Category: Speculative Fiction

The Poppy War

Cover image for The Poppy War by R. F. Kuangby R. F. Kuang

ISBN 978-0-06-266256-9

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

The Keju is a ruse to keep uneducated peasants right where they’ve always been. You slip past the Keju, they’ll find a way to expel you anyway. The Keju keeps the lower classes sedated. It keeps us dreaming. It’s not a ladder for mobility; it’s a way to keep people like me exactly where they were born. The Keju is a drug.

Rin is a war orphan, being raised by the Fang family only because the government has mandated that families adopt such children, and because they find it convenient to use her to help them in their drug smuggling business. Living in the deep rural south of the Nikara Empire, Rin dreams of passing the Keju exam, and traveling north to study at one of the empire’s elite schools. But when her hard work pays off and she tests into Sinegard, the top military academy in the country, Rin discovers that her trials are only beginning. Sinegard’s military and political elite have little time or sympathy for a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south. Desperate to prove herself, Rin unlocks a supposedly mythical power that enables her to summon the strength of the gods. Even as she is further alienated from her teachers and classmates, she becomes the protégé of an eccentric master who has taken no other apprentices from her class. But Master Jiang wants Rin to learn to control and suppress her abilities, while Rin dreams of wielding them in battle for the glory of the Empire. And with the Empire constantly on the brink of the next war with the Mugen Federation, it becomes increasingly difficult to heed her Master’s advice and resist the call of the Phoenix, god of fire and vengeance.

Rin starts off as a grey protagonist who is driven hard by ambition and misplaced loyalty. I was reminded of the way we watched the development of Adelina Amouterou in Marie Lu’s The Young Elites series. However, I think it is important to note that in spite of the age of the protagonist, in tone, pacing, and subject matter, The Poppy War is a decidedly adult fantasy novel that deals with war, substance abuse, rape, genocide, and intergenerational trauma, to name a few. Although her character develops to an increasingly dark place, early in the book, I found Rin very appealing. She is independent, ambitious, and irreverent, and she doesn’t care about customs or social roles. The Fangs plan to marry her off to a local official several times her age so that he will look the other way when it comes to their opium smuggling business. Her reaction is “fuck the heavenly order of things. If getting married to a gross old man was her preordained role on this earth, then Rin was determined to rewrite it.” However, she quickly developed into a person who worried me. She burns herself to stay awake when studying for the Keju, leaving herself scarred. And when she arrives in Sinegard and finds her studies imperiled by menarche, she decides to have her reproductive organs medically destroyed. In short, she is a terrifying badass. I admired her rejection of social norms, even as I was terrified of what she was going to grow up into. While I described her as a grey protagonist above, I think it is safe to say that the grey will be pretty black by the end of this planned trilogy. In fact, the transformation is arguably in place by the end of the third act, when Rin refuses to apologize or abdicate responsibility for her actions in the war.

The Poppy War’s narrative is divided into three acts. Part I is Rin’s origin story, and covers her studying for the Keju and her time at Sinegard. Although there are parts of this section that are hardcore, as mentioned above, it is the most youthful part of the narrative, and mirrors many of the familiar traditions of the magical boarding school setting, including trials, rivalries, and unexpected friendships. However, Part II sees the arrival of a long-awaited war, and the students of Sinegard, no longer children, are drafted into the war effort. Rin is once again cast adrift, and must find her place in the Empire’s military, a milieu in many ways more daunting than even elitist Sinegard. There are some lengthy descriptions of military sieges and tactics that would generally not be in my wheelhouse, but I liked the way Kuang was using these elements to explore politics, history, and the implications of war, not just wallow in war itself. In fact, one of the most important battles (see Chapter 21) is described only by its aftermath, in a way that is somehow both understated and horrifying. These choices continued to keep me with the book despite the increasing military focus.

Debut author Rebecca Kuang studied Chinese history at Georgetown, and in the same week that she was celebrating her debut novel, she was tweeting about completing her honours thesis on the 1937 Nanjing Massacre. The Poppy War draws deeply on that knowledge, with a fantasy twist that introduces ancient gods, and the remaining few who are able to draw on their power at a terrible price. Kuang cleverly insinuates much of her history and world-building as Rin studies for the Keju, and has to master many of these subjects for herself. To the extent that The Poppy War is a dark fantasy, it is a merely a dark reflection of the history that Kuang is drawing on. And with the fantasy genre awash in European history inspired fantasies, dark and otherwise, I think it is safe to say we could use a few more like Kuang’s that are inspired by and centered on other parts of the world.

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You might also like City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty

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Canada Reads Along 2018: American War

Cover image for American War by Omar Ell Akkadby Omar El Akkad

ISBN 978-0-451-49358-3

If we nod and smile while they parade some fantasy about this being a noble disagreement between equals and not a bloody fight over their stubborn commitment to a ruinous fuel, the war will never really be over…You fight the war with guns, you fight the peace with stories.

Sarat Chestnut is born by the sea, into contested territory between the Reds and Blues that are fighting the Second American Civil War. Her world is wracked by climate change, and by the South’s refusal to give up on fossil fuels. Much of the Southern US coast is now underwater, and out-of-control drones crawl the skies. When her father is killed in a bombing, Sarat’s mother and her three children flee to Camp Patience, a refugee camp on the North/South border. There they scrape together a life always on the edge of dissolution, and the children grow up with the question of what the future can possibly hold for them. It is here that Sarat meets the mentor who will shape her mind, and turn her to his own ends.

In American War, journalist Omar El Akkad paints a dark dystopian future in which the unreconciled shadows of America’s past rise up to tear the country apart once more. His protagonist begins as a child caught in the middle of that fight, and is irrevocably twisted and shaped by the horrors of war. We follow Sarat as she goes from refugee to fighter to war hero to wanted terrorist, perceptions of her swaying and turning depending from which side of the conflict she is being seen. We see her broken and remade, and broken again, and must inevitably follow her to the consequences of that final breaking. She is not a likeable character, and the reader is not necessarily supposed to sympathize with her actions, but it the author’s quest to make us understand her nevertheless.

American War is told with a frame narrative. It is many years after the Second American Civil War, and the Reunification Plague that followed it. In the far north of the Alaska Neutral Territory, someone who remembers Sarat, who knows who she was, and what she did, is dying. For so long the secret has been kept, but now the story will be told. Also interspersed through the book, at the end of each chapter, are documents that assist the massive feat of world-building that El Akkad has undertaken. The story covers a large swath of time, with a lot of alternate history that needs to be explained, and these excerpts help support that, but are inserted at natural breaking points rather than dumped into the main body of the text.

Although American War was extremely well conceived and written, there were three parts that stuck out which were difficult for me to reconcile. I was able to cope with the darkness of the book, but somehow I couldn’t handle the scene where a boy spying on Sarat in the shower was supposed to make her feel powerful. Fortunately this scene did not devolve into a sexual assault, but it was still a moment of exploitation, and unlike other such moments, the author chose to spin this one as empowering. Next, there was Sarat’s distaste for her disabled brother, who sustains a traumatic brain injury in the course of the book. Her love for her family is supposed to be one of Sarat’s only redeeming qualities, so this felt somewhat incongruous. Most of all however, I struggled with El Akkad’s choice to create a queer, black, female terrorist as the protagonist of his book, when so often these are the people we see become the victims of terrorism. The author failed to meaningfully engage with how these aspects of her identity might have interacted with her experiences to shape her trajectory.

American War was defended in this year’s Canada Reads debates by actor Tahmoh Penikett, who is best known for his work in science fiction television. In his opening arguments, Penikett posited American War as a novel that addresses a crisis of empathy in our society. Going into the finale, he asked his fellow panelists to be open to hearing the hard truths of this book, because listening is essential in order to find compassion and make healing possible.

Over the course of the week, the darkness of American War was repeatedly pitted against the themes of hope in Forgiveness and The Marrow Thieves, and the humour and levity of Precious Cargo. Greg Johnson in particular was adamant in his argument that the world is not as dark a place as it is painted in this novel, and Jeanne Beker was right there with him, having effectively used this argument against The Marrow Thieves as well. American War was voted against at least once every day of the debates, survived a tie breaker on Day Two, and received two more strikes on Day Three. By contrast, going into Day Four, not one panelist had cast a ballot against Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto, making it evident that while American War was going to the finale, it would have a tough fight to win Canada Reads 2018.

One thing the panelists did find particularly effective about American War was the role reversal of empires. America has fallen into the civil war-torn state we see on the news of many other countries, while the Bouazizi Empire has risen in North Africa and the Middle East, to fill the role America once held in the world. The Empire and China now send aid ships to America. Mozhdah Jamalzadah spoke eloquently to this on Day Two, pointing out how this was effective against the North American tendency to block out what is going on in the rest of the world. Tahmoh Penikett continued to amplify this line of argument, suggesting that the book is so effective because it is set in our backyard. Occasionally, a panelist would try to raise the American-ness of the book as a strike against it, but this argument never gained much traction or serious debate. Darkness and revenge were the main sticking points.

The final day of debates focused on finding elements of the eliminated books in the remaining contenders, a persuasive line of attack given that the three free agents decide the competition. Tahmoh Penikett appealed to Mozhdah Jamalzadah, arguing that the refugee crisis of The Boat People is also represented in Sarat’s story. Jeanne Beker tried to relate Forgiveness to The Marrow Thieves, arguing that its message of learning from our elders and moving forward with an eye on the past was represented in her book as well. All of the remaining panelists were also asked to say what they liked about the remaining books. Tahmoh Penikett said he personally related to Mark Sakamoto’s description of loving someone who is struggling with alcoholism. Jeanne Beker praised Omar El Akkad’s writing, and his visual, cinematic style.

When it came time to vote, Penikett and Beker of course voted against the opposing book. After voting against American War for much of the week, always citing its American-ness as her reason, Jully Black moved on the final day to vote against Forgiveness. Greg Johnson—though he admitted he had come close to flipping thanks to Penikett’s defense—voted against American War for the third time. Canada Reads once again put Mozhdah Jamalzadah in the position of casting the final ballot, and her strike against American War made Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto the winner of Canada Reads 2018.

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Check back tomorrow for my review of the winner of Canada Reads 2018! Meanwhile, you can catch up on my recaps, or tune into to replays on CBC.

Canada Reads Along 2018: The Marrow Thieves

Cover image for The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimalineby Cherie Dimaline

ISBN 978-1-77086-486-3

Everyone tells their own coming-to story. That’s the rule. Everyone’s creation story is their own.”

Fifteen-year-old Frenchie is a survivor, the last remaining member of his family after seeing his brother snatched by the government. In a near-future where the world is falling apart thanks to the results of global warming, society is also plagued by a new problem. People have forgotten how to dream, and this dreamlessness is slowly driving them mad. Only the Indigenous population retains the ability to dream, and it is their bone marrow that seems to hold the key to why they have not succumbed to this new plague. As the madness spreads, the government takes a page from history, and begins herding the remaining First Nations people into facilities modeled on residential schools, where their marrow is harvested at the cost of their lives. The few who remain free push northward into the wilderness, trying outrun the reach of the government. But a confrontation with the Recruiters is inevitable, and one day there will be nowhere left to run.

The Marrow Thieves opens with Frenchie’s coming-to story, a flashback that recounts how he came to be on the run in the northern bush, and who he was before the plague came. The bulk of the story is set in the bush, but several of the characters in the party share their own coming-to stories over the course of the book. There are also bits of Story mixed in, times when the elders Miig and Minerva pass down their knowledge to the youth that they are taking north. Hearing Story is both a privilege and a responsibility to become the carriers of their heritage going forward into an uncertain future. So much has already been lost, or deliberately stripped away, and the kids cling to the little bits of Story and language that remain to them, that help them understand who they are, and why they are hunted. It is their weakness, but also their truth, and their power.

Using a futuristic echo of the residential school system, The Marrow Thieves examines how Canada might repeat the horrors of the past by failing to acknowledge or reconcile with them. The science fiction element of extracting dreams from bone marrow is not deeply explored in a technical sense. Rather, the bone marrow becomes a powerful metaphor for what has been taken from Indigenous peoples, as well as the appropriation of their culture by those who have already taken their land, their resources, their homes, and their families, and are still not satisfied by the destruction they have wrought. It is a gut-churning portrayal entitlement.

Despite the dark premise, and the threat that Frenchie and his friends are facing, I still found an abundance of hope in The Marrow Thieves. Although they are on the run, the characters still build lives, families, and friendships. They care for Minerva, who has deep roots to the culture, but who would not be strong enough to run on her own. They protect little RiRi, the youngest of their group, slowly helping her to understand what things were like before her birth, and what has been done to their people since then. Miig mourns the husband that he lost, but finds his purpose in protecting and teaching the youth who are left. And Frenchie and Rose are clumsily falling in love, haltingly trying to figure out themselves, and one another, and what it means to love in a world like the one they were born into.

The Marrow Thieves was defended in this year’s Canada Reads competition by R&B singer-songwriter Jully Black. Back on Day One, Black championed The Marrow Thieves as a hopeful book that acknowledges the power of the youth voice, and the importance of hearing Indigenous stories and understanding Canada’s original injustice. During her Day Three opening, she said that she felt the book was more important than ever in light of the breaking news that Pope Francis is refusing to issue an apology for the role of the Catholic Church in the abuses of the residential school system, despite the recommendation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The Marrow Thieves has had a tough row to hoe on Canada Reads 2018 from Day One. As the only Young Adult book in the competition, panelists repeatedly singled it out, recommending it for use in schools, but denying that it could be the “One Book to Open Your Eyes” that adult Canadians need to read. Jully Black argued for the importance of the youth perspective, and further that “the soul has no age.” After the book he was defending, Precious Cargo, was eliminated on Day Two, free agent Greg Johnson went so far as to announce that in addition to donating twenty-five copies of Precious Cargo to schools, he was also purchasing twenty-five copies of The Marrow Thieves. He highlighted the hopefulness of the book, and the fact that it was about the kids’ journey to rediscover their history.

During Day One, Jeanne Beker had derided the despair and fear of The Marrow Thieves, arguing that it might alienate readers. The point was raised again on Day Two, and Jully Black challenged her to think about who might be made uncomfortable by the book and why. Tahmoh Penikett defended the book as having resonated with him on many levels, particularly considering his mother’s experiences in the residential school system. However, both Penikett (a science fiction actor) and Mozhdah Jamalzadah expressed that they were taken out of the story by the lack of explanation about how the bone marrow extraction worked. Jully Black argued that the bone marrow was a metaphor, and that we do not need to understand the process in order to connect with what the bone marrow represents. Drawing a parallel to the residential schools, she argued that we do not need to see behind the drywall to the architecture of the school building to know that the system was harmful.

The Day Three debate focused on the differences between memoir and fiction, reading as an enjoyable experience, and compelling characters. These question led the panelists to mostly discuss American War and Forgiveness, with less specific discussion of The Marrow Thieves compared to previous days. When the ballots were cast, Jully Black and Greg Johnson formed an unsurprising alliance, voting against American War. Tahmoh Penikett and Jeanne Beker voted against The Marrow Thieves. This put the final vote in the hands of free agent Mozhdah Jamalzadah, whose choice made The Marrow Thieves the third book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2018.

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Catch up with the 2018 Canada Reads debates starting with Day One, or tune into the program with CBC 

And if you loved The Marrow Thieves as much as I did, you might also like The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf by Indigenous Australian author Ambelin Kwaymullina

Binti: The Night Masquerade

Cover image for The Night Masquerade by Nnedi Okoraforby Nnedi Okorafor

ISBN 978-0-7653-9312-8

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

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

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

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

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

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Also by Nnedi Okorafor:

Who Fears Death 

The Cruel Prince

Cover image for The Cruel Prince by Holly Black by Holly Black

ISBN 978-0-316-31027-7

What they don’t realize is this: Yes, they frighten me, but I have always been scared, since the day I got here. I was raised by the man who murdered my parents, reared in a land of monsters. I live with that fear, let it settle into my bones, and ignore it. If I didn’t pretend not to be scared, I would hide under my owl-down coverlets in Madoc’s estate forever. I would lie there and scream until there was nothing left of me. I refuse to do that. I will not do that.”

Seventeen-year-old Jude and her twin sister, Taryn, are mortals who have lived in Faerie since they were children, raised by the Faerie general who murdered their parents in order to retrieve his daughter, their half-sister Vivi. Despite this violent beginning, Jude longs to find her place in the High Court of King Eldred, and dreams of knighthood and acceptance. However, many of the high fey will never see a mortal as anything more than a servant, to be used and discarded at will. Worst among these is Prince Cardan, youngest of the High King’s sons, who seems to have a special hatred for Jude, and the way she had been raised as if she were part of the Gentry. When the High King announces that he will abdicate his throne, and pass the Blood Crown to one of his six children, Jude is caught up in political intrigues and violent betrayals, and is quickly reminded why the Faerie Court is no place for humans.

The Cruel Prince follows three sisters trying to find their place in the world(s). Though she is the only one who has magic, Vivi longs to return to the human world where she was raised. Jude and Taryn, though they know that Faerie is designed to dazzle mortals, are nevertheless enchanted with it, and dream of finding a way to make it their place forever, rather than somewhere that they live at the grace of the man who killed their parents. Taryn hopes to make a marriage that will secure her a place at court, while Jude hopes to use her talent with a blade win a post in one of the great houses. Each in turn is faced with the question of what price they will pay in order to get what they want.

Through the character of Jude, and her development, Holly Black examines what we are capable of, and how far we will go to get what we want. Jude dreams of being a knight, and wants to declare herself a candidate for selection as such by one of the great houses during the summer tournament. But her adopted father, Madoc, a redcap with violence as his very essence, does not believe that Jude has what it takes to be a knight, despite her skill with a blade. With the obvious and honourable path closed to her, Jude accepts a different bargain, one that reveals an even darker side of the High Court, and reminds Jude why Faerie is a dangerous place for mortals, especially at a time when power is about to change hands.

Though she knows the ways of Faerie, and has been trained as a warrior by the general himself, Jude is at a constant disadvantage. She has no magic of her own, and must constantly be wary of the magic around her. She must wear rowan berries to ward off compulsion, turn her stockings inside out to avoid being led astray, and salt all her food to prevent ensorcellment. She must rely on her wits, and her merely mortal strength to face down those who would put her in her place. And Prince Cardan and his friends seem bent on demonstrating that however at home she feels in Faerie, however well she think she knows the rules, she will always be a mere mortal. It is this very weakness, and her determination not to give into it that makes Jude a compelling narrator.

The Cruel Prince is a twisty and intricately plotted fantasy that takes us deep inside the High Court of Faerie. Holy Black knows just how to hit my expectations enough to keep me satisfied, while simultaneously subverting them enough to keep me intrigued. I am already eagerly awaiting the release of The Wicked King in 2019.

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Also by Holly Black:

The Darkest Part of the Forest

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown 

The Iron Trial 

Beneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children #3)

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

ISBN 978-0-7653-9358-6

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild Beauty

Cover image for Wild Beauty by Anna-Marie McLemore by Anna-Marie McLemore

ISBN 978-1-250-12455-5

For a hundred years, La Pradera has bloomed under the hands of the Nomeolvides women, five in every generation, whose magic brings to life what was once a barren landscape unfit for farming. But the Nomeolvides women are cursed; any man that they love too much, who stays too long, will disappear into La Pradera, never to be seen again. They have lived with this pain for generations, defined and shaped by it. So when Estrella and her four cousins make an offering to the land, and a boy appears, a boy who seems to be out of his time, a whisper of hope goes through the family. Fel has no memory of how he came to La Pradera, but what if he was the disappeared lover of a long ago Nomeolvide woman? But even as the women begin to hope that their lost loves may not be lost forever, the arrival of a new member of the family that owns the land they are bound to threatens everything they have built.

La Pradera is a vivid setting, a place of magic and tragedy. The Nomeolvides women have worked the land there for a hundred years, but beautiful as they have made it, they can never leave it, or La Pradera will take its revenge. But though they are bound to this land, they do not own it. It belongs to the Briar family, a wealthy clan that hides their rejects and failures on this distant estate. When Marjorie Briar dies, Reid Briar waltzes into town, fully expecting to seize control of the estate from Bay, the illegitimate daughter of a Briar, who was raised by Marjorie, and named her heir. The power imbalance between the Briars and the people who have worked their land forms an important part of the story.

Despite the curse, romance is woven through Wild Beauty. All five of the Nomeolvides girls are a little bit in love with dashing Bay Briar, nominal heir to La Pradera. They do not know if a woman can be disappeared by their love, but they are all afraid to find out, and so they keep their affection for her at a distance. When Fel appears, he and Estrella are repeatedly drawn to one another despite her mother’s warnings. Though the land gave him back, they all worry that he could disappear again. And what if he really was once the lover of a dead woman he can’t remember? In the course of the story, both Bay and Fel must emerge as their own people before questions about who can love them will be answered.

In addition to being a romance, Wild Beauty has a strong theme of family, especially the relationship between Estrella and her cousins. The older generations of women are more distant and less well known. Estrella and her cousins are pushing themselves away from their mothers and grandmothers, as much as they can when they are all bound to the same land, unable to leave it for very long. They hope to somehow avoid the fate of their ancestors, as every new generation hopes, and that drives a wedge between them and their mothers, aunts, and grandmothers. The older women try to keep the peace and protect their daughters, but Estrella seems determined to stand up to Reid, whatever the cost.

In this, her third novel, Anna-Marie McLemore returns with her lush, polished prose and fine touch for magic realism. Although slower paced, her novels always deliver for atmosphere, character, and emotional impact, and Wild Beauty is no different.

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Also by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of Feathers

When the Moon Was Ours 

Top 5 Fiction Reads of 2017

These are my favourite fiction books read or reviewed (but not necessarily published) in 2017. Click the titles for links to full reviews where applicable. Check back later for my top five non-fiction picks of the year.

The Break

ISBN 978-1-4870-011-7

Cover image for The Break by Katherena VermetteI first read Katherena Vermette’s novel earlier this year as part of Canada Reads Along 2017. The Break is the heart-wrenching story of a community that has been repeatedly torn apart by violence, as Winnipeg’s indigenous population struggles with the lingering effects of colonization. Through the skillful use of multiple narrative perspectives, Vermette illustrates how trauma accumulates and cascades down through the generations, becoming compounded as those who have been hurt try to raise the next generation of children. When a young indigenous woman is attacked on Winnipeg’s troubled North side, her family gathers around her hospital bed. Four generations of women close ranks, belatedly trying to protect their victimized relative. However, as they struggle to understand what has happened, the spectres of their own traumatic pasts begin to rise, demanding to be acknowledged at last. US readers, this book is coming your way March 6, 2018 from House of Anansi Press.

Categories: Canadian

The Hate U Give

Cover image for The Hate U Give by Angie ThomasThe Hate U Give is a brutal coming-of-age story about the harsh realities that face young black men and women in America. Starr Carter is a girl with a foot in two worlds. By day, she attends Williamson, a suburban prep school where she is one of only two black students in her year. In the evening, she goes home to Garden Heights, the city’s poor, black neighbourhood, where she has lived all her life. She is one person at home and another person at school, because she can’t be too “bougie” in the neighbourhood, or too “ghetto” at school. But the wall she has carefully built between her two selves begins to crumble when she is the only witness to a police officer shooting and killing her childhood friend, Khalil. Thomas’ debut novel is fundamentally about identity, and Starr’s struggle to bring the two halves of herself together. But it is also about families, communities, and building relationships. The strength of this narrative is in the way it balances the hard topics—racism, police violence, gangs, drugs—with themes of family, friendship, justice, and love.

Categories: Young Adult

Neverwhere

ISBN 978-0-06-282133-1

Cover image for Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman and Illustrated by Chris RiddellI’ve owned a copy of this novel for some time without getting around to reading it, but this fall the kind folks at HarperCollins sent me a copy of a new edition illustrated by frequent Gaiman collaborator Chris Riddell (see also The Sleeper and the Spindle). The new edition contains the author’s lightly edited preferred text, and is newly illustrated for the book’s twentieth anniversary. It also appends the short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back.”  Richard Mayhew is an entirely ordinary London businessman, whose spur of the moment decision to help a young girl in need causes him to slide through the cracks of reality, and into the dark realm of London-Below. But to be honest, Richard Mayhew is the least interesting or memorable part of Neverwhere. He is merely the reader’s access point to a uniquely atmospheric world just sideways from our own. Door is the last scion on a Neverwhere family endowed with unique abilities, and some of the residents of London’s underworld will stop at nothing to catch her and take advantage of her powers. Full of memorable villains, and unusual allies, I can’t believe I waited this long to read Gaiman’s earliest solo novel, but Riddell’s illustrations made it well worth the wait!

Categories: Fantasy

The Jane Austen Project

Cover image for The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn When Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane arrive in England in 1815, it is by unusual means, and with an even more unusual mission. Sent back in time from a somewhat dystopian near-future, they are charged with identifying the cause of Jane Austen’s untimely demise in 1817 at the young age of 41, and with recovering and bringing back her lost manuscript of The Watsons, as well as her letters to her sister Cassandra. This top-secret mission is known as The Jane Austen Project, and it has one very important rule; they must change the future as little as possible while achieving their objectives, or risk being stranded in Regency England forever. With this highly unusual premise, copy editor and ardent Austenite Kathleen A. Flynn has captured something of Austen’s tone and pacing, without trying to entirely mimic her style. The suspense of the narrative caught me by surprise, and I found myself barely able to put this novel down. This was in spite of the fact that there is a fair bit of set up involved in getting two people believably situated upper-class residents of 1815 London, and then into Austen’s family circle. Rachel is in the unenviable position of flirting with Henry Austen, while also getting to know her partner Liam, who is—awkwardly—posing as her brother for the purposes of the trip. Highly recommended for fans of time travel fiction that is more about the destination than the science of such an endeavour.

Categories: Science Fiction

City of Brass

Cover image for City of Brass by S. A. ChakrabortyDespite her abilities as healer, plying her con on the streets of French-occupied Cairo, Nahri has never really believed in magic. But when she stages an exorcism for a disturbed child, she accidentally summons a djinn who claims that she is that last descendant of the Nahids, the former rulers of the hidden djinn city of Daevabad. With murderous ifrits close on their heels, Dara vows to return Nahri to the home of her ancestors. But far from offering safety, Daevabad is a nest of politics that put the streets of Cairo to shame. While Nahri is a canny operator, she is naïve to the rules and traditions of her ancestors. The stand out feature of this novel is the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty has created between the different magical beings of this world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. In particular, the shafit—part human djinn—are an underclass poised on the edge of revolt. City of Brass was an utterly gripping novel from start to finish, but the last few pages introduced several plot twists that have me waiting with great impatience for The Kingdom of Copper to be released in 2018. Thanks to the fine folks at Harper Voyager, who provided me with an advance copy of this novel!

Categories: Fantasy

Honourable mentions also go out to Leigh Bardugo and Gail Carriger, as I finished reading series of theirs that I started last year. I utterly enjoyed both Crooked Kingdom, and The Parasol Protectorate, but as I’ve named books from those worlds to my top five in previous years, I decided to present a more varied list for those looking for my Top Picks. That’s it for fiction for 2017. Check back later for my non-fiction list!