Category: Novella

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.

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

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

ISBN 978-0-7653-9203-9

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

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

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

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

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

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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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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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Binti

Cover image for Binti Nnedi Okorafor by Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-8446-1

“We Himba don’t travel. We stay put. Our ancestral land is life; move away from it and you diminish.”

Sixteen-year-old Binti is Himba, from the indigenous peoples of northern Namibia. She is a brilliant mathematician and master harmonizer, destined to take over her father’s astrolabe shop thanks to her masterful manipulation of math current, and her ability to tree. But Binti has been accepted to Oomza University, the top school in the entire Milky Way galaxy. Only five percent of the population is human, and no Himba as ever gone. Binti is prepared to defy tradition, destroy her prospects of marriage, and venture out on her own for the first time in order to fulfill her dream of attending. But the trip to Oomza Uni is dangerous, taking the spaceship within the territory of the Meduse, ancient enemies of the Khoush people of Earth.

This novella covers a lot of ground. In the beginning it is about Binti’s role within her family, and her decision to leave in order to pursue her studies. As she travels from her home to the space port that will take her off-planet for the first time, it becomes more about the conflict and cultural differences that exist between the Himba and the Khoush. But despite these long-standing differences, the Himba are still caught up in the Khoush’s feud with the Meduse, a jellyfish-like alien race that regards humans as evil. Interplanetary relations are just as fraught as the relationships between the different people of Earth. The latest conflict comes about because some of the scholars of Oomza Uni have stolen something of great value from the Meduse, to be placed in their museum and studied. The Meduse regard this as an act of war, and Binti is caught up in the middle.

Coming from a desert place where water is scarce, the Himba use a mix of red clay and essential oils to bathe, known as otjize. More than hair and skin care, it is an important part of Binti’s identity, and also has symbolic value within the story. Waiting in line at the space port, the Khoush women standing behind Binti feel free to touch her hair without asking her permission, and then discuss her otjize as if she cannot hear them. They speculate about whether or not it is made of shit. Binti is defiant when a classmate on the ship to Oomza Uni says he could not help touching her hair, but she obviously also has a complicated relationship with it herself; she confesses that she is not proud of the Desert People blood that comes from her father’s side of the family because that is where her “dark skin and extra-bushy hair come from.” Later on however, her braids help the Meduse relate to her; they see her braids as similar to their tentacle-like appendages, called okuoko. This is but one way that her traditional knowledge serves her where Khoush ways have failed.

Although Binti is a short work, Nnedi Okorafor fits in some fascinating world-building details and cool science. The space ship that travels towards Oomza Uni has a biological exoskeleton, and is powered by the gases absorbed by the ship from the greenhouse inside. However, a big part of the plot does rely heavily on a mysterious, ancient device called an edan, which serves multiple functions with little explanation. Binti found the object in the desert near her home, and carries it as a sort of good luck charm, but does not know what it is made of, or its original purpose.

Binti is novella length, and the brevity involves a couple of skips and jumps that are a little jarring. I also wanted to know more about math current and especially the mysterious edan that enables so much of the plot. However, I do know that I have a bit of a bias towards novel length works, as I really like things to be well developed, so others may find this to be less of a problem for their reading experience. I’ve been meaning to read Okorafor for a while, and this does leave me eager to dig into one of her novels. Okorafor has also said she is “not through writing about her or her world,” and Tor has just announced the acquisition of two more Binti stories, including one that will take her home to confront her family. I look forward to seeing how this world develops.

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Wings of Sorrow and Bone

Cover image for Wings of Sorrow and Boneby Beth Cato

ISBN 9780062411266

Disclaimer: While I have previously received free copies of Cato’s works through the Harper Voyager Super Reader program, I purchased my own copy of this title.

“For a dead man, he was still terribly loud in her memory.”

Having escaped the clutches of her abusive father with the help of Octavia Leander in the events of The Clockwork Crown, Rivka finds herself trying to start a new life in Tamarania under the watchful eye of her grandmother, the formidable Mrs. Viola Stout. Rivka dreams of designing and constructing mechanical devices, but her lack of formal education, folksy Caskentian accent, and cleft palate all make it extremely unlikely that she will find an appropriate apprenticeship in Tamarania. When she wheedles her way into the workshop of the wealthy and powerful Mr. Cody, she hopes to find a way to gain some knowledge and work experience as a machinist, but instead she discovers that Cody’s famous chimeras are the result of a brutal and inhumane process that causes terrible suffering. Forming an uneasy alliance with Alonzo Garrett’s manipulative sister, Tatiana, the two girls attempt to square their career ambitions with the unsavoury work going on in Cody’s laboratory.

Wings of Sorrow and Bone is a novella set in the world of Beth Cato’s Clockwork Dagger books. It takes place after the fact, but can be read alone, though there are some spoilers for the events of the preceding novels; Cato struggles a bit to strike the right balance between bringing new readers into an existing world, and telling a new story.  Two minor characters from the main duology—Viola Stout’s granddaughter, Rivka, and Alonzo Garrett’s sister, Tatiana—assume the roles of protagonists, becoming further fleshed out in the process. Wings of Sorrow and Bone has no romantic subplot, and focuses largely on the career aspirations and tentative friendship of two teenage girls, both of which are challenged when the girls encounter some of the darker realities of the professional world they hope to enter into. Mrs. Stout serves as a mentor and ally, but largely remains on the sidelines as the two girls try to find their way.

The world Cato developed in the Clockwork Dagger duology blends magic and science in unique and imaginative ways, but Wings of Sorrow and Bone deals with one of the more disturbing applications of this unusual mix. In Tamarania, a nation that largely reveres science and disdains magic, the politician Mr. Cody combines the two to create chimeras, unnatural creatures forged together from mechanical components and living parts taken from gremlins. The chimeras then fight in an arena, serving as a popular form of entertainment. Since gremlins are largely regarded as pests, no one protests this misuse. In The Clockwork Crown, protagonists Octavia and Alonzo become unwillingly complicit in this outrage when Alonzo bargains his piloting skills for a favour from Mr. Cody. However, dealing with it lies outside the scope of their main mission, and Cody’s depredations continue on. This, then, is social science fiction in the old tradition, using a fantasy world as an allegory for real-life ills, in this case, animal rights abuses. It falls to Rivka, Tatiana, and Mrs. Stout to try to find a way to put a stop to the work of a rich and powerful man, whose inventions are popular form of mass entertainment. Given Cody’s relative power, and the short length of this novella, I didn’t see how Cato was going to bring this plotline off in a believable fashion, but she manages it with astonishing aplomb, and a nod to one of my favourite childhood books, no less.

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The Strange Library

Cover image for The Strange Library by Haruki Murakamiby Haruki Murakami

Translated by Ted Goossen

ISBN 978-0-385-35430-1

“Our worlds are all jumbled together—your world, my world, the sheep man’s world. Sometimes they overlap and sometimes they don’t.”

A boy visits the library on his way home after school to return his books and pick up some new reading material. A librarian he doesn’t recognize refers him down to the basement, where his curiosity and quest for knowledge about tax collection in the Ottoman Empire land him in hot water. Entrapped in the “Reading Room” by a bald old man who plans to fatten up his brains with knowledge before eating them, the boy must find a way to lull his jailor into complacency, and escape without leaving behind the sheep man or the mute girl who are also locked in the labyrinth beneath the library.

Libraries are a recurring theme in Haruki Murakami’s fiction, but rarely are they the benign institutions we are familiar with. They tend to have a certain power, but also a certain darkness. In The Strange Library, the sheep man gives voice to what may be the source of both the power and the suspicion Murakami imbues them with: “If all they did was lend out knowledge for free, what would be the payoff for them?” From this cynicism, Murakami spins a dark and phantasmagoric tale of entrapment and escape. Narrated in a simple, straightforward style that counterpoints the bizarre events, The Strange Library is surreal in the manner of a dream or, in this case, a nightmare. The strangeness goes mostly unremarked within the story and indeed seems almost natural, but when you try to explain it to someone else it sounds completely nonsensical.

This book was first published in Japan in 2005, but is being released in English for the first time, with art direction and design by Chip Kidd who has fashioned it with more attention to form than function. (NB: The edition being published in the UK by Harvill Secker has a different design). Two overlapping cover flaps open up and down, while the pages inside open left to right as usual. The cover flaps need to be folded back and held behind the book while reading, making this slim, trade-sized volume surprisingly ungainly. The text is bulked out with grainy illustrations, and though the chapters are numbered, the pages are not. While the design is interesting, it makes the book somewhat awkward to read. The final paragraph of the book is easy to miss, centered alone on the final page of the book in much smaller type than the rest of the text.  A lot has gone into the visual design of the book, but the attention is more to aesthetics than utility.

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Also by Haruki Murakami:

Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage