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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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.
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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.

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The Olive Conspiracy – Shira Glassman

Book four in the Mangoverse series (I reviewed book two, Climbing the Date Palm, here) represents a marked improvement in Glassman’s writing skills. I didn’t see the ending twist coming and had my feelings skillfully manipulated. This review will not contain spoilers.

Queen Shulamit’s ex-crush Carolina has recently inherited the throne of her own country, and almost immediately, plagues fall upon Shulamit’s country’s agriculture. Is Carolina behind what is clearly intentional sabotage?
To get the bad stuff out of the way: the economic structure of Carolina’s country, a huge factor in the plot, was not terribly clear beyond “stratified society where workers can be physically abused”. I feel like this structure could have been more detailed or more subtly shown.

Also, I noticed that Glassman’s descriptions can be vague, eg telling you that customers in a restaurant chatted noisily instead of showing you eg an absorbing card game and a lovers’ quarrel among patrons. Specificity of detail is what I missed.

The good, however, far outweighed the bad.

Where the villain in Date Palm was a greedy and repressive ruler, the antagonist in this book had much more complicated motivations. In fact, they were my favorite character, even though their positive actions are balanced out by the evil they do, so Shulamit is clearly in the right.

Glassman also resists the temptation to exalt Shulamit’s current happy partnership by denigrating her previous crush–there are good reasons she ended up with her wife instead of Carolina, but her feelings as a teen are also granted respect.

The common thread of these is the increased complexity of characterization and the recognition of competing goods, always a great narrative technique.

Two emotionally powerful scenes stuck out: the burning of an olive grove to slow the blight, watched by the unhappy farmers, and Shulamit’s and Carolina’s big scene together at the end.

I look forward to what Glassman does next.