Category: Fiction

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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You might also like The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

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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You might also like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

March: Book Three

Cover image for March: Book Three by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with art by Nate Powell by John Lewis and Andrew Ayden

Art by Nate Powell

ISBN 978-1-60309-402-3

“For so many months I’d kept my emotions bottled up to be strong for those counting on me to lead, but there I was alone in the dark with it all.”

Politician and civil rights leader John Lewis has been representing Georgia’s fifth congressional district for the past three decades. Before that, he enjoyed a long career as a civil rights activist and organizer, and served on the city council in Atlanta. The script for the March graphic novel was written with his congressional aide, Andrew Aydin, who wanted to capture some of the memories Lewis had shared with him in their time working together. This is the third and final volume in the trilogy. Catch up with March: Book One and March: Book Two here.

March: Book Three opens where March: Book Two left off, with the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, 1963. The third volume is by far the longest in the trilogy, and has the most ground to cover, not necessarily in terms of time, but in terms of significant events in the civil rights movement, when participation and media attention gained critical mass. This installment includes the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Malcom X, the Freedom Summer voter registration project, the Selma march, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act. The frame narrative that anchored the first volume has mostly slipped away, with only occasional references back to the inauguration of Barack Obama. It concludes on a meta note, with Lewis and Aydin discussing the idea of turning Lewis’ memoirs into a comic book.

Book three continues to chronicle the violence faced by peaceful protestors, particularly in Mississippi and Alabama as the civil rights movement gained steam. Scene after scene shows demonstrators beaten by police, or police standing by while they are attacked by white supremacists. Volunteers knew they might face violence when they signed up to register black voters in the South, but no one expected three volunteers to be intercepted and murdered before the Freedom Summer even began. Nate Powell’s black and white art chillingly depicts dredging the Mississippi swamps in search of the bodies of the three missing young men. Over and over, it shows the terrible price paid to bring in the Civil Rights Bill and the Voting Rights Act.

In addition to teaching the history of the civil rights movement, Lewis also provides a behind the scenes perspective on the growing pains of a swelling movement, and the ideological differences that arose. He highlights disagreements about the role of white people in the movement, and the role of gender equality as more women began participating. Different organizations often had profoundly different ideas about how to approach their advocacy, which Lewis presents in a diplomatic fashion. We also see Lewis beginning to move in powerful circles, not just the leadership of the student movement, but also among other civil rights organizations, and even meeting the president. This might be a little inside baseball for some readers, but it does drive home the amount of behind the scenes work and debate involved in bringing about change.

Throughout March, Lewis emphasizes action over legislation, highlight the fact that while laws are important, they mean nothing without practical enforcement or compliance. Even as it concludes at a triumphal moment, with the inauguration of the United States’ first black president, there is a note of sadness and caution. One of the last scenes depicts Lewis listening to his voicemail. “I was thinking about the years of work, the bloodshed…the people who didn’t live to see this day,” Ted Kennedy says as Lewis listens in the dark, head in his hands. March is dedicated to “the past and future children of the movement.” And the next day, Congressman Lewis is back at his office, planning to educate those future children about what was lost, what was gained, and the work yet to be done.

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The Prey of the Gods

Cover image for The Prey of the Gods by Nicky Drayden by Nicky Drayden

ISBN 9780062493033

Disclaimer: I received a free review copy of this title from the publisher through the Harper Voyager Super Reader Program.

If there’s one rule in planning for world domination, it’s to make sure you look good doing so.

South Africa, 2064. Sydney, a debased demi-goddess with dwindling powers, schemes to find enough fear, blood, and belief to feed on to return to her heyday. A new designer drug is hitting the market, and unleashing the divine potential of seemingly ordinary humans, and in it Sydney sees the possibility of chaos such as the world has not experienced for a long time. Meanwhile, her old mentor Mr. Tau is preparing to release a new demi-goddess into the world, one who may help her or undermine her, depending on how Sydney plays her cards. Can a pop star, two gay teens, a little girl, a politician, and a robot foil her plans?

To be honest, it is hard to give a concise, non-spoilery plot summary of The Prey of the Gods. There are at least eight point of view characters, and a lot of seemingly disparate elements that have to come together in this unusual novel. The book has elements of both fantasy and science fiction, as well as a distinct sense of humour. Sydney is a demigoddess, and mythology forms the underpinning of the story, but it is science that unleashes the action. The new drug hitting the market seems like a hallucinogen, but is really tapping into the divine potential of humans, including powers such as mind reading and manipulation that will create unprecedented chaos as they spread through the population. Meanwhile, the ubiquitous personal robots belonging to the human cast are gaining sentience, and questioning their role in society.

Perhaps the book’s strongest feature is its diverse and interesting cast of characters. I was particularly drawn to Nomvula, the young Zulu girl, and Councilman Stoker, the cross-dressing politician with a secret life as a drag performer who is starting to realize that he just might be trans. Drayden has also created an interesting character in Riya Natrajan, a fairly unlikeable pop diva who has been faking a drug problem to hide a more serious chronic medical condition from the public. Additional points of view come from Muzi, who is struggling with a crush on his best friend, Elkin, and This Instance, later named Clever 4-1, Muzi’s newly sentient personal robot. The mix of characters is exactly as odd and intriguing as you would expect, but works well once the reader gets everyone straight, and especially after the narratives begin to overlap.

Part of what gives nuance to the large cast is the theme of family, which is important for each character in different ways. When the book opens, Muzi is about to be circumcised not because he wants to, but because he knows that going through this traditional rite of passage will please his grandfather, whose approval he craves. Much of Riya’s backstory is defined by her mother’s death, and the complications that ensued in her relationship with her father, who she has not spoken to in years. Nomvula has grown up before her time caring for her sickly mother, with no father or siblings. When Mr. Tau and Sydney come along, her desire for family connections will change everything. Councilman Wallace Stoker is less interested in politics than music, but pressure to continue the familial political legacy keeps him from pursuing his dreams, or realizing his true identity. His domineering mother has her eye on the premier’s office, and will let nothing get in the way of her son achieving that landmark.

The Prey of the Gods is a humourous, genre bending romp through the near future, fearlessly mixing and matching demi-goddesses and robots, pop stars and politicians. Although it takes a while to settle in and get a handle on all the moving pieces of this narrative, the result is fresh and unexpected.

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Long May She Reign

Cover image for Long May She Reign by Rhiannon Thomasby Rhiannon Thomas

ISBN 978-0-06-241868-5

“It was one thing to be uncomfortable in court, to hate all the pretenses and be desperate to leave. It was quite another to panic, to become so frightened of the people around me that I forgot how to breathe.”

Twenty-third in line to the throne, Freya never had any expectation of coming anywhere near the crown. Instead, she dreamed of leaving the pomp and pretense far behind for a career in the sciences on the continent, where such things are appreciated. But when most of the court is poisoned for motives unknown at the king’s birthday celebration, Freya finds that all those ahead of her in the succession are dead. For better or worse, as long as she is still breathing, she is now Queen of Epria. Thrust into a position she never wanted, she must fight to hold onto it, or be killed by rival claimants to the throne. Unsure if she was even meant to survive the massacre, Freya is besieged on all sides as she tries to find out who murdered the king, and why.

Shy and socially anxious, Freya hates all the pretense of the king’s extravagant court. Her father—a man risen to the nobility by marriage alone—encourages her to cultivate her position, but Freya dreams only of a time when she can escape the expectations of her birth, and turn her attention entirely to science and invention. Such things are not valued in the kingdom of her birth, but she knows that she can make the world a better place if she solves the problem of fireless heat. All of that is snatched away with the mass assassination, and she must turn her sharp mind instead to solving the mystery of the murders, while also trying to stay alive in a hostile court full of enemies and would-be manipulators. Unfortunately, her interest in chemistry and convenient survival also make her a prime suspect in the killings.

With the motives of the murderers unknown, Freya must be suspicious of everyone around her. The king’s illegitimate son, fallen out of favour with his mercurial father, may have been making a bid for power. Or perhaps the king’s advisor, Torsten Wolff, betrayed his best friend. The court’s priest seems to have staunchly disapproved of the king’s wild extravagance. And why was the popular noblewoman Madeleine Wolff conveniently at her country estate when the murders took place? The suspects in the murder are interesting and varied characters, with potential motives both self-interested and seemingly altruistic, adding depth to the book’s moral questions. It also ends up exploring issues of censorship and ideology, when much of the initial blame is placed on a splinter religious sect who claim to follow the teachings of a dead man whose writings have been banned for generations.

Although there is a minor romantic subplot, Freya’s most interesting relationships in the story develop with her female friends. Her best friend is Naomi, a fellow noblewoman far down the line of succession. They are very close despite the fact that Naomi tends more towards romantic novels than science, and is a little more at ease at court than her best friend. I expected Naomi to be set up in a rivalry with Madeleine, who becomes Freya’s heir and unexpected friend in the aftermath of the succession. But while Naomi’s character development maybe did suffer in comparison to the attention paid Madeleine, I was pleasantly surprised with how the relationship was handled, and how Freya came to appreciate Madeleine’s differing talents and greater finesse with court life. Rhiannon Thomas does not set the women against one another in that way, though they did contrast.

On the whole, Long May She Reign was a little more character driven than the action and mystery adventure I might have expected from the description. But I enjoyed Freya’s character development, the honest portrayal of her anxieties, and the way she had to cope with such a sudden and drastic shift in her expectations for her future. The mix of science and political intrigue really worked for me, despite the fact that the cover and marketing give this book a fantasy vibe that is only realized in the medievalesque setting.

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Ninefox Gambit

Cover image for Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Leeby Yoon Ha Lee

ISBN 978-1-781088-449-6

“The problem with authority is that if you leave it lying around, others will take it away from you. You have to act like a general or people won’t respect you as one.”

The Fortress of Scattered Needles—a key strategic holding of the Hexarchate Empire—has been overtaken by heretics from within, an event which threatens to spread calendrical rot across the galaxy. Thanks to its shields of invariant ice, recapturing the Fortress by siege is virtually impossible, and the only man who could do it, General Shuos Jedao, has been dead for three hundred years. Fortunately, he has been preserved as an undead weapon which can be extracted from the black cradle when duty calls. Captain Kel Cheris—a mathematical prodigy who inexplicably chose the military Kel faction over the more academically minded Nirai—is selected to be the person to wield this “weapon,” and lead the campaign to reclaim the Fortress of Scattered Needles. Unfortunately for Cheris, Shuos Jedao slaughtered his own army before his death, which means that the Hexarchate’s secret weapon is mad traitor who cannot be trusted, even when his help is desperately needed.

Ninefox Gambit gets off to a bit of a dull start with a battle and a lot of strategic details that will appeal to fans of hard military sci-fi but leave other readers floundering for purchase. This is essentially world-building by immersion, as Lee introduces the concept of calendrical regimes and mathematical warfare. The Hexarchate relies on precise adherence to the strictures of a mathematical calendar, and the very technology of the society, including the weapons and military tactics, are dependent on this adherence. Calendrical heresy means a world where nothing functions properly. Lee also uses this section to introduce the basic cultural structure of the Hexarchate. Like many dystopians, there are six factions with distinct roles in society, and a defunct seventh faction that was annihilated after breaking from the empire’s orthodoxy. The Liozh heresy continues to haunt the Hexarchs.

The story becomes more interesting when Shuos Jedao joins the action. Although he served in the Kel military, Jedao hails from the Shuos faction, the other military branch of the empire responsible for intelligence operations and assassinations. The Shuos have a reputation for being wily, even when they aren’t mad traitors. When Kel Command goes mysteriously silent, Brevet General Kel Cheris is left with only Jedao’s advice, her own best judgement, and the feeling that she might not come out of this mission alive. It is in the unique interpersonal dynamic between Jedao and Cheris—no, not a romance—where things get interesting. Jedao has an unparalleled understanding of military tactics, and many years more experience than Cheris, but he has also been out of the game for many years, unaware of many developments in Hexarchate technology and society. And he is a terrible mathematician, an unforgiveable and potentially fatal weakness in a calendrical military. Their relationship involves the necessity of sharing information based on their own strengths, but also a high level of mutual distrust that maintains the narrative suspense.

On a more conceptual level, Ninefox Gambit is about the exercise of power, and freedom of thought. This is expressed mostly through the concept of calendrical heresy, and the Kel formation instinct. Lee’s unique society runs on citizens’ belief in and agreement upon a highly specific and regimented calendar, and deviation from that belief begins to degrade society in a way that is literal rather than theoretical. Orthodoxy is strictly enforced, to the point that fighting heresy with heretical math can result in re-education, even when calendrical rot has rendered orthodox tactics inoperable. If quashing heresy is about controlling what people think, formation instinct is the corollary that controls what they do. Specifically, soldiers in the Kel military are indoctrinated with an obedience instinct that helps them execute the mathematical formations that have calendrical effects on the battlefield. These themes of free thought and will even play out in a subplot about the sentience of artificial intelligence robots and drones that service the space ships and stations.

Ninefox Gambit is highly conceptual science fiction that starts slow but builds to an interesting and worthwhile conclusion that is open to a sequel. While it will be a hard sell for those who don’t love military sci-fi specifically, it is the kind of richly layered story that will repay repeat visits. I didn’t love every minute of reading it, but Ninefox Gambit has continued to grow on me in retrospect.

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