The Real Lolita

Cover image for The Real Lolita by Sarah Weinmanby Sarah Weinman

ISBN 978-0-06-266192-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

Lolita, when published, was infamous, then famous, always controversial, always a topic of discussion. It has sold more than sixty million copies worldwide in its sixty-plus years of life. Sally Horner, however, was largely forgotten, except by her immediate family members and close friends.”

In 1948, eleven-year-old Sally Horner was kidnapped by recently released sex offender Frank La Salle, who coerced her into going with him after he caught her shoplifting a notebook from the five and dime in Camden, New Jersey. The kidnapping, however, was anything but simple. La Salle forced Horner to lie to her mother, Ella, saying that he was the father of school friends, and that she had been invited to join the family for their seashore holiday. Ella, a harried single mother, agreed, much to her later regret. Sally would not be seen again for nearly two years, during which time she would travel around the country with her abductor, who posed as her father in public, but had much more sinister intentions in private. If this story sounds somewhat familiar, perhaps you are thinking of Vladamir Nabokov’s famous novel, Lolita, in which the pedophile Humbert Humbert travels across America with his step-daughter Dolores Haze. Indeed, the Sally Horner case is referenced in the novel, but while Lolita has remained famous, Sally Horner has largely faded from popular memory. In The Real Lolita, Sarah Weinman builds her case for identifying Sally Horner as the true inspiration behind Nabokov’s novel, digging into archives, and conducting interviews, hoping to restore Sally to her rightful place in history.

The Real Lolita expands upon Weinman’s eponymous 2014 essay for Hazlitt magazine. Despite being a lengthy piece, Weinman felt she still was not done with Horner’s story, and in her book she attempts to further flesh out the case of the real girl who may have inspired Nabokov’s famous character. But although Weinman is a thorough and meticulous investigator, in some ways, there is no satisfaction to be had. Very often, the answers to her most burning questions were “we don’t know” or “the records are lost” or “we can only speculate.” And speculate she does, imagining what Sally’s days living with Frank La Salle must have been like, though no diary was kept, and Sally was never known to have spoken of it to her family after the fact. Because La Salle pled guilty in court, she never had to testify against him. Tragically, Sally died in a car accident only two years after her escape, never having seized control of her own story. Where she cannot find direct answers, Weinman tries to provide context, sharing available information, and drawing parallels to other cases of the time.

Although many answers were not forthcoming despite Weinman’s investigation, one of the strengths of The Real Lolita is the way in which it firmly centers Sally’s perspective and experience. Even when writing about the fictional Dolores Haze, Weinman refers to her as Dolores, only using the epithet Lolita when discussing Humbert’s point of view. Weinman never loses sight of the fact that Sally was a real girl who was the victim of a terrible crime. She is deeply sympathetic to what Sally suffered, both before and after her ordeal. Even after her escape, Sally was the victim of a double standard that meant that despite being a child, she was still regarded as tainted at best, and a slut at worst. Speaking to the press, Ella Horner said “whatever Sally has done, I can forgive her,” as if a child needs to be forgiven for being the victim of a crime. Sally’s time with La Salle would be the subject of gossip among her classmates for the rest of her short life, subjecting her to rude remarks, and entitled advances from male peers. As Weinman puts it, “Sally Horner was forever marked.”

I have to confess here that I have never read Lolita, and further admit that I’m not sure I ever will. The very thought of the plot churns my stomach, and even the desire to dig into Weinman’s assessment of Sally Horner’s influence on the plot couldn’t quite bring me to pick it up. Weinman herself notes that Nabokov had a long history of obsession with the theme of pedophilia, which turned up in many of his short works which predate Lolita, and even Sally Horner’s birth. Nabokov’s earliest work on the novel also predates the Sally Horner case, though it would not be published until five years after her escape. Biographers and scholars have found no evidence connecting Nabokov himself to children in that way, and in fact, quite the opposite; in his biography he recounts an episode of abuse in which he was fondled by his uncle, which may perhaps constitute the genesis of his obsession.

Given the above timelines, while the Sally Horner case may have shaped the final product, the concept for Lolita was certainly not inspired by her kidnapping. The Nabokovs, for their part, rigourously denied any connection as a matter of form; they believed in the primacy of art, and “if art was to prevail—and for the Nabokov’s it always did—then explicitly revealing what lay behind the curtain of fiction in the form of a real life case could shatter the illusion of total creative control.” It is up to Weinman, then, to gather circumstantial evidence about what Nabokov knew, and when, about the Sally Horner case. When she went missing, the story was not covered in his local newspapers. No clippings or documentation exist in his archives or papers. There are certainly parallels between to two stories to suggest that Sally’s more widely covered rescue may have helped crystalize Nabokov’s floundering obsession, but no conclusive proof. Yet Sally Horner’s story is worth remembering, whether or not she is the “real” Lolita.

Pride

Cover image for Pride by Ibi Zoboi by Ibi Zoboi

ISBN 978-0-06-256404-7

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that when rich people move into the hood, where it’s a little bit broken and a little bit forgotten, the first thing they want to do is clean it up.”

Zuri Benitez is an Afro-Latinx soon-to-be-senior from Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighbourhood. She is looking forward to a summer spent with her sister Janae, who is about to return from her first year of college, even though it will be tight quarters with five Benitez sisters packed into one oversize bedroom in their old apartment. But everything changes when the Darcy family moves into the newly built mini-mansion across the street, heralding the gentrification of Zuri’s beloved neighbourhood. Zuri dreams of going to college, and then coming back to serve her community, but will there be anything left of it by then? The wealthy, black Darcys don’t really fit into the hood, and to Zuri their money represents everything that is slowly destroying her piece of the world. But Janae falls hard for Ainsley, even as Zuri gets off to a bad start with his younger brother Darius. She would much rather spend her time with Warren, a boy from the neighbourhood who gets where she is coming from, but also attends an elite secondary school, suggesting he has a bright future ahead of him. But it is Warren’s past that she should really be concerned about, and it is Darius who seems to hold the key to that story.

Ibi Zoboi’s modernization of Pride and Prejudice is remixed for the present day, set in gentrifying Brooklyn where the old Afro-Latinx community is slowly being pushed out by new money. The story is told from Zuri’s first person perspective, but also incorporates her poetry, which she uses to work through her feelings about everything from boys to college to the changing landscape of her beloved Bushwick. Text messages serve the function that letters take in P&P, but without quite achieving the same impact. The theme of class remains strong, but set into the modern context of wealth disparity, which allows Zoboi to explore many of the same dynamics that are at play in Austen’s original novel. Zuri and Darius come from fundamentally different upbringings, with necessarily divergent scopes and views of the world. But as Darius settles into Brooklyn, and Zuri’s world begins to expand as she considers college, and leaving her neighbourhood for the first time, the gap between them begins to narrow.

One of the striking things about Jane Austen’s novels is her sharp eye for characterization—and sometimes caricature. Zoboi takes a somewhat softer approach to her characters, few of whom are as harshly delineated as their Austenian counterparts. Zuri’s parents, for example, are decidedly in love, and while Mama Benitez can still be a source of embarrassment, there is a respect between the parents that does not exist between the original Bennets. And Carrie, who parallels Caroline Bingley, shows a softer side in the end when she helps protect Zuri’s sister Layla from Warren’s predations. Part of this is likely related to Zoboi’s strong community theme for Pride. She is depicting the positive sides of Zuri’s Bushwick, and a big part of that is the way the people support and look out for one another. She freely loosens the relationship to the source material in service of this theme. Madrina, for example, is not an exact analogue to anyone from Pride and Prejudice. She has aspects of Aunt Gardener, but she also in some ways represents Mr. Bennet and the entail of Longbourn, since she is the owner of the building Zuri’s family has lived in her entire life. Zoboi strikes the right balance between the fun of recognizing the source material, and the need to tell her own story.

If Zoboi’s characters aren’t quite as sharp as Austen’s, her depiction of place is stronger. Elizabeth deeply feels the future potential loss of Longbourn to the entail, but Austen doesn’t manage to depict it quite as clearly as Zoboi articulates Zuri’s feelings about the slow death of her neighbourhood. Far from disturbing her rest, the ubiquitous sirens lull her to sleep at night. Block parties and gatherings on stoops or at corner bodegas are the thrumming heartbeat of the community, but that beat is getting weaker and quieter every year. In this sense, it is actually Bushwick that is the most clearly drawn character in Pride, which is perhaps fitting giving the theme of community that ties the novel together.

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi Edugyanby Esi Edugyan

ISBN 978-0-525-52142-6

Disclaimer:  I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

I carried that nail like a shard of darkness in my fist. I carried it like a secret, like a crack through which some impossible future might be glimpsed. I carried it like a key.”

Born into slavery on Faith Plantation in Bardbados, George Washington Black has never known any other life. When his master dies, the slaves expect the estate to be broken up and sold off, but instead two brother arrive, nephews of the old owner. Erasmus Wilde proves to be a cruel man who drives his slaves harder than the old owner ever did. But his brother, Christopher “Titch” Wilde, is a man of science, and while the other slaves on Faith are doomed to a harder lot, Wash is selected to help Titch with his experiments, and his seemingly impossible dream to launch an airship called the Cloud Cutter. However, being selected as Titch’s assistant will come at a price Wash could never have expected, and their strange, uneven relationship will change the course of Wash’s life forever, for better and for worse.

In her trademark exquisite prose, Esi Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Wash goes on to lead a big, improbable life as a result of Titch’s intervention, but a life that is not without difficulty and costs. The novel reflects some of the harder realities of the abolition movement, such as white men who were more concerned about the moral stain of slavery than about the actual harm suffered by Black people as a result. Titch’s intervention also cuts Wash off from his own people on the plantation, costing him his relationship with his foster mother, and setting him apart from field and house slaves alike. Wash learns to read, and draw, and calculate, but once he finds himself out in the world, unexpectedly freed by a fight between Erasmus and Christopher in which he is a proxy, he discovers that there is little call for—or acceptance of—a Black man with such skills. He is an anomaly wherever he goes, not least because of the horrible physical scars he bears as a result of his enslavement. Tellingly, it is a result of Titch’s actions, rather than Erasmus’ more standard cruelty, that Wash goes through life thus marked. His freedom proves to be a complex thing.

Present or absent, Titch’s hand is always irrevocably shaping Wash’s life. Though he does not wish to accept responsibility for this fact, it is true nevertheless. While in the beginning Titch is a character that the reader can admire for rebelling against his family’s immoral expectations, in the end he throws off other expectations and responsibilities as well, calling into question whether it was the immorality or the expectations he was rebelling against in the first place. Although Wash is the protagonist and the narrator, it is Titch who haunts the story, his choices echoing through Wash’s life even after their unequal partnership has unraveled, and Wash has built a new life for himself among the Black Loyalists of Nova Scotia. These echoes will eventually take him to Europe and Africa, in search of understanding Titch’s decisions and their far-reaching consequences. But some questions have no satisfactory answers, and Edugyan’s open-ended conclusion reflects that.

Washington Black is a novel full of adventure and travel, from Titch and Wash’s improbable escape from Faith Plantation, to encounters with bounty hunters, expeditions to the Arctic, and the escapades of cutting edge scientists diving for marine zoology specimens for an ambitious new undertaking. The reader will not lack for entertainment on this account, however it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes this novel unforgettable.

Midnight in Broad Daylight

Cover image for Midnight in Broad Daylight by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto by Pamela Rotner Sakamoto

ISBN 978-0-06-235193-7

The kibei were among the most disillusioned. They felt as if the nisei blamed them with their fluent Japanese and broken English for having attracted undue negative attention to the entire ethnic group. In Japan, the kibei had been scorned as children of emigrants, suspect for their fluent English. Nowhere did they belong.”

In 1933, following the death of the family patriarch, Katsuji, the Fukuhara family returned to Kinu Fukuhara’s home city of Hiroshima. Two of her children, Victor and Mary, had previously lived there with her sister, Kiyo, though like her younger children, Pierce, Harry, and Frank, they were American-born. The family had already lived a life divided between two countries, but that division would become a vast rift as Japan set a course for war. Harry and Mary both returned to America after they completed school, and were trying to rebuild their lives on the West Coast when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour in December 1941. While Harry and Mary faced internment in America, their brothers in Japan saw their schools militarized, and tried to stay one step ahead of the inevitable creep of the draft. Despite failing the physical exam on his first attempt to enlist in the army due to poor eyesight, Harry would eventually volunteer for a valuable position in the Military Intelligence Service, one of very few truly bilingual men who could help translate a growing load of documents and prisoner interrogations in the Pacific Theater. However, this set Harry on a looming course towards the invasion of the Japanese mainland, and a potential confrontation with his family. Unbeknownst to them all, but ever-present to the reader, decisions being made in Washington would drive history astray from the confrontation they feared, placing the family in the middle of a historic deployment of new military technology that none of them could have imagined.

Midnight in Broad Daylight zooms in and out between the minutiae of the Fukuhara’s wartime lives, and the broader context of the global conflict that was shaping their everyday experiences. Pamela Rotner Sakamoto—a Holocaust scholar who spent seventeen years living in Japan—focuses largely on Harry and Frank, the two brothers who shared their stories, and helped her conduct her research. Mary features in the story during the internment, but when Harry enlists as a linguist in the military, and Mary takes resettlement to the East, she mostly fades from the book. The other two brothers, Victor and Pierce, are enigmatic figures. For Victor in particular, the author has noted that it was difficult to find people with enough recollections of him to help flesh out his story. As the eldest, he was conscripted first, beginning his service while Japan was still at war only with China. Matriarch Kinu, and her larger-than-life sister Kiyo, also play a prominent role in the narrative. While I would have liked to know more about Victor and Pierce, as well as Mary’s wartime life in Chicago, I understand that the breadth of this already long book had to be limited somewhere, and certainly the juxtaposition provided by Harry and Frank’s situations is the most compelling.

On the Japanese side of the Pacific, I was interested in how little information Kinu and Frank had access to. Daily news was extremely limited, and access to the outside world was cut off. Mary and Harry’s whereabouts and circumstances throughout the war were unknown to their mother. Once Frank was finally conscripted, reading or accessing what little outside news was available was actively discouraged; it was expected that soldiers, especially lowly foot soldiers, needed no information but what their commanding officers saw fit to provide them. And the Japanese military command was actively shaping the information that both enlisted men and the public were receiving, even coining a new term, “sideward advance” to euphemistically describe the Empire’s worsening position in the Pacific Theater. Focused on day-to-day survival, the author is able to effectively show how Japanese civilians and low-level military conscripts had their broader world view slowly whittled away, until the only alternatives were hardscrabble survival, or a sacrifice of life in service of the Empire.

Midnight in Broad Daylight combines both primary research and family narratives. In some cases, the author’s research uncovered details the family was unaware, such as the exact date of Katsuji Fukuhara’s immigration. When primary sources conflict with historical accounts, she notes both what has been passed down in the oral history, as well as the evidence that might refute these memories. The book was written at a remove of many years; the author met Harry Fukuhara in 1994, and Midnight in Broad Daylight was finally published in January 2016. While four of the five Fukuhara siblings were alive when the author began her work, unfortunately none of them lived to see its publication; Harry and Frank, the longest survivors, passed away within months of one another in early 2015. However, Midnight in Broad Daylight is a compelling legacy of their family’s unique history.

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Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy

Cover image for Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy by Anne Boyd Riouxby Anne Boyd Rioux

ISBN 978-0-393-25473-0

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

“Alcott’s novel is not what it at first appears to be. What seems like a tale from a simpler time turns out to be the product of a difficult and sometimes troubled life. What appears to be a sweet, light story of four girls growing up is also very much about how hard it was (and is) to come of age in a culture that prizes a woman’s appearance over her substance.”

In 1868, Louisa May Alcott published Little Women, a work for girls that had been requested by her publisher. It was not the kind of thing Alcott usually wrote, but she had compelling financial considerations in supporting her parents and siblings that prompted her to take the leap. The result would be a best-selling novel first published in two parts, but known in America today as a single story, which has remained alive through the generations, adapted into stage plays, radio dramas, films, and television mini-series. 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of the novel, and in Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, University of New Orleans professor Anne Boyd Rioux examines the legacy of the novel in the American canon and popular culture, arguing that while the novel has a special place in readers’ hearts, its acknowledgement as a significant work of American literature has been circumscribed by sexism in a society that continues to devalue women writers, young female readers, and especially works that center their experiences.

Anne Boyd Rioux is an academic, known for her studies on the work of American novelist and poet Constance Fenimore Woolson. However, Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy is written for a general audience, inclusive of the many types of reader that have appreciated Little Women over the years. The scholarship is not lacking, and the book includes a significant section of notes and references. Rioux clearly comes down in favour of the historical value of the text, and argues for it to be taught more broadly, but she is also able to acknowledge the complexity and contradictions of its feminist legacy, and the many different ways that readers have interpreted Alcott’s choices. In the UK, for example, where the book is often published in two volumes, many readers remain blissfully unaware of a second part of the novel in which (spoilers!) Beth dies, Amy and Laurie marry, and Jo puts her dreams of becoming a writer on hold when she marries Professor Bhaer and opens a school. And American readers who never continued on to Little Men or Jo’s Boys may feel betrayed by Jo giving up her dream, never realizing that she picks up her pen once more in the sequels, and becomes a famous writer.

Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy might be considered a biography of both Louisa May Alcott, and the novel she wrote, though significantly more of the book is dedicated to the latter. Whereas the early part of the books draws heavily on existing biographical work about Alcott, the later chapters incorporate more of Rioux’s own exploration and analysis of the work and its legacy. There are chapters dedicated to examining the various editions the book went through, and how the different illustrators have put their mark on, and changed perceptions of, the book over time. I found this section particularly interesting given that the edition of the book I am most familiar with has a cover image, but no interior illustrations whatsoever. Rioux also analyzes the choices made in the various adaptations—including a 1933 version starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo, a 1949 version with June Allyson, and the 1994 film starring Winona Ryder that is best known to my own generation—and the role media played in keeping Little Women alive in the public imagination. This certainly rings true to how the book initially came into my own life; the box set I first read was published simultaneously with the 1994 film adaptation, with an introduction by Anna Quindlen. Rioux notes that the early film versions were heavily driven by romance, despite the significant emphasis placed on familial relationships in the book, but does not delve further into how romance tends to be feminized and devalued.

A significant part of the book is dedicated to addressing the feminist issues that have hindered the work’s path to being considered a classic or taught in schools. In the early days, the book was actually considered too radical and insufficiently Christian, since Alcott’s transcendentalist upbringing did not jive with more conservative Christian practices. The Sunday School market actively encouraged a boycott of her work for many years for this reason. Meanwhile, despite the novel’s initial popularity with boys and girls, adults and children, over the years Little Women’s target audience has been circumscribed, and it has gained a reputation as a sappy novel suitable only for young girls. According to Rioux, the devaluation of books for girls has played a significant role in preventing Little Women from taking its place in the American canon of great novels, alongside works for boys like Tom Sawyer, which has suffered no such limitations. Rioux does acknowledge that the length of the book might also be a limiting factor for teachers, and suggests teaching only the first part of the novel, as it was originally published, to overcome this hurdle.

My own relationship with Little Women has been as complex as this history acknowledges. On first encounter, I found it incredibly tedious, and if memory serves, it was actually Laurie’s romantic mooning that drove me off. On second pass, only a couple of years later, I was gripped by the story, which of course hadn’t changed a jot since my last attempt. This time I was devastated by what I perceived as Laurie’s betrayal of Jo. Yet on rereading the book this year for the first time in well over a decade, I was struck most by its lessons on morality. It is almost incomprehensible that the book was once considered insufficiently Christian given Marmee’s preachy asides and little lessons. This isn’t a book that is easily encompassed, and Rioux does her best to incorporate the complexities and contradictions inherent in Alcott’s legacy, which inexorably shape how we view the book today.

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Fresh Ink

Cover image for Fresh Ink Edited by Lamar Giles Edited by Lamar Giles

ISBN 978-1-5427-6628-3

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher at ALA Annual 2018.

It became pretty freaking clear that, book after book, adventure after adventure, the heroes weren’t like me at all.” –Lamar Giles

Fresh Ink is collection of short fiction highlighting diverse voices, put together by Lamar Giles, who is credited as one of the founders of the We Need Diverse Books movement. The majority of the stories are contemporary, with a strong focus on romance, but historical fiction, science fiction, and fantasy are also included. The short format also includes one comic, and one play. With the exception of the reprint of “Tags” by Walter Dean Myer—to whose memory the collection is dedicated—the stories were written for this anthology. Contributor Aminah Mae Safi won a contest seeking new writers to feature in the book.

Everyone will have different favourites in a short story collection, and for me there were a few standouts in Fresh Ink. Sara Farizan, author of Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, and If You Could Be Mine, offers up “Why I Learned to Cook,” the touching story of a bisexual Persian girl who is out to most of the people in her life, but struggling with how to tell her grandmother, whose rejection she fears. This one put tears in my eyes. I was also gripped by “Catch, Pull, Drive” by Schuyler Bailar, a transgender athlete who draws on his own experiences in a tense, first person narrative about a high school swimmer facing down the first day of practice after coming out as trans on Facebook. Both writers spoke at ALA Annual 2018, along with Malinda Lo, author of Ash and Adaptation, who contributed “Meet Cute,” a story about two girls who fall for one another in line at a fan convention, one dressed as Agent Scully, the other as gender-flipped Sulu.

The collection comes to a strong close with “Super Human” by Nicola Yoon, author of The Sun is Also a Star, and Everything, Everything. The world it is set in seems much like our own, but featuring a super hero who has become disillusioned with the people he is trying to save. The point of view is that of the young woman who has been given the seemingly impossible task of convincing X that humanity is still worth saving. But first she must get X to tell her why he has given up hope. This little story packs a big punch, and nicely rounds out an anthology that offers a variety of short fiction which allows diverse readers to see themselves reflected, often in the words of an author who shares their particular experiences.

Planetside

Cover image for Planetside by Michael Mammayby ISBN 978-0-06-269466-9

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher.

I needed to pound my head against a wall where nobody could see me. The stench around Mallot’s disappearance was getting stronger. A high councilor’s kid had disappeared into nowhere, and somebody wanted it covered up.”

Colonel Carl Butler is working a semi-retirement post at Student Command, only a year from finishing his service, when his old friend General Serata calls in a favour. The son of a High Councilor is Missing in Action on Cappa, one of the highest conflict zones in the universe. But Lieutenant Mallot isn’t just missing; he disappeared off a medical transport enroute back to Cappa Base, and hasn’t been seen since. Worse, no one on Cappa Base seems to want to cooperate with the investigation into his disappearance. Butler arrives on Cappa Base to find tensions running high. Medical Command doesn’t want him in the hospital questioning their personnel. The Spec Ops colonel who has been stationed on Cappa for over two years never leaves the planet, and won’t return Butler’s calls. Something is seriously wrong, but figuring out what may come at price Butler isn’t prepared to pay.

Planetside is narrated in the first person by Butler, who has the kind of narrative voice you might expect in a hard-boiled mystery or military sci-fi. So I was understandably expecting a hard-drinking, womanizing, fairly unlikeable narrator who would probably cheat on the wife he left behind on their home planet. I was therefore pleasantly surprised that while Butler is indeed hard-drinking—he flouts military rules to transport a case of his favourite whiskey to Cappa Base—none of the women we encounter are set up as flimsy love interests or sex objects. I was particularly worried on first meeting Alenda, who is assigned to assist Butler when he arrives on Cappa. Alenda, however, is a thoroughly competent aide, though it takes her a while to earn Butler’s trust. She also has a wife and kids back home. Butler is a bit protective of her in a way that is kind of annoying, but which makes sense for his character. Mammay’s space is also not pasty white, with characters from Alenda to Xiang, Patel, and Chu.

The planet Cappa has strong parallels to the Middle East. It is a desert planet, and Spec Ops intel says that while most of the locals are friendly, there is small but powerful insurgency that continues to fight occupation. Cappa is one of the few planets humans have discovered inhabited by sentient, humanoid life forms, but the desire to mine the silver that is key to many of their technologies overrides any better intentions that might have argued against occupying the planet. Space Command has been fighting there for more than eighteen years, with no end in sight. Mammay doesn’t do a lot of world-building outside of the situation on Cappa, and we don’t know a lot about how humans expanded across the universe. But we do know that it has been a ruthless and imperialist resource-driven expansion that has wiped out lifeforms on planets not habitable by humans in order to facilitate mining. While the lack of sexism and homophobia is refreshing, the military and political structure of this universe is rife with its own issues, mirroring on a universal level the problems that are currently destroying our planet.

Butler spends much of the book trying to get a meeting with Spec Ops chief Colonel Karikov, who has a distinct Kurtz/Heart of Darkness thing going. He hasn’t been up to Cappa Base in over two years, and when Butler digs deeper into the situation, he can’t find anyone who has spoken directly to the Colonel anytime recently. The early part of the book has a vibe that is more mystery than military, but when Butler heads down to the surface, things get more tactical, as obstacles are thrown in the way of his getting to Karikov’s base. These parts were a bit slower going for me, but I was engaged enough in the mystery to push through the descriptive military engagements which I found less interesting, but which would no doubt appeal to the military sc-fi fans who are the more likely audience for this book.

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Barren

by Peter V. Brett

ISBN 978-0-06-274056-4

Disclaimer: I received a free advance review copy of this title from the publisher.

The rush of magic was addictive, as many folk were discovering. Even Selia was caught in its grip. It did more than strengthen the body; it heighted passion as well.”

Selia Square has been the Speaker for the small community of Tibbet’s Brook on and off for decades. She is a respected leader despite the mean-spirited nickname that has followed her into her seventh decade: Barren. Using warding spells and militia, Selia has helped lead the forces that protect the Brook from the hordes of demons that appear without fail at nightfall. But lately its seems as if the demons have become more powerful and cunning, and Selia worries about what the dark of the moon will bring, when the demons are at the height of their powers. But Selia has more than demons to worry about. The puritanical Jeorje Watch has slowly been gaining followers, and working to undermine her authority as Speaker. She knows it is only a matter of time before he challenges her for the Speaker’s gavel.

This novella landed on my doorstep courtesy of the publisher, and I decided to give it a try despite the fact that I hadn’t read any of the other Demon Cycle books. Clocking in at 135 pages, it seemed like an easy way to get a taste of a fantasy world that I have heard a lot about from other speculative fiction fans. One caution I had previously been given about Brett’s books is that they contain rape. Barren does not require that content warning, but it does depict other forms of domestic violence, as well as homophobia. A female character is also killed in order to provide a tragic backstory for her lover.

Brett no doubt did a lot of world building and explained his magic system more thoroughly in the main volumes of his series, and probably most readers of this novella will be existing fans. I had to pick things up as I went along, and I suspect I missed plenty of references and foreshadowing that will have resonance for Demon Cycle fans. One interesting thing about his magic system is that it appears to be reversing the aging of the characters who spill demon blood. This includes Selia, who should be entering old age, but is instead experiencing a renewed vigour for life. However, her long-time enemy Jeorje Watch, the oldest man in the Brook, has also benefitted from the magic. Jeorje should have been dead decades ago, along with the secrets he carries about Selia’s past. Jeorje has a long memory, and his isn’t about to forget what was once between Selia and his granddaughter.

Structurally, the novella moves back and forth between Selia’s past, where she lives with her parents, and helps her mother run the local school, and the present where she serves as Speaker, and lives alone, but risks exposure to the community by taking up with a woman five decades her junior. Given the short length of the book, Selia is the only character who feels significantly developed, though by the end I felt I had somewhat of a sense of Jeorje as well. Based on reading synopses for other books in the main series, it does not seem that Selia is a significant character there, so I am not sure if I will continue reading. I am a bit curious to learn more about the magic system based on the small taste I got in Barren.

Have you read the main Demon Cycle novels? Weigh in below in the comments section and let me know if you think it is worth continuing!