Category: Novella

Barren

by Peter V. Brett

ISBN 978-0-06-274056-4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Cover image for The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okoraforby Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-9312-8

Binti was change, she was revolution, she was heroism.”

In the third volume of her novella trilogy, Nnedi Okorafor continues the story of Binti, who has returned home to Earth after her first year of study at the galaxy’s premier institution of higher education, Oomza Uni. While the homecoming and reckoning with her family and her heritage was difficult, Binti is now faced with an even larger conflict. The peace between the Meduse and the Khoush is tentative, bound to break at any moment, and the Himba may be caught in the middle. Still struggling to control the zinariya biotechnology that she unlocked in Home, and suffering from the side effects, Binti may nevertheless be called to put her skills as a master harmonizer to work on one of the oldest feuds in the galaxy.

As evidenced by the summary above, the plot of this novella relies heavily on the action and world-building of previous installments—reading out of order is not advised. While Binti and Home have a logical separation, The Night Masquerade reads as a continuation of Home, but on an expanded thematic scale. In Home, Binti was forced to confront the rift that she made when she left her family and abandoned their traditions to attend Oomza Uni. She also had to do some grappling with her identity as a Himba woman, and with how her father’s heritage figured into that. The Night Masquerade expands to consider the conflict between cultures, and Binti’s place within the wider society she has entered, and indeed within the galaxy itself.

In the first volume, Binti describes her people, saying “we Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.” By this third installment, it becomes evident how much Binti has grown from her experience at Oomza Uni, rather than diminished. First she connects with the Meduse, and we see how that changes her, helping her to understand anger, and realize how difficult it is to contend with. She grapples with her father’s roots among the Enyi Zinariya, learning to see them as they see themselves, rather than as the savage Desert People she has been taught to regard them as. And she makes other, new connections in The Night Masquerade. Her journey has been an expansive one that grapples with identity and belonging on many levels.

In my review of Binti in 2016, I wrote that the plot relied “heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation.” The edan has since diminished significantly in importance to the story, but in The Night Masquerade, its origin and purpose are finally revealed, filling out the universe’s backstory. Indeed, since this is the last contracted Binti story, many things are being wrapped up and concluded. There remains ample space for Okorafor to expand on Binti’s universe, but readers will be left with a satisfying stopping place.

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Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death 

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

Cover image for Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9358-6

“For others, the lure of a world where they fit is too great to escape, and they will spend the rest of their lives rattling at windows and peering at locks, trying to find the way home. Trying to find the one perfect door that can take them there, despite everything, despite the unlikeliness of it all.”

When Rini lands in the duck pond behind Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, she is looking for her mother, Sumi. But Sumi was murdered three years earlier, and never found the door back to her Nonsense world to defeat the Queen of Cakes, marry her candy corn farmer, and live happily ever after with their daughter. Rini shouldn’t even exist, and now reality is beginning to catch up with her as she starts to fade away. Quests are strictly forbidden at the school, but can Sumi’s friends really allow her daughter to have never been born?

Beneath the Sugar Sky marks the third installment in Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series. The books do not need to be read strictly in order, but the author recommends reading Every Heart a Doorway before this volume. Down Among the Sticks and Bones, being a prequel, can really be read before or after the first book. But since the plot of this novel hinges on a murder that took place in book one, and continues with some characters from that volume, beginning there is suggested.

While Every Heart a Doorway was about the aftermath of returning from a portal world, Beneath the Sugar Sky is a true portal fantasy that involves examining what happens to the worlds the children leave behind when they are pulled back to Earth. When Sumi ceases to exist, the Queen of Cakes is never defeated, and her prophecy goes unfulfilled. This third installment allows us to visit not one but two of the portal realms described in the first book, including Nancy’s Halls of the Dead, and Sumi’s Nonsense world, Confection. The latter is particularly interesting since most of the protagonists themselves visited Logical worlds, and struggle with the rules of a Nonsense realm like Confection.

The adventurers are Kade and Christopher, who will be familiar from Every Heart a Doorway, and Nadya and Cora, who are both girls who visited water worlds. Together, they set out with Rini for the Halls of the Dead, to find out where Sumi’s spirit went when she was murdered, and if there is any way to return her to her world so that Rini will still be born. The central perspective belongs to Cora, who was a mermaid in the world she visited, a world where the size of her body made her a strong swimmer, protected from the cold water, and not the object of mockery from her school mates. Body image forms a central issue for this volume.

In reading this installment of the Wayward Children, I was unexpectedly captured by Confection, though I’m more inherently curious about darker worlds like The Moors, and the Halls of the Dead. But the idea of a somewhat internally consistent Nonsense world was really good fun, and McGuire used it to great advantage. For example, no matter how far apart they are, nowhere in Confection is more than a day’s journey from anywhere else, and McGuire is able to use this to keep the novella-length plot tight. Her prose is as beautiful as ever, and I just let myself roll with the absurdity of the adventure, including a visit to the Oven, the heart of Confection. This universe has developed nicely throughout the series, and while this was the last guaranteed volume, I am hopeful that we might yet be able to look forward to more adventures.

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

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.

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

Binti: Home

binti-homeby Nnedi Okorafor

eISBN 978-0-7653-9310-4

“Tribal hatred lived, even in Oomza Uni. And today that hatred, after simmering for a year, was coming to a head.”

Having succeeded in negotiating a tentative peace between the Meduse and Oomza Uni after the attack on the Third Fish transport, Binti and Okwu have settled in as students on the university planet. Binti is supposed to be a master harmonizer, but ever since the attack, she has been experiencing violent mood swings, feeling almost uncontrollable flashes of anger that have convinced her she is unclean. To purge herself, Binti decides it is time to travel home, and make the traditional Himba women’s pilgrimage. But returning to Earth will mean making her first space trip since the attack, and facing up to the consequences of defying tradition when she chose to leave her family behind to attend university.

Binti returns to Earth after a year at Oomza Uni, with Okwu as her travelling companion. Okwu is the first Meduse to ever visit Earth for a peaceful purpose, and their arrival at a Khoush spaceport causes a great stir. This serves to highlight just how tentative the peace with the Meduse is. Over their first year of study, Okwu has been in constant conflict with its human teacher, and Binti has the sense that the fact that war has been forbidden only makes the Meduse want it more. Despite being regarded as a hero at Oomza Uni, her friendship with Okwu has prevented her from making any other close friends there.

Although Nnedi Okorafor begins Home with a fight, for the most part, it is a quieter affair than the first Binti  novella, focusing on interpersonal relationships, including social and familial constructs and traditions. When Binti comes home, she must face the fact that she has disturbed the line of succession in her family, abdicating her place as her father’s heir in the astrolabe business, and also forfeit her position as a woman within Himba society. No man will want to marry her, as her old friend Dele makes abundantly clear, and her family’s emotions are a warring mix of pride in her accomplishments and anger at her abandonment of their way of life.

The most interesting part of Home takes place when Binti makes an unexpected detour to visit the Desert People, known among themselves as the Enyi Zinariya. Binti’s father is descended from them, but this is considered a shameful fact, never spoken of, and Binti is embarrassed by the darker skin and bushier hair she inherited from her father, though her hair has now been replaced by Meduse okuoko. After highlighting the tension between the Khoush and the Himba in Binti, Okorafor takes it a step further here, exploring the people who are looked down upon by the Himba, just as the Khoush look down on them. In making peace with herself after the traumatic events that took place aboard the Third Fish, Binti must confront the part of her heritage she has denied and been taught to be ashamed of.

The character and world-building in Home may be stronger than the action, but the pace picks up in the last five percent of the book, heading towards a cliff-hanger ending that promises a more eventful third installment in the Binti series. Whereas in the first volume, Binti looked out to the stars and dared to imagine a bigger life for herself, here she must come home into order to look within, and reconcile her dreams with her roots. While Binti is beginning to feel a bit more like a serialized novel than stand-alone novellas, I nevertheless look forward to the next volume. The third Binti story is titled The Night Masquerade, and is due out in September 2017.

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Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death

Every Heart a Doorway

Cover image for Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-8550-5

“Hope hurts. That’s what you need to learn, and fast, if you don’t want it to cut you open from the inside out. Hope is bad. Hope means you keep holding on to things that won’t ever be so again, and so you bleed an inch at a time until there’s nothing left.”

A long time ago, a little girl named Ely West found a doorway, and went on an adventure to a Nonsense world, where she was very happy, until one day she was too grown up to tolerate all the nonsense. Now Eleanor West runs a school for other children who have found doorways that led them home, only to be forced back into a mundane world where no one understands what happened to them. No one except Eleanor. The newest student at Eleanor’s school is Nancy Whitman, and she has just returned from the Halls of the Dead. After years spent perfecting the art of stillness for the Lord of the Dead, everything about this world seems too hot, and fast. Her parents insist on things being just like they were before, meaning colourful clothing, regular meals, and dates with boys, even though Nancy has realized she is asexual. So Nancy is sent to Eleanor’s school to recover from her “ordeal,” and there she meets other children who have had the same experiences. But soon after Nancy arrives, someone begins murdering students.

Sean McGuire builds a cast of distinct characters in relatively short order. Like Eleanor, Sumi traveled to a Nonsense world, and this tiny whirl-wind of energy and chatter becomes Nancy’s roommate, contrasting her stillness. Except for twin sisters Jack and Jill, no two children at the school have traveled to the same world. And even Jack and Jill had entirely different experiences on the Moors (their journey will be explored in the 2017 prequel Down Among the Sticks and Bones). Each world is a reflection and extension of the character that traveled there, so that world-building is character development and vice-versa. And McGuire’s premise is very appealing, locating worlds on spectrums between High Nonsense and High Logic, Virtue and Wicked, with perhaps a cross-direction of Rhyme or Mortis, leaving ample room to imagine and explore.

Every Heart a Doorway uses fantasy and portal worlds as an allegory for children who feel like outsiders, constantly out of place. For many, this rejection comes most strongly from their own families, who cannot handle their strange journeys. Even their peers at the school may struggle to understand them if they traveled to a very different world. Most poignant however is Kade, who went through his door as a little girl known as Katie, only to find that neither the Prism world he was drawn into, nor the parents he returned to, could accept that fact that he was really a boy. The children return to their worlds poised on the cusp of adulthood, grappling not only with the loss of the only place they ever felt at home, but also with their own identities in a world that insists on labels. A murder mystery forms the plot arc, but these themes prove to be the true heart of the story.

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

The Ballad of Black Tom

Cover image for The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValleby Victor LaValle

ISBN 978-0-7653-8786-3

“People who move to New York always make the same mistake. They can’t see the place. This is true of Manhattan, but even the outer boroughs, too, be it Flatbush Meadows in Queens or Red Hook in Brooklyn. They come looking for magic, whether evil or good, and nothing will convince them it isn’t here.”

Charles Thomas Tester could be called a scammer, a swindler, a con, or a charlatan. He calls himself an entertainer, and hustles for room and board for himself and his father, a middle-aged man made old by back-breaking labour as a bricklayer. Tommy puts on a good appearance in his second-hand suit, hustling the arcane by skirting the rules without ever breaking them. But when he catches the attention of Robert Suydam, a wealthy, reclusive scholar of ancient traditions, he finds himself in deep with New York’s magical underworld. Human and supernatural forces are descending on Red Hook, and Black Tom is caught in the middle.

In Tommy Tester, Victor LaValle has created a flawed but sympathetic character. Though his profession isn’t strictly legal, Tommy’s motives are understandable, and he tries to stay out of the really deep, dark magic. But the idea of making a quick buck gets the better of him when he meets Robert Suydam, and slowly he is drawn into his orbit. Tommy’s father is an honest man, but one who is perhaps too trusting of a system that worked him to the bone, and left him poor and decrepit. Indeed, the relationship between Tommy and Otis is one of the most interesting parts of the story. Sometimes they are a team, and sometimes they are fundamentally at odds in their principles. Nevertheless, he values his father’s advice, and turns often to him for counsel.

LaValle’s dedication reads “For H.P. Lovecraft, with all my conflicted feelings,” referring to the fact that The Ballad of Black Tom is based on Lovecraft’s short story “The Horror at Red Hook.”  Although he is regarded as a foundational author, as best I can remember, I’ve never read any Lovecraft before. My interests lie more in the realm of science fiction and fantasy than the weird or horror genres, but I decided to request the Oxford University Press Classic Horror Stories from my library to get of sense of his work. I was amply aware that Lovecraft was a eugenicist and a racist, but I don’t think I was quite prepared for the level of vitriol I encountered in “The Horror at Red Hook.” Lovecraft describes the immigrant neighbourhood of Red Hook as a “polyglot abyss” and “a maze of hybrid squalor.” But these xenophobic descriptors have nothing on the descriptions he applies to people of colour, from “swarthy, sin-pitted faces” to “squinting physiognomies” and “a hatefully negroid mouth.” His fiction is so permeated by his racist philosophy that he cannot describe a Black or Asian person with spewing vitriol. As Roger Luckhurst puts it in his introduction to the OUP edition of Lovecraft’s stories, the question of race is “not superficial, but integral to his work.”

In LaValle’s retelling, race is equally integral, but explored entirely differently. Though the story is set in 1924, and LaValle recreates the atmosphere of that time, the issues the story addresses feel remarkably relevant today. Facing hostility and even police inquiry into his presence in a white suburb, Tommy observes “Becoming unremarkable, invisible, compliant—these were useful tricks for a black man in an all-white neighbourhood. Survival techniques.” Perhaps the most chilling scene comes with the raid on Parker Place, which addresses the militarization of the police. “At the sight of the heavy machine guns the whole neighborhood gasped as one. These guns were designed to shoot airplanes out of the sky. Much of the local population had fled countries under siege, in the midst of war, and had not expected to find such artillery used against citizens of the United States.” That these passages feel both modern and historical ought to give us pause about the current state of affairs. Much of the horror of this tale comes not from the supernatural elements borrowed from Lovecraft, but from the human interactions: “Mankind didn’t make messes; mankind was the mess.” To some extent, racism becomes the horror at Red Hook.

Lovecraft’s original story doesn’t seem to be regarded as one of his best, even by his hard core admirers. There are lots of guides for where to start in his large oeuvre, but this story rarely makes the list.  My local library stocks more than a hundred Lovecraft collections, but only four of them include “The Horror at Red Hook.” But Victor LaValle has managed to take a plodding and shockingly racist story, and spin it into a nuanced exploration both of Lovecraft’s continued influence on the horror genre, and its correlation to the continued strain on race relations in America today.

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