Paladin of Souls – Lois McMaster Bujold

61904-_uy475_ss475_Paladin of Souls won both the Hugo and the Nebula awards when it came out, and is generally reckoned one of the prolific Bujold’s masterpieces, perhaps the best book she’s ever written. That’s a lot of hype to live up to. And it lived up to it.

All the problems I mentioned in my review of The Curse of Chalion stand. However, the heights of emotion which this book reached, particularly in the final third, more than make up for the worldbuilding problem I discussed in my earlier post.

In summary: Ista (analogous to the mentally ill Isabella of Portugal, mother of Isabella the Catholic) is freed from the titular curse of the last book. With her husband and parents dead and her sole surviving child grown-up and married, she’s not quite sure what to do with herself. To escape the narrow life planned for her by well-meaning relatives and friends, she goes on a pilgrimage, but when her party is attacked by enemy soldiers, she ends up at the castle of her rescuer Arhys dy Lutez–the son of Arvol, the man she killed long ago trying unsuccessfully to break the curse.

There are bigger problems than her old guilt and hatred towards Arvol, though. Arhys, his wife, and his brother are caught in a demonic mess that threatens to kill them all, and Ista has been brought there by a god, the Bastard, to sort out the problem. But with her last brush with divinity and magic having ended in Arvol’s murder, she’s reluctant to trust any deity.

Things get worse when more enemy soldiers show up to besiege the castle. There’s no way they’re all getting out of this tangle alive, but death at the right time might be worth everything…

My favorite part of this book was the character of Arhys, who is a genuinely good guy (despite his lax fidelity to his wife Cattilara). The other characters call him “great-souled” and despite his flaws, it’s obviously true. He has a strong sibling relationship with his illegitimate brother, and a romantic image of his long-dead father, which Ista shatters. But when the truth about his father, whose courage broke during the effort to lift the curse, is out, he says he does “not desire any softer wreath”.

The way Ista sees him shifts over time, from rescuer/potential romantic prospect to son of a man she hates to hapless part of a mess she’s meant to fix to hero. Their (decidedly non-romantic) relationship, with the grace of the gods, manages to heal Ista of all the rage, guilt, and bitterness that has haunted her since she killed Arvol in her failed ritual.

All the other characters are also sharply drawn–the clever, good-hearted Illvin, the determined though childish Cattilara, the complex figure of Arvol, and Ista’s own personality–cynical, impatient, tough, but reawakening to life.

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Walking on Knives is out!

You can purchase it at Amazon here!

Thanks to all of you for your support!

WalkingonKnives-fThe little mermaid has no idea that as she makes her way on land, she’s being watched over by the sister of the very witch with whom she made her bargain. She has no idea that the witch’s sister is falling in love with her.

When the prince decides to marry another woman, the little mermaid’s secret helper offers her a chance to live. But the price may be too high…

Content warning: Walking on Knives contains some explicit content and opens with a disturbing scene of dubious sexual consent.

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:
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