The alternative title for this book is How the Spanish Inquisition Ruins Everything. I'm horribly undereducated about Muslim Spain, knowing only that it existed and practiced near unheard-of religious tolerance at the time before Isabelle and Ferdinad showed up. I'm pretty sure they didn't have magic mapmakers, but don't quote me on that.
Fatima is the sultan's concubine, and while she has every luxury imaginable at the start of the novel, she's still a slave. So trigger warnings for that, and an attempted rape later in the novel. She best friends with Hassan, the magic mapmaker who's also gay. They love and adore each other like siblings, so when the Inquisition comes knocking and decides Hassan needs to be tortured to death, Fatima doesn't hesitate to get him out of dodge at the risk of her own life. They then spend the rest of the novel being absolutely terrified, chased across the peninsula and seas by the Inquisitors, talking to jinns with ambiguous morals, and overall being in a hot mess.
Fatima herself is a complicated character. Yes, she loves Hassan and continuously pulls him out of danger at the risk of her own life. But she's also selfish, craving freedom and control over everything else. Not that anyone can blame her, seeing as she's spent the majority of her life as a sex slave. On top of that, her relationship with Hassan is somewhat toxic, especially as the novel progresses and they get more codependent. His friendship is the only thing she's been able to choose for herself, so when he starts flirting with other characters she gets jealous and possessive. Part of her arc is learning to let him be his own person separate from her.
She's also quite a badass. Sure, she has no combat training and zero idea what she's doing. That doesn't stop her from stabbing at various bad guys and jumping off of cliffs. She basically spends the entire story throwing herself into crazy, dangerous situations and hoping for the best, and she survives either because of the magical intervention of her jinn allies, luck, or her own stubbornness.
The magic system is extremely soft, in that there are no clear rules. Narratively it makes sense. Fatima is one of the few major characters with no magic, so it gives the story a very ethereal feel as she navigates both the regular world and magical world, neither of which she understands.
The soft magic system and somewhat cheesy, open ending both combine to keep this book off of my Favorites list. But that's pure personal preference. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fantasy, power of friendship, and women of color being awesome.
This Mothers' Day, here's something that has absolutely nothing to do with mothers!
Ice Massacre, Ice Crypt, and Ice Kingdom by Tiana Warner
A long, long time ago, I reviewed the first book of this amazing trilogy, Ice Massacre. I even interviewed the author, Tiana Warner.
Then I got distracted by other shiny books for three years until quarantine forced me to face my ever-growing reading pile. Now I'm reviewing the entire trilogy at once.
Mermaids of Eriana Kwai is a "What if flesh-eating mermaids existed in the modern day" story, complete with a forbidden romance, violent war, and a taste of political intrigue. Mermaids exist peacefully all over the world, but for some reason they're targeting this one island--Eriana Kwai--in a ruthless war of extermination. They're overfishing the waters so the humans starve, destroying any and all boats that leave shore, even going onto the beach to kill people who stray too close to the water. In response, the people of Eriana Kwai do the yearly Massacres, where twenty men go out on a war ship to kill as many mermaids as possible. This hasn't had much luck, given that mermaids have a siren-like ability called the lure that hypnotizes men. So, at the start of book one, the island gets over its sexism, wises up, and sends out women.
This is a problem for a variety of reasons, the largest being that Meela--the main character--has a mermaid friend named Lysi who eventually becomes her girlfriend.
As it turns out, the mermaids are being ordered to Eriana Kwai by their tyrant king, Adaro. Lysi and several rebel groups don't want any part in this war and are trying to overthrow Adaro. So after the first book, which is focused on Meela trying to survive the Massacre, she and Lysi try to kill Adaro through a variety of assassination attempts, including unearthing a horrifying living weapon of mass destruction: the Host of Eriana Kwai.
The trilogy is mostly first person POV, but it gets complicated after Ice Massacre. In the first book, it's exclusively Meela's point of view. In Ice Crypt and Ice Kingdom, the POV flips from Meela to Lysi. Then we get a third person POV, an American soldier named Ben, in Ice Kingdom to get the broader, global perspective of the mermaids' actions. It gets a little confusing at times, and I wish Warner--and every other writer who had multiple POV characters--would just stick with third person POV so we know whose head we're in.
Because the POV is also limited to these characters, we miss some of the action in the final book, Ice Kingdom. There are several political factions working to get rid of Adaro and bring peace to the oceans for their own reasons. While Meela and Lysi are doing their mission, these factions are doing their own thing, but we don't actually see it. Which is a small problem, because it's vital to the plot. I'd have liked to see all these interesting, intense scenes myself rather than hearing about it second-hand. But while those scenes are important to the plot, they're not important to the story, so I can see why Warner elected to cut them out.
The emotional center of the story is, of course, Lysi and Meela's relationship, as well as Meela's character development. Lysi doesn't change much over the course of the trilogy, but Meela does. She has to reconcile her people's hatred of and hurt from mermaids with not only her personal feelings for Lysi, but also the fact that mermaids are people, too. Then, when Adaro starts acting more dickish than usual, she struggles between her desire for revenge and what's best for the world, both human and mermaid.
While I have my complaints about this trilogy, I will never complain about Warner's characters or her writing. These books are intense, and as Warner is very liberal with the character deaths, you're very quickly worried about the fate of major characters. She also throws in some excellent plot twists in Ice Crypt and Ice Kingdom, so I'm always kept on my toes.
This is technically a YA novel, but it can be read by anyone ready to see blood, gore, and tyranny overthrown by more than a band of plucky eighteen-year-olds. And it's landing solidly on my Favorite page.
The Good Place
The Good Place is a town where those who have been good throughout their lives go once they have passed away. Michael is the architect who oversees the town--and this is the first one he has been in charge of creating.
Eleanor arrives at the Good Place and realizes they have her name right, but everything else is wrong. She isn't meant to be there at all. With the help of Chidi, her soul mate, Eleanor tries to right her wrongs, seeking to finally earn her spot in the Good Place.
(Quick reminder: anyone who still wants to participate in the giveaway can. Prizes include books, posters, notebooks, and more. Click here to learn more.)
This is officially my favorite comedy, and currently my favorite fantasy show, hands down. It is four seasons of absolute perfection.
It kicks off with Eleanor being told she's dead and now in the Good Place, basically Heaven, which she very quickly realizes is not where she's supposed to be. She spent her life as a human trashbag, stealing, lying, and cheating, all of which absolutely horrifies her soulmate Chidi. But she manages to convince him to teach her ethics, anyway, since he was an ethics professor in life and doesn't want to see her condemned to the Bad Place (Hell) if there's a chance of redemption.
What follows is a hilarious series of misadventures involving Eleanor and Chidi trying to dodge Michael (the Architect and all-powerful supernatural being in charge of everything), as well as the chaotic mess of the other major characters: Janet, Tahani, and Jason.
One of the greatest strengths of this show is its theme of morality. What--exactly--does it mean to be a good person? Eleanor isn't the only one who struggles with this, especially when later in the show the characters discover some major issues with the system of determining which souls go to which Place. Given the amount of scholarly debate surrounding ethics and morality in the real world, it's no surprise that the show plays around with several different issues, dedicating entire episodes to exploring major themes while progressing the plot. The general conclusion it comes to is that morality is subjective depending on the situation, and also comes from your connection with other people. All of the characters are horribly flawed and fall into bad behaviors when they're on their own. But when they're together they're an ethical, demon-fighting machine.
Another thing that caught my attention right away is the complete lack of toxic masculinity and abundance of women and characters of color. Though we never see her in a relationship with a woman, Eleanor is definitely bisexual. The show passes the Bechdel and Mako Mori tests for both women and characters of color. None of the leading male characters display the toxic traits seen in most other major male characters.
There are, in fact, only two characters who display toxic masculinity. One is a demon who helps run the Bad Place, and is 100% villain. The other is a soul we meet in season four who's destined for the Bad Place specifically because of his toxic masculinity traits. Namely sexism, racism, and self-centeredness.
The story itself is excellent. Even though all the characters start off dead, there's some real stakes involved. Namely, eternal damnation. All the subplots--even the romantic ones--are designed to further our understanding of the characters and/or contribute to the main story. And almost every episode ends on a cliffhanger. Which was bad for my health, because I lost quite a bit of sleep binge-watching this entire show in two weeks.
There is only one real criticism I have, and that's the frequent memory wipes. For one reason or another, several major characters lose their memories at the end of each season, which means they lose most of their character development as well. Story-wise, it makes sense. I won't get into the specifics because of spoilers, but this isn't the medically inaccurate soap opera amnesia. The memory wipes are built into the magic system and work well with the story. And when they happen, the story usually shifts gears to focus on the character(s) who don't lose their memories, allowing them to go through a new part of their narrative arc while the amnesiacs are brought up to speed.
But it can get a little tiring and frustrating to see the characters' progress suddenly get ripped to shreds, especially where Chidi and Eleanor are concerned. I'm not counting it as a spoiler: the soulmates have a romantic subplot and eventually get together. Several times. Because their memories keep getting erased. We'll see them get together, then someone snaps their fingers and they're strangers again. Get together, memory wipe. Get together, memory wipe. Get together, memory wipe...
Other than that...it's excellent. If anyone likes off-hand humor that dives into deep moral philosophy while telling an engaging story that will occasionally make you cry--especially in the season 3 and season 4 closers--then this is the show for you.
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One day, my roommate Sunny had a friend come over our apartment, and they decided to watch anime (Japanese cartoons). I, sitting at my desk in the corner of the living room, had every intention of tuning it out. I had my laptop and several books at my disposal, so I figured I'd get a bit of work done and be anti-social as usual.
That decision lasted all of two minutes.
To the Abandoned Sacred Beasts is one of those stories that is simple and to the point, but it sucks you in and keeps you in a vice grip from the very beginning. Our friend left after the pilot episode, but Sunny and I kept going. We ended up completing the entire first season in three days. After that, we read the manga (Japanese comic) which it's based on, and which is ongoing.
I'm not going to do an entire compare-and-contrast thing. So far, the manga and anime are very similar. But even though the manga is obviously farther along and is going deeper into the world-building and background--and despite my usual belief that the book/comic is almost always better than the screen version--I will say that as of the end of season one, the anime is better than the manga.
There are two key differences. The first is the presentation of the story. The manga opens with Schaal finding Hank--the man who killed her Incarnate father--and shooting him in the chest. It's ineffective, as Hank himself is an Incarnate, but it definitely gets the readers' attention.
The pilot episode of the anime, however, starts with the Incarnates' first battle during the civil war. There we see Hank as a leader, get introduced to some of the Incarnates, and watch their happiness and sanity fall apart. By the end, even though the war is over, Hank is hunting down and killing each of his former comrades as they all lose their minds and start killing innocent people. Episode two then goes into Schaal's backstory, how her father left for war a human and came back a dragon, which sounds cool on paper but is rough in reality. Hank shows up, kills him, and Schaal vows revenge. Her explosive introduction to Hank happens in episode three.
Because of this order, the anime has a lot more emotional weight than the manga. Hank and his unit were, ironically, very happy during the war. The Incarnates teased him about his love life, the doctor who created them took care of their injuries, and everyone was looking forward to a life of peace after the war. The difference between pilot-Hank and episode two-Hank is stark and brutal. He barely cracks a smile and only laughs once after the pilot. The flashbacks he has about each of the Incarnates he's trying to kill are physically painful, in large part because of the differences in him.
This is the other big difference between the anime and manga. Manga-Hank has retained some of his lighter attitude and is even a bit goofy, which causes a bit of a tone clash. And it's another reason the anime is better: by episode twelve, Hank and Schaal are friends on a mission. She's realized the severity of the situation and why the Incarnates need to be killed, and Hank, no longer alone, is able to smile and laugh again. It's really sweet.
The show's not perfect. You probably saw the busty blonde on the poster up top. I don't mind the author creating a sex symbol here, as Liza is a full character critical to Hank's mission and we get just as much shirtless Hank as we do sultry Liza, so it balances out. But there is a moment in both anime and manga were a boy yanks Liza's top down to reveal her breasts, says she was asking for it when she gets visibly upset, and goes unpunished. (He does get his ass kicked by a gargoyle for an unrelated event that same episode, but still, that rankled.)
The show also utilizes some power-of-friendship power-ups (cheesy, but fun) and the dead fridge trope (less fun). But otherwise, I'm counting the days to the end of 2020, which is supposed to be the season two release date. It'll be interesting to see where the anime goes once it catches up with the manga. That can be very hit-or-miss, and the track record for such projects isn't good (looking at you, Pandora Hearts). But given that this anime has already changed the manga in smaller ways to make the story better, this might be the lucky one.
C. L. Polk
C. L. Polk is the author of Witchmark, which has been nominated for the Nebula, Lambda, Locus, and Aurora, and is the winner of the World Fantasy Award. You can read my review of this stunning debut novel here. Its sequel, Stormsong, came out on February 11th.
A huge "thank you" to Polk for taking the time out of her busy schedule to do an interview with me!
Interview with C. L. Polk
DZA: Witchmark and its sequel Stormsong take place in a sort of alternate universe where a land very similar to Victorian England has magic. Why did you decide on this particular aesthetic for your world, rather than the more standard settings like contemporary for urban fantasy or medieval for epic fantasy?
Polk: Honestly? It was the architecture. I am enamored with the aesthetic of city streets from the beginning of the 20th century. I was thinking about New York and Chicago streets - about how these buildings were getting taller, and the attention to the little details. I kept imagining a city with buildings like the Flatiron in New York - that look was what I wanted.
How long did it take you to write Witchmark, and what were the challenges you faced in getting it published?
I don’t really know how to begin counting. I had let the idea for the book percolate for a few months, and then I wrote a ragged, skeletal first draft in about six weeks in the late summer of 2014. I set it aside for a long while before I revised it, and I didn’t start looking for an agent to represent me until 2016. As for challenges, I think I had it pretty easy. I had to send out queries and wait, and that was all I had to do.
Witchmark’s main character, Dr. Miles Singer, made quite a mess at the end of the novel. The sequel Stormsong is going to be about his sister Grace dealing with the fallout. Why did you decide to change your POV character, and what unique challenges can we expect Grace to face?
Well, Miles was in no shape to run around and protag, and I couldn’t see myself skipping to a point where he had recovered sufficiently to run up four flights of stairs and get into bicycle chases. I had to pass the POV torch to someone else - and Grace was the person who made sense. There’s potential for a great deal of political upheaval, and this is what Grace was raised to do--she’s just doing it in the middle of a great disillusionment. She thought her efforts were protecting and enriching the people of Aeland, and now she has to figure out how to put out multiple fires while her worldview has been completely shaken.
I found Grace’s arc to be rather interesting in Witchmark. She starts the story thinking she’s an ally to people like her brother Miles, only to realize that she’s really not. Since throwing magic at the problem isn’t feasible in our world, how do you think we should handle fake allies like Grace in our lives?
It’s a difficult question, really. There is so much psychic shielding and base misinformation that people learn to swaddle themselves with that makes it so difficult to break out of. It’s a horrible thing to wonder, “Am I wrong? Am I not the good person I think I am?” What if you aren’t? Goodness, how wretched it would be if you weren’t. And so pointing out that an action or behavior is racist, or homophobic, or ableist is often taken at an insult that attacks a person’s core moral vision of themselves.
It’s genuinely frightening to consider, and so a lot of people will retreat back into that cocoon of ignorance and good intentions and flee the feelings (and the people) who upset them. It’s safe in there. It’s a hard prison to escape. I get it. But when it comes to dealing with people who are still centered on a fragile morality, I think that while everyone deserves your compassion, not everyone deserves your energy.
I’m more concerned with the people who are actually oppressed than I am the people who are simply scared of what they’ll see in the mirror. Would I like them to change? Yes. But I have to conserve my efforts. So I will spare what I have left over for the people who are fighting, and learning, and facing the mirror. Most of that is writing stories that I hope lead people to think about their own lives and their own struggles to put hope and justice into the world.
In Witchmark, you primarily go after two major themes: classism and mental health. In addition to The Kingston Cycle, you also have The Midnight Bargain coming out in Fall 2020, a fantasy novel that deals with reproductive rights, another major issue. Obviously these are very pressing and polarizing matters in the real world today. How do you use fantasy to contextualize these issues, and what are you hoping to communicate in these stories?
Really, I’m just angry about these issues. I cannot believe we still have to battle every day for the most basic right to control your own body just because it happens to have a uterus. But in 2019 I was thinking about some of the unspoken implications of a magic system where the ability is inborn and hereditary. I barely brushed on it in Witchmark, but I started seriously thinking about what happens to people who are equipped to carry children through a pregnancy in a world where magical ability is inherited from the parents - and it made the top of my head hot. How much autonomy, how much agency would child-bearing people have in that kind of world?
But I can’t just talk about that. I need a story. And so I took one of my favorite tropes, the springtime social season of London from regency and historical romance, and used that as the structural ticking clock that pushes Beatrice in her dilemma between choosing to scandalize society by becoming a magician, or denying her most heartfelt desire for magic by marrying the man she loves.
Both Witchmark and Stormsong feature LGBTQ+ characters and same-sex relationships as their romantic subplots. What do you say to critics who argue that incorporating same-sex romance limits your audience, and/or alienates the conservative half of your readership?
That criticism assumes a lot. In truth, I don’t have a conservative readership. They don’t want to read what I’m doing, so why exactly should I give a moment’s thought to people who aren’t going to like my stories anyway? And why should I shelve the things that I care about and want to express in my writing to pander to people who don’t like me regardless?
People who don’t want to read queer feminist SFF are not on my list of people who need my labor. I like my limited audience. My energy is for them. And some of them might like one book I write, but not another, and that is fine. I know some people aren’t going to be as jazzed about The Midnight Bargain because the romance is cishet. That’s okay. Catch the next one if you feel like it; I’ll have more soon.
What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in writing a sequel, and are you planning on writing any more books in The Kingston Cycle?
Writing Stormsong was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done (please remember that I don’t have kids and I never went to grad school, so those might be harder, I don’t know.) When I was writing my fanfics and Witchmark, I was just me: some woman with a copy of Scrivener and a complex, all-consuming vision in her head. There wasn’t anyone checking for me. I was nobody. I had perfect freedom.
And then suddenly, there I am, trying to write a book to follow the surprising reaction people had to Witchmark, and suddenly I’m thinking about audience. About critics. About how I was writing a character some people loathed from Witchmark as the protagonist of Stormsong, and how that was going to be a hard sell. Those thoughts took up room in my head that I really needed for storytelling, distracted me from the art to yell about the commerce, and I had to do it all on a deadline.
I cried a lot. I went to therapy and cried. I went to my writer’s group and cried. I managed to write the book, though. And I don’t think any other book is going to be such a perfect storm of stress and anxiety. I got through the ordeal, and no other book is going to be a stress-fest like that again. but I wrote The Midnight Bargain because I really wanted to return to that feeling of just being a writer with an idea that was without any expectations or pressure or deadlines. It rejuvenated me. I will probably sneak around on my obligations with a secret book idea again.
As for Kingston, there is one more book. I passed the POV torch again, and Robin Thorpe is the protagonist who wraps up the series in Soulstar.
In addition to Witchmark, you also have a blog to help other writers with their projects. Can you tell us how that got started?
Oh, I should really update that! I started writing blog posts on writing craft because I’m a craft nerd. I like to talk about the craft of writing just as much as I like writing, and sometimes when I get going, I wind up with a gigantic essay and I take the answer and put it on my blog. I haven’t done it in a while, though.
You live in Canada. As someone who lives in Minnesota, I must ask: why?
I live in an area of Canada that doesn’t get the kind of winter Minnesota gets. I don’t know if they call it an Alberta Clipper down there like they do in Manitoba, but that bone-chilling, nostril-freezing cold wind from the west? It starts as a warm wind here. Yeah. Sorry.
And the geese? Yeah. Sorry about those too.
You can find C. L. Polk on her website, and on Twitter.
Headshot credited to Diane and Mike Photography.
Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle Book 1) by C. L. Polk
(Spoiler-Free) Book Review
TW for Witchmark: violence, murder, mentions of suicide and drug/alcohol abuse
All right, I'll admit it: I judged the book by its cover.
In my defense, the info on the back cover of my copy is very different from what I just copied and pasted from Amazon. It led me to believe that this would be a charming British tale with whimsy and a cute heteronormative romance. A nice break from Black Leopard Red Wolf, and ultimately forgettable.
This book is officially on my Favorites page. We have a murder mystery, gay fae romance, in-depth themes of classism and mental health, and an adorable cinnamon roll of a protagonist who is also a badass. Five stars. Love it. Pre-ordered the sequel as soon as I could.
The world is basically Victorian England ("Aeland") with magic. The only acceptable form of mage are the Storm-Singers, hiding in plain sight and exclusively upper class. They control the weather. Everyone else, that is, anyone whose magical ability is not in league with X-Men's Storm...well, if you're upper class, you get to be a Secondary, paired with a Storm-Singer as their personal battery pack. Any mage who isn't upper class is called a witch and sent off to an asylum because "witches" go crazy, but "mages" are totally fine.
(There's literally no difference. Except the difference in paycheck. I wasn't kidding when I said this book tackles classism like whoa.)
Unlike other books that pull this type of worldbuilding stunt, the copy-and-paste history is very limited. Our setting is the very British-like city of Kingston (London), in Aeland. There's a queen who bears a strong resemblance to Queen Victoria. Aeland is a new imperial power, just about to colonize Laneer. And...that's about it. There are strong elements of British history, but it's not cut straight from a textbook, especially since most of the focus is on magic and its impact on the country.
We're told the story through the first person POV of our protagonist, Dr. Miles Singer, who was born a mage into an upper class family. But, since his magical ability is healing rather than Storm-Singing, he is condemned to be a Secondary, basically slavery with golden chains. So, he ran away. We meet him after he's been "dead" for about a decade and acting as a psychiatrist in a veterans' hospital, trying to find out why so many vets suddenly snap and murder their whole families, then themselves. And since this is pseudo-Victorian England, he's not getting a whole lot of help.
Miles is a self-sacrificing, overly-polite gentleman whose biggest fear is being bound as a Secondary, a possibility that becomes more and more likely when he suddenly runs into his sister Grace, who is a Storm-Singer. Grace is an interesting character, because while she wants to help Miles and all the other Secondaries, she still wants Miles bound to her. She thinks the only way to help them is her way, that is having Miles bound to her but with a loose chain so he can continue being a doctor and living his own life.
Basically, Grace is toxic. But because she has good intentions and genuinely cares about Miles, nobody thinks she's toxic. She's just looking after her brother. What's wrong with that?
(Many things. There are many things wrong with it.)
There are several other characters--Miles's asshole father, the love interest Tristan, the patients and medical staff at the hospital--and they all feel real and distinct. The book itself is relatively short (300 pages) and very fast-paced. I finished the whole thing in about four days, and that was only because I had to work.
Overall, this is an excellent read, and I really hope the sequel lives up to it.
Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James
(mostly) Spoiler-free Review
Where to start.
You know when you read a book that you don't particularly like, but it's still a really good book that needs to be talked about and read? That's the category I would put Black Leopard, Red Wolf.
This story has been called "the African Game of Thrones," and since I love GoT (before HBO ruined the last season, anyway), I picked it up. What followed was a harsh yet engrossing read, and I think what's got me so put-off about this story is that it doesn't have a happy ending. Matter of fact, it gives our lead character--Tracker--a happy ending, and then takes it away so he can spend the last two chapters on a vengeance quest. Because Marlon James is a very talented asshole.
Since we're told at the very beginning that the boy he's searching for is dead, and that Tracker is in a prison cell (he's the narrator, telling the story to a priest), we know that something bad happens. I was expecting him to fail his quest and then get betrayed, but as Bruce Banner so wisely said, "No, this is much worse."
Sue me: I want my happy ending. Doesn't matter how dark the beginning or middle of a story is, there should at least be a bittersweet tone in the end. And believe me, the middle of the story is very dark. We're talking torture and gang rape of the main character, frequent cannibalism by a variety of terrifying monsters, and the death of children. There are about eighty trigger warnings that should be put on this thing.
The worldbuilding is absolutely incredible. Each city and landscape has its own distinct culture and dangers. I am sorely lacking in education when it comes to the hundreds of cultures, mythologies, and histories of Africa, so I don't know how much of it is pulled from real life, how much is mythology, and how much is just James messing around, but it works, and all fantasy authors should take note.
The characterization is on point. Tracker is our main character and narrator, so everything we see is seen through his eyes (first person POV), and that man is a hot gay mess. Matter of fact, all of the major characters are hot gay messes. The Leopard, Tracker, Tracker's first boyfriend, Tracker's second boyfriend, they've each got a bouquet of issues. Mossi is the only one with any sense of emotional stability, and he doesn't show up until halfway through the story.
The pacing is slow. Though it's an intense read from beginning to end, Tracker doesn't even hear about the boy he's supposed to find until over a hundred pages in. This works, because there's a lot of information that needs to be given and processed concerning the world and Tracker himself. There are also frequent time skips and flashbacks, which can get confusing, but it also presents the story in a way to maximize the tension.
One of the most unique aspects of the story is the prose. If you've ever read Nnedi Okorafor (Who Fears Death), it's similar to that, except with a lot more swearing. It's difficult to understand at some points, especially to a pasty-White reader like myself. But once you get the hang of it, it makes the story flow like melted butter.
So, yeah. African-based grimdark novel with excellent characterization and worldbuilding, with a ton of gay and a sharp, memorable story. It'd be one of my favorite books if James would just let Tracker have his happy ending, for fuck's sake.
I ask for so little, James. Christ.
The Tyrant's Tomb: Book 4 of The Trials of Apollo
Note: while there are no spoilers for The Tyrant's Tomb in this post, there are spoilers for book three, The Burning Maze. You can read the spoiler-free review for book three here.
Is there really anything new I need to write? My love for Rick Riordan and The Trials of Apollo series is well-documented on this site. The Tyrant's Tomb came out a few months ago and once again, he nailed it.
It looks like Apollo's narrative arc and character development is almost complete. In Book One, he went from I am the most amazing thing in the cosmos to eh, I guess I have some work to do. In Book Two, he moves on to huh, looks like I've made some pretty big mistakes. And while his scope of compassion and empathy had gradually increased thanks in large part to his friendship with Meg, it exploded with the death of Jason Grace in Book Three.
This book, unsurprisingly, deals with the immediate aftermath. Apollo and Meg take Jason's body to New Rome for funerary rites and deal with the fallout. For Apollo specifically, it's a heaping dose of guilt and self-loathing. He blames himself for Jason's death. It gets worse as he explicitly runs into more demons from his past: a prophet he cursed, a minor god he bullied, and an ex-girlfriend he had killed. Whereas in previous books he brushed those events off as part of his I'm a god, they're mortals schtick, here he fully understands the scope of his actions and what a dick he really was.
What packs an emotional punch is that he's not a dick anymore, meaning he's essentially already learned his lesson but he still has to face consequences. And while he kind of deserves it, at this point the majority of his allies are thinking that he's been through enough and it'd be great if they could save the world without all this extra drama. Apollo has also been reflecting on why he acted the way he did, and a lot of it stems from Zeus's abusive parenting. While he never uses it as an excuse (especially not with Meg around), it's going to make for a very interesting confrontation in Book Five.
On top of that, there are several parts in The Tyrant's Tomb where he straight-up believes he's going to die, and he's okay with it so long as his friends are safe. So basically, his character arc is 90% complete, as no self-respecting YA hero can call themselves a protagonist without at least one heroic act of self-sacrifice.
There is one bone I have to pick with this particular book. When Riordan killed off Jason in The Burning Maze, he set the precedent that almost any character could die. Not Apollo, as he's the main character and also the narrator; probably not Meg since she has an unresolved arc; and not Percy because then his fans would straight-up murder him. But any of Apollo's allies could get a sword in the back just like Jason did, including the other Seven.
Several minors characters do die in the epic battle at the end of The Tyrant's Tomb, more than one delivering an emotional gut-punch on the way out, but none of the major characters die with them. There's one who should have died, but they turn out okay because magic. Not quick-thinking on their part, not because someone else saved them, not even because of sheer dumb luck. They're saved via ill-defined magic and the power of narrative theme.
As a writer, I understand. Riordan wants to give us a break after Jason, and this way we have the chance to get all the rest of the Seven--plus Reyna, the Hunters, and Nico--together in Book Five. But as a reader, I feel cheated. Fake-out deaths are hard to do right, especially since they're usually only there to emotionally manipulate the reader. While the whole reason we read books is to be emotionally manipulated, this one fell just a little short off the mark.
On top of that, it seems like Riordan forgot about Hazel's powers over the Mist. You know, those illusion-like abilities that she spent a good chunk of The Heroes of Olympus series learning and using? I can think of at least two major instances where she could have at least tried to use them. They wouldn't have had to work, even a quick throwaway line like "they have some sort of anti-Mist enchantment" would have sufficed. But it's never mentioned.
That said, it's still an amazing book, an amazing series, and I'm once again counting the days to Riordan's next release. Because I need to see Nero die, more demigods be awesome, and Apollo tell Zeus that while he's grateful for this experience, this whole thing was messed up.
The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley
No Spoilers! (Promise)
Usually books that feature an author and/or historian tend to present a very romanticized, unrealistic version of it. They're all Indiana Jones tromping around in jungles and getting into fist fights, or effortlessly cranking out manuscript after manuscript and never even heard of writer's block. Or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, they're washed-up alcoholics writing about how joy is fleeting and that death comes for us all.
Carrie McClelland is a bit of an ideal writer, in that she can afford to go bouncing around Europe without worrying about the hole in her finances. But otherwise, she's spot-on. She buries herself in books, letters, and articles in order to get every detail of her historical novel right. The first quarter of the book is her being unable to even start the damn manuscript because writer's block is a bitch. Her sleep schedule is a mess--in part because of the whole ancestral memory thing slowly driving her insane, but mostly because of the writing. She subsists almost entirely on coffee and ramen noodles. In short, I've rarely found myself more represented as a writer in any media, even if Carrie has much more of a pantser style than my planner style of writing.
But while I appreciate Carrie, her ancestor/fictional character Sophia is much more interesting, in part because her story is more interesting and the actual focus of the book. But don't worry, you'll never get confused. While Carrie and Sophia's stories echo each other in many ways, Kearsley uses both stylistic and POV differences to make it easy to tell when you're switching from one to the other. If it's first person POV and modern lingo, it's Carrie's story. If it's third person POV with long, antiquated sentences, we're dealing with Sophia.
The idea of ancestral memory is an interesting one, and its affects on Carrie have some unique story points. She goes from denial to acceptance quickly, thanks to the mountain of evidence put before her, but refuses to tell anyone else except on a need-to-know basis because she's very well aware of how insane it all sounds. While originally the memories affect her only as she's working on her book, they quickly consume the rest of her life, resulting in her almost falling off a cliff at one point because her Sophia-memory tells her the foot path leads one way when it actually goes another.
Despite what the back cover would have you believe, the politics and international drama is mostly background noise. And while it does have an impact on the story, the main focus of Carrie and Sophia's stories is very small scale and intimate. It is a romance novel, after all, so the primary focus is going to be Sophia's relationship with Moray and Carrie's with Graham. And while I personally think both relationships move a little too fast, they're both realistic, engaging, and natural. Sophia's is especially marked with hardship, given that she falls for a soldier in the middle of a war, and he, of course, gets sent out to fight.
Also, slight trigger warning: there is an attempted sexual assault about three quarters of the way through. It lasts about a page before she's rescued, but it does exist.
Here's how good this book is: it manages to cram in two--two!--love triangles and still keep me interested. It helps that everyone acts like adults about the whole thing, keeping the tropey ridiculousness to a minimum. And while Sophia's resolution is a little far fetched...it's romance, and by the time I got there I really wanted her to have a happy ending.
So if nothing else, the characterization, accurate-if-ideal portrayal of how an author works, and a surprisingly good plot twist are all good reasons to read The Winter Sea if you want to read a fantasy that doesn't scream fantasy. Or if you want a historical romance with a twist.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!