The Curse of Chalion – Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion is a secondary-world fantasy based off Spanish history–the youth of Isabel I and the Reconquista. Names and some events are changed, but there are clear analogues. Of course, the titular curse is fictional, tying together a string of bad luck in real life as a magical disaster haunting the royal family.

I enjoyed the book greatly–whether you know the history it’s drawing on or not, it’s a wonderful theological adventure, in which fantasy gods play a prominent role. My post however will be less about the book’s many good qualities, and more about something that troubled me.

I don’t pretend to know a lot about the Reconquista, but I do know that during Isabel’s reign, Muslims and Jews were expelled from the country. In this fantasy world, the Christian equivalent are Quintarians, worshippers of the Five Gods, whereas the Muslim equivalent, the Quadrenes, see one of the gods as a demon and do not worship him. In general, the fictional religions have nothing to do with their real life counterparts–the only reason I call them equivalents is because of their position in the political situation. For example, the Quintarians are accepting of homosexuality, because it’s thought to be part of the fifth god’s domain. Obviously 15th century Christians were monotheists and also thought homosexuality a sin.

There is no equivalent population to the Sephardic Jews in this story, which greatly simplifies the ethics of the situation. There also don’t appear to be any equivalent to the moriscos–Muslims of Spanish rather than Moorish origin–which again makes it a lot more clear-cut. There are invaders, occupiers to be kicked out, and no collateral damage along the way. Moreover, the Quintarians are, in the context of the book, objectively right about their religious beliefs. The Quadrenes are simply wrong. 51k72bgtswml-_sy344_bo1204203200_

Now this is obviously not a direct take on the Reconquista and assorted fallout, but a world where magic is real. It still troubled me how thorny historical issues and atrocities are smoothed out in the fantasy world, when it’s so easy to draw equivalents to the real world (Isabel=Iselle, Enrique=Orico, Beatriz de Boabadilla=Betriz). Iselle herself is a lot less complicated and flawed than her real-life counterpart, because she simply has a less complex situation to deal with.

Another series that similarly troubled me was Aliette de Bodard’s Aztec books, in which the Aztec gods are real and demand human sacrifice. This takes place in a world exactly like our own otherwise, without the poetic license of a true secondary world. It seems to justify to some degree the human sacrifices of the Aztecs, making the historical crime of unwilling sacrifice much more palatable.

I don’t have an easy solution for any of this. In fact, I think fiction and particularly fantasy is a good place to explore issues and counterfactuals that make no sense or are even dangerous ideas in the real world. I loved The Curse of Chalion in part because I could recognize how Bujold had taken real events and cleverly made them fantastical, and I am reading the sequel, Paladin of Souls. But the ethics of using and twisting real history in fantasy bothered me nonetheless.

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.

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.

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.

Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

81hifvbq-4lI really enjoyed this book, with the exception of two elements, one minor and one tangential to the story but quite troubling in terms of race.

Before I discuss those elements, I want to talk about what I liked, because there is A LOT to like and I do highly recommend this book. The protagonist/narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a fascinating and mysterious character, who is keeping a lot back from the audience, but revealing just enough to tantalize. SPOILERS FOLLOW:
Continue reading

The Sleeping Prince – Melinda Salisbury

26625494This sequel to The Sin-Eater’s Daughter features a new narrator in close, single-POV first, so it actually feels like book one of a series, until the new characters meet up with the old ones about two thirds of the way through. This neatly avoids a lot of middle-book-of-the-trilogy problems, or at least postpones them to the last third of the book.

Where The Sin-Eater’s Daughter took place in the gilded cage of a royal palace, The Sleeping Prince starts in a tiny, impoverished border town in the neighboring democratic country. Errin is just trying to get by and take care of her cursed and dangerous mother after her father died and her brother (Lief from book one) disappeared. When war approaches with the titular Sleeping Prince, a figure from the distant past returning to wreak havoc, Errin’s village is evacuated and soldiers arrive. Errin soon learns about the dark side of her country as refugees are abused and the border closed.

Desperate for a mysterious potion that keeps her mother’s curse at bay, Errin blackmails her only friend–and when she relents, he seemingly betrays her. Alone, Errin sets out on a cross-country journey that sees her meet up with Twylla, the previous book’s heroine, and find out about her brother’s true fate.

517qzv8wvzl-_sy344_bo1204203200_One thing I really liked about this book is that Errin is ordinary, heroic, and specific all at once. She’s a skilled apothecary, this interest rounding out her character and providing her a way to make a living, but she can’t create the potion that cures her mother. She survives a cross-country flight on horseback, but it’s clear to everyone she meets that she’s barely holding it together and that she’d do better to ask others for help. She’s also prone to attacks of anxiety, though somewhat too conveniently, she never freezes up when it would be inconvenient for the plot. When she does things like blackmail her friend, it’s clear she’s acting out of desperation, and she does relent. It feels like a real case of a good person brought to doing bad things, rather than an attempt to make the protagonist edgy.

I also love the darkness of Salisbury’s world. The villainous queen of book one is missing here, but there’s the chilling, sadistic Sleeping Prince instead. The epilogue, in particular, is nightmare-dark before it offers the reader some hope for the next book.

It was also great to see a realistic democratic country in a fantasy world, with all the same injustices we see in real democracies, but still better than monarchy.
31291543
On the negative side, the Sin-Eater’s backstory as revealed in this book is too exculpatory–it makes her a bit boring compared to her earlier ambiguity. Also, a lot of information is crowded into the final third of the book, which I felt was not, until the very end, as strong as the first two thirds.

I can’t wait to see how it all ends in The Scarecrow Queen, due out next year.

 

 

 

Heroine Complex – Sarah Kuhn

Years after a portal opened in San Francisco, giving some of its residents superpowers, Evie Tanaka is raising her little sister and working for her best friend, a superhero. It’s not all sunshine, though–Aveda Jupiter, the superhero, is increasingly tyrannical and demanding, and it’s all Evie can do to put up with her mood swings. When Aveda is injured and demands Evie masquerade as her until she’s recovered, and Evie agrees against her better judgement, their relationship comes to a crisis, just as the demons from the other side of the portal begin to evolve and prepare for a potential takeover.

screen-shot-2016-11-28-at-3-17-19-amBefore I even get into the book, I have to compliment the cover by Jason Chan. It accurately depicts a scene from the book (with some small artistic license), right down to the clothes the characters are wearing. It portrays the two women, both East Asian, distinctly–Evie in particular actually looks mixed-race as she is in the text, which I appreciated. The cupcake demons on the cover give a good idea of the tone of the book–frothy but with a bite.

I found it the perfect book to read in easily digestible, bite-size segments. However, it’s not a fluffy read–under the lampshaded ridiculousness of the premise, Kuhn digs deep into the dysfunctional relationships between the characters. So convincing was the toxic-yet-loving relationship between Evie and Aveda that I was actually slightly dissatisfied when it’s basically solved through open communication and intervention–Aveda’s self-centeredness might be something she just wasn’t aware of, but her outsize mood swings made me feel awful for her, and hope she gets some psychological help in the sequels.

There’s plenty of romance in addition to the friendship–Evie suddenly finds herself attracted to a scientist/doctor who studies demons and tries to fit life into spreadsheets, dismissing Evie’s way of looking at the world. They both come to see the value in each others’ perspective, and while initially the emotionally-repressed Evie wants sex with no strings attached (an interesting reversal of gender roles), she eventually falls in love. Nate, the love interest, is a hot tortured-hero type, but this is livened up by a) Evie’s own propensity to play the self-sacrificing, repressed hero and b) his genuine interest in science and the scientific method. Plus, it’s an archetype I enjoy anyway.

The one character I didn’t really buy was Evie’s little sister Bea, who is both effortlessly hypercompetent in a way that doesn’t make sense for a sixteen-year-old, even a sixteen-year-old genius, and also prone to making plot-necessary but unbelievably stupid decisions. And I will believe in a lot of stupid decisions. This was over-the-top. I will put the spoilery details under a read more.

Continue reading