Category: Speculative Fiction

Romanov

Cover image for Romanov by Nadine Brandesby Nadine Brandes

ISBN 9780785217244

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

“After Rasputin, the people grew too suspicious of spell masters, convinced they could control minds. So the revolution began—forcing Papa off the throne and hunting down spell masters, one by one.”

When the Romanov family is transported from exile in Tobolsk to a new prison in Ekaterinburg, Anastasia “Nastya” Romanov is entrusted by her father, the deposed tsar, with a family heirloom which she must hide from the Bolsheviks at all costs. The magical Matryoshka doll was made by the great spell master Dochkin, and may hold the key to saving the Romanovs, as well as preventing Dochkin from being forcibly recruited into the Red Army, or murdered. But Commandant Yurovsky will stop at nothing to find the legendary spell master, and only one of his artefacts can uncover his secret hiding place. In Ekaterinburg, the days count down steadily towards July 16, 1918, as the Romanovs try to win over their captors, and live in hope of rescue by the White Army.

Nadine Brandes introduces a magical twist into the ever-popular story of the Romanov princesses and their grisly fate. Grigori Rasputin is an off-page character, blamed for much, the catalyst for many events, but never actually seen. However, he is not the only magician in this story. Thanks to his actions, Russia has turned on all its spell masters, demanding that they serve the state, or die. Spell work has been responsible for keeping Tsarevich Alexei alive despite his hemophilia, but at a terrible price. Nastya herself dreams of becoming a spell master, but with Rasputin gone, there is no one to teach her, and the only spell she knows will ease her brother’s pain, but not heal his injuries. Brandes does an excellent job of imagining and depicting relationships within the family, and especially the interactions between siblings, though she mainly focuses on Maria, Anastasia, and Alexei.

Brandes includes two romantic subplots for the Romanov sisters in captivity; Maria falls for a Bolshevik soldier named Ivan, while Nastya tries to keep at bay growing feelings for his secretive comrade, Zash. The tension in the romance between Ivan and Maria felt a little bit more fraught, so when I got to the “What’s True” section at the end of the book, I was not terribly surprised to discover that Maria’s flirtation with Ivan was based on true events, while Zash is wholly imaginary character, invented for his instrumental role in the second half of the story.

For the most part, the first half of the book, which takes place before the fateful night of July 16, hews closely to the history of what we know about the Romanov’s captivity, with a few magical and romantic twists. However, nearly half the books takes place after that night, and it is here that Brandes gallops off into the realm of pure fantasy, with mixed results. Part of the romance of the Romanov survival myth in imagining what came next, and the reader’s enjoyment of the latter part of the story will likely hinge on how well Brandes’ vision accords with their own ideas.

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Winds of Marque

Cover image for Winds of Marque by Bennett R. Coles by Bennett R. Coles

ISBN 978-0-06-282035-8

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

 “He was a nobleman, and they were notorious for charming young sailors all the way to heartbreak. He was also the executive officer of this ship. The Navy had no formal ban on relationships within a crew—centuries of space travel had proven the impossibility of stopping people in isolated, close quarters from seeking each other out—but when it crossed ranks there was always the risk of trouble.”

When Executive Officer Liam Blackwood’s ship is put into refit by a reckless space race ordered by his aristocrat Captain, the XO is on the lookout for a new commission when he is approached by Lord Grandview and Lady Riverton. With the quiet blessing of the Emperor, Grandview is ordering an undercover mission to investigate the increasing pirate activity that is threatening the Empire’s trade, and which could compromise the Navy’s supply lines if war with the Sectoids was declared. Fresh from the diplomatic corps, Captain Riverton will need an experienced second-in-command to help lead HMSS Daring’s crew as they develop their façade as a trading vessel, gather intelligence about the pirate threat, and pay their crew with a letter of marque that allows them to seize the pirated cargoes. Blackwood knows just the woman to serve as Quartermaster for such an unusual arrangement, but recruiting her means facing up to his growing feelings for Petty Officer Amelia Virtue.

Bennett R. Coles bends his degree in naval history and fifteen years’ experience in the Royal Canadian Navy to fantastical ends, creating a space Navy that sails on the solar winds, and patrols a vast Empire ruled by a distant Emperor on the home world. Social class clashes with naval rank, creating a complex hierarchy to be negotiated aboard every ship. Having just quietly undermined his previous Captain to ensure that HMSS Renaissance was only damaged and not destroyed by the race to Passagia II, Subcommander Blackwood, who feels he has earned his rank by competence rather than birth, is understandably wary of the cold and aristocratic Sophia Riverton, who likes to play her cards close to the chest. Shipboard relations on Daring are further complicated by the presence of Cadet Highcastle, a high-ranking and cocksure young nobleman who is taking his maiden voyage before heading to the Naval Academy for formal study.

In many ways, Blackwood is just as cocksure as the other nobles he likes to look down his nose at, if perhaps slightly less reckless. While he thinks highly of himself and his abilities, the people around him are constantly having to wake him up to his status, which he easily loses sight of when he gets focused on his own competence. For instance, the crew is being paid in prize money, and if they seize nothing, they get paid nothing. It takes a conversation with his friend Lieutenant Swift to remind him that “what would be a useful sum of money to him would be life-changing for his propulsion officer’s entire family.” His relationship with Amelia is also complicated by the fact that she is a low-ranking officer of common birth, newly promoted to her station. When he is angry with her for an entanglement with Highcastle, it is up to her to risk his wrath and remind him that naval justice would undoubtedly fall short if she were to raise a grievance against a noble-born officer. When he tries to tell her it has nothing to do with rank or title, she responds, “you just don’t see it because you wield both with such unconscious familiarity. Do you really think Lord Highcastle would be punished if he raped a sailor? Do you think you would?” The prospect of a romance between Virtue and Blackwood is fraught by class and rank, and I was not strongly invested in seeing such a dynamic develop.

While Blackwood is portrayed as competent and experienced, I was more interested in Virtue and Riverton. Though Riverton has more experience as a diplomat than a military commander, it was clear from the beginning that she was thinking about the bigger picture in a way that Blackwood was not, and I was rooting for her to find her feet as a commander and realize her vision in a way that I was not engaged by Blackwood as a character. For his part, Blackwood never seems to consider that as Captain, she might have information he is not privy to. I was similarly interested by Amelia, who is figuring out her new role as an officer rather than a common sailor. When we see Amelia from Liam’s point of view, it is often intended to be admiring, yet somehow manages to come off as a bit condescending: “Liam was disgusted at how these men so completely objectified Virtue, but actually found himself admiring how nonchalantly she handled them. It was both painful and fascinating to watch.” Captain Riverton, for her part, easily sees Blackwood’s feelings for Amelia, and is rightfully protective of her. Winds of Marque is clearly set up for a series, and I would be most interested to see how things develop between Sophia and Amelia as they gain in mutual respect and understanding.

You might also like: Arabella of Mars by David D. Levine

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.

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Polaris Rising

Cover image for Polaris Rising by Jessie Mihalik by Jessie Mihalik

ISBN 978-0-06-280238-5

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

“My reckless side, the side that had prompted me to run away from home rather than marry a practical stranger for political power, that side knew I would land on the planet. I had to know if my hunch was correct.”

For two years, Ada von Hasenberg has been on the run from her family, one of the three High Houses of the Royal Consortium that rules the universe. But her luck has finally run short, and when she is captured by bounty hunters, she knows that if she doesn’t escape, she will finally have to return home and make a political marriage of her parents’ choosing. As the fifth of six children, that is really all she is good for to House von Hasenberg. Then she is locked in a cell with Marcus Loch, the criminal better known as the Devil of Fornax Zero, an ex-soldier who reportedly slaughtered his own unit before going on the run. They are two of the most wanted people in the universe, with a fortune in bounties on their heads, but perhaps together they will have what it takes to escape.

The protagonist, Ada, was by far my favourite part of Polaris Rising. Despite her highly political upbringing, she is smart, but not cold, and tough but not bloodthirsty. She can fight, but it isn’t her preferred way of doing business. She takes everything her House taught her with the intention of using it to make her into a spy in a political marriage, and instead turns it towards pursuing her freedom. She did, however, read as somewhat older than the twenty-three the author pegs her at. She acknowledges her chemistry with Loch, but doesn’t fancy herself in love, though she is worried by the fact that she could be.

The love interest, Loch, on the other hand, I could take or leave. He is, in the romance parlance, an alpha, and I don’t tend to enjoy the jealousy and posturing that comes with that type. I found it pretty hard to warm to him any further after he called Ada a bitch in their first real argument. Jessie Mihalik softens him in other ways, such as repeated use of enthusiastic consent, but I was still fairly indifferent overall. Your mileage may vary!

Polaris Rising sits at the intersection of science fiction adventure and romance, and probably requires a reader who enjoys both of these genres. There is too much world-building and adventure for someone who is just in it for the romance, and too many romance tropes for someone who is just in it for the science fiction. This includes such contrivances as getting the hero and the heroine in bed together by the necessity of warming one another up after escaping across an icy planet. But the adventure includes a good mystery, as Ada tries to figure out why Richard Rockhurst, a younger son of one of the other High Houses, is suddenly so desperate to marry her, and get his hands on her dowry.

One of the aspects I enjoyed most about Polaris Rising was Ada’s relationship with her siblings, though we only see her substantially interact with her sister, Bianca, and in passing with Bianca’s twin brother. Instead of opting for a fierce or bitter sibling rivalry driven by the political maneuvering of the High Houses, Mihalik instead opts to depict a tight, supportive bond. When their parents try to pit them against one another the von Hasenberg siblings only draw closer, guarding one another’s backs. A second volume is due out later this year, which will follow the adventures of Ada’s widowed sister, Bianca, and House von Hasenberg’s mysterious head of security, Ian.

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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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