Category: Fiction

The Deepest Blue

Cover image for The Deepest Blue by Sarah Beth Durstby Sarah Beth Durst

ISBN 978-0-06-269084-5

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

“Clinging to her best friend, and the love of her life, Mayara knew she’d made the right decision leaving everything and everyone behind but bringing her heart and soul with her.”

Having successfully hidden her power to command the nature spirits that terrorize their islands, Mayara has just married the love of her life, Kelo. But when a spirit storm strikes their village on the day of their wedding, Mayara chooses to save her family and friends, even though it means discovery. Now she will be faced with a terrible choice between renouncing her life and joining the Silent Ones, the island’s police force, or facing the Trial on Akena Island, for a chance to become one of the heirs. Because the islands must always have a queen who can quiet The Deepest Blue, and only those who can survive Akena Island are worthy to take her place.

The Deepest Blue is fundamentally a novel about love and family, as well as tradition and change. Mayara is not the first in her family to face the choice. Her sister, Elorna, failed to hide her power, and died on Akena Island, trying to become an heir, shattering their mother’s heart. For this reason, Kelo begs Mayara to choose the Silent Ones, even though he knows this means he will never see her again. To incentivize women to face the trials, only heirs are allowed to have families and personal lives, while the Silent Ones live monastic lives of service to crown. But when Mayara faces her choice, she has no idea whether Kelo is dead or alive, for her to honour her promise. She is caught in a stultifying system of traditions which has ensured that the women who are ostensibly the most powerful in the kingdom must bind themselves into service, and then go on doing the same to their spirit sisters, generation upon generation.

Sarah Beth Durst has created an interesting symbiotic magic system, in which the queens and the spirits need one another. The spirits create the very lands which humans inhabit, and the plants that give them shelter and food, but left unchecked, they will create and create until it tips over into destruction and chaos. The queens rein in the spirits’ wilder impulses, limiting their creation, and curbing their destruction, and the world carries on. But just having that power comes at a social cost; Mayara must either give up her family, or risk her life. And when we meet Queen Asana, current ruler of the islands, the reader quickly sees that even rising to the top of the hierarchy of spirit sisters is not without sacrifices or difficult decisions. And even queens can be controlled.

The Deepest Blue is a standalone novel set in the world of Durst’s Queens of Renthia trilogy. Not having read that trilogy, I wasn’t sure how well I would pick up on this novel, but I found that I didn’t need to be familiar with The Queen of Blood or its sequels in order to follow Mayara’s adventures. No doubt there were some references that I missed out on, but I was never confused about what was going on. I did gather that one of my favourite characters, Lady Garnah—Queen’s advisor and chief poisoner—was a crossover from the original books, so I look forward to backtracking to read more about her exploits, as well as the world of Renthia.

You might also like The Impostor  Queen by Sarah Fine

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow

Cover image for Star Wars: Queen's Shadow by E. K. Johnstonby E. K. Johnston

ISBN 978-1-368-02425-9

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

“Who was she, after all, when she was not Queen of Naboo? She had entered politics so early and with such zeal that she had no other identity.”

Elected Queen of Naboo at a young age, Padmé Amidala Naberrie has defined herself by that identity, having saved her planet from the predations of the Trade Federation, and restored peace with the Gungans who inhabit Naboo’s waters. Now her term as Queen is up, and Padmé will have to discover who she is without politics. But duty will knock again, this time when her successor asks her if she will represent Naboo in the Galactic Senate. Being a Senator of the Republic is quite different from ruling a single planet, and Padmé will find herself in deep politics waters as she struggles to step out from under the shadow of the throne, and into her new role.

Queen’s Shadow covers a portion of the time between the events of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. It opens on the handmaiden Sabé—played by Keira Knightley in the film—performing the decoy maneuver during the crucial events of the Battle of Naboo. However, the main body of the action takes place during the year or so after Padmé leaves Naboo for Coruscant, where old enemies and new rivals await the young Queen-turned-Senator. Balancing a galaxy is much more difficult than running a planet, with many established factions already in play. Padmé’s reputation as Queen Amidala precedes her, and no one in the Senate has forgotten that she upended tradition and unseated Chancellor Valorum to save her own planet, catapulting Naboo’s former Senator, Palpatine, into the Chancellor’s office.

Anakin Skywalker has little role to play in Queen’s Shadow, and though he is referenced, I do not believe he was ever actually named. Rather, Padmé’s primary relationship in Queen’s Shadow is with her handmaidens, and with Sabé in particular. It is a delicate balance of friend, colleague, and queen, filled with mutual respect, but profoundly imbalanced by duty and loyalty: “Padmé knew in her heart that Sabé would do whatever she asked, even if it meant Sabé’s life, and therefore she was always careful never to ask too much.” The perspectives of the handmaidens are as important as Padmé’s to Queen’s Shadow; they too are in a time of transition, figuring out whether they will stay or go, and how they will serve their former Queen in her new capacity as Senator. Sabé’s plotline follows her to Tatooine, where Padmé hopes to quietly use her money to free slaves, though abolition proves to be tricky work.

Queen’s Shadow is a Star Wars novel written by someone who clearly shares a love for Padmé’s character, and perhaps even a belief in her unfulfilled potential within the films. E. K. Johnston even slips a sly line of dialogue into the epilogue, set after Padmé’s funeral, in which Sabé vents the disbelief of many a fan: “It doesn’t make any sense!….She wouldn’t just die.” I should note here that I am quoting from an ARC, and I sincerely hope this line makes it to final publication! It was such a pleasure to read about a smart and brave woman surrounded by other talented, dedicated women prepared to give their lives to the Republic. Padmé’s canonical fate is not going away, but there is much more to her before that ending.

__

You might also like Star Wars: Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy #2)

Cover image for The Kingdom of Copper by S. A. Chakraborty by S. A. Chakraborty

ISBN 978-0-06-267813-3

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

“To be a Nahid in the throne room was to have her family’s stolen heritage thrust in her face while she was forced to bow down before the thieves”

It has been five years since Nahri and Muntadhir were forced into a marriage alliance, and Ali was exiled to Am Gezira. Ghassan’s iron-fisted rule has only tightened on the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. Nahri has spent her days in the infirmary with Nisreen, mastering the Nahid art of healing, and trying to figure out how to fix the damage that was done to Jamshid, despite the curse that seems to prevent her magic from properly acting on him. But as her powers grow, and the old Nahid palace begins to respond to her magic, Nahri worries that if Ghassan discovers what she can truly do, he will eliminate her once and for all. But she will not be content to remain under his thumb much longer.

In the second volume of S.A. Chakraborty’s Daevabad Trilogy, rival factions collide, and war is brewing. Tensions between the clans within the magical city are escalating, with the half-blood shafit always paying the largest price for the conflict between the Daevas and the Geziri. Relations with Ta Ntry have grown fraught, as Queen Hatset punishes her husband for exiling her son by cutting off the flow of necessary taxes from the wealthy land of her birth. Meanwhile, unknown forces are gathering outside the city, setting themselves against Ghassan’s rule. Chakraborty has developed a fraught dynamic by granting the reader access to multiple narrative perspectives. The warring groups are not speaking to, or sometimes even aware of, one another, but the reader can see the collision course that is being charted as the generation festival of Navasatem approaches.

Ali had been settling into a quiet life in Am Gezira, making peace with the results of his fall into Daevabad’s haunted lake, and trying to use his abilities to benefit the people who live in Am Gezira’s draught-stricken desert. But Daevabad is not done with him yet, drawing him back into its web, and the intrigues of his father’s court. Once trained to be his brother’s Qaid, the military seems to draw hope from his return, but commanding such loyalty is a dangerous thing for a younger prince. The two once-close brothers have been converted into bitter rivals, and Ghassan seems torn on the question of which one should inherit his throne, and Suleiman’s Seal with it.

Nahri is likewise trying to make peace with her choices, and the harm they have done to people she cared about. Once an outsider in Daevabad, she has stepped into the shoes of the Banu Nahida, a role that is at once powerful amongst the Daeava, and powerless thanks to Ghassan’s tight control over her life. This tension leads to her relating more and more strongly to the Daeva, at the cost of potentially playing into the deadly rivalry that has left deep wounds in the city’s psyche. Their prejudices threaten to poison everything, and Nahri is not immune to this thinking. Nor can she really understand why, when she seeks to ally herself with a shafit doctor, the woman is distrustful of her motives. The more Nahri hates Ghassan and resents Muntadhir, the more she seeks refuge in her Nahid heritage, little knowing what it truly means to be a Nahid.

Volume three seems set on a collision course with the woman who began this saga when she faked her own death, and abandoned her half-blood child in the slums of Cairo. Nahri does not know her mother, and has no reason to trust her. She knows the al Qahtani siblings, even if she has little reason to trust in them. The Kingdom of Copper is a gripping continuation of The City of Brass that will leave you eager for The Empire of Gold, due out in 2020

You might also like The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker.

ALA Midwinter Fiction Preview

At the end of January, I had the chance to attend two days of the American Library Association’s Midwinter conference in Seattle. I had a great time attending panels, meeting up with book blog and librarian friends, and browsing the exhibits.  As usual, publishers were spotlighting some of their upcoming titles. Here are a few that I am excited about!

Umarriageable by Soniah Kamal

Cover image for Unmarriageable by Soniah KamalIf you love a Pride and Prejudice retelling as much as I do, you will be equally excited to check out Unmarrigeable, a modern day, Pakistani revisitation of Jane Austen’s classic. Alys, the second of five daughters,  teaches English literature at a girl’s school, to pupils who often drop out to marry and start having children. Literature is her small chance to influence them before they begin that chapter of their lives. Her small town is set atwitter by a big wedding, which brings several eligible bachelors, including the wealthy entrepreneur Mr. Bingla, and his aloof friend, Mr. Darsee. I didn’t want to leave you only with titles that aren’t out yet, so this one is already available from Ballantine Books!

The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton

Cover image for The Everlasting Rose by Dhonielle Clayton I knew that the publisher was going to be promoting Dhonielle Clayton’s follow up to The Belles at ALA, but I figured that it would be so popular I would probably miss out. So I was surprised but pleased to pick up an advance copy of The Everlasting Rose, which will follow Camille, Edel, and Remy as they try to save the rightful heir to the throne before her evil sister, Princess Sophia, can cement her rule of Orleans. To succeed, they will need to join forces with the Iron Ladies, a group of women that totally reject the beauty treatments that Orleans society is built upon. The revolution is here. Coming March 5, 2019 from Freeform.

Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow by E. K. Johnston

Cover image for Star Wars: Queen's Shadow by E. K. Johnston When Padmé Naberrie completes her term as Queen of Naboo, she faces the daunting task of building a new life for herself, out from under the long shadow of the throne. Instead, she will find herself in deep political waters, when her successor asks her to serve as Naboo’s representative in the Galactic Senate. Despite her uncertainty, Padmé  agrees to her Queen’s request, and takes up the challenge. To be honest, that cover alone was enough to pull me in, but I am excited to see E. K. Johnston, author Exit, Pursued by a Bear, take us on Padmé’s journey from Queen to Senator. Coming March 5, 2019 from Disney Lucasfilm Press.

The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara Collins

Cover image for The Confessions of Frannie Langton by Sara CollinsOne of the great benefits of going to ALA is getting to talk to the publicists, and find out what they are hyped about. When asked which fiction title she was excited for, one of the Harper reps said “this one!” with such speed and certainty, that I took it without further question. The Confessions of Frannie Langton follows the trial of a former Jamaica sugar plantation slave accused of murdering the man who enslaved her, and his wife. Frannie herself claims to remember nothing about the night of their deaths. The novel is already garnering comparisons to the work of Esi Edugyan and Colson Whitehead.  It is set to hit shelves on May 21, 2019.

Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera

Cover image for Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby RiveraJuliet Palante has just come home to the Bronx from her first year at college, and she is trying to figure out how to come out to her Puerto Rican family before she moves across the country for a summer internship. She will be spending the summer working for Harlowe Brisbane, author of Raging Flower, the book that sparked Juliet’s feminist awakening. But when she arrives in Portland, Juliet quickly feels out of her depth. The longer she is in Portland, the less sure Juliet is about Harlowe’s brand of feminism. But the summer nevertheless introduces her to people and experiences that will open her mind in ways she never expected. Originally published by Riverdale Avenue Books in 2016, I noted at the time I reviewed it that the book could have used another editorial pass, and a little more polish and attention. So I am excited to see that Patrice Caldwell at Hyperion has picked it up for re-release in the fall of 2019! I can’t wait to see this book get another chance to shine. Look for it September 10, 2019.

Did you have a chance to attend ALA? What forthcoming titles are you excited about? Let me know in the comments!

Top 5 Fiction 2018

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (not necessarily published) in 2018. You can click the titles for links to the full reviews. Check back on Thursday for my top non-fiction picks!

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly BlackThis was one of the first books that I read in 2018, but it has nevertheless held up as one of the best, and the sequel is just around the corner in January 2019! Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she was raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans. Holly Black is an acknowledged master of the faerie tale, and The Cruel Prince represents a particularly twisty example of her talent in this arena.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy, Fairy Tales

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet

Cover image for The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky ChambersI am a sucker for a found family narrative, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet is great exemplar of a sci-fi take on this trope. When Rosemary Harper abandons her privileged life on Mars for a new identity, and takes a job as a clerk aboard the Wayfarer, her only expectation is to get away from the past. Aboard the ship is a motley inter-species crew that makes their living by building wormholes for interstellar travel, and Rosemary has been brought aboard to keep their permits and paperwork in order, so they don’t lose their license. Their latest job begins when a new species is welcomed into the Galactic Commons, which will necessitate building new tunnels to facilitate travel and trade. But the Toremi Ka are only one clan of a warring, nomadic species, Hedra Ka is their newly claimed territory, and the Wayfarer and her crew may be flying into a war zone. There is plenty of science working beneath the premises Becky Chambers puts forth, but her story is character-driven, and technology is decidedly not the focus. Rather it is the development of the relationships among the crew on this journey that take center stage.

Categories: Science Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. KuangDebut novelist R.F. Kuang hit it big this year with the gritty first installment of a planned trilogy about the Nikara Empire. A war orphan, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance. The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy featuring a terrifyingly badass female protagonist on a worrisome trajectory towards darkness.

Categories: Fantasy

Strange the Dreamer

Cover image for Strange the Dreamer by Laini TaylorStrange the Dreamer is the kind of book where the author writes herself into difficult situations, but then makes bold choices with the consequences. From his childhood as an orphan in a monastery, to his young adulthood as a junior library apprentice, Lazlo Strange has been obsessed with the lost city of Weep. For thousands of years, magical goods crossed the Elmuthaleth desert to be traded, but no faranji was ever allowed to see the city from whence they came, on pain of death. But two hundred years ago, all trade suddenly ceased without explanation. Once, Weep had another name, but fifteen years ago it was snatched from the minds of the few who remembered the city at all, including Lazlo, whose obsession was only deepened by the loss. Now a hero from Weep, known as the Godslayer, has emerged from the Elmuthaleth, seeking the best scientists to join a delegation that will help the city solve the last remnant of the problem that halted trade for two hundred years. But what use could such a delegation have for a mere junior librarian who has studied Weep all his life, and yet undoubtedly knows less about it than anyone who was raised there? In beautiful prose that will be familiar to fans of her Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy, Laini Taylor brings to life a vivid new fantasy world that didn’t so much capture my imagination as take it hostage, until I stayed up far too late to reach the last page, and find out what would become of Lazlo, Sarai, and the people of Weep.

Categories: Young Adult, Fantasy

Washington Black

Cover image for Washington Black by Esi EdugyanCanadian sensation Esi Edugyan received international attention this year, with her Giller prize winning novel also being named to the Man Book short-list. 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 brothers 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, Edugyan tells the story of a slave who gains his freedom with nuance and complexity. Indeed it is the depth of the characters, and the nuance with which their situations are portrayed that really makes Washington Black unforgettable.

Categories: Canadian, Historical Fiction

Honourable mentions also go out to the rest of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, which I devoured, and found to be utterly delightful, though the first one was my favourite, and is thus listed here. That’s it for fiction, but check back later this week for my non-fiction selections!

What were your top fiction reads of 2018?

The Wangs vs the World

Cover image for The Wangs vs the World by Jade Chang by Jade Chang

ISBN 9780544734098

Charles Wang was mad at America. Actually, Charles Wang was mad at history.”

Charles Wang is a Chinese immigrant from Taiwan who came to America decades ago with nothing but a list of fertilizer manufacturers who might want to buy the urea produced in his family’s Taipei factories. Instead, he ended up building a cosmetics empire, which has come crashing down around him in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. With the factories shuttered, the house foreclosed, and the cars repossessed, Charles commandeers the vehicle belonging to his elderly Ama, and sets out with his second wife, Barbra, on the cross country trek to retrieve his younger children from their college and boarding schools, and join their eldest sister at her home in upstate New York. Along the way he plans to deliver Ama to her daughter in Nevada, drop off one last customer order in Alabama, and then find a way to return to China, and reclaim the land his family lost in the Communist Revolution.

The Wangs vs. the World is the ultimate dysfunctional family road trip, told in alternating perspectives among the Wang family members, and with a couple of vignettes from the point of view of the car they are driving, which once belonged to Charles first wife, and the mother of his children, May Lee, who died tragically in a helicopter crash at the Grand Canyon. Jade Chang approaches it all with a slightly crass sense of humour that starts right out from the fact Charles’ family essentially produces artificial chemical piss (urea) and carries on through such debacles as Andrew masturbating with a leftover ketchup packet. These jokes aside, the family dynamic has a tragi-comic flavour glossing over a deeper level of introspection, but some readers will probably find this tone off-putting.

On the surface, The Wangs vs. the World is a comic story about the shock of rich people who suddenly find themselves poor. Yet it also interrogates the American Dream, income inequality, and the bill of goods immigrants are sold about the possibilities of life in America. Tellingly, Charles goes bankrupt trying to keep afloat a line of cosmetics for non-white women, a huge untapped market that he believes will make his fortune. But skepticism among bankers about his social justice motives causes him to float a personal stake in the endeavour just as the market is about to collapse. Meanwhile, his son Andrew wants to be a comedian, but worries that he will only gain success in the American market by making fun of his own Asian heritage. They have all had to work out their role in a country that promised them everything, and delivered, but at a price they never expected.

While Charles and Barbra are mostly focused on money, and the loss of wealth, Saina, Andrew, and Gracie are also facing losses, not just of money, but the other things they have been taught to value as first generation Americans. The currency of the younger Wangs is mostly fame, though it comes in different forms. Andrew dreams of being a famous stand-up comedian, and asks his father to make stops in cities along the road that are hosting open mic nights. Gracie runs a successful fashion blog, with a currency in likes and followers. Meanwhile, the eldest sister, Saina, at first seems relatively untouched by the crisis, but as the story progresses we learn that after three critical successes, her latest art show was a controversial flop, and her reputation in New York City’s art scene is in ruins. She has fled to upstate New York to escape the fallout, and perhaps break it off with her cheating artist boyfriend once and for all.

(Content Warning: Rape) Another thing that is lost along the road is Andrew’s virginity, in a part of the plot that is perhaps one of the most confusing and disturbing aspects of the story. Having steadfastly refused to have sex until he is in love, twenty-one year old Andrew meets an older woman at a wedding in New Orleans, where the Wangs have stopped to visit an old friend of Charles’. Dorrie takes Andrew home, and proceeds to have penetrative sex with him, even after he tells her he wants to wait. Tied up and blindfolded, Andrew can’t resist her, and is profoundly confused about whether he wanted to. He never manages to tell anyone in his family about it after the fact, either. Andrew’s lingering virginity is an object of humour, and the way he loses his agency in the choice of when to give it up is passed over without much reflection about what was taken from him.

While the crasser side of Chang’s brand of humour wasn’t especially my thing, I think she has mastered the depiction of dysfunctional family dynamics, as well as the road trip narrative, and used the two together to reflect on the immigrant story in a new way, through the lens of the financial crisis. However, I enjoyed the more situational aspects of Chang’s sense of humour, and the odd predicaments the Wangs ended up in as a result, despite my reservations about how she handled Andrew’s story.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach

Cover image for Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach by Kelly Robsonby Kelly Robson

ISBN 978-1-250-16385-1

People—especially bankers—had trouble thinking long-term, and nothing was more long-term than ecological restoration.”

After destroying the environment, humanity retreated below ground for centuries, living in hives and hells, eking out an existence. But a new generation dreamed of the sun, and returning to the surface. For six decades, Minh, an ecological restoration specialist, has worked in the Calgary hab, slowly coaxing the surrounding landscape back to life, trying to keep afloat a community that believes in life above ground. But since the discovery of time travel a decade ago, financial backing for ecological restoration has waned, and the younger generation seems less than committed to the dream Minh’s cohort fought so hard for. When the secretive company that controls time travel technology publishes a request for proposal for a multi-disciplinary team to visit Mesopotamia in the past to study the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, Minh knows that it is project she cannot pass up, even as she seriously distrusts the agency in whose hands she will be placing her life, and the lives of her team.

In Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, Kelly Robson has conjured up an ecological dystopia in which “banks” are actually wealthy individuals who finance only the projects that interest or enrich them. Minh’s generation—the plague babies—cannot hope to achieve their aims without the necessary financial support, but the possibilities opened up by time travel technology would seem to make the slow, patient work of ecological restoration unnecessary. However, time travel is aggressively guarded by the intellectual property rights of the company that discovered it, making it difficult to know what is really possible. The company claims that they can only travel into the past, not the future, and that any changes occasioned by the visit occur in a separate timeline that collapses when the time travelers depart.

Robson’s novella is told through the perspective of Minh, an octogenarian scientist who was a pioneer in her field. A member of the plague generation, she lost her legs to disease, and wears prosthetics, opting for an adaptable six-legged model. Though in somewhat questionable health, she shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon, and her grouchy but determined personality drives the narrative. Although Minh carries the main plot, each chapter opens with a brief section centered on an ancient king, and a priestess who reads the stars to foretell the future. An entirely different set of events seem to play out through their eyes.

This is slow-paced work focused on interpersonal dynamics. The world is sketched out and interesting, but the format does not really leave room to develop it more fully. The main conflict does not take place until the last thirty pages, and the conclusion is open-ended. The balance is devoted to the dynamics between Minh, Kiki, Hamid, and Fabian, the team that travels to Mesopotamia. Kiki is an assistant at the environmental firm Minh works for in Calgary, but she will do whatever it takes be on the special project team. A member of the younger generation—known as the fat babies—she is starving for an opportunity to prove herself, and build a better future. However, she is torn between Minh’s vision for that future, and the possibilities offered by Fabian, the historian who takes them into the past.

Despite the slower pacing, I really enjoyed reading about an older protagonist and the nuanced portrayal of inter-generational dynamics between Minh and Kiki. Given the open-ended conclusion, I would not recommended this for those who hate cliff-hangers. I would also be excited to see what this author could do with a full-length novel in the future.

You might also like Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Time Was

Cover image from Time Was by Ian McDonaldby Ian McDonald

ISBN 978-0-7653-9146-9

Too many of the war loves I had followed did not survive. Peace killed them. People returned to their old lives and loves; quickly the old order reasserted itself, the very order for which they had fought.”

At the closing of London’s Golden Page book store, an online book dealer finds an anonymous book of poetry dating from shortly before the Second World War. Inside is a love letter from Tom to Ben. An online posting about the two men leads to a woman’s attic in the Fenlands, where her grandfather keeps an archive of his father’s war, including a photo of a group of British soldiers in Alexandria. But deep in the bowels of the Imperial War Museum’s photo archives, more images are waiting to be discovered. Because Tom and Ben’s story span’s time, from Crimea to the Rape of Nanking, to Bosnia, wherever there is a war, there seems to be a photo of the two lovers, caught in the midst of the conflict, and our bookseller becomes obsessed with how they got there.

Time Was is told in alternating chapters, one in the present timeline, and then one that follows Tom and Ben when they are stationed at a military project on the East Coast of England while the country prepares for a German invasion. Ben is a scientist, while Tom is an itinerant poet and messenger boy, but they secretly fall in love in the midst of the secretive chaos of the Uncertainty Squad’s classified undertaking. However, Tom and Ben are less important as characters themselves, than they are as the subject of the narrator’s obsession, and his trip down the rabbit hole into figuring out how two men who appear to age very little could appear in photos from wars more than a hundred years apart. As the narrator tracks down other copies of Time Was, we also get to read more letters from Tom and Ben, but they remain at a remove.

Our narrator has an old friend at the Imperial War Museum, who conveniently provides access to the photo archive, as well as a peek at information that is not officially for public consumption. Shahrzad also has a gift as a super-recognizer that speeds up the plot; there is no need to chronicle a long intensive search, as might be done in a novel, though to be sure, McDonald chronicles an obsession that spans years. Shahrzad’s skill, and the access provided by her job allows the narrator to be obsessed with the clues rather than the research itself, to the exclusion of almost everything else. While this speeds up the research, it also highlights a rather unappealing aspect of the narrator; he uses the women around him to further his quest, with no regard for them. In addition to using Shahrzad’s access, he also moves in with Thorn, the woman whose attic yielded the first clue in his search. (But we shouldn’t feel bad when he leaves her in the end, because it turns out that she was sleeping with a bunch of other men!)

Alongside the plot, Ian McDonald builds in a lament for the death of the brick and mortar book store. When they are separated across time, Ian and Ben leave copies of the anonymous book of poetry, Time Was, in independent bookstores across the world, with letters inside. Each bookstore holds special instructions not to sell the book, and to buy any copy of the book they find elsewhere. If a bookstore closes, the book should be sent to another. But as the modern era dawns, Ben and Tom’s messaging drops are dwindling, going out of business one by one.

As a story, Time Was is melancholy and slightly unsatisfying. It was pitched to me as a sad but romantic gay time travel story, and certainly that is what the cover copy, which focuses on Tom and Ben, and never mentions the narrator, would lead you to believe.  There are some good aspects to the story that McDonald has actually written, from beautiful prose, to cool science, and great use of epistolary elements, but the protagonist of this novella is the bookseller, and the story told here is his.

You might also like The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A.  Flynn