a huge role in both the plot and her character development. I love a book that teaches me something new about another culture, and one of the most touching moments in the book was Binti wondering if she was going to be able to find the right ingredients on her new planet to make the paste of oil and clay the Himba cover their skin and hair with.
At only 90 pages, Binti clips along at a short-story pace that kept me from ever feeling bored. However, because of novella length, I felt like I was robbed of the sort of worldbuilding and setting details that would have really made me feel enveloped in the narrative. The descriptions I was given were sufficient, but sparse, and character development jerked along at times, prey to the pace. However, Binti is the first in a well-received trilogy that’s setting the standard for the new wave of afro-futurism, and I’m excited to pick up books two and three.
The series follows Lumi, a witch who spends her days hawking spells to townspeople, travelling through the land in the shell of a giant snail, and brewing up poisons to keep her monstrous husband in a soporific stupor. Lumi is a dry and plucky protagonist, and I so enjoyed learning about her entanglements with blood magic, Baba Yaga’s dynasty of witch-prince sons, and the ne’er do wells of the witching world. Every new character introduced into the story is beautifully dressed, morally ambiguous, and full of secrets, which is just how I like them, and the 19th century setting in the forests and icy wastes of Scandinavia is absolutely enchanting.
I read all four volumes of Hemlock in two days, and now I’m addicted. The bad news is that the comic remains unfinished, since Fenton is holding down a day job as a cartoonist and animator, but she does update regularly.
The great news is that if you hate squinting at your computer screen during the nail-biting bits of your favorite comics, you can purchase bound copies of all four existing volumes of Hemlock. This is a must-read for fairy tale enthusiasts and fans of Catherynne Valente’s Deathless.
Got any favorite fairy tale inspired books? Tell me about them so I can add them to my TBR!
Title: The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride
Genre: Adult Fiction
Oof. This wasn’t a pleasant ride, friends, and I DNF’d at page 80, something I am really loathe to do unless a book is not enriching my life whatsoever. That said, there’s some strong points to this sensuous, experimental novel, and I want to give them their due.
The Lesser Bohemians is told from the point of view (deep point of view, you might say) of an eighteen-year-old Irish girl who moves to London to study acting in the 90′s. There she meets an established actor in his late thirties, and the two fall into bed together and being a tortuously on-again, off-again affair of sex, frustration and reconciliation, healing, and harm.
The steam-of-consciousness style narration is much more accessible than other times I’ve seen it used, although it took me until about page fifty to really settle into the dreamy, internalizing rhythm. McBride’s done something really wonderful here with dialogue and action all running together, and the narrator’s personal thoughts slipped furtively in between in smaller print. It’s a feat, and she ought to be given credit for it.
That said, the narrative style keeps the reader suspended between raw euphoria and drunken disorientation, which made the constant barrage of blackout nights, substance overindulgence, repressed vulnerability, and screamed betrayals incredibly unpleasant for me. At almost 100 pages into the narrative there seemed no light at the end of the tunnel of alienation, compulsive behavior, and budding addiction. I would hype myself up to finish the book and then only get ten or fifteen pages in before getting so upset that I had to put it down because the secondhand sexual shame and impostor syndrome were too strong. However, that sort of visceral reaction is a testament to the book’s main strength: entirely immersive storytelling. You’re as close to this narrator as fiction is liable to allow you to get, and you experience all her anxieties and hopes in your own body, adrenaline and all.
This DNF isn’t a mark against the strength of McBride’s writing. The beautiful prose just wasn’t enough payoff for the subject matter for me, but that’s not to say that will be true for every reader. Maybe McBride’s next novel will pair her astonishing talent for voice with a story I find more worth telling, and I can give her another shot then.
Disclosure: I was given a copy of The Lesser Bohemians by Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.