Phantom Pains – Mishell Baker

51nbqqngrjl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Borderline, Mishell Baker’s debut, was one of the more delightful surprises of 2016–a character-driven urban fantasy that dealt with managing mental illness while also stopping evil fairy plots. Phantom Pains expands on some of the plotlines hinted at in book one–class conflict in the Seelie and Unseelie Courts, and Millie and Caryl’s budding romantic chemistry. When mysterious wraiths start possessing people, and Caryl is framed for murder, Millie must clear her name before Caryl is executed by her employers, the strict Arcadia Project that regulates contact between the worlds.

Baker introduces new memorable characters, like the melancholy and loyal Unseelie king, Winterglass, and a snarky manticore. She also upends plot expectations by having the resolution be a tense negotiated solution rather than a climactic battle. And the interpersonal relationships are complex as ever.

But its frenetic pacing works against Phantom Pains. While it’s an absorbing read, I would have liked more time for the emotional aspects to sink in. With paradigm shifts every few chapters undermining what the characters and readers thought they knew, we spend too much time catching up with the latest twist and not enough time processing with the characters.

Despite this problem, Phantom Pains is a lot of fun (with a bonus Dostoevsky Easter egg towards the end), and I can’t wait to see how the plot and characters develop in the next book, Imposter Syndrome.

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution – edited by Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk (bdralyuk here on WordPress) has put together an amazing anthology of contemporaneous writing from the 1917 Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. It opens with the suspicious Marina Tsvetaeva’s post-February poem “You stepped from a stately cathedral”–the “you” is Freedom itself, and Tsvetaeva’s not sure she’s all she’s cracked up to be–and ends with Mikhail Bulgakov’s angry, despairing, yet overly optimistic Civil War-era essay “Future Prospects” (he predicts the British will aid the Whites and the Whites will win, but that it will take a long time to restore the standard of living and catch up with the recovering Western Europe). In between are poems and short stories and essays from all over the political spectrum. The quality of the poetry is generally higher than that of the prose (Bulgakov’s article is kind of a mess, and I wonder if it would have been included if not for his later work), but the prose introduces us a variety of lesser-known-in-the-West writers and gives voice to the defeated–as Dralyuk points out, the literature of the Red side really came into its own in the 20’s, outside the scope of this anthology (thus, no Babel, a writer Dralyuk has translated extensively elsewhere).

41khcvusayl-_sx324_bo1204203200_In the poetry section, the undoubted standout is Peter France and Jon Stallworthy’s translation “Spring Rain,” a beautiful poem from the hard-to-translate Boris Pasternak. It’s a lyric about the rain and the crowd going to the theater, but it’s also about the feelings evoked by the February Revolution, feelings of amazement, pride, and beauty. Stallworthy and France really unfolded the genius of Pasternak’s poetry for me, and even if I have a few quibbles here and there, I am in awe of their ability to make the translation a great poem in English in its own right. Their version of the poem ends:

“Not the night, not the rain, not the chorus
shouting “Hurrah, Kerensky!” but now
the blinding emergence into the forum
from catacombs thought to have no way out.

Not roses, not mouths, not the roar
of crowds, but here, in the forum, is felt
the surf of Europe’s wavering night
proud of itself on our asphalt.”

Alexander Blok is represented here by “The Twelve” and “The Scythians”, the latter in a rhyming translation by Alex Miller. Though it depends on the opposition of East and West which normally drives me crazy, and though its language is dated in places–the term “slit-eyed” recurs–it’s a powerful piece, a plea for peace and a threat all in one, calling on war-torn Europe to “hear the summons of the barbarian lyre” which is simultaneously “the ritual feast and fire/of peace and brotherhood!”

“You have forgotten there’s a love on Earth
that burns like fire, and like all fire, destroys…

…We love raw flesh, its colour and its stench.
We love to taste it in our hungry maws.
Are we to blame, then, if your ribs should crunch,
fragile between our massive, gentle paws?”

The prose section is, as I said, more mixed. Privshin’s “The Blue Banner”, mentioned in the Wuthering Expectations review of the anthology and translated by Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf, was definitely a discovery. Though I was initially frustrated with its folksiness and slice-of-life style, it soon shaped up into an interesting allegory as the hapless main character travels to revolutionary Petrograd, winds up jailed by the Bolsheviks on transparently false charges of “marauding”, hears of a plan to recruit “godly” thugs to save Russia, and later becomes a marauder in truth (albeit that his gang consists of his delusional self and one drunk guy). The author was a nature writer and he represents the city itself as a deadly place full of traps both physical and moral.

I also enjoyed the humorous stories of Teffi–I couldn’t help but do so, even when the humor was really not my sort of thing. “The Guillotine” was translated by Rose France, and satirizes the middle class, obsessed with trivialities and minor inconveniences but seemingly indifferent to their own doom. At the end, the guillotine victims, distressed by the lack of orderly queuing, think about forming a union–“Why should it only be other people who enjoy the perks of being guillotine operators?” It’s a dark commentary on human nature, but very  funny. “A Few Words About Lenin” was also translated by Rose France, and it’s a very cutting portrait of a party and a politician who are unscrupulous and also incompetent–failing to anticipate events or spot agents provocateurs, unable to deal with situations not described by Marx and Engels. She also goes after their taking advantage of their supporters’ illiteracy, describing a soldier who, hearing the slogan “Down with annexations!” believes it refers to a woman named Anne Exations. I have no doubt that something like this anecdote must have happened (unlike the joke about soldiers in 1825 thinking that the Constitution they were demanding was the wife of Constantine) but, much like that joke, it’s not actually funny when you think about it. Anyway, my personal gripe about political and actual illiteracy not being funny aside, Teffi’s wit and powers of observation are wonderful.

Yefim Zozulya’s “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is a great satire on dictators, their arbitrariness, sentimentality, illogic, and ultimate insignificance (“But the people, among whom there were some good men, some of indifferent quality and some very poor human material–they continue to live to this day as if Ak had never existed and there had never been any perplexing problem about the Right to Life.”). The name “Council of Public Welfare” in the story is clearly a mix between the Soviets, or more literally Councils, of 1917 and the Committee of Public Welfare from the French Revolution. The translation was done by Emma Goldman’s partner, the anarchist Alexander Berkman.

In “The Dragon”, Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, which I recently reviewed here, showcases his imaginative powers but doesn’t really tell a complete story–there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about his sketch of a city beset by dragons of the void, who speak in the Bolsheviks’ slangy, casually violent idiom. This piece is translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “A Wonderful Audacity”, translated by Rose France, is built around a simple idea–the country wanted a “strong” government, and in the Bolshevik dictatorship, it got it. Be careful what you wish for. Punchy one and two sentence paragraphs and simple yet vivid rhetoric make his point.

“They were weak; and you cried, “Stronger!”
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but, on the other hand, it is powerful?
There is a lot of blood, you say?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is.
But then again, not so much that we shall drown in it….”

July release for Walking on Knives!

My f/f bisexual little mermaid novelette, Walking on Knives, will appear in July this year from Less Than Three Press. Preorder here!

I’m organizing a blog tour and other promotional events, so expect to see more about the story as the release date draws nearer. For today, I’ve got a brand-new excerpt (read a previous one here and add the ebook on Goodreads). Here’s the opening! (warning for dubious consent)

“You wanted this,” the sea-witch murmured. “You made the bargain, you agreed to pay the price.”

The little mermaid nodded mutely. She tried to look everywhere but at the sea-witch: at the crags carved with unconscious artistry by endless waves, at the pale moving lights cast by monsters of the deep, at the black infinity that stretched inward into the bowels of the cave. But tangled black hair and hard scales came between her and the rest of her world.

Sun-starved, chill, she submitted to the sea-witch’s touch.

Ninefox Gambit – Yoon Ha Lee

I expected to like this book more than I did. It had spectacular worldbuilding–based on the principle that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but internally consistent. It also featured a deliciously villainous antagonist, a horrific and original dystopian government that nonetheless made sense, and a great character in the allegedly “mad” general, Shuos Jedao. The problem is, Shuos Jedao wasn’t the main character. Kel Cheris was. And Kel Cheris’s development was not, in my opinion, handled properly.

9781781084496_custom-670793563aa4d0d709c7000cd24d2fb6ac956c2c-s300-c85While Cheris does grow and change over the course of the book, we don’t see her internal debates and longings as she does so. Everything is understated to a fault. Cheris is duty-bound and repressed, a character type I usually enjoy, but her point of view doesn’t get far into hidden depths.

That said, I did enjoy the book, even if a lot of it felt like set-up for the trilogy as a whole. There are great twists–pay attention to the inserted “intelligence reports”–and some set-piece scenes as Jedao manipulates Cheris into doing what he wants and as Cheris finds out more about Jedao’s past. I just wish Cheris were more compelling.

Seven Surrenders – Ada Palmer

This post is going to have spoilers:

In Too Like the Lightning, Bridger, the miracle-working child whom protagonist Mycroft Canner has been caring for, reads Les Miserables, one of my favorite books. I couldn’t quite understand why the book was referenced at the time, but in Seven Surrenders, Mycroft describes his love for Bridger as:

“…not as others before me have loved a son, a brother, a savior, a master, but whom I–strange creature that I am –love in all these ways at once, all rolled together into a new kind of love, abject and irrevocable, that has as yet no name.”

This immediately recalled to me the following passage from Hugo’s book:

“Poor old Jean Valjean, of course, loved Cosette only as a father; but, as we noted earlier, into this fatherly love his lonely single status in life had introduced every other kind of love; he loved Cosette as his daughter, and he loved her as his mother, and he loved her as his sister; and, as he had never had either a lover or a wife, as nature is a creditor that does not accept nonpayment, that particular feeling, too, the most indestructible of all, had thrown itself in with the rest…”

And this passage from Hugo’s Ninety-Three:

“All the power of loving in Cimourdain had, so to speak, fallen on this child; the sweet, innocent being had become a sort of prey to this heart condemned to solitude. He loved him with all the tenderness at once of father, brother, friend and creator.”

And with those verbal/emotional echoes, it was easy to see a plot echo from Les Miserables–the convict who saves and adopts an innocent child, who becomes everything to him (Mycroft has, unlike Hugo’s protagonists, other loves–Saladin, Apollo Mojave, J.E.D.D. Mason–and other loyalties, but Bridger’s powers make him impossibly important). In the end, Palmer is an even crueler God of her created universe than Hugo is–Jean Valjean sees Cosette grown and married, and even reunites with her on his deathbed, and Cimourdain kills himself the instant his order to kill his beloved pupil is carried out.

Mycroft Canner, however, survives the suicide of his foster-son Bridger. The last words of the final chapter, excluding the epilogue, are as follows:30199364

“….our limits in civilian life, the point at which we are too tired, too distraught, too weak to go on, are not really our limits. I rose and saluted.”

The warlike imagery is appropriate: the next book in the series is called The Will to Battle. Though Mycroft’s fictional “record” ends here, I hope we will continue to see his story in the next book, and that we will learn more about him, as there are still mysteries–though the motives for his crimes are revealed, he refers to himself near the end as a “parricide”, which leaves the possibility of still more skeletons in the closet. But I’m also interested in how this loss will affect him–his affections are, as I said, more widely spread than those of Hugo’s characters, but it must affect his character going forward. I can’t wait for The Will to Battle.

The Pearl Thief – Elizabeth Wein

This is going to be a weird review because a comprehensive review of the book would involve cultural/subject matter expertise which I don’t have. Specifically, many characters in this book, though not the protagonist Julie, are Scottish Travellers, and the prejudices they face form a large aspect of the plot. So I’m putting it upfront that I’m not going to review the representation of that culture in this book, because I don’t have sufficient knowledge. I will say that Scottish Traveller author Jess Smith is thanked in the acknowledgements for reviewing the manuscript for Traveller cultural elements.

I’d also like to thank Hyperion for sending me an ARC.

31178738

Unlike Code Name Verity, The Pearl Thief is not presented as a found manuscript, so it is very much franker about sexuality, for example, than Code Name Verity. Julie has two crushes over the course of the book, one on the contractor who is turning her grandfather’s estate into a school, Frank Dunbar, and a more serious one on Ellen McEwen, a proud and prickly Traveller girl with an interest in archaeology and geology. Ellen and Julie never “get together” in the sense of explicitly forming a relationship, but they do clandestinely kiss once under the guise of showing how a man kisses a woman. Julie is clear that her “passion for Ellen” is equivalent to and even deeper than her passion for Frank.

I enjoyed this book actually even more than Code Name Verity, though I missed the character of Maddie (we see in this book how Julie got the nickname “Queenie”). I thought it was more plausible than Code Name Verity and I liked getting inside Julie’s head a bit more and seeing more of her brother Jamie. However, as is usual with Wein’s books, the very ending is fluffed a bit and spells out the epiphanies too much. And while I enjoyed the exploration of class in the book (Julie is an aristocrat, and coming to terms with the privileges that entails), it struck me as a gap in that theme that the only working-class characters were either Travellers or two prejudiced and unsympathetic servants.

As to the mystery element, I figured out who the villain was immediately upon his introduction, but I didn’t predict some of the twists. I also loved a scene which I will put under a cut for mild spoilers.
Continue reading

The Scarecrow Queen – Melinda Salisbury

Oh my god. This is an excellent finale to a terrifying, sexy, and tremendously well-executed YA fantasy trilogy.

First, the dislikes: the climax is a bit rushed, especially the confrontation with the villain, one character’s redemption through death is a bit of a cliche, and Errin’s anxiety from the previous book doesn’t really play a role here (though poor Errin is really put through a lot).

But everything else about this book is fantastic.

As it starts, Errin has been captured by the evil Sleeping Prince, who toys with her while keeping her boyfriend hostage for his alchemical abilities. Making things worse, her own brother, Lief, is the Sleeping Prince’s right-hand man. Errin’s pov is given in short interludes and then in the middle third of the book. Though Errin’s confrontations with the villain are great stuff, her third of the book spends a bit too much time on the logistics of her getting away.

However, in this third of the book, Merek from book one, The Sin-Eater’s Daughter, reappears, and he continues to play a large role throughout the book. He was my favorite character from the first book, so I was very happy with this development. He’s a prince who wants what’s best for his people, even if that doesn’t mean him on the throne. He’s dutiful, kind, and open to new ideas, and quietly and faithfully in love with Twylla, our first and last narrator.

Twylla has grown from the easily-manipulated girl of the first book–now she’s a leader and a fighter, organizing a resistance group against the Sleeping Prince while waiting to reunite with Errin so they can together create the poison that will kill him. She’s also marked by her past, deeply afraid of anyone controlling her or taking her choices from her.

Lief, her first lover before he betrayed her, sometimes helps and sometimes hinders Twylla and her plans. Is he really loyal to the Sleeping Prince, and is he really as selfish as he seems? And why does he twice refuse a healing elixir when seriously hurt?

I’m not going to spoil the plot for anyone, but it’s very suspenseful and fast-paced. The Sleeping Prince continues to be a great, terrifying villain–the scene in the middle in which his tower is burned and he suspects Errin and Lief have betrayed him is a great set-piece.

Melinda Salisbury’s next book will be the multi-authored Floored, a contemporary YA, and she has hinted at more fantasy books. The US edition of The Scarecrow Queen won’t be out till next year, so I recommend ordering from The Book Depository, as I did.