Category: Fiction

Homegoing

Cover image for Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi by Yaa Gyasi

ISBN 97811019947142

“You are not your mother’s first daughter. There was one before you. And in my village we have a saying about separated sisters. They are like a woman and her reflection, doomed to stay on opposite sides of the pond.”

Effia and Esi are half-sisters who have never met. First divided by their mother’s secrets, they will soon be divided by an ocean when Esi is sold into slavery and shipped across the Atlantic. Effia remains in Ghana, sold in marriage by her step-mother to the British governor of the Cape Coast Castle, where slaves are held in cramped dungeons before being loaded onto ships bound for America. In present day America, Marjorie wrestles with her identity as a Ghanaian immigrant to the United States, while Marcus struggles to complete his PhD knowing that many young black men of his generation are dead or in jail, and that only chance has kept him from the same fate. In a sweeping family saga, Yaa Gyasi follows the sisters’ bloodlines over hundreds of years, one child from each generation, tracing the impact of colonialism and slavery across the centuries, between Ghana and America.

Homegoing opens in what is now Ghana in the mid-1700s, and concludes in America in the present day. Extremely ambitious in scope, it employs an unusual structure that alternates between the two bloodlines, with a new narrator for each generation, meaning that Homegoing has a total of fourteen point of view characters. This requires the reader to settle into a new perspective every twenty or thirty minutes. However, two factors keep this structure working. First is seeking the connection back to the previous story, to find out what has become of the mother or father since we left them behind. And next is looking ahead for the new character’s romantic interest, a necessity in order for the family tree structure of the novel to function, making every chapter a love story in its own way. The chapters are not quite short stories, though each has a distinct narrative arc. But the full function of the novel comes in the layering and juxtaposition of each subsequent piece, until they are all taken together.

I was personally most drawn into the chapters set in Africa, perhaps because the story was less familiar. The American side of the story traces the family from plantations to convict leasing to Jim Crow to the Civil Rights era, and through the modern day, history that I have at least a decent grasp on. I knew much less about tribal conflict between the Asante and Fante, and how the British exploited it to fuel the slave trade. Another fascinating chapter, featuring Effia’s great-granddaughter, Abena, recounts the introduction of cocoa farming in Ghana. It remains one of Ghana’s chief agricultural exports to this day. However, the chapter that gave me the biggest emotional punch in the gut was about Kojo—Esi’s grandson—and his wife, Anna, who are living free in Baltimore when the Fugitive Slave Act is introduced in 1850.

Homegoing is a multigenerational epic that walks the fine line between hope, anger, and despair as the tales of Esi and Effia’s descendants unspool. Each chapter is a slice of life set against the background of a particular historical era, be it the Great Migration or the War of the Golden Stool. The full effect of the novel is such that in the end, the reader knows more about Marcus and Marjorie’s families than they do, the fall out of slavery and colonialism depriving them of their history and culture. The book is a potent reminder that the history is always there, just beneath the surface, and that the story has always been waiting to be told, though the voice of the victors has long drowned it out.

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The Lost History of Stars

Cover image for The Lost History of Starsby Dave Boling

ISBN 978-1-61620-417-4

“Living on the veldt taught nothing about the real value of space, creating the illusion that it was limitless. The great open distances of our land, which had once felt like a warm invitation, now stretched out on the other side of the camp’s fence like a cruel taunt.”

Fourteen-year-old Lettie and her Dutch Afrikaner family have a farm deep in the South African veldt when the Boer War comes to their doorstep. The British Army has instituted a scorched earth policy to root out the guerilla fighters who have resisted British attempts to lay claim to the Dutch South African republics, and the valuable natural resources that have been discovered there. With her father, grandfather, and brother still out on commando, Lettie, her mother, and her younger siblings are rounded up and marched to a concentration camp, while their farm is looted and burned. Inside the barbed wire of the camp, Lettie continues trying to fight the war with her own small acts of defiance, while also finding a way to survive the horrifying conditions with her hope for the future intact.

The Lost History of Stars is a story about a forgotten tragedy. Dave Boling was tracing his family roots, when he discovered that his grandfather was a soldier in the Boer War (1899-1902). However as he learned more about the conflict, the idea of telling a story about his family history was quickly abandoned in favour of bringing the story of what happened to the Boer women and children back into the historical memory. Although there may not have been genocidal intent, the British concentration camps in South Africa were the forerunners of the Nazi concentration camps that now define that term in our collective consciousness. More than twenty-thousand Boer women and children died of disease and malnutrition in the camps, in addition to the many uncounted black Africans, who were interned separately.

Speaking about his novel in public appearances, Dave Boling has revealed that The Lost History of Stars went through many drafts before emerging in its current form. The first was a sprawling narrative of war in the line of his first novel, Guernica. The next focused in on Lettie, her mother Susannah, her aunt Hannah, and Bina, the native woman who worked for them. All four characters remain in the final draft, but Lettie is the only point of view character. The decision to make Lettie the sole narrator, while focusing the scope of the story, also removes most of Bina’s point of view, as native Africans were held in separate camps. Bina’s main role in the final version of the story is as a source of wisdom for Lettie, but we learn little about her own ordeal.

One of my worries going into this story was that it would feature an ill-conceived romance between Lettie and Tommy Maples, one of the British soldiers assigned to guard the camp. Fortunately, the relationship between Lettie and Maples is not overly romanticized. She has complicated feelings about him that evolve and change over the course of the book, but Boling does not depict it as anything other than an unequal relationship. Maples is not generally a villainous figure, and he can even sometimes be sympathetic, but it is clear that he and Lettie can never really be friends given the circumstances under which they meet, and a romance could not come to any good end.

Lettie is a heart-felt narrator, who depicts both realistic trauma, and the ability to hold onto hope in trying circumstances. Her voice forms the heart of the The Lost History of Stars. In addition to shedding light on a forgotten tragedy, the central conflict, based on far-flung wars for natural resources, has a continued contemporary relevance.

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Six of Crows

Cover image for Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugoby Leigh Bardugo

ISBN 978-1-62779-212-7

“Geels looked at Kaz as if he was finally seeing him for the first time. The boy he’d been talking to had been cocky, reckless, easily amused, but not frightening—not really. Now the monster was here, dead-eyed and unafraid. Kaz Brekker was gone, and Dirtyhands had come to see the rough work done.”

Kerch is a land that worships gold and industry, and in this the slum rats of the Barrel are no different from the more supposedly more upstanding merchers of Ketterdam. Kaz Brekker has spent years building up the Dregs gang from nothing, creating the Crow Club, and laying a territorial claim to Fifth Harbour. With such a ruthless reputation, it is no surprise that a mercher might approach him with an unusual job, one that cannot be entrusted to just anyone. A Shu scientist has been captured by the Fjerdans, and is being held in the impregnable Ice Court. He holds the knowledge of a new drug, jurda parem, which can take Grisha power from miraculous to unimaginable, with terrible consequences, both for the Grisha, and for the world market. Kaz assembles a crew of his best pickpockets and thieves to travel to Fjerda during the Hringkalla festival, and attempt the impossible—breach the Ice Court, and extract Bo Yul-Bayur, before anyone else gets to him.

Kaz’s crew consists of six players, including himself. Inej, a Suli girl whose indenture to the Menagerie brothel was bought out by the Dregs thanks to her skills as an acrobat. Nina, a Grisha Heartrender stranded in Ketterdam by the Ravkan Civil War. Matthias, a disgraced Fjerdan druskelle—witch hunter—serving time in a Kerch prison thanks to Nina. Jesper, a Zemeni gunman with a dangerous fondness for gambling. And Wylan, a runaway mercher’s son with a talent for blowing things up.  Together, they might just have the right combination of talent and desperation to get the job done. All of the characters are teens, though they mainly read as much older, even accounting for their rough lives. However, this doesn’t particularly detract from the story.

Six of Crows is an extremely well-paced story, balanced between the past and the present, as well as action and character development. The present focuses on the heist, and how the group will extract Bo Yul-Bayur from Fjerda’s Ice Court. But Bardugo also carefully measures out backstory, slowly revealing how the boy Kaz Reitveld became the Barrel lieutenant Kaz “Dirtyhands” Brekker. Character development is married to plot development, as Nina and Matthias’ history plays a critical role, and leads to an unlikely alliance. We find out why Matthias was in Hellgate Prison, and how he got there. Before the crew can even head to Fjerda, they must break Matthias out of Hellgate, and convince him to betray his country and help them with the heist. Which might be somewhat difficult since he vowed to kill Nina Zenik if he ever escaped.

Six of Crows also represents an excellent continued development of the Grishaverse. Bardugo uses and expands the world she already built in her Grisha Trilogy, but this adventure takes an entirely different direction; it is a heist story in contrast to Alina’s epic. While most of the characters in the original trilogy were Grisha, here the cast represents a wider range of more diverse folk. Nina is decidedly not skinny, Kaz walks with a limp and uses a cane, Jesper and Wylan are queer, and Inej and Jesper are people of colour. They come from different countries and upbringings, and have very different dreams for what they will do with their share of the 30 million kruge haul.

Six of Crows also contains ample romance. Nina and Matthias have a fiery chemistry belied by their mortal enemy status. Inej secretly hopes that Kaz might one day return her feelings, while also doubting whether forming a relationship with him would be a good idea, or if he is even capable of such a thing. The cutest flirtation belongs to Jesper and Wylan, who only finally come around to directly acknowledging their interest in the heat of the heist, when plans have gone off the rails, and everyone is improvising. Wylan is the only one of the main six who is not a point of view character, and we do not get flashbacks for him or Jesper, but I hope their story will be further developed in Crooked Kingdom, which I cannot wait to read.

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Revenant Winds

Cover image for Revenant Winds by Mitchell Hogan by Mitchell Hogan

ISBN 9781548051952

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title courtesy of the author.

Millennia ago, the demon Nysrog was defeated and sent back to the hell from which he arose. But some of his followers survived, and now the Tainted Cabal may be stirring. While society at large has forgotten the devastation of that final battle, the churches and the sorcerers remember, and will do anything to prevent Nysrog from rising again. When an ancient ruin is uncovered near a northern settlement, the Church of Menselas and the Church of the Lady Sylva Kalisia form an uneasy alliance to protect the villagers from the stream of Dead Eyes unleashed by the breach of the ruin. But each member of the party has their own secrets and motivations that may endanger the mission, and perhaps the world itself.

I got off to a bit of a rough start with this novel, which opens in the perspective of Niklaus, the Chosen Sword of the goddess known as the Lady Sylva Kalisia. Niklaus has served the goddess for centuries, and dreams of becoming a god himself so that he can join her as her consort. His sexual motivations are extremely skeevy, and I didn’t particularly enjoy being in his point of view. Fortunately, Niklaus is only one of many narrative perspectives in the story, so I didn’t have to be constantly in his head, up close and personal with his sexual fantasies, which might have been a deal breaker.

The other dominant point of view belongs to Aldric Kermoran, who is both touched by the god Menselas, and is also a sorcerer, though his church tends to shun sorcery, and view him as cursed. He dreams of being a healer, but he is frequently tasked with the Church’s dirtier deeds, and worries he will never be allowed to settle down and hone his craft. His ability as a sorcerer has been hampered by the Church’s teachings, as he believes he should only use his dawn-tide power, and shun the dusk-tide, even though almost all powerful sorcery requires the use of both. However, meeting the sorcerer Soki in Caronath causes him to begin questioning this divide. Though obviously a master of her massive dusk-tide power, the more Aldric gets to know Soki, the more sure he is that she is not evil. And he may need his dusk-tide power in order to survive what is to come.

The odd woman out is Kurio, a nobleman’s daughter who escaped an abusive home life, and survives on her wits and thievery in Caronath’s underworld. Though her perspective is present from early on, Kurio’s exact relationship to the rest of the story is unclear for much of the book. Obviously she is on a collision course with the main narrative, but how precisely she fits in is slowly pieced together. Her journey begins when she is hired to steal a magical artefact that turns out to be more trouble than it was worth.

One of Hogan’s great strengths as a writer, as I noted in my reviews of his previous book, Blood of Innocents, is his ability to build his narratives around groups of characters who are bound together by a common cause, yet have a turbulent alliance that could collapse at any moment. Niklaus and Aldric’s churches do not traditionally get along, and the two men could not be more different. Joining their group is Valeria, a high priestess of Sylva Kalisia, who resents Niklaus’ position in the church. Two mercenaries seem to be driven mostly by a desire for treasure and adventure, while Razmus and his sorcerer daughter Priska are at odds with one another. Priska is torn between interest in learning more about Valeria’s church, and learning to better master her sorcery from Sokhelle, who is a powerful sorcerer in her own right, as well as Aldric’s not-so-secret love interest.

Revenant Winds also features an interesting interplay between magic systems. First we have the sorcerers, whose magic is based on mathematical calculations, and the power of sunrise and sunset. The god-touched require no such devices, but their powers are much more limited in scope, depending on the aspects of their god or goddess. Aldric can use his god’s power to heal, while Valeria can call upon her goddess to inflict pain. Finally, there seems to be a third type of power, demon magic, distinct from the other two types of power. The demonic power is less explored in this volume, since the demons are largely hiding in the shadows, but look set to play a larger role in future installments.

Revenant Winds is a strong series starter with interesting characters, an intriguing magic system, and ample room for more world-building as the story continues. Unfortunately for me, my favourite character looks to be dead heading into book two, but that isn’t going to stop me from awaiting the next installment in the series.

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Cover image for Seven Stones to Stand or Fall by Diana Gabaldon by Diana Gabaldon

ISBN 978-0-399-59342-0

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall contains seven works of short fiction set in the world of Outlander, including two that have never been previously published. The stories stretch across the span of the main series, filling in gaps here and there. The earliest story is a prequel set in 1740, covering Jamie Fraser and Ian Murray’s time as mercenaries in France. The latest recounts the story of how Roger Wakefield was orphaned during the London Blitz. The pieces range in length from long short story to meaty novella, and deal largely with secondary characters.

Diana Gabaldon is a very detail-oriented person, and her introduction helpfully contextualizes all of the stories, providing information about where they fit in the series timeline, which characters they deal with, and where they were originally published (if applicable). Given that the main series now stretches to eight books, and with several Lord John books on the market, this introduction will prove crucial for folks like me, who have not read the other books in a while.

For my own sanity, I threw over the arrangement of the novellas in the book, and used the information provided in the introduction to read the stories in chronological order. (If you’d like to do this as well, the order is: Virgins, A Fugitive Green, The Custom of the Army, A Plague of Zombies, Besieged, The Space Between, and A Leaf on the Wind of All Hallows.) This had the distinctly beneficial effect of allowing me to keep events and people relatively straight, and also bracketed the book with the two stories I was most interested in reading. The only downside to this order was that things got a little Lord John heavy in the middle, with three stories in a row based on his exploits.

Although many of these stories were originally published in anthologies where they would theoretically be read as standalones, many of them make most sense in the context of the series as a whole. However, my personal favourite in the collection was A Fugitive Green, one of the two original stories, and one which I think stands alone better than many of the others. It recounts the exploits of Minnie, a teenage forger living in Paris with her English father, who brought her into the family business. Readers of the series will know that Minnie eventually finds herself married to an English lord, and A Fugitive Green reveals just how that unlikely event came about.

Given the range of the timeline and characters covered in Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, it is unsurprising that the stories vary widely in tone and content. Some touch more on the supernatural elements of the series, and others are more pure historical fiction. Lord John’s stories tend towards military exploits and mysteries. In short, there is a little something for everyone, with the caveat that I don’t think this is how I would recommend introducing anyone to the world of Outlander. The main series is a much better place to start.

Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Adventures of Arabella Ashby #2)

Cover image for Arabella and the Battle of Venus by David D. Levineby David D. Levine

ISBN 978-0-7653-8282-5

“Her husband-to-be was a prisoner of war. This matter could not be allowed to stand.”

Arabella and Captain Singh’s wedding plans are put on hold when Captain Singh is sent to Venus by the Honorable Mars Company just as Napoleon escapes his prison on the moon. Captain Singh is caught in enemy territory at the outbreak of hostilities, and is promptly captured and held prisoner on the French colony. When Arabella learns that Joseph Fouché, the Executioner of Lyon, will take charge of the English prisoners on Venus, she engages the privateer Daniel Fox, and his ship Touchstone, to get her Venus first. With only her wits and a banknote for five hundred pounds, she must try to arrange the release of Captain Singh, and Diana’s crew before their brutal new gaoler arrives.

The first part of Arabella and the Battle of Venus focuses on the voyage to the French colony from Mars. Accustomed to the polished and well-oiled operation aboard Diana, Arabella finds herself displeased with Touchstone’s more slovenly crew. Worse, Captain Fox’s navigation skills cannot hold a candle to her own, and Arabella is desperate to reach Venus as quickly as possible. But Captain Fox will only agree to try her course if Arabella will wager a kiss and a private dinner if her plan does not bring them to Venus faster than his planned route. As in Arabella of Mars, Levine focuses a great deal of attention on the sailing aspects of the narrative, creating an atmosphere that might be best described as Patrick O’Brian in space.

The second act is more about characters and intrigue, as Arabella arrives at Venus, only to have nothing go as planned. Adrift on a foreign planet, where she does not speak the languages or know the customs, and where her English banknote is no good, Arabella finds she may have bitten off more than she can chew. Not only is Diana’s crew being held prisoner, they are being forced to work in a labour camp that is contributing to the creation of a new weapon that may alter the course of the war. If Arabella can discover the details, she may be able to save English dominance of the skies from Napoleon’s rapacious appetite for conquest, but she cannot see how she will manage that while also getting two ships and their crews off a blockaded planet.

Fans of the dashing and honourable Captain Prakash Singh may be disappointed with his small role, especially in the first part of this narrative. Instead, Arabella makes her way to Venus in the company of the also handsome but not precisely honourable privateer and gambling friend Daniel Fox. With her chaperone Lady Corey constantly questioning Arabella’s choice of fiancé, and Captain Fox perpetually trying to get Arabella to gamble her favours in exchange for his cooperation, Arabella is unaccountably intrigued by the scoundrel. Even after her arrival on Venus, Captain Singh practically sabotages his own cause, refusing to entertain Arabella’s escape plans, or include her in his own doings. Unfortunately, Captain Fox looks set to make a prominent appearance in the third installment of the series.

Some quibbles about the romantic subplot notwithstanding, Arabella and the Battle of Venus is an excellent second outing in Levine’s original series, which combines adventure and intrigue with alternate history, as well as considerable character growth for the heroine. I’m thoroughly looking forward to the trilogy’s conclusion, which will hopefully be released next year.

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Always and Forever, Lara Jean (To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before #3)

Cover image for Always and Forever Lara Jean by Jenny Han by Jenny Han

ISBN 978-1-4814-3048-7

“We’re all just counting down, passing time. Everyone knows where they’re going, and the right now already feels like it’s in the rearview. Suddenly life feels fast and slow at the same time. It’s like being in two places at once.”

It’s senior year, and Lara Jean Song Covey is anxiously awaiting her college acceptance letters, and looking forward to participating in traditions like the senior class trip, prom, and Beach Week. Her boyfriend Peter has already accepted a scholarship to play lacrosse for the University of Virginia, but Lara Jean is worried her grades aren’t good enough to into UVA. She’s keeping busy helping plan her father’s wedding to their next door neighbour, Ms. Rothschild, but sooner or later, the letters will come, and Lara Jean will have to make some big choices about her future.

As in previous installments, the Covey family dynamic is one of the standout aspects of Always and Forever, Lara Jean. Kitty and Lara Jean have both adjusted to the presence of their father’s new girlfriend in their lives. But Margot has missed that adjustment, and so when she comes home to visit, Trina’s presence in their house suddenly feels tense in a way it never did before. For Kitty and Lara Jean, everything has changed slowly, but from Margot’s outside perspective, her family is changing at the speed of light. Each in their own way, the Song girls have to face what this means for their mother’s memory, and their family going forward.

Back at the beginning of the series, the action began with Margot breaking up with her long-term boyfriend, Josh, before heading off to college in Scotland. Before she died, their mother advised Margot, “don’t be the girl who goes to college with a boyfriend.” Now Lara Jean finds herself in Margot’s shoes, facing down her last year of high school, and her dead mother’s advice. Will she follow in Margot’s footsteps, or carve her own path?  Big decisions about her future lie ahead, and Jenny Han has placed this dilemma at the heart of the plot.

Unlike the previous two installments in the series, Always and Forever, Lara Jean has no embarrassing plot catalyst, which was a relief to me as someone who suffers from vicarious embarrassment. In To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Lara Jean was forced to face up to her past crushes—including her sister’s ex-boyfriend—when a box of her old love letters got mailed out. In P.S. I Still Love You, her tentative new relationship with Peter was tested when a video of them making out in a hot tub on a school trip was posted to an anonymous Instagram account. Always and Forever, Lara Jean doesn’t rely on any such device, and the book does not suffer for it. Jenny Han really captures the essence of senior year, and strikes the perfect balance in her conclusion to this series.

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Down Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children #2)

Cover image for Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

“Some adventures require nothing more than a willing heart and the ability to trip over the cracks in the world.”

Once upon a time, twins Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott opened a trunk in their attic, and found an impossible staircase that led down, down, down, to a magical world called The Moors. A world where Jack didn’t have to be the perfect girly girl for her mother, and Jill didn’t have to be the sports-loving tomboy standing in for an absent son. But still a world where they would have to be polar opposites in a different way, choosing between The Master and Dr. Bleak, the vampire, and the mad scientist. If they still have one thing in common, it is that they want to stay on the Moors forever. But we all know that doorways come calling when you least expect them.

Every Heart a Doorway was a fan favourite last year, and went on to win the Nebula Award for Best Novella. I’ve seen very few complaints about it, but I do remember some laments about the fact that it was not in fact a portal fantasy, but rather the aftermath of one. Down Among the Sticks and Bones scratches that itch, while also further developing Jack and Jill’s backstory, and how they got to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. Getting a better look at their family background is particularly enlightening, and indeed proves to be a main theme of the novella.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones is very much about relationships between parents and their children, the delicate balance of hopes and expectations, and how easily children can be suffocated beneath them. “It can be easy, when looking at children from the outside, to believe that they are things, dolls designed and programmed by their parents to behave in one manner, following one set of rules. It can be easy, when standing on the shores of adulthood, not to remember that every adult was once a child, with ideas and ambitions of their own,” writes McGuire, in the voice of someone who clearly remembers. This dynamic not only warps Jack and Jill’s characters, but also their relationship with one another. The Moors is the first place where they can define their own siblinghood, beyond the parameters their parents set out for them, but they find that they don’t really know how. And of course, part of adulthood is defining oneself beyond the boundaries of your family of origin.

If there is one thing to lament about Down Among the Sticks and Bones, it is that the story ends before Jack and Jill arrive at Eleanor West’s school. We don’t get to see their early days there, and nor do we learn more about the interesting system of worlds McGuire has set up. But more will no doubt be revealed with Beneath the Sugar Sky, due out in January 2018.

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