Category: Speculative Fiction

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.

___

You might also like Binti by Nnedi Okorafor

More Happy Than Not

Cover image for More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera by Adam Silvera

ISBN 978-1-61695-561-8

“My worlds collided and I can’t get up.”

Sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto has been struggling since his father’s suicide, a downward spiral that culminated in a suicide attempt of his own, as the smile-shaped scar on his wrist constantly reminds him. Neither his overworked mother, nor his video-game obsessed older brother are able to offer much in the way of support, but Aaron is trying to get back to normal, a little bit at a time. When his girlfriend Genevieve leaves to spend three weeks at a summer art camp in New Orleans, Aaron begins hanging out with Thomas, a kid from the next block who is a little less rough and tumble than the friends Aaron grew up with. Soon their fast friendship is stirring up tensions with Aaron’s old crowd, and even Genevieve seems a little jealous when she returns home. As Aaron’s feelings for Thomas spiral out of control, he becomes obsessed with the idea of undergoing the Leteo procedure—a new medical technique that might be able to make him forget that he ever liked a boy.

Occasionally you run across a book that is best read with as little foreknowledge as possible, with The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf being my most recent example. While I had heard a lot of hype about how good this book was, I had somehow managed to absorb almost nothing about the plot, and I think that was for the better as far as my reading experience with More Happy Than Not. So if you are already planning to read it, just go do it! You can read reviews later. If you still need convincing, read on.

More Happy Than Not is a largely contemporary novel with a slight speculative fiction twist. Almost everything about Aaron’s world is recognizable as modern day New York. The exception is the Leteo procedure, a controversial new neurological technique that allows doctors to erase memories. When the novel opens, Aaron’s neighbourhood is abuzz with the rumour that Kyle and his family have moved away because Kyle had the Leteo procedure in order to forget about the murder of his twin brother, Kenneth. Despite this sci-fi twist, the focus is largely on identity and human relationships, and Aaron’s growing curiosity about the Leteo procedure is mostly a narrative device that allows Silvera to delve into the conflict surrounding his sexuality. When is it humane to allow someone to forget a terrible experience? What role does experience play in identity if it can simply be overwritten?

More Happy Than Not is an emotional rollercoaster of a book. Silvera does a good job of developing the connection between Aaron and Genevieve in the early chapters, so it is genuinely heartbreaking to see them beginning to come apart when Aaron starts to fall for Thomas. Aaron’s family relationships are less than stellar, and his childhood friends are deeply homophobic, leaving him isolated and depressed, grasping after the hope of a miracle cure that will make it all go away. Aaron struggles to even say the word gay—eventually opting for “dude-liker” instead—so it is perhaps not surprising that bisexuality is never considered, let alone discussed. The style develops in accordance with Aaron’s level of happiness and self-understanding, bumping along with an artful unevenness that neatly conveys his inner turmoil. While dark enough that I would not necessarily recommend this book for everyone—it deals heavily with both homophobia and suicide—it is nevertheless a powerful expression of what it means to come of age in an environment that is hostile to your very identity.

Scythe

Cover image for Scythe by Neal Shusterman by Neal Shusterman

ISBN 978-1-4424-7242-6

“She wanted to believe she wasn’t capable of it. She desperately wanted to believe she wasn’t Scythe material. It was the first time in her life that she aspired to fail.”

It has been three hundred years since humanity turned the corner, leaving behind the Age of Mortality. With the arrival of infinite computing power, a benevolent AI known as the Thunderhead emerged to rule this new deathless society. But although accidental death is a thing of the past, humanity still lives on a single finite planet, and so population growth must be limited. This task was deemed to require a human conscience, not to be entrusted to a computer, and so the Scythedom was born. Citra and Rowan have been selected to apprentice to Scythe Faraday, a job that neither of them wants. But there is corruption at the heart of Scythedom, and the Thunderhead is powerless to intervene. Reform must come from within.

There are a lot of practical world-building questions that can be raised about Scythe. How, for example, has humanity advanced so far as to be able to reverse the aging process, but been unable to master space travel, or some other method of supporting an increasing population? And if it is necessary to limit the population, why kill people in often gruesome ways to achieve that end? If you are the nit-picking type, you will probably have a hard time accepting the basic premise of this novel and some of the devices. But if you can achieve the necessary willing suspension of disbelief, you are in for a twisty and thought-provoking adventure that continually ups the stakes.

The main narrative focuses on Citra and Rowan, who are real teenagers who have yet to turn a corner to reset themselves back to youth. They have a limited idea of what life was like in the Mortal Age. Even with the existence of Scythes, they had to give very little thought to death and dying until they were called to perform the task. Interspersed with their perspectives are journal entries from the mandatory gleaning journal of the Honorable Scythe Curie, who is often known as the Grand Dame of Death. Her age and experience interject the perspective that Rowan and Citra lack, providing context to the events of their yearlong apprenticeship. We also get the occasional glimpse into the mind of Scythe Goddard, the main antagonist, who is simultaneously realistic and yet a bit one dimensional.

Scythe depicts a futuristic society with a vastly changed relationship to death and violence. Someone who is accidentally killed is not dead, but deadish, since only Scythes have the authority to take life; no one else can kill you, and you may not kill yourself. One mandatory trip the revival centre later, the deadish person will be back on their feet within a week. The resulting changes are quietly disturbing. Since actual suicide leads to mandatory revival, it has largely passed from memory, but attempting suicide has become a grisly form of entertainment. Rowan’s best friend Tyger is a splatter—someone who deliberately gets deadish by jumping off of buildings. The boredom of immortality is a common trope in vampire fiction, but it is less commonly explored in relation to humanity as a whole.

Due to the non-interference built into the Thunderhead, which rules everything else about this world except death, Scythes have almost unlimited discretionary power. They operate within a quota set for the year by their conclave, but they are free to choose who they will glean and their method of killing. Bias in their selections—such as by race, though almost everyone is mixed race—earns a mild reprimand at best from the conclave. They also have the discretion to grant a year of immunity from gleaning to anyone they choose, though it is customary to offer it to the families of those who have been gleaned, as well as to the families of Scythes and their apprentices, for as long as the Scythes serve. This nearly unbounded power and terrible responsibility has naturally created an order that is isolated from normal people, and sinking further into corruption as the centuries pass. A schism has occurred between the traditional Scythes, and revolutionaries who want to remove the few checks and balances that are in place.

Scythe begins a series, so while it stands alone quite well, there are certainly more issues to explore and questions to be answered. The lines of good and evil are quite starkly drawn here, but there is room to go deeper. Scythe Faraday, for example, is depicted as being part of the traditional group of Scythes who conduct their duties with care and honour, yet he gives some people deaths that are painful, and fill his quotas by mimicking the death statistics of the Age of Mortality. He and Rowan meet when Faraday gleans one of his teenage classmates, a selection that is intended to imitate a drunk driving death from before the turn. In the Age of Immortality, what reason is there for everyone not to have the chance for at least one full life before they face gleaning? Or is gleaning really necessary at all? It will be interesting to see how the morality of this thought-provoking series evolves.

Canada Reads Along: Fifteen Dogs

Cover image for Fifteen Dogs by André Alexisby André Alexis

ISBN 978-1-55245-305-6

“Perfect understanding between beings is no guarantor of happiness. To perfectly understand another’s madness, for instance, is to be mad oneself. The veil that separates earthly beings is, at times, a tragic barrier, but it is also, at times, a great kindness.”

In a Toronto tavern, the gods Apollo and Hermes strike a bet. When Hermes wonders what it would be like if animals had human intelligence, his brother Apollo wagers a year’s servitude that the animals—any animals Hermes would like—would be unhappier than humans if given human intelligence. The wager is struck, and fifteen dogs in a nearby animal shelter suddenly gain human consciousness—all while still in possession of their canine urges and instincts. As they develop a new language to convey their transformed understanding of the world, the pack becomes divided between those who embrace the new way of thinking and communicating, and those who wish to resist change at all costs. The gods watch—and occasionally interfere—as the dogs try to navigate this abrupt transition. But will any of them die happy?

Fifteen Dogs is an apologue, which is a fancy term for a fable, of which the beast fable is the most common type. Here the twist is that the dogs aren’t just unquestioned allegories for humans, but literal dogs given human intelligence by outside intervention. The distance—or lack thereof—between the two is what drives home the point. We are reminded that humans, too, have baser instincts and urges. It is a sort of defamiliarization that gives us just enough distance from our own nature and behaviour that we are able to see it with fresh eyes. The events of Fifteen Dogs can be rather brutal, and yet this clever devoice only serves to amplify that fact of our nature, lending the story additional poignancy.

Although we begin with fifteen dogs, the story quickly narrows to focus on three: Majnoun, Benjy, and Prince. Majnoun and Prince both depart the pack when the leader, Atticus, decides that the dogs will no longer use their new language, and will instead try to live as if the change never took place. This makes for an interesting allegory about traditionalist thinking and anti-intellectualism. Prince in particular is ousted due to his invention of canine poetry, which several of the other dogs find disturbing. However, most of the story follows Majnoun as he joins a human family, and forges an unusual bond with Nira, who knows he possesses human intelligence, and her husband Miguel, who refuses to acknowledge that fact. All but one of the female dogs are killed by page 35, and Nira is the most significant female character in the story. The dogs continue to refer to the females as bitches, a fact that becomes increasingly uncomfortable after they gain human intelligence. The ousting of the female perspective is noteworthy, even if it could potentially be intended as a commentary on human nature.

Fifteen Dogs was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by YouTube star and spoken word artist Humble the Poet. The theme for this year’s program was “the one book Canada needs now.” The other candidates chose to highlight specific issues, from the plight of Indigenous women, to climate change, to the consequences of technology, and Humble differentiated Fifteen Dogs from the other books in his defence by arguing that it helps us understand all of these issues by giving readers a deeper understanding of our fundamental human nature, which is the root of all of our other problems. Humble described the book as both timeless and current in his opening remarks, and he returned to this point repeatedly throughout the week.

Over the course of the week, many of the panelists discussed whether or not they were dog people, and whether that affected their reading of the book. For some, it helped them relate to the story, while others found it alienating. However, the best point in this regard was not raised by a panelist, but by an audience member in the Q&A after the show. She pointed out how different the impact of this book would be if it was Fifteen Chickens or Fifteen Cows. Indeed, the close relationship humans enjoy with dogs is precisely what makes the allegory so effective, as the panelists readily acknowledged.

Candy Palmater repeatedly tried to raise questions about the fact that almost all of the female dogs die early in the book, with Chantal Kreviazuk seconding this perspective. When Palmater tried to bring it up again during another question on the final day of debate, host Ali Hassan redirected, promising that they would get to that later, but it was not substantially addressed, as Humble always avoided the issue by pointing to Nira. It was especially frustrating to see this line of questioning downplayed after The Break was ousted on the first day, largely based on Brueggergosman’s argument that it lacked redeemable male characters. Author André Alexis did speak about it later, on q with Tom Powers, but it did not inform the debate. Alexis also highlighted Nira as the most sympathetic character, the one who has to overcome her own prejudice to accept Majnoun as an intelligent being. However, he admits that he did miss out on the opportunity to explore Rosie’s perspective as the only surviving female dog. I was very happy to hear him acknowledge this, after Humble danced around it all week.

It was suggested a couple times over the course of the week that, because Fifteen Dogs had already won the Giller Prize as well as the Writers Trust Fiction Prize, that Canada Reads should take the opportunity to highlight a different voice. (Interestingly, this is the only book from the short-list that I already owned before the contenders were announced.) Both Brueggergosman and Kreviazuk brought this up, and Brueggergosman made it the core of her closing remarks as she defended Company Town in the finale. Though it received some criticism over the course of the week, prior to the finale, Jody Mitic was the only person who actually cast a vote against Fifteen Dogs, on day two. Candy Palmater had originally planned to vote against it on day one, but changed her mind to cast a strategic vote in an attempt to save The Break. When it came down to the final vote, however, all of the free agents chose to vote against Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs the winner of Canada Reads 2017.

___

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Company Town

Cover image for Company Town by Madeline Ashbyby Madeline Ashby

ISBN 978-0-7653-8290

“Choice had little to do with it. Money was the thing. When you had no money, you had no choice. But there was no use explaining that to a man like Zachariah Lynch.”

On an oil rig off the coast of Newfoundland, Hwa is one of the few entirely biological humans, unaugmented by technology or genetic tailoring. Hwa works as a bodyguard for the sex workers’ union, but when the rig is bought out by the Lynch family, she is hired to protect the patriarch’s son and heir, fifteen-year-old Joel. Hwa’s lack of augmentation means that she is not vulnerable to hacking, but the medical condition that led her mother to write her off as not worth the cost of the augmentation procedures leaves her vulnerable to seizures. But the fact that she cannot be hacked is valuable to the Lynch family, because Joel has been receiving high-tech death threats suggesting he will be killed before his next birthday. However, as Hwa’s involvement with the Lynch Company grows, the women she used to work with begin turning up dead in a gruesome series of murders.

Company Town is a page-turning sci-fi adventure set in a future that is a cautionary tale about technologies from resource extraction to genetic editing. With such a detailed and fully realized futuristic setting, it is no surprise to learn that Ashby works as a professional futurist, helping companies with strategic foresight, imagining both optimistic outcomes and worst-case scenarios. The concepts and ideas she incorporates range from the already-viable to more theoretical concepts, such as the fact that the death threats against Joel appear to be coming from the future. Company Town is also a gritty noir mystery; after Hwa leaves her old job, someone begins targeting the women she used to protect, and Hwa is determined to figure out how these brutal killings relate to her new employers.

Though Hwa is an entirely biological human, it is important to note that this is a matter of circumstance rather than a principled stand against augmentation. Hwa’s mother is abusive, particularly about her daughter’s appearance. One of the symptoms Sturge-Weber syndrome—which causes Hwa’s seizures—is a prominent facial birthmark. Sunny never wanted to waste money on her ugly daughter, and even as an adult, Hwa is still very poor. Her job with the Lynches represents her first experience with financial security, and she remains cautious about spending any of that windfall as she tentatively steps into her new role. Hwa begins to come to terms with this for the first time over the course of the story, but unfortunately the choice is ultimately taken from her, and she once again has to live with the consequences of what others have decided for her. I had mixed feelings about this turn of events; on the one hand, Hwa deserved to receive medical treatment for her condition, rather than having to live in fear of seizures and other serious complications. But the miraculous erasure of disability in speculative fiction is a problematic trope, and the fact that she didn’t consent further muddied the waters.

Company Town was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by opera singer Measha Brueggergosman, who stepped in after the original defender, Tamara Taylor, had to bow out. Brueggergosman is a two-time panelist who previously defended The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro in 2004. Brueggergosman highlighted the way the novel smoothly combined a fast-paced plot with conceptual elements that raise important issues such as resource depletion and rights for sex workers. She also had to defend against two main issues raised by the other panelists, who tended to agree that the book was entertaining, but perhaps lacking in substance. A number of questions were also raised about the ending, which involves a romance, and a loss of free choice on Hwa’s part.

[Spoilers! This paragraph discusses the ending of the book, and the panelists’ reactions to it in detail. You are forewarned.] Over the course of the week, the ending of Company Town was brought up several times. After initially being very invested in the book, Candy Palmater related how the ending lost her when Hwa’s condition was cured by having unprotected sex with Daniel, who is her supervisor at the Lynch Company. Daniel unknowingly infects her with nanobots, which go to work repairing her condition without her knowledge or consent. Brueggergosman related that Ashby’s intention was to challenge the notion of the “pure” heroine and reward Hwa for daring to be vulnerable and explore her feelings for Daniel, and then become intimate with him, but the issue continued to come up throughout the debates. For many of the panelists, this turn of events undermined Hwa’s otherwise strong character.

In her final plea, Brueggergosman asked her fellow panelists to considering elevating a new and exciting voice in Canadian fiction, rather than delivering another accolade to an already well-decorated text. This is a strategy panelists also tried, unsuccessfully, to use against Lawrence Hill’s The Illegal in Canada Reads 2016, arguing that he had already won Canada Reads in the past. With the exception of Brueggergosman, the panelists unanimously voted to eliminate Company Town, making Fifteen Dogs by André Alexis the winner of Canada Reads 2017. Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner!

___

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2017? Start here with The Break by Katherena Vermette

Canada Reads Along: Nostalgia

Cover image for Nostalgia by M.G. Vassanjiby M. G. Vassanji

ISBN 978-0-385-6617-3

“But now I have this strange feeling that I myself don’t belong. The world is not mine anymore. I who implanted idyllic fictions am a fiction myself and that fiction is falling apart.”

In a future where the wealthy can afford to extend their youth, patients sometimes live multiple lives, having their memories erased and replaced in order to take on new identities. Dr. Frank Sina specializes in treating patients who are suffering from Leaked Memory Syndrome, more commonly known as Nostalgia. These patients are experiencing breakthrough memories from their past lives, a precursor to a potentially serious breakdown. When Presley Smith arrives in Dr. Sina’s office, he has been repeatedly hearing the phrase “it’s midnight, the lion is out” running through his mind. Dr. Sina becomes fascinated and then obsessed with this case, even after Presley declines treatment and then disappears. Dr. Sina continues to investigate, but soon the government comes knocking at his door. By law, most patients have all records of their past lives deleted, but it seems that Presley was an exception, either a criminal, a terrorist, or an immigrant from the other side of the Long Border who has been assimilated. But despite this warning, there is something about the case that Dr. Sina cannot let go, even when it threatens to unravel his own carefully constructed life.

Despite being at the heart of the mystery, Presley Smith is relatively uninteresting as a character. Dr. Sina is caught by the case, but for the reader, there is nothing about Presley to particularly pique curiosity. He seems unremarkable, and more like a plot device pushing the story forward than an individual character until relatively late in the book when his past life is eventually revealed. Before that, he is mostly the spur that causes Frank to begin questioning his place in this society he has helped to build. The more he investigates Presley’s case, the more Frank questions his job, his relationship, and his beliefs. Presley’s unraveling is the trigger, but it is Frank’s coming undone that is centered. Stylistically, Nostalgia is part literary, part sci-fi, part noirish mystery. Vassanji maintains his ponderous literary writing style, with a sci-fi premise, and a slowly unraveling mystery at the heart of the narrative

Like Presley, Dr. Sina’s girlfriend, Joanie, doesn’t feel like a real, fully fledged person. She is a G0, or a Baby, a real young person who has never been reborn into a new life. She lives with Frank, but he is fully aware that she is stepping out with another, probably younger, man on the side. She is a foil to Frank’s rejuvenated state, and an embodiment of the intergenerational divide. This is something that is already present in a way in our own world, but it is magnified in Vassanji’s imagination by the fact that the longer lives of the wealthy “rejuvies” mean that 30% of young people are unemployed, and resentful of the fact that older people refuse to step aside to provide opportunities for the next generation.

Nostalgia depicts a world that is divided between rich and poor, North and South. The Long Border is a literal construction in this world, a barrier that divides the developed North Atlantic region from poor, war-torn areas, except for the occasional carefully orchestrated tourism trip. The South is ravaged by hunger, disease, and radiation, and its residents frequently attempt the dangerous crossing. This fictional physical barrier embodies a figurative divide that already exists in our world and is worsening as the refugee crisis continues to grow. In that respect, Nostalgia feels very real and timely. Although Vassanji spent more than ten years writing the book, it looms large today as the new American administration proposes to build a wall along the Mexican border.

Nostalgia was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by Canadian military veteran and current Ottawa city council member Jody Mitic. All of the remaining books received at least one vote for elimination during the second day. The deciding factor against Nostalgia was not clear, but Candy Palmater noted that the book was very male dominated, and Chantal Kreviazuk observed that the narrative was too personal to Dr. Frank. When it was time to cast the ballots, Humble the Poet voted against Company Town, Measha Breuggergosman voted to eliminate The Right to be Cold, and Jody Mitic cast his vote against Fifteen Dogs. Chantal Kreviazuk voted against Nostalgia, and so the final vote went to Candy Palmater—the first free agent after her book, The Break, was eliminated yesterday. Her vote made Nostalgia the second book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2017.

___

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along? Check out my review and recap of The Break by Katherena Vermette.

The Cursed Queen (The Impostor Queen #2)

by Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4193-3

“Thyra is not an eager fighter like I am, but when she commits, she is a thing of absolute, cutting beauty, and I hunger for the sight.”

Taken as a raid prize as a child, and passed from tribe to tribe, Ansa has no idea of her origins, but she has made a place for herself among the Krigere, earning her rank as a warrior with blood and plunder. She is loyal to her chieftain, Lars, and most of all, to his daughter and heir, Thyra. Spurred by the victory Lars’ brother has won over the city of Vasterut, the Krigere set their eyes on crossing the Torden to conquer Kupari. No one truly believed the Kupari witch queen was anything other than a myth until she called down the storm that destroyed the Krigere fleet. Ansa and Thyra are among the few survivors, and Thyra will need Ansa more than ever as she fights to unite the Krigere under her leadership, even as she must convince them that they will need to change their way of life in order to survive. But with her dying breath, the witch queen cursed Ansa with ice and fire that threaten to devour her, or turn her into a weapon against the people she has claimed as her own. Her loyalty will be tested at every turn as she tries to control the curse or find a way to rid herself of it forever.

Sarah Fine’s companion novel to The Imposter Queen largely takes place simultaneous to the events in the first volume. The first three-quarters of the book retreads the same timeline, from the battle on the Motherlake/Torden and through to the fight for the Temple on the Rock. The last hundred pages of The Cursed Queen continues on past the end of the first book to set Elli and Ansa on a collision course. Known as the Soturi to the Kupari people in The Imposter Queen, they call themselves the Krigere. They largely appear as a typical invading barbarian race in the first novel, but here Sarah Fine takes the unusual step of turning to their perspective for the second installment in her series. The Krigere are divided into two groups; the warriors and the andeners. The warriors are the leaders, and they protect the andeners and go out raiding to provide for those under their care. The andeners in turn supply the warriors, crafting and repairing weapons, maintaining the camp, and caring for the children while the warriors are away raiding. Each group relies on the other for survival.

Fine sets up an interesting cultural dynamic with this system of raiders and andeners. The warriors are both men and women, and after their first raiding season, they are generally expected to make a partnership with an andener. The partner may be either male or female; what is unheard of among the Krigere is for a warrior to partner with another warrior. This poses a problem for Ansa, who is in love with Thyra. In order for them to be together, one of them would have to give up warrior status. Ansa is the natural fighter of the two of them, but the Chieftain must be a warrior. Thus Sarah Fine creates a conflict that keeps the two apart which is rooted in the Krigere culture, but does not rely on either sexism or homophobia, which I found refreshing. The situation only grows more complex when Thyra becomes Chieftain, and begins proposing changes to the Krigere way of life that Ansa has adopted so thoroughly as her own. Lars’ brother Nisse hews more closely to the old ways which Ansa has been taught to uphold, but what she does not see at first is that he values andenders for little more than their reproductive function, to replenish their diminished fighting force.

The Cursed Queen is related from Ansa’s point of view, and unfortunately I found myself more interested in getting Thyra’s perspective. Ansa has a hot temper and is always ready to fight to try to solve any problem that comes her way. Thyra is a skilled fighter, but one who prefers to think first, and pursue other options before drawing blood, so I was able to relate to her more of the two. Ansa’s confusion and divided loyalties are completely understandable, but as a result her relationship with Thyra becomes so antagonistic over the course of the book that it was hard for me to imagine them making up and getting together. I think this will need to be addressed in the final volume in order for me to really get aboard this ship. However, I am still very interested to see how Sarah Fine will bring Elli and Ansa together in The True Queen, due in in Spring 2018.

___

You might also like Of Fire and Stars by Audrey Coulthurst

The Impostor Queen

Cover image for The Impostor Queenby Sarah Fine

ISBN 978-1-4814-4190-2

“When the magic leaves our current queen and enters you, Elli, you will become the most powerful Valtia who has ever existed.”

For three hundred years the Valtias have ruled the Kupari from the Temple on the Rock, the only wielders of the unique Kupari magic who can balance both fire and ice. The Valtia uses her magic to protect and shelter her people, but the magic exacts a terrible price, and these girl-queens die young, bodies devoured by their own terrible power. Elli has been raised in the Temple as the Saadella, heir to the Valtia, schooled in service to the Kupari people, prepared to receive the magic when the current Valtia dies. Yet despite the fact that Elli is prophesied to be the most powerful Valtia who ever lived, when her predecessor dies, the magic does not enter her, leaving the Kupari vulnerable to the increasingly hostile raids of the neighouring Soturi. Exiled to the Outlands, Elli takes shelter with a group of bandits who defy the rules of the Temple, and refuse to turn their magic wielders over to the Temple Elders. For the first time, Elli has a reason to question the order under which she was raised, bringing to light the terrible abuses of the very system which she was sworn to uphold.

The opening of the book drops the reader into Elli’s day to day life as the Saadella, a relatively slow-paced sequence that allows Sarah Fine to lay out fascinating hints about the world in which the story takes place. Elli’s point of view is naïve, but there are hints early on that all is not well with the Valtia system of rule. In general, Fine spends a lot of time on the characters and the world, and the plot doesn’t truly pick up until the outlanders begin to question Elli’s appearance in their midst, and the unusual changes her presence seems to invoke in magic wielders, such as Oskar, a brooding ice-wielder who would prefer to deny his magic, despite suffering from the consequences. However, patience with this slow approach is rewarded as the truth about the Valtias begins to come to light.

Elli is sixteen when the story opens, just as rumours begin to swirl that the current Valtia is weakening, and may soon pass her power to her heir. Elli has had a sheltered upbringing in the Temple, where she must be kept safe and pure so that she is a fit vessel to receive the Valtia’s magic when the time comes. She is even kept largely separate from the Valtia, who must devote most of her time and energy to serving her people, and maintaining the balance of her magic. Elli is instead educated for her future role by the Elders of the Temple, who put off many of her most pressing questions with the excuse that she must be kept pure. As a result, Elli is a rather immature sixteen, never having had to dress or fend for herself a day in her life until she faces her exile. All she has going for her is a deeply inculcated sense of duty, which translates into a strong work ethic when she joins the community of Outland bandits who have rejected the demands of the Temple.

As Elli begins to understand why the Valtia’s magic didn’t pass to her, she finds herself caught between prophecy and free will. The stars indeed foretold her birth, but the Elders of the Temple were not in possession of the entire prophecy. With so much already decided, it is hard for Elli to believe that she can wield what little power and knowledge she does possess to shape her fate, let alone the destiny of the Kupari. Having lived a life with little control over anything, Elli is torn between her habit of accepting her fate, and the desire to finally seize control of her own path, even as others continue to be determined to choose for her. The curiosity that the Elders ruthlessly supressed in her as Saadella comes roaring to the fore, but her questioning nature does not fit in among many of the Outlanders either, especially Sig, the fire-wielder who would prefer decisive action against the Temple at any cost.

I was engrossed by the slowly peeled back layers of the world and magic system that are unveiled as Elli sheds her sheltered upbringing and begins to understand something about the history of the Kupari magic. Although Elli was understandably immature, I enjoyed her character development as she came to terms with having the future she always expected ripped away, and then grappling with the fact that people still want to control her, and how easy it would be to let them. She is also daunted by a potential romance, after expecting to live a life of chastity in service to the Kupari people. I look forward to seeing how Sarah Fine complements this with her companion novel, The Cursed Queen, and then brings the series together with the conclusion that is due out in 2018.

___

Also by Sarah Fine:
Of Metal and Wishes