Book Review: Orleans, Sherri L. Smith

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Science Fiction: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita were only the beginning. Sea levels rose, hurricanes came with increasing force and frequency, and by the mid-2020s New Orleans and most of the south had been abandoned. Then came the plague, Delta Fever, which forced the remainder of the United States to build a wall enforcing the quarantine of the south. Within a generation New Orleans was gone, and what was left, Orleans, was violent, disease-ridden, and divided by gangs of angry, desperate, often bloodthirsty survivors. Into this lost world, a baby is born.

 

Sherri L. Smith’s Orleans tells the story of Fen de la Guerre, a teenaged survivor who is part of the O-positive tribe. Delta Fever follows different disease arcs based on a person’s blood-type. Type Os are the most resistant to the disease and suffer the least from its ravages. Fen was not born in the tribe but her blood-type has made her welcome, and she repays that generosity by serving as the protector and guard for the tribe’s leader. Lydia is very pregnant, but is still determined to lead her people into a peaceful alliance with the other type O tribe, the O-negatives. When their parlay is interrupted by a violent attack, though, Lydia goes into labor and dies giving birth. Fen is entrusted with guarding Lydia’s baby, and hopefully finding a better place for her to live.

 

Daniel Weaver is a scientist working on a cure for Delta Fever. He is close, but the engineered virus he has created not only kills the fever but also the host–the person–carrying it. Needing samples and data from affected areas which are still quarantined and off limits to everyone, Daniel dons protective gear (which he can wear for days on end) and sneaks into Orleans.

 

Fen and Daniel meet and soon develop an uneasy alliance with each other. Daniel realizes that he needs help to get the information and samples he needs, and Fen recognizes that Daniel gives the best hope for the baby to have a life outside of Orleans. Dangers mount as their journey progresses. It may no longer be part of a country, it may no longer have as many people as it did, but Orleans has no shortage of ways to kill you.

 

Orleans is very well written. Fen and Daniel are both compelling characters, and their journey together is revealing. Fen is the daughter of scientists committed to finding a cure for Delta Fever, scientists who gave their lives while seeking that goal. As such, she is a bit cynical of Daniel’s ambitions: seeking the cure killed her own parents, after all. Daniel is sincere in looking for a cure to the disease that killed his little brother, but he has no idea about the conditions in Orleans. Without Fen, he would have been killed soon after crossing the wall.

 

The world built by Sherri L. Smith is ugly, deadly, and brutal. This is a compliment to her writing. Flood waters have transformed New Orleans to a landscape where people can walk across grassy areas that can collapse under your feet because the grass is actually growing on the rotting roofs of abandoned houses. If you know the pattern, you can walk on water to a statue of Jesus–a statue standing in the middle of a lake where cars have been parked to form a walkway that is still invisible but safe to use during low tide. Orleans has been abandoned to tribalism and violence by the rest of the country, and the pressures of plague, climate, and anarchy make for a dangerous and imaginative world.

 

Smith is African American, writing about African American characters living in a landscape that is barely recognizable. Her Orleans reflects the impacts of a series of hurricanes, rising ocean levels, and a plague. The good news is that it is speculative fiction. The post-Katrina/Rita hurricanes listed in the book have not happened. Given the recent news from the UN climate report, though, perhaps that good news should be tempered by saying that it has not happened, yet.

Book Review: OrleansSherri L. Smith

Book Review: Heroine Worship, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Fantasy: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Superheroines of color must represent. And Aveda Jupiter does. Having realized that she was more than a bit of a diva in Heroine Complex, she is determined to be new. Different. She is, after all, super. She can do this! She can be the superheroine that San Francisco needs. She can be the friend that her buddy and superheroine bff Evie Tanaka needs. She can move beyond her diva ways and be the person she wants to be. All she needs is for some demonic attack to come so that the new Aveda Jupiter can display her new character. That, and for her mother to leave her alone!

 

Sarah Kuhn has written a delightful sequel to her book Heroine Complex. Heroine Worship changes the narrator from Evie Tanaka to her best friend Aveda Jupiter, aka Annie Chang. Annie and Evie became inseparable in kindergarten, where they were the only two Asians in the class. Now superpowered adults, they are trying to figure out their new relationship where they are equals and partners in the business of saving the world. Annie/Aveda had been the center of the superheroine world with Evie as her faithful assistant. When Evie’s powers blossomed, a new relationship was needed–and Aveda needed to chill out. But she can do this. She’s super. She’s Asian. She’s in control.

 

I am not Asian American, but I married into that culture more than 30 years ago. Kuhn somehow manages to find every single stereotype of Asian Americans and weave them into her books while skewering them, mocking them, and deflating them. Annie/Aveda is a success–but the wrong kind of success. She is not a doctor, like her cousin Sophie, so she is a disappointment to her parents, especially her mother. (Or is she?) She is not quiet or demure or shy or retiring. She is flashy and flamboyant and likes clothes and enjoys the spotlight. I have been told by other white people that Asians were a lot of things–things that I knew from my own experience as the husband of an Asian American were ridiculous. Now, in print, an Asian American author is taking those same stereotypes and demonstrating how hilarious they are.

 

Good for her!!!!!!

 

Fortunately for Aveda, if not for San Francisco, there is need for superpowered assistance. And, fortunately for the mission of becoming the best friend possible, Evie gets engaged and asks Aveda to be her maid of honor. How Aveda handles the responsibilities of friendship, leadership, and kicking demonic ass makes for a delightful novel and makes this reviewer eager to see how his new favorite Asian superheroines continue to represent in the third of the series. Heroine Worship is a terrific, funny story that does not take itself too seriously, but for the reader is seriously fun!

Book Review: Heroine WorshipSarah Kuhn

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Fiction: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Ava wants a child. Desperately. Achingly. Approaching her late 30s, married for many years to Henry, all she can think about is how much she wants to become a mother. Sylvia, Ava’s mother, misses her son Devon. Desperately, Achingly. In her 60s, separated from her children’s father, Don, all she can think about is how much she wants to connect with her absent son. These two women, both focused so intently on the children who are absent from their lives, are the central figures in Stephanie Powell Watts’s novel No One Is Coming to Save Us. And their stories, mother and daughter, inseparably woven together, make for a compelling and beautiful work filled with heartache and longing and compassion and love.

 

Ava should be happy. At least, that’s what her mother thinks. Married to a beautiful (looking) man, with an excellent job, living in the house where she grew up, she has everything she needs to be happy. But what she wants most is a child. Sylvia should mind her own business. At least, that’s what her daughter thinks. But Sylvia insists on interfering in the lives of other people, still coming to Ava’s house to clean (and meddle) and talking on the phone to Marcus, a young inmate who reminds Sylvia just how much she misses her son Devon. Sylvia manages to see Ava’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain–and Ava manages to see Sylvia’s unhappiness, but cannot quite bring herself to reach out through her own pain. Then, JJ returns.

 

JJ Ferguson. The boy who made it. JJ had been the orphaned foster child who lived nearby. He knew Devon, befriended (and loved) Ava, and adored Sylvia. He had been gone for years, made some money, and was now coming home. He built a large house on the top of the hill, bigger than the houses of the white folks, nicer than the houses of the white folks, the local boy who did well. And in coming home he is bringing the echoes of a lost past, the mists shrouding paths not taken, and the dreams of a future that may never come.

 

Watts tells the story of these women and the men in their lives: the beautiful but dissolute Henry, the cad Don, the absent Devon, the once absent and now present JJ. She reveals their sharp edges and their lost dreams, their failures and their ambitions, their longings and their realities. She neither judges nor exonerates. They are who they are, warts and flaws and lusts and longings and fears and joys. And as they rub against each other, often rubbing raw and leaving each other bruised and bloodied, they reveal the painful humanity that unites us all. These characters may be African Americans struggling to make financial ends meet, but their desires and depths are common to people of all ages and races and strata. Watts’s characters are both black and universal, both poor and universal, both coastal Carolinian and reflective of people from any place and any time.

 

And her language sings! Even in her descriptions of incidental characters, she uses words to paint frescoes. On a single page, two little girls are said to be taking “small bites that might register under a microscope. It was clear to anyone who had ever been a child that they hated everything on their plates.” Weren’t we all those little girls, once? I remember plates like that, and I’m a middle aged man! Later in that same paragraph, those girls’ father and grandmother are described. Their grandmother “spit out” their father “identical to her and slapped a big porn star-approved mustache on. Never have you seen two separate people more alike. Both happiness killers. If they came close to a flicker, a spark of happiness, they’d stamp it out quick before it spread.” I know I’ve met those same people. Most of us have. We just didn’t know the right words to describe them, until Stephanie Powell Watts did it for us.

 

No One Is Coming to Save Us is beautiful, with memorable characters who are as universal as they are unique, and with language that appeals to all the senses. Read it–and keep a tissue box handy.

Book Review: No One Is Coming to Save UsStephanie Powell Watts

Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Review: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

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Urban Fantasy: The Brightest Fell: October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

October Daye is part human and part fae. A “changeling,” she constantly lives with one foot in the mortal world and one foot in the fae kingdoms. After years of trying to balance between these worlds, she finally sees hope. Her love, Tybalt, King of the Cats, plans to marry her. Her friends are near and safe. She even gets to attend her own bachelorette party. Everything looks amazing, until her oldest and possibly deadliest enemy resurfaces: her mother.

 

The request itself is not unusual for a private detective: find a missing daughter. But August has been missing for more than 100 years. And Amandine does not simply ask. She demands. And to make sure October follows through, Amandine kidnaps Tybalt and Jazz, another friend of October. What follows is a dangerous journey through fae and mortal lands looking for someone who may not be alive, relying on an old enemy to provide assistance, and facing challenges that force October to confront questions about who and what she is, and just where she belongs.

 

Seanan McGuire is one of the hottest writers in science fiction and fantasy. She is a 2018 Hugo finalist for another series she writes, Incryptid. She also writes under the name of Mira Grant, and has had multiple works nominated for the major awards in science fiction and fantasy under that name as well. She won the John W. Campbell award for best new author in 2010, won both the Hugo and Nebula awards in 2013 for her novella Every Heart a Doorway, and also in 2013 became the first person ever to appear 5 times on the same Hugo ballot. Despite her amazing output–or maybe because of it–her writing is crisp, exciting, and full of characters that are deep and surprising.

 

McGuire’s characters leap fully-formed off the page. They are passionate, infuriating, terrifying, tender, brave and cowardly. They are gay and lesbian and straight. They are human and inhuman. They are like anyone you might meet and unlike anyone you will ever know. October Daye is probably her best known character at this point, and in every book she grows and matures and becomes something new and something more. Some writers might lose their edge after 11 books. If possible, McGuire seems to be just hitting her stride.

 

McGuire’s plots also challenge. No one escapes a Seanan McGuire novel unharmed–especially her protagonists. She demands a lot from her characters, and she is not afraid to kill even major characters to tell the story.  (Fortunately, she usually doesn’t kill all of them. Well, except in Rolling in the Deep. Spoiler alert: it gets ugly.) The Brightest Fell has sacrifice and redemption, and in a major twist on an ageless theme, in this case one precludes the other. Normally sacrifice consecrates redemption. Seanan McGuire just doesn’t do normal.

 

You might be able to jump into the series with The Brightest Fell. McGuire is able to backfill the story without getting pedantic. But you will be rewarded by going back to the beginning and catching up. October Daye grows as a character throughout the series. And it is fair to say that Seanan McGuire grows as a writer through the series. Reading as a character matures and as a writer hones her craft can be a very rewarding experience, and the October Daye series is a delightful way to watch both happen.

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Book Review: The Brightest Fell, October Daye series #11, Seanan McGuire

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and Findings, Mary Anna Evans

Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Artifacts is a solid debut novel from Mary Anna Evans. Originally published in 2003, this introduction of the character Faye Longchamp won some awards and began a series that continues still.

 

Faye Longchamp is a mixed race woman trying to make ends meet. She works part time at an archaeological dig near her Florida home, not so much for the money as for the hope that she will find a way to continue her collegiate studies in the field. Her former professor is leading the dig, and this is her way of trying to help. Longchamp, though, needs much more money than a low wage part-time job would provide. She has inherited a large home on a barrier island, one that is in poor repair and is far behind in tax payments. Needing money to refurbish and keep her home, she engages in a legally questionable side job–selling artifacts she finds near her house on the gray market. She knows enough and cares enough to avoid contaminating significant sites, but some of her finds are on public lands and therefore legally cannot be sold for personal gain. Her desperation, though, makes her willing to break the law.

 

During one of those illegal digs, she unearths a body. Clearly not recent, but not from the far distant past either, she realizes that she has stumbled across a murder victim whose murderer may still be alive. The next day, two of the other assistants at the dig are murdered. Though a relationship between the two crimes is not obvious (since they are in different locations), the timing can hardly be coincidental, and Faye finds herself swept into the middle of finding justice for her two colleagues and for a teenager killed forty years earlier.

 

Mary Anna Evans has written many more books in this series. So far, I have only gotten to read one other. Findings is a few years later than Artifacts. Longchamp has secured some funding streams to restore her beloved home, Joyeuse, and to pursue doctoral studies in archaeology. She is in a relationship with a lawyer from Atlanta who would like to see things progress further. Faith is now pursuing more academic and legitimate archaeological work. Many of her findings go to the Museum of American Slavery, run by her friend and mentor, Douglass Everett. On the night when she discovers an exquisite emerald hidden in a box of otherwise worthless junk covered by dirt, Douglass is murdered in the basement of his own museum. The emerald is not taken, having been hidden by Douglass in his last act before his brutal murder. Later, an old associate of Faye’s from her free-lance archeology days is also murdered, dying in her arms. This leads Faye on a search for buried treasure: the rest of the emerald necklace, rumored Civil War gold, and the buried secrets within her own heart.

 

I liked Artifacts, but I loved Findings. Seeing a writer grow from a first novel is a joy I am beginning to appreciate, and Mary Anna Evans’s skills have grown appreciably. The story is deeper, the characters more evolved, and the descriptions of the Florida coast are more evocative. This is a series worth coming back to, and now there are 11 books to explore and enjoy. Faye Longchamp is a strong woman of mixed race, a characteristic which makes her unusual in genre-fiction. She is also a woman who grows and matures through the series. When we first meet her, she is skirting the law by selling artifacts to make ends meet. Through the series we see her get her academic degrees, become a strong ally of the law, fall in love and get married, and mature as a character. We see her positively change the lives of her friends and loved ones. In short, we see her “grow up.” Often in series a character remains much the same, never aging, never maturing, never learning. This makes for a timelessness which is useful to the author. Having your protagonist change makes life harder for the writer, but is very rewarding to the reader. There is value in reading the books in order (although I admit that is not what I have done). We see the growth in the characters. We also see the growth in the writer. Both of these make for compelling reasons to come back to this series again and again.

 

Artifacts and Findings are both terrific books, and both make me eager to continue with this series. If you are into mysteries, strong female characters, archaeology, and even historical fiction, this is a series worth your attention. It is also one which, although it features adult characters, could be enjoyed by teens who want something a little more mature but who don’t want one with excessive violence or “adult” themes.

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Book Series Review: Faye Longchamp Series: Artifacts, and FindingsMary Anna Evans

 

Book Review: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

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Fiction Thriller: Hellbent, Gregg Hurwitz

Third book in the Orphan X series, following Orphan X and The Nowhere Man

A couple of years ago a fascinating book caught my attention. A thriller about a former government wet-ops agent who now worked secretly helping people who were in desperate situations, Orphan X was well written, had an interesting protagonist and strong secondary characters, and told a compelling story. Its sequel, The Nowhere Man, continued the story in riveting fashion, filling in backstory and introducing new characters to the series.

 

The third in the series came out earlier this year, and it is a thriller reader’s dream come true. Hellbent is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year. I finished it in a five-hour straight shot. I made the mistake of starting it after traveling all weekend, and could not put it down. From beginning to end, Gregg Hurwitz takes the reader on a ride that had me gripping the edge of the book with white knuckles. The first two books in this series were excellent, but this takes the series to a new level.

 

Evan Smoak is Orphan X, part of a top secret program that recruited orphans who showed certain useful characteristics into a black ops training program. He was possibly the best of the “orphans,” brilliant, resourceful, and ruthless. His trainer, though, had become like a father to him, and as a father he taught Evan not only how to be a killer, but also how to be a human. Evan was raised with a code, commandments that his trainer instilled within him. “Do not kill innocents” was part of that code, a part that eventually led to Evan leaving the program and disappearing off the grid–which in his case was Los Angeles.

 

When Evan’s arch-enemy Orphan Y, the new head of the Orphan program, finds Evan’s trainer and kills him, Evan has a new mission: kill Orphan Y. First, though, he must decipher his trainer’s final message to him. That message leads to a most unexpected package: a teenage girl who was also trying to escape from the Orphan program. Suddenly, the Nowhere Man has responsibilities that go beyond a mere mission. Orphan Y wants to kill her, too. How can Evan keep her alive, go after Orphan Y and his group of killers, and deal with the trauma and drama of a teenager? The result is a fast paced and action filled novel with twists and turns that go beyond the core “how does our hero survive and complete his mission” of all thrillers. It includes the shock and awe of a shopping trip to Target to purchase “female products.” It includes learning how to listen, how to open up, how to become vulnerable without losing his edge. It includes asking a mother for advice on talking to a young girl. And before you know it, you realize you’ve read a complete novel with the requisite body count of a high octane thriller, but with an unexpected and delightful emotional depth that is rare in this genre.

 

Hellbent checks the boxes for a thriller. But what makes it next level is the emotional growth of the characters. We see new sides to some familiar characters. We see Evan needing help and reaching out for it, and we see others stepping up for him. We see a young girl, traumatized and alone, make informed choices that define who she is and who she will become. Throughout we see that characters define themselves by their own choices, who make emotionally difficult decisions that can cost them everything, who confront themselves and challenge themselves to become more than they have been. Hurwitz spins a great story, but more delightfully he draws great characters. Orphan X books will stay on my reading list because of those characters, and I cannot wait to find out what Evan Smoak faces in the next novel of the series.

 

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Book Review: HellbentGregg Hurwitz

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

Book Review: Senlin Ascends, Josiah Bancroft

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Fiction: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends is the first book in the series, “The Books of Babel.” Thomas Senlin and his wife Marya are on their honeymoon. Senlin is headmaster of the school in a small fishing village. He has long studied and taught about the most amazing technological achievement in the world: the Tower of Babel. Newly married, the couple decides to spend their honeymoon visiting this marvel. Almost immediately after arriving, they are separated and Marya becomes lost. It takes Thomas a couple of days to realize this. By the time he does, the trail has gone cold and his only hope is that Marya has successfully made it to their intended destination on the third floor of the tower. Thomas embarks on a journey into the tower. There he finds that nothing is as it seems, no one is who they say they are, and everything he thought he knew about the tower was wrong.

 

Senlin Ascends is set in a dark dystopian world. The tower is a technological marvel, still under construction after 1,000 years. Most of the world has very limited access to technology. Marya and Thomas travel to the tower via steam engine train, and later we see Thomas’s amazement when he encounters electricity for the first time. The tower has access to more advanced technologies, but Thomas finds the rules governing behavior and organization in the tower are unique and often must be discovered by breaking them. Failure to follow the rules can have severe consequences. Failure to know the rules is irrelevant.

 

After spending several days surmounting the obstacles that face travelers on levels one and two of the tower, Senlin finds his first clue that Marya is still alive when he is on level three. Level three, though, is also where he begins to appreciate just how much trouble she–and really, both of them–are in. Their short honeymoon journey is going to be a trial of many months, and there are many challenging enemies who oppose them finding each other. And a mild-mannered intellectual headmaster is ill-equipped to meet the challenges of a world that doesn’t make sense. If Thomas Senlin is to find his beautiful bride, he will have to become something he never expected: a hero.

 

The two journeys of Senlin Ascends are both fascinating. The physical journey through the tower is vividly imagined. Each floor has its own culture, its own set of rules, its own internal logic that must be mastered before one can proceed. There are no shortcuts. Failure to follow the rules means banishment from the tower…or worse. But the rules change on each floor, the people in charge owe nothing to anyone else, and following the rules can require compromising your own ethics. Senlin finds that the price of success, the price of moving forward, the price of finding Marya, gets higher the further he goes. But he has no choice if he hopes to be reunited with his love.

 

The physical journey requires a hero’s journey for the protagonist. Thomas Senlin thinks he knows who he is. Intellectual. Calm. Reserved. A man of peace. The kind of man the tower destroys and spits out before passing the first floor. Senlin discovers that he can become more, but he also discovers that the price is high. The man of peace must seek out confrontation. The loyal husband must walk away from friends. The man who understands the world must understand that he knows nothing about this world. These are not easy transitions, and one suspects that the man who eventually finds Marya inside the tower will not be the same man who lost her outside those walls.

 

The second book in this series is Arm of the Sphinx. The third book, The Hod King, is due out in early 2019. Josiah Bancroft has started an interesting fable with Senlin Ascends, and I look forward to reading the subsequent adventures set in this curious and dark world.

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Book Review: Senlin AscendsJosiah Bancroft

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, Theodora Goss

Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

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Fantasy: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter was one of 2017’s most delightful novels. On the shortlist for the 2018 World Fantasy Award for best novel, Theodora Goss’s tale successfully turned Victorian horror fiction into a celebration of feminism and the triumph of individuals over their circumstances. Its 2018 sequel, European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman, expands on that success and takes the members of the Athena Club on an adventure through Victorian Era Europe that highlights both the power of Goss’s writing and the absolute magic she weaves with her characters.

 

The main protagonist of both books is Mary Jekyll. The daughter of Dr. Jekyll, Mary is both intelligent and practical. Almost penniless after her mother’s death, she finds herself meeting and befriending an unlikely group of women who end up living with her and helping each other make ends meet and confront the horrors of their own creation. There is Catherine Moreau, a panther transformed into a human woman on the island of Dr. Moreau. Justine Frankenstein, created by Dr. Frankenstein to be the bride of his first creation, is a painter who has greater physical strength than any man. Beatrice Rappaccini was slowly exposed to toxins throughout her young life until she became poisonous to everyone else–including her would-be lover who died. And Diana Hyde, Mary’s half-sister, the daughter of her father’s evil alter-ego, Mr. Hyde. These women come together in the Alchemist’s Daughter, aided by the inimitable Mrs. Poole (Mary’s housekeeper) and by the famous detectives Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. Together they solve the murders of several women in London, discovering that some of their supposedly dead creators are actually still alive and practicing new experiments.

 

In European Travel, Mary’s former governess reaches out to her for assistance. She has heard of the Athena Club and enlists their aid in helping Lucinda Van Helsing, who has been imprisoned in an asylum in Vienna. So begins the new adventures of the women, sending them from London to Vienna and then on to Budapest. During their travels they meet other characters we recognize from other works: among them Irene Adler, Sigmund Freud, and Count Dracula. Goss enjoys defying expectations. Heroes/Heroines and villains get new interpretations, and often the true monsters are the most human. The result is surprising, satisfying, and heartwarming.

 

The stories are ostensibly told by Catherine Moreau, but she has help. Goss brings in other voices through interruptions to the narrative, indented to set them apart. Other characters will comment on the immediate passage (“I was not thinking that!”) or offer a differing opinion or aside about another character (“I should have kicked Diana”). These serve well as comic relief and giving us backstory on the characters that don’t fit neatly into the direct story. There are also several “ads” for the first book (“Only two shillings”) which usually bring objections from Mary (“I don’t think people want to read ads”). Although they are occasionally distracting, usually these interruptions bring a smile and add warmth to the story of these women drawn together by personal trauma and who find in each other mutual support.

 

I suspect this book might challenge some readers who like their Victorian heroes to be, well, heroes. This book is by a woman and is about women. Men do show up. Usually they are villains. Sometimes they are allies. But the book is not about them. Mary and her friends are quite able to handle themselves, whether facing vampires, spies, or former tormentors. If you have a problem with that…well, you have a problem. The good news, though, is that if you have a problem, the Athena Club has some awesome women who can come to your assistance.

 

European Travel is a long book–706 pages long! But Goss uses the length to tell a great story in great depth. At the end of the book I almost felt it was too short. I hated to see the story end. The good news, though, is the book sets up another sequel. The Athena Club has more adventures to come, more romps through 1890s Europe, and more monsters who are human (and humans who are monsters) to encounter. Given that the villain in the next book is already revealed to be Dr. Moriarty, it promises to be one that might challenge the most monstrous of gentlewomen.

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Book Review: European Travel for the Monstrous GentlewomanTheodora Goss

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories, Vandana Singh

Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

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Fiction Collection: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Traveling the stars, riding a current of particles and discovering it is inhabited by living creatures riding the current with you. Plotting to assassinate the king only to learn he is not what you expected. Watching the past through a machine that lets you see it happen, then discovering the machine might also let you make it happen. Traveling to Alaska to gather the effects of your late aunt and uncovering a mystery. These are among the stories told in Vandana Singh’s imaginative collection, Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories.

 

Singh is originally from New Delhi, India, but in recent years she has made Boston home. She is a professor of physics, with expertise that informs but does not overwhelm her writing. Her stories are rich with the flavors of India and the power of science. Reading them was fun. Her characters have Indian names, eat Indian foods, wear Indian clothes, reference Indian literature and remember Indian gods. Considering that India is the second most populous country on earth (and soon will surpass China for number one) and that India has a vibrant and growing technology and science sector in their economy, the lack of Indian characters in speculative fiction needs to change. Singh’s stories are a valuable addition to the genre even if that were all they did.

 

Fortunately, they do much more than introduce characters who hail from the subcontinent. They are beautifully written and wonderfully imagined stories. They introduce us to new worlds and new technologies, technologies that let you shape the future by changing the past, technologies that let you move between universes, technologies that let you ride particle waves through space between the stars. They introduce us to an Earth ravaged by climate change. They introduce us to poets and assassins, kings and queens and commoners, scientists and explorers and artists. Singh’s stories are fresh and new, but they convey the richness of a culture that has centuries of history supporting it. Her characters may live on other planets or on a very different Earth than we know, but then we hear them tell each other stories of Hindu gods and goddesses and we remember that those stories deserve retelling as much as the stories that are more familiar to readers in the United States and Europe. Even when her stories are pure imagination–the legends and myths of other planets–they feel rooted in a non-European soil.

 

Her characters are not just “diverse” because they are non-white. They are different ages and different social strata. They are male and female and non-binary, gay and straight, old and young and in-between, rich and poor, educated and not. Her settings include fancy laboratories and an urban slaughterhouse, spaceships and exotic planets and an Alaskan coastal research facility. Singh shows us imagined futures that include people of all types, and indeed it’s hard to imagine these days that any future would successfully end poverty and corruption and other societal ills that have bedeviled humans throughout history.

 

Ambiguity Machines and Other Stories is Singh’s second collection of short stories. Her first collection is The Woman Who Thought She Was a Planet and Other Stories. She has also written some novellas. If you are looking for some creatively written and highly imaginative short stories, Vandana Singh is definitely a writer for you.

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Book Review: Ambiguity Machines and Other StoriesVandana Singh

Book Review: Heroine Complex, Sarah Kuhn

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

0756410843

Science Fiction: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn

Heroine Complex is funny, smart, and snarky. Any book that starts with the protagonist dodging an attack by a demonically-possessed cupcake with teeth stands out from the crowd. There are certain tropes familiar to fantasy-genre fans. Flying killer pastries? Not so much.

 

Sarah Kuhn was a finalist for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer in SciFi/Fantasy, not only because of Heroine Complex and its sequels, but also for her shorter pieces and comics. Her novella, One Con Glory, is in development as a feature film. She is also a popular speaker at conventions, often encouraging writers of color to tell their own stories, create their own worlds, and establish their own heroines. That is exactly what she has done in Heroine Complex.

 

Evie is the long-suffering assistant to Aveda Jupiter, San Francisco’s own superheroine, who uses a combination of killer moves and amazing fashion sense to show demonic interlopers the door back to hell (or wherever they came from). Evie and Annie (Aveda Jupiter’s real name) have been inseparable since kindergarten. Annie’s parents are Chinese Americans, while Evie is half Japanese/half white. Both of them received powers during a demonic invasion. Annie’s powers are not great, but they imbued her with a sense of purpose and mission. Evie’s powers are more dangerous and less easily controlled. Trying to keep them under control, while also raising her sister and managing Annie/Aveda’s outsized personality is as much as she can handle. So when Aveda is injured and asks Evie to take her place temporarily, Evie’s world quickly starts spinning out of control.

 

But this is a story of heroines! Evie finds more strength than she ever imagined. Aveda finds deeper character. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in a world with killer flying cupcakes, heroines are needed and these heroines step up.

 

(BTW, between Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series and Sarah Kuhn’s Heroine series, San Francisco is a MUCH stranger place than I ever realized!)

 

Being the spouse of an Asian American and the father of three children, I loved reading these characters. Being “the only Asian Americans in Mrs. Miller’s kindergarten class” is a perspective that is fully American, but not the pale suburban experience of my own childhood. Evie is a complex, strong yet vulnerable character who fears her own strength and fails to appreciate her own value. She is far from perfect. Kuhn has bravely drawn characters who may be fully fictional but are still fully functional. I think sometimes the fear authors have in creating characters that do not fit the traditional “hero” roles (and I deliberately changed the gender for this point) is that if they are less than perfect they will be seen as less. Given the sad reality that even great Asian fictional characters have been “whitewashed” when put on screen, and the equally sad reality that publishers still reject books with non-white protagonists thinking they won’t sell, a book with flawed women of color who experience doubt and pain and failure and troubles and still kick butt is refreshing, bold, and Kuhn pulls it off with elan.

 

I’d hate to tell you that Evie’s story ends with a “happily ever after,” because that would mean that Evie’s story ended. Fortunately, Kuhn has continued the series with two more books that I am excited to read. Hopefully, Evie and Aveda will have many more demons to slay and personal issues to conquer. Heroine Complex is a great start to what promises to be an exciting series, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

 

0756410843

Book Review: Heroine ComplexSarah Kuhn