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In the Vanishers’ Palace- Aliette de Bodard

I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

There was nothing wrong with this book. In fact it had several things going for it. Ethical complexity, an amazing setting/premise, and some linguistic coolness (watch the pronoun shifts). But ultimately it didn’t dig into the things I thought were interesting in the setting and characters, and I became a bit bored.

To summarize briefly: the Vanishers, powerful and cruel creatures, have left Earth, leaving a fractured and sickened (both literally and metaphorically) society and environment in their wake. Yên, a young scholar from a small Vietnamese village, is traded to a (female) shapeshifting dragon by the unscrupulous local elders after her mother calls on the spirit for a healing.

Yên soon finds she is not going to be eaten, but rather will tutor the dragon’s children. She also finds herself falling for the dragon, but they have plenty of obstacles to overcome in their relationship, including the dragon’s tendency to make decisions for other people and the true identity of her children.

The background about the Vanishers and how the world is still dealing with the consequences of their reign long after they’ve left Earth behind is amazing. I particularly liked Yên’s revelation as to how the Vanishers shaped the people’s conceptions of power and resources, leading to the misrule of the elders of her village. However, only three characters were deeply explored: Yên, her mother, the dragon, and one of the children, Thong. Even the second child, Liên, didn’t get much exploration, and interesting side characters like Yên’s loyal village friend who is healed by the dragon, or Elder Giang, who feels conflicted and damned by her role in the village’s power structure, were picked up and dropped. Obviously, not everything can be explored in a short novella, but I found the side characters consistently more compelling than the major ones and wondered if their story might have been more interesting.

There were a lot of deep ethical questions raised, and I loved Yên’s duty-bound scholar morality, but ultimately the main message was rather obvious: don’t make decisions for other people without asking them. I would have liked thornier dilemmas.

Basically, the setting is amazing and as a novel with more room to explore this might have worked better, but as it stands it left me a bit cold.

Theater review- Don Carlos, Rose Theatre, Kingston

This will be LONG and SPOILERY (both for production and 200-some year old play). Main takeaway–it’s excellent, if somewhat difficult to follow unless you know the story. Second half significantly better than first, though I think that’s partly down to Schiller. Dead silence at the end, before thunderous applause.

It’s easier to highlight the few things I didn’t like, because there was so much that I did like. Low points–shouty, angry Elisabeth who has none of the calm dignity other characters ascribe to her. The cutting of the entire badminton speech, as well as (necessarily following from that) Rodrigo’s “Was I so eager, so conscientious, that time you bled for me when we were boys?” just before his death. It’s psychologically important to Rodrigo’s character that he’s thinking of that! The removal of Philip’s tears motif–Carlos doesn’t warn him about it in their audience, Philip visibly weeps in the scene with the baby Infanta, and there is no “The King shed tears” sending shockwaves through the grandees after Rodrigo betrays Philip. In my opinion, those two things shouldn’t have been cut (tho I get that the badminton part might have simply come across as ridiculous to the audience). By contrast, the scene between Carlos and Eboli when they misunderstand each other went on WAY too long. Finally, at the very end, Philip shoots Elisabeth before delivering his final line. This takes away from the momentousness of him delivering up Carlos in cold blood, which is where the focus should be. Also EVERYONE talked too fast in the first half, as if trying to cram in all their lines, save perhaps Tom Burke. Also I couldn’t tell at the end whether they were going for a platonic Carlos/Elisabeth endgame or a romantic one (he gives her up, but then kisses her on the mouth).

So most of what I didn’t like (aside from Elisabeth’s acting) was directorial rather than on the actors, who were fantastic. And there was one really clever decision dictated (as Tom Burke told me after the show) by lack of funds but imo played to full advantage. The parts of Rodrigo and the Grand Inquisitor were doubled. This worked SO WELL. The two ideologues of the play, but so different in their beliefs. The two people who influence Philip the most over the course of the play, and who together destroy him.

Doesn’t hurt that Tom Burke can really act.

Particular moments that stood out–Rodrigo’s “Really? Would it?” after Philip claims it would be painful for him if the Inquisition got Rodrigo. The scene between Rodrigo and Elisabeth at the end, of course, though “Life is still beautiful” was delivered somehow a little off. The tenderness between Rodrigo and Carlos, combined with a certain impatience. The embrace “with full right” at the end. The whole audience scene between Philip and Rodrigo, which is when the production really got going (intermission came immediately after it).

The actors who played Carlos and Philip were also standouts. The central triangle between the three of them really carried the play. Philip was loud and abusive and obnoxious, but genuinely curious about Rodrigo and devastated by the endgame. Carlos was all over the place, as he should be, yet good-hearted, and he really matured in the wake of Rodrigo’s sacrifice and delivered his grieving speech to the king so well.

Robert David MacDonald’s translation kept all the important stuff and the elevated language unlike Mike Poulton’s and didn’t have the mistakes of Peter Oswald’s, but it was a bit less than poetic in places—this showed up in Rodrigo’s “dreams of his youth” speech (in which he recommends Carlos “esteem” the “visions” of youthful days). Still, I’m really glad they used this translation.

The actors/director clearly understood the play, both text and subtext, and really delivered on the complexities of the various relationships. The trip from America to see this was totally worth it. On a personal note, I’ve been longing to see this onstage since I was eighteen and here, eight years later, is the payoff.

Firebird – Elizabeth Wein

Screen Shot 2018-10-11 at 10.15.06 PMThis novella was written specifically for teenage dyslexic readers, so it uses more dyslexic-friendly language, length, and formatting, while diving into some tough subject matter and using sophisticated narrative strategies. The book is framed as the written testimony of Nastia, a Soviet pilot in World War II who is accused of treason. She gives an account of her wartime experiences and the incident that led her to be accused.

A “the lady or the tiger” ending leaves readers uncertain as to Nastia’s eventual fate. Is she shot as a traitor or released? This also subtly gives the readers a clue that life in the USSR is not always as Nastia (the loyal daughter of Communist Party members) makes it out to be.

There’s a lot of information on the female pilots of World War II (Nastia is not a bomber pilot or Night Witch, but rather a fighter pilot). Wein clearly outlines her sources for different parts of the story in an author’s note. She is also about to release a nonfiction book on the pilots called A Thousand Sisters.

Part of the plot goes back to the Russian Civil War (which Nastia’s parents and her mentor the Chief participated in) and the fate of the Romanov sisters. I think the story would have been stronger without the somewhat implausible Romanov link, but I also think a lot of young readers will enjoy that aspect and after all, the book is directed at them.

The Chief and Nastia are great characters–indeed, characterization is a major strong point of the book. The Chief is a tough woman who wears her elaborate makeup as a shield and rebuilds her life over and over again. I read her as asexual or aromantic (or both) because of comments she makes about how loyalty has meant more to her than love in her life.

Nastia is an enthusiastic and idealistic young person. She worries, however, that her courage is not sufficient. She also experiences no romances over the course of the story, but in her case, this is less about fundamental aspects of her character and more about the circumstances she finds herself in. She is unquestioning of the Soviet system (and may even be playing up her loyalty to it, given the circumstances in which she writes her account). She deals with period-typical sexism, from being turned away from a recruiting office in the early days of the war to her otherwise supportive father not wanting her to learn to fly. Ultimately, she faces a dangerous choice–should she return to Soviet territory after ending up behind enemy lines?

The climax of the story was a little bit rushed, after being foreshadowed in the first pages, and I wanted a bit more out of those scenes. There were also a few details I thought were implausible, such as the Romanov link at the end and the letter Nastia’s father is able to send her from besieged Leningrad telling her of the horrors of the blockade–surely a letter from a besieged city to a serving airwoman would have been censored?

However, the novella as a whole is very strong. Wein commits to the quasi-epistolary nature of the novella, showing everything from Nastia’s point of view while leaving room around the edges for the things Nastia wouldn’t say or think. The reader does have to go in with some knowledge of the Soviet Union because of how deeply the novella is in Nastia’s point of view, which might be an issue for younger readers.

The details of wartime are fascinatingly portrayed and the author’s note is highly informative. Ultimately, I enjoyed this novella most for the characters, and found myself hoping that somehow against the odds, Nastia would be acquitted. The fact that we never find out her fate is daring for a YA/MG novel, but the author of Code Name Verity has never shied away from narrative sophistication or tearing up readers’ hearts.

The Cobbler’s Boy- Elizabeth Bear and Katherine Addison

Image result for cobbler's boy elizabeth bearThis is a really fun murder mystery/adventure set in 16th-century Canterbury as a 15 year old Christopher Marlowe, the future playwright, struggles to build a future beyond what his abusive father (the cobbler of the title) envisions for him. Oh, and someone’s just murdered the older scholar friend who gave him a window into a new world.

Enter Tom Watson (a real historical figure, though used fictitiously) who is also trying to solve the murder. Unfortunately, this puts both Kit and Watson in grave danger. Meanwhile, Kit is experiencing a secret first love with another boy and negotiating his relationships with his mother and younger sisters, all excellently characterized. Throw in a mysterious Greek book, a couple of murder attempts, and an archbishop, and you have a great mystery/coming of age tale.

This features the same historical main character as Elizabeth Bear’s Promethean Age books Ink and Steel and others, but stands alone and is straight-up historical fiction rather than historical fantasy as those are. Still, if you’d like more of Marlowe’s fictional adventures after this, check those out!

Spoilery quibbles below:

My two quibbles with this book–one, the religious conflicts that drive the murder plot could have been more fleshed out, and two, toward the end Kit does something SO STUPID-failing to ask for help from someone who’s shown himself helpful when he’s in over his head-that I almost couldn’t believe it. This is explained as a result of his father’s abuse, but I wish that decision and its motives had been more fleshed out as well…but this is an excellent read

Bidding in the charity auction closes at midnight!

Get your signed copies, ARCs, and critiques today! Below are the items–the rules can be found here.

Elizabeth Bear- ARC of Ancestral Night

Elizabeth Wein- Two ARCs of A Thousand Sisters

Amber Lough- Query Critique

K Arsenault Rivera- First Fifty Pages Critique

Arkady Martine- Two Critiques (short story or novel excerpt)

Mishell Baker- Borderline signed hardcover

Mishell Baker- Arcadia Project three-book set

Jo Walton- Among Others signed copy

Jo Walton- Thessaly signed three-book set

Jo Walton- An Informal History of the Hugos signed copy

Jo Walton- Small Change signed three-book set

Heather Rose Jones- Alpennia signed three-book set

Lara Elena Donnelly- Amberlough signed hardcover with original drawing

K Arsenault Rivera- two signed copies of The Tiger’s Daughter

Jameyanne Fuller- 2018 Young Explorer’s Guide signed copy

Amber Lough- The Fire Wish and The Blind Wish signed copies

Amy Rose Capetta- Echo After Echo signed copy

Cori McCarthy- Breaking Sky signed copy