Category: Speculative Fiction

Vampires Never Get Old

Cpver image for Vampires Never Get Old edited by Zoraida Cordova and Natalie C. ParkerEdited by Zoraida Córdova and Natalie C. Parker

ISBN 9781250230003

“There is no one way to write the vampire. After all, a being with the power to shape-shift should wear many faces and tell many tales.”

Vampires Never Get Old brings together a variety of stars from the world of young adult fiction to provide fresh takes on the vampire story, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. The collection consists of eleven short stories, each with their own spin on the vampire mythology. To each story the editors add a quick note on the aspects of the vampire tradition used, transformed, or subverted in that tale. The stories include a wide variety of LGBTQ+ and BIPOC protagonists, as well as a fat slayer and a vampire with a disability.

For unique form and dark and creepy vibes, I want to call out “Mirrors, Windows & Selfies by Mark Oshiro. The story is written in the form of an online diary or blog, but the commenters perceive it as a work of ongoing fiction, which gains in popularity over time. The writer is a young vampire who was born, not made, and although I really hate this trope, I still enjoyed Oshiro’s execution. Cisco has been moved around the country his entire life by his vampire parents, but as he nears adulthood, he begins to question the secrecy and the rules, and wonders why exactly his parents have been keeping him hidden and isolated from vampire society.

Perhaps the most chilling tale is “In Kind” by Kayla Whaley, a dark revenge fantasy in which a disabled teenage girl is murdered by her father, an act which the press dubs a “mercy killing.” Grace then faces the choice about whether to use her new powers to punish her father for what he has done. The story is also notable in that while becoming a vampire makes Grace stronger and more powerful in many ways, it is not able to restore her ability to walk. Her vampirism is empowering, without being a miracle cure for her disability, which is a core part of her identity.

The funniest story belongs to Samira Ahmed, who contributes “A Guidebook for the Newly Sired Desi Vampire.” A brand new vampire wakes up alone in a dark warehouse, and has to undergo Vampire Orientation 101 by Vampersand, a newly minted vampire tech start up for young Indian vampires who have been unexpectedly turned by careless British vampire tourists. Filled with snark and anticolonial bite, this was the only story that made me laugh out loud.

Most of the stories stand alone well, but several had strong potential as novel starters. In particular, I would definitely read a f/f novel with a vampire and a slayer, something that Julie Murphy explores in “Senior Year Sucks,” and which Victoria Schwab also features in her tale, “First Kill.” However, the stand out in this regard was absolutely “The House of Black Sapphires” by Dhonielle Clayton, in which the Turner women return to New Orleans’ Eternal Ward after centuries away. Descended from vampires, but distinct, Eternals can only be killed by Shadow Barons, but none of the Turner girls have ever met one until they return to their mother’s home in New Orleans, and discover that their mother was once in love with a Shadow Baron herself. This story had atmosphere and world-building potential galore, and I would dearly love to read an entire novel set in this world.

Vampires Never Get Olds marks a delightful return to the mythology of vampires, filled with unique tales and fun little extra nuggets. Read through the author bios to find out each contributor’s favourite vampire, and check out the copyright page for a vampire-themed book curse! If like me you’ve been missing vampires, this collection might just quench your thirst, at least for a while.

For more vampires, you might also like:

Urban Fantasy Vampires

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown

Certain Dark Things 

Urban Fantasy Vampires

Ever since discovering the work of Anne Rice when I was about fifteen, I’ve been more or less obsessed with vampires, which tend to rise and fall in the trends of speculative fiction literature in a somewhat cyclical fashion. They’ve been having a bit of a quiescence since the hype of Twilight settled down, but I’ve recently been craving a return to this obsession that never dies. I’m impatiently awaiting the publication of Vampires Never Get Old next week, a short story anthology that brings together authors like Zoraida Córdova, Dhonielle Clayton, and Julie Murphy with fresh takes on an old favourite. While I was waiting, I decided to revisit some classics from the vampire urban fantasy oeuvre, and see how they held up. (Fellow UNBC alum: Yes, these were all on the syllabus from Dr. Stan Beeler’s English 486 Literature of the Fantastic course!)

Blood Price

Cover image for Blood Price by Tanya HuffOriginally published in 1991, Blood Price by Canadian SFF writer Tanya Huff is probably the oldest book I’ve read that could classed as urban fantasy. Vicki Nelson has recently retired from the Toronto police force at the ripe old age of 31, due to her rapidly deteriorating vision caused by retinitis pigmentosa. A former rising star within the department, Vicki still feels like she has a lot to prove, and she’s set up shop as a private investigator. In Blood Price, she is hired by a wealthy college student to investigate the murder of her boyfriend. As the killings continue, the local press begins speculating about vampires, as all the victims have been drained of blood. While she tries to keep an open mind, what Vicki never expected was to run into a real vampire who is trying to solve the murders himself, before the press draws too much attention to the potential existence of his kind. Part of the great fun of this series in the vampire himself, Henry Fitzroy, who is the bastard son of King Henry VIII. In 1990s Toronto, he is making a living as a romance novelist, penning historical bodice rippers under the nom de plume Elizabeth Fitzroy.

This was a fun reread that has held up in many respects, but aged markedly in others. The human villain of this installment is an angry young, white, male college student who feels he hasn’t received everything to which he is entitled, something that still rings so true as to almost be too on the nose. When this novel was published, the École Polytechnique massacre of 1989 would have been a still fresh event, and not much has changed since. A lot of the plot turns on answering machines, and people waiting for phone calls, something I didn’t notice when I first read this book in 2008 with a flip phone in my purse, but which is glaringly obvious in 2020 with everyone glued to their smartphones. I’m also less interested in police protagonists, and cringed really hard when Vicki’s former partner, Mike, made a joke about police brutality.

Guilty Pleasures

Cover image for Guilty Pleasures by Laurell K. HamiltonPublished in 1993, this still ongoing series is often cited among the influences of urban fantasy writers, though my 2002 paperback edition describes it as “a heady mix of romance and horror,” and the cover blurbs are mostly from mystery rather than SFF writers. Guilty Pleasures introduces Anita Blake, zombie raiser and vampire hunter. Although her primary job is raising the dead, Anita sidelines in killing rogue vampires, and in this first installment of what is now a 27 book series, she is hired to investigate the murders of four vampires. Pressured into undertaking the investigation against her better judgement, Anita finds herself pulled into vampire politics, squaring off against the terrifying Master of the City of St. Louis, and upending the balance of power in a way that will inevitably bind her to the supernatural world, and to the handsome and alluring vampire Jean-Claude.

Urban fantasy is split into those series in which the supernatural world is secret and those in which it is openly acknowledged—sometimes with a transition in which the supernatural world is unveiled. This series begins two years after vampires become legally recognized in the United States, and one thing I find interesting about this book is the world-building that explores the consequences of such a ruling. Vampires can use their abilities for commerce—as we see at the vampire strip club Guilty Pleasures—or to found their own religions, as with the Church of Eternal Life, a vampire church being a truly fascinating concept in a world Laurell K. Hamilton also chooses to have holy objects repel her vampires. This series has transformed and reincarnated itself several times over the nearly thirty years it has been running, and I haven’t read a new installment in over a decade, but it was nevertheless illuminating to revisit. Even if the plot also heavily figured answering machines. Go figure.

Dead Until Dark

Cover image for Dead Until Dark by Charlaine HarrisBetter known for its 2008 television adaptation True Blood, Dead Until Dark was originally published in 2001. Set in rural northern Louisiana, it follows the adventures of Sookie Stackhouse, the psychic waitress. Like the Anita Blake series, these books take place about two years after vampires have “come out of the coffin,” and the book opens with Sookie meeting her first vampire, Bill Compton, who has returned Bon Temps to reclaim his family’s property there now that vampires have been legally recognized. Regarded as somewhat crazy by her neighbours, who don’t really want to believe in her psychic abilities, Sookie has faced a lot of social rejection before Bill rolls into town, but she is surprised to find that—unlike humans—she can’t hear vampire thoughts. She quickly falls into a romance with Bill, but this attachment is complicated by local suspicions about the newcomer, a series of murders of young women known to have associated with vampires, and the fact the vampires would very much like to put Sookie’s psychic talents to their own uses.

Urban fantasies commonly feature working class protagonists, but Sookie is notable for her pride in her job as a waitress, and her defensiveness about anyone who tries to put her down for being low class or air-headed because of her lack of education or her choice of employment. Much of the action centers on her interactions with patrons at Merlotte’s, the local watering hole. Dead Until Dark has one of the most rural settings of any urban fantasy series I’ve read, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms, but Harris turns small town life to good effect, even as she pulls in wider vampire politics with Sookie becoming enmeshed in the supernatural community. The big cringe here might be when Sookie’s grandmother invites Bill over to talk to her about the Civil War, and she seems fascinated and delighted when he is able to tell her that her husband’s family owned two slaves. And yes, in case you were wondering, there were several plot points featuring answering machines. So let that be a lesson to you writers out there; vampires may never get old, but the technology you include in your stories will!

Have you got favourite vampire reading recommendations? Hit me in the comments!

More Vampire Reads:

Certain Dark Things by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black

Canada Reads Along: Son of a Trickster

Cover image for Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinsonby Eden Robinson

Content Warnings: Substance abuse, self-harm, child abuse, domestic violence.

ISBN 978-0-345-81078-6

“He wanted to stay with Sarah, but watching Mr. and Mrs. Jaks slowly dying was brutal. He wanted to believe his mom was sorry, but his dad was always sorry and he still kept doing crap he had to say sorry for. He didn’t want to be a sucker, but he didn’t want to be alone. Everything ached and all the choices felt wrong.”

Old beyond his years, teenage Jared feels responsible for all the adults around him, from his mercurial mom Maggie, to her deadbeat boyfriend Richie, to his lying father and his pregnant step-sister, and the elderly neighbours who helped him out in a time of need, as well as their wayward granddaughter. His mom is estranged from her own family, and his father’s mother has always harboured the belief that he isn’t actually her grandson, but rather the illegitimate son of a Trickster. His only support, his beloved dog Baby, has recently died, and Jared is having a hard time keeping it together for everyone who needs him. He drinks too much, and smokes too much, and sometimes he blacks out. And sometimes he think he sees and hears things, even when he isn’t half-cut. Things that make him wonder if his grandmother might not be crazy after all.

Son of a Trickster starts out slowly, setting the scene on the northern coast of British Columbia, in a town defined by the boom and bust of the resource cycle. The ups and downs in Jared’s life ride upon the unstable temperament of his formidable mom, Maggie, who would do anything to protect her son from the world, but can’t always protect him from herself, or her secrets. By turns fascinating and terrifying, Maggie has carved out a place in the world by sheer force of will, but it is a constant effort to hold that space, and sometimes she lets it all collapse, leaving Jared to pick up the pieces. Jared’s own will is as stubborn as his mother’s, and as the story progresses it becomes evident that there is much he has been refusing to see out of a deep-seated sense of self-preservation.

At first, Jared’s life seems normal, or at least, only abnormal in sadly normal human ways. Slowly but surely, however, little bits of weirdness creep in around the edges, and Jared’s chapters are mixed with bizarre, expansive interludes that hint at a world beyond his day-to-day reality. The magic seeps in until it is almost pervasive, slowly invading every corner of his life until he has no choice but to face the destiny he has been running from. While this element comes into full force late in the book, the fact that Son of a Trickster is the first in a series leaves room for Robinson to continue to explore the implications of the first book’s final revelations.

Son of a Trickster was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by Kaniehtiio Horn, an Indigenous actor and podcaster from Kahnawake. Horn mounted a quiet but powerful defense of her chosen book, touting it as coming of age story that will appeal to everyone from young adults to elders. This year’s Canada Reads theme was “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and Horn also argued that it was time to expand Canada’s focus beyond Indigenous trauma narratives, and make room for the broader voices that are also part of the Indigenous experience in Canada. Toward the very end of the finale, she expressed that she wanted to see Indigenous authors on every shelf, from crime fiction to fantasy to science fiction and beyond, occupying every genre.

Son of a Trickster faced a variety of hurdles in this year’s Canada Reads competition. Most notably, some of the panelists seemed to have a decided preference for non-fiction. This formed a central part of the second day of debates, with both George Canyon and Akil Augustine expressing a stronger connection to real people rather than fictional characters in response to a variety of questions posed by the host. Nevertheless, Son of a Trickster arrived at the finale having only been voted against once, by Alayna Fender on Day Three, as she tried to save her book Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club from elimination.

After giving the eliminated panelists a moment to remind the audience why they should still read all those books, moderator Ali Hassan focused the final day of debates on questions about compassion, engaging storytelling, and which book most challenged the way the panelists look at the world. Son of a Trickster eked out an edge in the storytelling department, with George Canyon describing the book as a captivating, Akil Augustine lauding the magical element, and Alayna Fender praising the engaging cast of characters.

Throughout the competition, Horn spoke eloquently to Son of a Trickster specifically as an Indigenous story. When Alayna Fender raised questions about the completeness of the story, and its sense of having a beginning, middle and end, Horn responded with an explanation about how Indigenous stories are often more cyclical, but tend to be judged against the linear standard more common in settler narratives, though she acknowledged that the book is also the first in a trilogy. She also took time to educate listeners about the important role of the storyteller within Indigenous culture. In her final appeal, she asked her fellow panelists to make Son of a Trickster the first book by an Indigenous author to win Canada Reads.

After a lively final day of debates, the panelists cast their ballots for the last time. Kaniehtiio Horn voted against We Have Always Been Here, but the other panelists came together in a unanimous block to eliminate Son of a Trickster, and make We Have Always Been Here by Samra Habib and defended by Amanda Brugel the first book by a woman author defended by a woman panelist to win Canada Reads since the program began in 2002.

Check back tomorrow for my review of the winning book!

Canada Reads Along: Radicalized

Cover image for Radicalized by Cory Doctorowby Cory Doctorow

ISBN 978-1-250-22858-1

Content Warnings: Racism, xenophobia, medical horror, police brutality.

 “They’re kids. If they understood risks, they wouldn’t join uprisings and march in the streets and the world would be a simpler place. Not a better one, of course. But simpler.”

Radicalized is a collection of four novellas by author, editor, and technology activist Cory Doctorow, a Canadian-born writer who lives in the United States. His fiction is typically set in the U.S. and deals with issues through an American lens, but with nods and references to Canada. The featured works deal with issues including the circumvention of copyright controls, racial bias in predictive policing software, healthcare insurance loopholes, and survivalist billionaires with more money than they know what to do with. That last story takes on a particular new resonance in the age of COVID-19.

The first novella, “Unauthorized Bread” is an Internet-of-Things horror story about a young immigrant who finds herself on the wrong side of copyright law after jailbreaking her internet-connected toaster, which will only toast bread made by authorized bakeries. This story can be read online for free at Ars Technica if you want to get a taste of Radicalized, and is currently under development as both a graphic novel and a television show. It is a story about the small inconveniences and humiliations of poverty, and being controlled by the technology we supposedly own.

Although these are works of fiction, Doctorow’s subjects generally find their inspiration in real life. The most speculative of the stories is “Model Minority,” a sort of Superman fan fiction about a super hero known as the American Eagle. He has a billionaire playboy defense contractor frenemy named Bruce, and an investigative reporter paramour named Lois. However, the story gets very real when the American Eagle decides to take a stand against a group of racist cops who give a Black man a paralyzing beating, enabled by the justification of predictive policing software. An alien among humans, the Eagle is forced to confront human xenophobia, and consider what price he is willing to pay if he draws this line in the sand.

The darkest story in the collection might be the titular Radicalized, which follows a career man named Joe who learns that his wife is dying of cancer on his 36th birthday. He becomes angry and sullen, especially when their insurance refuses to pay for a treatment the company deems too experimental. Soon he finds an internet message board full of other angry men who have lost wives and children despite being insured. Doctorow’s stories typically feature citizens using privacy technologies to empower themselves against overreaching corporations and governments, but this story follows a plotline whereby the Tor privacy browser and the dark web enable aggrieved citizens to plan acts of terrorism under the cloak of anonymity.

The collection closes with “The Masque of the Red Death,” a post-apocalyptic dystopian short about a billionaire who builds a doomsday bunker in the wilds of Arizona for his chosen few. The central character is Martin, a decidedly unlikeable protagonist who comes to hold the power of life and death over the people he has taken under his dubious protection when a pandemic strikes. Unwilling to contribute to rebuilding, Martin instead focuses on hoarding and protecting resources, fancying that this makes him a good leader. When I read this story in early February, I had little idea how relevant it would soon feel. The tagline of the collection, “Dystopia is now” could hardly be more accurate.

Overall, the stories are less than subtle, and often fairly didactic. For example, in “Unauthorized Bread,” Wye gives Salima an impromptu two page tutorial on public-key cryptography while the two women are riding the train. This is a pet issue of Doctorow’s that also feature prominently in his YA novel Little Brother, and if you want to contact him securely, you can find his public key in his Twitter bio.  In “Model Minority,” Lois delivers a two and a half page diatribe about racial bias in predictive policing, which the author even has her acknowledge as such in the text. The only justification for this is that, while didactic, there are certainly people who will find it more palatable to learn these concepts via fiction, which they might not otherwise seek out or consider. However, many science fiction fans will already be thinking about these issues.

After being postponed in March due to COVID-19, the Canada Reads debates began today in a near-empty Toronto studio with host Ali Hassan and defenders Akil Augustine, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel on-site, while George Canyon and Alayna Fender joined via video link from their homes in Calgary and Vancouver respectively. Radicalized was defended on Canada Reads 2020 by host and producer Akil Augustine, who is known for his work with the Toronto Raptors.

Radicalized was unique at the table in being a collection of novellas, facing off against two memoirs and two novels. Augustine seemed to anticipate that this might be an issue for his book, arguing in his opening statement that one singular story cannot tie together all the many necessary perspectives in the way that a collection can. However, this did not prove to be the focus of his opponent’s arguments. Actor Amanda Brugel brought the first critique, pointing out that three of the four stories in Radicalized were told through the perspectives of angry men, while the one woman of colour protagonist seemed less central to her own story than the toaster (see “Unauthorized Bread”). Indeed, the issue of gender became a flashpoint in the debate, with Augustine arguing that the men in Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club were not well-written and felt flat to him.

The theme for Canada Reads 2020 is “One book to bring Canada into focus,” and host Ali Hassan’s Day One questions focused on asking the defenders how well their books exemplified that theme, and which book at the table was least successful in their opinion. Once again, the debate quickly homed in on Radicalized and Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while the other three books were much less the center of discussion. Skating under the radar on Day One and avoiding an early elimination can be just as critical as a successful defense. Unsurprisingly, the question of whether Radicalized was sufficiently Canadian came up, a common critique in past Canada Reads debates. While Augustine argued that his book helped us to see how the issues we are facing in Canada are part of broader global issues to which we are connected in the modern world, both Alayna Fender and Kaniehtiio Horn argued that the book was not successful at bringing Canada into focus.

When the time came to cast the ballots, the panel split along gender lines, with Akil Augustine and George Canyon voting against Small Game Hunting at the Local Coward Gun Club, while Alayna Fender, Kaniehtiio Horn, and Amanda Brugel voted together against Radicalized, making it the first book to be eliminated from Canada Reads 2020. Akil Augustine remains at the table as this year’s first free agent. 

Ten Things That Keep Me Coming Back to Kushiel’s Dart

Cover image for Kushiel's Dart by Jacqueline CareyDisclaimer: I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher.

Abandoned by her parents on the doorstep of the Night Court—home to the courtesans of Terre D’Ange—Phèdre is groomed for a life of service to Naamah in the City of Elua. But a red spot in her left eye marks her unfit to officially serve in the Night Court, so her marque is sold to the courtier Anafiel Delaunay, who raises her up to be a spy as well as a courtesan. Delaunay is also the only one to recognize what the red mote in her eye betokens; Phèdre is marked by Blessed Elua’s companion Kushiel, and she is an anguisette, doomed to take her pleasure in pain. Without knowing the depths in which she is swimming, Phèdre stumbles upon the key to a plot that threatens the Crown, and indeed Terre D’Ange itself.

Originally published in 2001, Tor recently announced they would be reprinting Phèdre’s Trilogy this summer, starting with Kushiel’s Dart in June, and then one per month to finish out the summer. On receiving my copy, I was amused to notice for the first time that the book had been compared to George R. R. Martin, a fact which meant nothing to me when I first read it in high school, at least seven years before I picked up Game of Thrones. I wrote a full-length review of this book back in 2017, the last time I reread it, so today I thought we’d do something a little different, and hit my top ten favourite things that keep me coming back to this series again and again. Warning: here there be spoilers! For a spoiler-free introduction, see my original review.

10. Terre D’Ange Kushiel’s Dart is a hefty 900 page epic, and Jacqueline Carey spends the better part of the first hundred and fifty pages using Phèdre’s education as an excuse for world-building. The D’Angelines are the scions of Blessed Elua, who was born of the co-mingled blood of the dying Yeshua ben Yosef and the tears of the Magdelene, and his companions, angels who turned from the service of the One God when he rejected Elua and turned him out to wander the Earth.

9. “Love as thou wilt” – The chief precept of Blessed Elua, and a governing principle for all D’Angelines is a breath of fresh air in the realm of epic fantasy, which often isn’t terribly concerned with consent. (CW: The Skaldi do not abide by this precept so the book isn’t perfect in this regard). And while it is nowhere mentioned in the first volume of the series, Carey later reveals that D’Angeline women do not conceive until they visit the temple of Eisheth and ask to do so!  

8. The Night Court – Along with the precept of Blessed Elua, the other half of the sex-positive foundation of this world lies in the Service of Naamah. Of those cast down from heaven to follow Elua, Naamah served by selling her body, and so in Terre D’Ange, courtesans are something akin to priestesses, practicing a holy art that is governed by custom and contract.

7. Alcuin nó Delaunay – Phèdre’s foster-brother and fellow pupil is her companion in the service of Anafiel Delaunay, and her conspirator in trying to unravel the mysterious history of their benefactor. More politically astute than Phèdre, but less well-suited to the service of Naamah, I maintain to this day that Alcuin deserved more!

6. Rolande de la Courcel – The Dauphin of Terre D’Ange died at the Battle of the Three Princes, destabilizing the Courcel succession, so we never meet him on the page, but his love affair with Anafiel Delaunay is a driving force behind the story. Delaunay and Prince Rolande met at the University of Tiberium, and their back story is a spin-off that I’ve never stopped wanting.

5. “All knowledge is worth having”Kushiel’s Dart is an epic fantasy centered on spies and courtesans; they deal in information, the subtle trade that underpins the royal court. Phèdre learns Caerdicci, the language of scholars, in the Night Court, and when she comes to Delaunay she is also schooled in Skaldi and Cruithne. Her facility with languages becomes as important as her courtesan’s wiles.

4. “That which yields is not always weak” – There are warriors aplenty in Kushiel’s Dart, men and women alike, but Phèdre nó Delaunay isn’t one of them. By the end of the book, Phèdre has been a spy, a courtesan, a slave, an ambassador, and a messenger, and she wins all her victories on her wits and her charms, rather than by might of arms.

3. Grainne mac Conor – Speaking of warrior women, the mightiest of them is the Lady of the Dalriada, who rules alongside her twin brother, Eamonn. As brash as her brother is cautious, Grainne takes Phèdre to her bed to make her brother jealous enough to go to war alongside the Cruithne, and then rides to battle at Troyes-le-Mont pregnant with her second child.

2. Drustan mab Necthana – There are two romances at the heart of this book, and one of them is the secret betrothal between Ysandre de la Courcel, and Drustan mab Necthana, the rightful Cruarch of Alba. The Cruithne are matrilineal, and Drustan was the heir to his uncle’s throne before it was usurped by his cousin, and he must reclaim it in order to win passage across the straights, and wed the Dauphine. Meanwhile in Terre D’Ange, Ysandre has rebuffed a succession of suitors to remain true to her promise to Drustan, even as her grandfather ages, and their grip on the crown becomes ever more perilous.

1. Joscelin Verreuil – The second sons of Siovale are sworn to the service of Cassiel, and the celibate Cassiline brothers are trained from the age of ten as elite bodyguards. We meet Joscelin when Delaunay contracts him to protect Phèdre, but the plot against them is deeper than anyone could guess. A Cassiline’s word is his bond, but Phèdre will test his vows again and again as their adventures take them across the known world. Candidly, the complex relationship between Phèdre and Joscelin is the best thing about this entire series–contracting a celibate warrior-priest to protect a courtesan goes about as well as you would expect!

If you’ve read Kushiel’s Dart, tell me about the parts you loved! I know there are at least a couple of fan favourites that I haven’t even mentioned here.

The Empire of Gold (The Daevabad Trilogy #3)

Cover image for The Empire of Gold by S.A. Chakrabortyby S.A. Chakraborty

ISBN 978-0-06-267816-4

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

“I find that those who look on politics with contempt are usually the first to be dragged down by them.”

Daevabad has fallen to the machinations of Banu Manizheh, and her Afshin, Darayavahoush. Nahri and Ali have fled, leaving the city in the hands of a brutal conqueror who seems poised to be even crueler than the tyrant she overthrew. But Suleiman’s Seal was never meant to leave Daevabad, and the consequences reach across much of the magical world, stripping the daevas of their powers. Only Dara and Manizheh’s ifrit retain their magic, leaving the people of Daevabad helpless, though the Geziri and the shafit try to mount a resistance led by Zaynab al Qahtani. Even Ali’s mysterious marid powers seem to have been affected in strange ways, though perhaps this is because he now bears Suleiman’s Seal. Thrust unexpectedly into the human world, Ali and Nahri must decide whether to return to Daevabad and fight for the throne to which each of them might stake a claim.

While five years passed between The City of Brass and The Kingdom of Copper, Empire of Gold picks up in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Daevabad. After five years as a prisoner of the al Qahtanis, trapped in a political marriage to Ali’s brother Muntadhir, Nahri is finally free, and unexpectedly finds herself back in Cairo. Returned to her human home, and stripped of her Nahid powers, Nahri seriously considers letting Daevabad fade into memory, and apprenticing herself to her old apothecary friend Yaqub. Meanwhile, Ali’s thoughts turn to Ta Ntry, and the possibility of reuniting with his exiled mother, Queen Hatset. He has questions about his marid magic, and suspects that the answer lies in his Ayaanle heritage, which he has long been subsuming in favour of his father’s Geziri bloodline. But with Ghassan dead, and his djinn magic snuffed out, the water is calling to Ali in new ways. Neither Nahri nor Ali ever expected to be called to rule, but now the question of that potential responsibility weighs heavily on them as they look to an uncertain future.

One of the stand out features of this series has always been the complex dynamic S.A. Chakraborty created between the different magical beings of the world, and even within the ranks and classes of the djinn themselves. Those rivalries come to a head here, as Manizheh takes revenge for the deposed Nahids, having conquered Daevabad by unleashing a genocidal magic against the Geziri in The Kingdom of Copper. Though she has reclaimed the palace of her ancestors, and nominally rules the city, the various quarters remained locked tight against her, with the daevas fearing to trust such a brutal takeover, even by one of their own. Once, Manizheh was Ghassan’s prisoner, bent to his purposes, and fighting desperately to prevent the union she knew he desired. But while her past is tragic, she now she seems determined to visit that abuse upon others, willing to pay any price for power.

In the midst of all this, Dara takes center stage. As Manizheh’s long-trusted servant, and one of the only magical beings left in Daevabad, it is up to him to control the city his mistress has conquered. If he refuses, control falls to the conniving ifrit Aeshma, whose influence with Manizheh Dara already deeply mistrusts. Chakraborty delves deeper into Dara’s backstory, revealing the scene in which as a young Afshin, the Nahid council called him to Qui-zi, the massacre that would earn him the moniker Scourge. Dara may be even more hated in Daevabad than Manizheh herself, and it seems impossible for one person to hold the city against the inevitable uprising forever. Worse, Dara is tortured by the question of whether he made the wrong choice when he remained loyal to Manizheh rather than following Nahri. Manizheh seems to be turning ever further towards darkness as she seeks to replace the power she lost when Suleiman’s Seal slipped through her fingers. And Dara must face the question of what further horrors he is willing to perform in the name of the loyalty he swore to the Nahids long ago. Although a sympathetic character, Empire of Gold calls Dara to account for the orders he has willingly obeyed.

In the final volume of the Daevabad trilogy, S.A. Chakraborty delivers a whopping 784 page series ender that upends the established politics of Daevabad by delving into questions of family legacy, intergenerational trauma, monarchy, governance, genocide, authoritarianism and the distribution of power. Dara, Nahri, and Ali share narration through rotating perspectives with escalating cliffhangers, though many of Chakraborty’s other conniving, memorable characters appear as well as she brings this sprawling Islamic fantasy to its epic conclusion.

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Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5)

Cover image for Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9930-4

“Have you noticed that the doors come for us when we’re young enough to believe we know everything, and toss us out again as soon as we’re old enough to have doubts? I can’t decide whether it’s an infinite kindness or an incredible cruelty.”

In the fifth installment of the Wayward Children series, Seanan McGuire continues the story of Jack and Jill, twin sisters who found a doorway to another world in a trunk in their attic. The door opened onto the Moors, a world under a crimson moon where dark powers hold one another in a constant battle for balance. In Down Among the Sticks and Bones, we followed Jack and Jill through their door, and to their eventual expulsion from the Moors. In Every Heart a Doorway, we witnessed their bloody return to that world, and were left wondering about the consequences. Now Jill has snatched Jack’s body, and the twin sisters are locked in a battle for the future of their world.

At the heart of Come Tumbling Down is the nature of evil and monsters. Meditating on Jill’s deceptively innocent appearance, Christopher reflects that “Something about the way she’d wrapped her horror movie heart in ribbons and bows had reminded him of a corpse that hadn’t been properly embalmed, like she was pretty on the outside and rotten on the inside. Terrifying and subtly wrong.” Jack finds herself trapped inside this “charnel house” of a body, ostensibly identical to her own, and yet terrifyingly different. Coping with her OCD proves to be a particular challenge in these unique circumstances, and yet the battle must go on. Returning to Eleanor West’s school, Jack recruits several of her former classmates to help stop Jill before it is too late.

Thanks to the events of Beneath the Sugar Sky, it is great to have Sumi back amongst our adventurers. We know that sooner or later her door will come for her, and she will go back to Confection, but for now she joins her school friends on yet another forbidden quest. As a character who travelled to a Nonsense world, Sumi gets a lot of the best lines, coming out with bizarre yet accurate comparisons and strikingly observant insights. As someone who would almost certainly find a Logic world behind my own door, I always find her peculiar forthrightness strangely refreshing.

The other adventurers are Cora, mermaid heroine of Beneath the Sugar Sky, and Christopher, lost love of the Skeleton princess, and Kade, Goblin Prince in Waiting, and heir to Eleanor West’s school for wayward children like himself. They are none of them suited to the world of the Moors, but as heroes who once answered the call of their own doors, they are no less ready to answer the call of friend in need. It also hints at a school that might be very different under Kade’s management. Eleanor tries to persuade them from the quest, lamenting “I should have reminded you of the rules when Rini fell out of the sky. No quests. It’s so easy to become addicted to them, and so hard to break the habit once it takes hold.” But heroes are not so easily dissuaded.

Come Tumbling Down also draws some parallels to the previous installment, In an Absent Dream. Just as Lundy and Moon’s friendship is slowly poisoned by inequality and debt, Jack keeps saving Jill, even at a terrible cost to herself, and those around her. True, Sumi “got over” being dead at Jill’s hand with a little help from her friends, but Lundy and Loriel are never coming back.  Alexis will never be whole and healthy again, despite her resurrection. The outcome of Chester and Serena Walcott’s petty insistence on differentiating their twin daughters and pitting them against one another plays out on a grander and more terrible stage than those wayward parents could ever have imagined, leading the sisters into a final, fateful confrontation with inevitable casualties.

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In an Absent Dream (Wayward Children #4)

Cover image for In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireby Seanan McGuire

ISBN 978-0-7653-9929-8

“You can’t save anyone if you neglect yourself. All you can do is fall slowly with them.”

One day, Katherine Victoria Lundy will be a teacher at Eleanor West’s school for wayward children. One day, she will help teach and guide the children who come back from impossible adventures, and spend every day hoping that their door will return to take them back to their true home. But once, a long time ago, it was Lundy who found an impossible door, one that came back for her again and again. But always, she had to remember the curfew; on her eighteenth birthday, the doors would close forever, and she would have to choose which side of it she would be on. Once, that choice would have been easy, and Lundy would have chosen Moon, the Archivist, and the magic of the Goblin Market without hesitation. But a bargain must always give fair value, and it wouldn’t be a bargain without a cost.

The Wayward Children series began in 2016 with Every Heart a Doorway, in which a series of murders took place at the school, including those of Sumi and Lundy. 2017’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones was a prequel, recounting Jack and Jill’s trip to the Moors before they landed at the school. Beneath the Sugar Sky (2018) was an impossible sequel, in which a dead girl’s unborn daughter arrives at the school looking for her mother, Sumi. In the fourth installment, Seanan McGuire takes us back further still, to Katherine Victoria Lundy’s quiet, 1960s suburban childhood. Friendless by virtue of her father’s being the school principal, Katherine is a self-sufficient girl who “keeps her own company” and finds her solace in books, until one day she looks up from Trixie Belden and the Black Jacket Mystery and finds an impossible door. I am probably not alone in feeling that of all the wayward children we have met so far, Lundy is the most like me, giving this installment a particular resonance.

The Goblin Market is the strictest and most fae-like of the portal worlds McGuire has presented Wayward Children readers with so far. The rules are clearly laid out, and with each trip through the door, Lundy becomes more bound to them. She is slowly growing out of the grace the world allows for children on their first, or even second visit. Above all, she must Be Sure. But if Lundy is well-suited for the Goblin Market, the same cannot be said of her best friend Moon, who was born to it, rather than chosen; it was her mother’s door, and she left her child there. Moon was the first person Lundy met when she came through her door, and that bond will never fade, but Moon only follows the rules because she fears punishment, and whenever Lundy isn’t around, she can’t seem to help herself getting into debt with the Market.

In an Absent Dream is fundamentally about unequal friendships. Differences that seem small and inconsequential when we are children grow with us until they overrun the relationship, and even a shared history can no longer bind us. Lundy keeps paying Moon’s debts, even when she is warned that Moon will one day resent owing her so much, even when it comes at Lundy’s own danger and expense. “No one serves their friends by grinding themselves into dust on the altar of compassion,” but Lundy seems determined to try. She binds herself tightly to those few she chooses, and remains loyal to the bitter, inevitable end. Even more so than Down Among the Sticks and Bones, In an Absent Dream has a tragic sense of inevitability. We know that Lundy will eventually make a bad bargain, and we know the end it will lead her to. But, as ever, it is the journey that provides the fascination.