Category: Speculative Fiction

One Last Stop

Cover image for One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston

by Casey McQuiston

ISBN 9781250244499

“August looks at her as the train reverses past Gravesend rooftops, this girl out of time, the same face and body and hair and smile that took August’s life by the shoulders in January and shook. And she can’t believe Jane had the nerve, the audacity, to become the one thing August can’t resist: a mystery.”

Leaving her eccentric mother behind in New Orleans, August Landry moves to New York in search of a new start, a city where she might actually fit, and a new college where she might finally finish her degree. A childhood spent helping her mother try to solve the cold case of Suzette Landry’s missing brother and August’s namesake has left her wary and mistrustful, and New York seems like just the kind of place for a girl like her. But then August meets a beautiful, charming, mysterious woman on her subway commute. With her tattoos, leather jacket, and old-school Walkman, Jane Su looks like a 70s punk rock dream. But as August gets to know her she realizes that somehow—impossibly—Jane is literally trapped out of time, having become stuck on the Q subway line in the mid-1970s. Suddenly, the investigative skills August learned at her mother’s knee are more relevant than ever, even as she tries to keep herself from falling for the impossible girl on the train while also figuring out where she came from and how to get her home.

August is a prickly and mistrustful protagonist, carefully guarding her heart and cultivating her cynicism. We learn over the course of the book how she came to be that way, from her complex relationship with her mother to her nearly non-existent relationship with her grandparents. However, her opening up begins not with meeting her love interest Jane but when she moves into the crowded old apartment above the Popeye’s with Myla, Niko, and Wes. If you love a good found family story, this book delivers. August becomes part of their chosen family, and it is this as much as anything that begins to open her up to the possibility of being in love with Jane, even if it takes her a while to admit to her feelings. Falling in love with someone who might not be entirely real, who might disappear at any moment, is a fundamentally vulnerable act.

The subplot of the book focuses on Billy’s Pancake House, where August gets a job, and where Jane used to work back when it opened in 1976. As Brooklyn gentrifies and rent rises, the beloved diner is in danger of going out of business, but the community rallies together to try to raise the necessary funds to help Billy buy the building when he can’t get a loan. If the friends August meets in her new apartment become her found family, Billy’s is about the larger community into which they fit, and McQuiston slips in bits of history about New York and its queer community.

In terms of genre, One Last Stop is modern romance with a touch of the paranormal. Jane is stuck out of time on the train, and is capable of various feats that should be impossible, but she is fully corporeal and definitely not dead (per se). Additionally, August’s roommate Niko is a psychic, adding another touch of magic to the largely normal world in which the story is set. New York is otherwise New York as we know it. Content warnings for the book are available on the author’s site.

This is How You Lose the Time War

by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone

ISBN 9781534431010

“It occurs to me to dwell on what a microcosm we are of the war as a whole, you and I. The physics of us. An action and an equal and opposite reaction.”

The future is malleable, shaped and reshaped by agents from rival factions, traveling up and down the threads of history to mold events to suit their own agendas. Red is among the best operatives for the techno-utopian Agency, winning against the agents sent by organic-futurist Garden time and again. But amidst the ashes of what should be her greatest victory, Red senses something amiss, a salvo from a rival operative that will change everything. In the ruins of the battlefield she finds a communication from an agent on the opposing side, one of the most challenging operatives Red has ever gone head to head with, her most worthy opponent. The letter is a taunt, an invitation, a beginning. In the midst of this endless war, Red and Blue strike up a secret correspondence that transcends the central dichotomy of their existence. As they continue to do battle, and exchange their hidden messages, they discover that they have more in common than they ever could have imagined. But what possible future is there two people trapped on opposite sides of a war that never ends?

The story is told is the form of a novella with alternating points of view, including the letters passed between Red and Blue. It is not entirely epistolary, but significantly so. Between the exchanges lurks the Seeker, a mysterious figure that seems to be tracking Red and Blue’s correspondence, yet not betraying it to either the Commandant or Garden. They work opposite sides of the same missions, and spend other years never crossing paths, but always there is another letter, another conflict, another battle to be won or lost. Both sides are beautifully written—Red by Max Gladstone, and Blue by Amal El-Mohtar—so that while it was a relatively short read, I spent quite a lot of time on it, just luxuriating in the distinct voices and the beautiful prose.

This is How You Lose the Time War is highly focused on the main characters. The two rival futures are rarely depicted, and the sides little described, so that there is no clear idea of either side being definitely right or wrong. The war is a vague, nebulous thing, while Red and Blue shine crisp and clear. There are relatively few other significant characters, though both agents come face to face with the heads of their respective factions at critical junctures. They both work largely alone, and while they may embed themselves in a single strand of history for a while, it inevitably comes time to move on to the next mission. They become the singular most consistent point in one another’s lives, even as they never interact directly, always keeping their distance, ever mindful of being watched by their respective commanders.

The letters begin with rivalry and taunts, but bend towards intimacy and mutual understanding as the correspondence progresses. Both Red and Blue have unique traits that make them especially good agents, but also set them slightly apart from their fellows. Together they meditate on hunger, loneliness, trust and the nature of living out of time. For the first time, they discover what it is to want something for themselves, rather than simply wanting to win. While they are naturally competitive, their romance slowly wins out over rivalry until they are forced into a final confrontation. The ending is hopeful, but as loosely defined as the time war itself, and the worlds of Agency and Garden, leaving the reader free to imagine what they will.

Canada Reads Along 2021: Hench

Cover image for Hench by Natalie Zina Walschotsby Natalie Zina Walschots

ISBN 9780062978578

“Doc Proton told me, ‘You make your own nemesis.’ I didn’t understand it then. I thought it was one of those things a rambling old hero said to sound wise. But it’s been absolutely true. Every evil, every great power that has ever risen to challenge me, every arch villain who’s ever been an actual threat, was someone whose path I altered. I set our enmity in motion every time. A tiny action can cause an avalanche.”

Anna Tromedlov is a hench. She does data entry and analysis for supervillains to pay the bills, and keep food on the table, making the trek down to the Agency for her next gig whenever the money runs out. She prefers to work from home, office work if she must, but never, ever field work. When she gets a new gig with a villain known as the Electric Eel, she thinks her temping days are done. Instead she finds herself pulled into the field, where a catastrophic encounter with a superhero known as Supercollider shatters her body. During her long recovery, Anna begins to wonder how many others like her have been harmed or disabled by the devastating overresponse of heroes. Using her talent for data analysis, she runs the numbers and starts the Injury Report, a blog where she calculates the cost of life and money caused by heroes. The math does not come out in their favour; they do more harm than good. When her work catches the eye of Leviathan—the biggest supervillain of them all and the arch nemesis of the hero who hurt her—Anna finds herself with a new gig using data to take down heroes in unexpected ways.

If you’ve ever watched a superhero movie and marveled at the collateral damage wreaked by a battle in the middle of downtown Manhattan, to both bystanders and property, you will probably be fascinated by Hench. When we meet Anna, she is just a temp, taking any data entry job that she can get her hands on. Positions that play to her strengths, pay her bills, and keep her out of the field, where things can get really dangerous. After all Anna doesn’t have any superpowers, let alone invulnerability. Her talent lies in data analysis, and the power of a good spreadsheet to bring the world into focus. During her one trip into the field, she suffers both physical trauma and long-term anxiety as a result of her injury at the hands of Supercollider, and becomes hyper-fixated on calculating the cost of the damages superheroes cause to society.

Hench paints the world in shades of grey, arguing that the main difference between superheroes and supervillains is good marketing, and their perceived alignment with the institutions of society. Much of the book is about the mundanity of evil, in addition to the fallibility of heroes. Anna lives a surprisingly normal looking life for much of the book, going on dates, hanging out with her best friend, dealing with coworkers and office politics. She hires and trains new employees, fights and makes up with her best friend, loses out on a date because of the nature of her job. Sometimes she grits her teeth and does things that make her feel squeamish, and other times she acts with the righteous fury of an avenger who knows that the math supports her actions. What she never asks is whether she, or anyone else, should have the right to make those decisions at all.

In most respects, the world of Hench is entirely recognizable and mundane outside of the superhero system. Much of this world building happens very peripherally, and over the course of the book we learn that children are tested at the beginning and end of puberty for signs of superpowers, and those who are identified must join the Draft, becoming a superhero, or face being labelled a villain. Walschots has left the ending of this book open enough that there is definitely room for a sequel, and my hope for a follow up would be that it delves more into this system and the institutions that make superheroes and villains in the first place.

Hench was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by actor Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and was one of two genre fiction novels brought to the table this year along with The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polk which was defended by Rosey Edeh and eliminated on Day Two. Throughout the week, Lee repeatedly urged readers and his fellow panelists to look beneath the surface, and not dismiss Hench simply because it was a book about superheroes and villains. He praised the book for being subversive and inclusive, but also fun to read, arguing that this would make it accessible to audiences while also asking them to think about issues of power, accountability and collateral damage, and who gets a free pass in our society.

Scott Helman was one of the earliest panelists to critique Hench back on Day One of the debates, citing its moral relativism and nihilism as reasons that he struggled to connect with the book. It was clear that a sense of hope, uplift, or reconciliation was something he was looking for in order to be transported. Lee’s counterargument was that Hench leaves it to the reader to mull over the complexities of good and evil rather than offering easy answers. Roger Mooking also pointed out that Hench is a book that rejects easy binaries.

Day Three of the debates focused around questions about resilience, trauma, and accessibility of the texts, as well as which book most effectively expanded the panelists’ understanding of an experience different from their own. Olympian Rosey Edeh admired the way Hench took readers inside the experience of a person who had both an agile mind and a physical disability, illustrating the resilience of Anna’s character. The panelists also got into a bit of a sidetrack about the nicheness of superheroes, and whether that premise would be alienating for some readers, or if the popularity of the Marvel Cinematic Universe would actually signal that this concept has broad appeal and accessibility to audiences.

When the ballots were counted, Roger Mooking cast the sole vote against Jonny Appleseed, while Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against Butter Honey Pig Bread. Rosey Edeh and Scott Helman voted against Hench. The vote came to a tie for the second day in a row, with the tie breaking vote going to the panelist who did not vote for either of the books that were part of the tie. As the defender of Butter Honey Pig Bread, Roger Mooking naturally voted against Hench, making it the third book eliminated from Canada Reads 2021.

Need to catch up on Canada Reads Along 2021? Start here!

Canada Reads Along 2021: The Midnight Bargain

Cover image for The Midnight Bargain by C.L. Polkby C.L. Polk

ISBN 9781645660071

“Beatrice didn’t want to hear what she would have if she were a man. She didn’t want to be a man. She wanted to be a magician.”

In Chasland, magic is the realm of men. Among women, only widows and crones can pursue the arcane arts. Married women are locked into warding collars that shield them from magic in order to prevent spirits from possessing their unborn children. Problematic daughters may be collared even before their weddings. Young women with magical talent are valued only as the mothers of the next generation of male magicians. Each year brings bargaining season, when the ingénues descend on Bendleton for a series of balls, parties, and marriage negotiations. Beatrice Clayborn is about to make her debut in desperate bid to save her family from desperate financial straits, but in her heart she would prefer to pursue life as a magician, even if it means being called a thornback. At the beginning of bargaining season, Beatrice finds a grimoire in a bookshop that may hold the key to making the greater bargain with a spirit and staving off marriage forever. But the book is taken from under her by the wealthy heiress Ysbeta Lavan and her brother Ianthe, who have traveled from Llanandras for bargaining season. Ysbeta is as desperate as Beatrice for a solution to the marriage problem, but she will need Beatrice’s help to decode the grimoire.

Ysbeta and Ianthe come from Llanandras, a country with a more liberal policy towards women and magic; women are only shielded during their pregnancies. Nevertheless, their mother has brought Ysbeta to the Chasland marriage mart in hopes of brokering an advantageous alliance for their trading company, regardless of the cost to her daughter personally. Ysbeta would prefer to remain unwed, and as she and Beatrice get to know one another, it becomes clear that her plans for the future involve neither marriage nor children. Beatrice, by contrast, dreams of a world where she can have it all, while her younger sister Harriet has made her magic small in order to focus on her own future bargaining season. I appreciated that the book showed women with a variety of dreams for the future, and centered their right to make that choice for themselves rather than positioning a single outcome as the ideal. Although the book is currently a standalone, I would absolutely read a follow up from Ysbeta’s perspective.

In addition to marriage, The Midnight Bargain also explores the conflicts between women created by the patriarchal system they live under. Beatrice’s own sister betrays some of her secrets to their parents when she believes something bad may have happened to her, only to unleash a worse punishment. When Beatrice and Ysbeta seek help from a network of women magicians, the power wielded by their families and the potential backlash of aiding the escape of two ingénues is deemed too risky for the rest of the network. Both girls are facing potential betrayal by their own mothers, who are shepherding their daughters towards a terrible future. I was particularly curious to know more about Beatrice’s mother, who makes some difficult choices in the course of the narrative that show she is not entirely at peace with her situation despite outward appearances. I particularly liked that Beatrice and Ysbeta became allies rather than rivals, even though their alliance is often an uneasy one since their aims are sometimes at odds.

Ianthe is Beatrice’s love interest, and a more tolerant and liberal-minded young man that she is used to meeting with. For the first time, marriage doesn’t seem quite so unthinkable; Ianthe listens to her ideas and would clearly allow her more freedom than her mother has ever enjoyed. In some ways, however, this complicates the narrative. Beatrice would be free to hate a husband she took only to save her family. If she managed to make the greater bargain with a spirit and become a fully-fledged magician, she would never regret passing up the chance to wed any of the local men. Ianthe represents a compromise she must decide if she can make without coming to hate him, or herself. C.L. Polk adds depth to their relationship by acknowledging the sacrifice Beatrice would still be making in marrying Ianthe; though he might seem the obvious choice, it would still represent a loss of Beatrice’s freedom and self-determination to place the key to her collar in his hands.

The Midnight Bargain was defended on Canada Reads 2021 by Olympian and broadcaster Rosey Edeh. She touted her selection as an immersive narrative appropriate for a wide range of readers, and also highlighted the fast pacing and linear narrative as benefits in a time when many of us are stressed and distracted. However, she also urged readers to look to the complexity beneath the surface, for a story about race, magic, complex friendships, and self-determination. The book has a subversive undercurrent that might initially be missed beneath the romance, magic, and world building, creating a richly layered story.

Day Two of the debates opened a round table format that allowed each defender a one minute opening statement, followed by a discussion of their books by the other panelists. Each defender was then given a thirty second closing before the votes were cast. The Midnight Bargain first came under fire from Devery Jacobs, who also spoke against the book on Day One. She argued that the book had some problems with repetition that made her feel like the author was spoon feeding her. Edeh’s rebuttal focused on the importance of repetition and reinforcement in a journey of the mind where the character is setting herself against society in order to achieve what everyone says is an impossible goal.

Roger Mooking’s criticism of the book focused more on the believability of the fact that Beatrice would give up the grimoire to Ysbeta in the bookshop, the inciting incident for the entire narrative. He felt that this was implausible, while Edeh argued that this moment, in addition to setting up the conflict, is a powerful illustration of Beatrice’s social training, the very thing that she needs to overcome in order to reach her goal. She is keenly aware of the problems her actions may cause her family, and also of the power imbalance between the Clayborns and the Lavans in terms of both their wealth and their station in society. That she concedes in this moment both kicks off the story, and provides an important act of world-building while helping us understand her character.

When the time came to cast the ballots, Devery Jacobs and Paul Sun-Hyung Lee voted against The Midnight Bargain, with Lee citing the fact that he felt it was the type of story he had read many times before. Devery Jacobs had also voted against the book on Day One. Both Rosey Edeh and Roger Mooking cast their votes against Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead, creating a tie between two books. Scott Helman, who initially voted against Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots, was called in to be the tie breaker. Helman was a free agent today after the elimination of his pick, Two Trees Make a Forest, on Day One. Citing the fact that he became a little bit tired with the Regency aspect, and the wealth of the characters, he elected to eliminate The Midnight Bargain, making it the second book voted off of Canada Reads 2021.

You might also like Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Howl’s Moving Castle

Cover image for Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jonesby Diana Wynne Jones

ISBN 9780062244512

“What an outspoken old woman you are! I’ve reached that stage in my career when I need to impress everyone with my power and wickedness. I can’t have the King thinking well of me. And last year I offended someone very powerful and I need to keep out of their way.”

All the residents of Market Chipping have heard of the terrible Wizard Howl, whose moving castle lurks over the hills and moors surrounding the town. The Wizard Howl is a terrible fiend known for stealing and eating the hearts of young girls. Sophie Hatter is the eldest of three daughters, and everyone knows that in fairy tales the eldest is doomed to meet the worst fate, while the youngest has all the adventures and marries the prince. Sophie tries to tell herself she is resigned to her fate, sewing hats in her father’s shop. But when she accidentally runs afoul of the Witch of the Waste, Sophie leaves home to seek her fate, despite being the eldest daughter. Cursed to look like an old woman, Sophie seeks out the moving castle, and strikes a bargain with Howl’s fire demon that will have far reaching consequences.

Howl’s Moving Castle is perhaps my favourite Studio Ghibli movies, so it is a bit surprising that it took me this long to get around to reading the book it was based on, which was originally published in 1986. Part of the appeal of this narrative is Sophie, a strong-willed character, but one who has been hiding her opinions and forcefulness behind the polite, timid façade expected of a young woman and dutiful eldest daughter. The witch’s curse, which transforms Sophie into an old woman, frees her from much of that expectation, allowing her character to come through more strongly. Diana Wynne Jones writes that “as a girl, Sophie would have shriveled with embarrassment at the way she was behaving. As an old woman, she did not mind what she did or said. She found that a great relief.” She is well-matched against the tumultuous and mercurial Howl in temperament, and her new life also frees her to discover her own magic.

One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the emphasis on the portal fantasy, including Howl’s connection to our world. As in the film, the castle has four entrances, each in a different physical location. In the book, but not the movie, the black door leads to our world, specifically to Wales, where Howl—aka Howell Jenkins—has left behind his sister, niece, and nephew. The addition of Howl’s family adds an important dimension to his character, and provides an angle of attack for the Witch of the Waste that is missing from the film. This eventually leads to a confrontation with the witch’s fire demon, the source of her power, and possibly also the cause of her wickedness. Overall, the witch’s storyline is more satisfying and coherent in the book as a result of these developments.

The book has room to flesh out characters and subplots that were cut from the film, including Sophie’s family as well as Howl’s. In the book, Sophie has two sisters, one apprenticed to a baker, the other to a sorceress, while Sophie stays at home to inherit the hat shop. Their father dies early in the story, leaving Sophie, her sisters, and stepmother to pick up the pieces. The book also develops a variety of connections between the characters, such a romance between Howl’s apprentice Michael—who is a teenager rather than a young boy as in the film—and Sophie youngest sister, Martha. Miyazaki’s film did excellent work with the source material, but the extra layers of detail and character development allowed for in the book add something to this whimsical and endearing story that is now hailed as a forerunner to modern British fantasy.

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Wicked Fox

Cover image for Wicked Fox by Kat ChoKat Cho

ISBN 9781984812353

“Gu Miyoung’s relationship with the moon was complicated, as are most relationships centered around power.”

Gu Miyoung has recently moved to Seoul with her mother, and started school as a perpetual transfer student. Miyoung is half-human, half-gumiho, the nine-tailed fox spirit of legend, which preys upon men in order to retain immortality. Miyoung is used to being a loner, but something goes wrong her very first hunt in Seoul, when she encounters a dokkaebi, a sort of goblin. Only the interference of a human boy helps her save herself, although she also saves the boy. But in the fight, she expels her yeowu guseul, the fox bead that is the essence of the gumiho. The boy, Anh Jihoon, touches the bead, forging an unintentional connection between them. Miyoung hopes that she can ignore the boy, and focus on figuring out how to reabsorb her bead, but then she lands in class with Jihoon, forcing them to face their newfound connection.

Parent-child relationships form an important part of Wicked Fox, and Miyoung has long had a rift with her mother, Gu Yena, over the method of feeding that keeps gumiho alive. Yena extracts the life force, or gi, from men by consuming their livers. Miyoung will only hunt on the full moon, when she can siphon the gi painlessly from her victims, sparing them a violent death even if she must take their lives. She has also secretly begun selecting her victims with the help of a shaman, who can commune with ghosts, and help lay those hungry spirits to rest by having Miyoung avenge their deaths, ensuring that her victims are only the vilest of men. Still, Miyoung is not at peace with what she must do to survive. Although she has trusted her mother implicitly for most of her life, Miyoung cannot tell her the truth about what has happened with her yeowu guseul without putting Jihoon’s life in danger; Yena would not hesitate to eliminate him for knowing too much. Miyoung tries to solve the problem on her own, but she is limited by the secrets that her mother has been keeping from her.

Wicked Fox intersperses the narrative chapters with mythological interludes on the history of the gumiho in general, and Gu Yena in particular. Author Kat Cho engages with the complexity of the gumiho legend, and how it interacts with beliefs about women’s sexuality. When Jihoon asks his halmeoni how the gumiho became evil, she replies that “men fell in love with gumiho because they were beautiful. Then they blamed their adultery on the creatures instead of accepting their own mistakes. Maybe it happened often enough that it became normal to say gumiho lured men into cheating on their wives.” Cho also includes a chonggak dokkaebi, a male goblin that attracts women in a similar way, balancing out the mythologies.

Although Miyoung and Jihoon form a romantic attachment, Wicked Fox is about interpersonal relationships in many forms. Jihoon has a close relationship with his grandmother, but is estranged from his mother, who abandoned him when he was young, and eventually started a new family. He also contends with how the secrets he keeps for Miyoung impact his friendships with his human friends Changwan and Somin. Cho cautions that “love and lies do not mix well,” and this plays out again and again across all kinds of relationships. For her part, Miyoung has only ever been allowed to be close to her mother, but she is drawn into Jihoon’s group at school despite her efforts to keep them at arm’s length. Miyoung sees her own monstrousness in the things she must do to survive, but fails to consider that “isolation is the enemy of humanity. Loneliness is a threat to empathy.”

Wicked Fox builds to the climax I was expecting by the midpoint of the book, then takes a turn for the second half, widening in scope. The ending is left open for a sequel that explores the consequences of the choices Miyoung and Jihoon make, and the losses they have endured.

Spin the Dawn

Cover image for Spin the Dawn by Elizabeth Lim by Elizabeth Lim

ISBN 9780525647010

“You will hold the seams of our family together, Maia. No other tailor in the world can do that.”

As the youngest child and only daughter of Master Tailor Kalsang Tamarin, Maia knows that she will never inherit her father’s title. Not only does she have three older brothers, but the title cannot be held by a woman in her own right. Nevertheless, Maia is the most dedicated to the family’s trade, while her brothers dream of other things. Then war comes to A’landi, and two of Maia’s brothers are taken, and the third severely injured. After five years of fighting, Emperor Khanujin strikes a marriage alliance with the shansen’s daughter, Lady Sarnai, to bring peace at last. In honour of their wedding, a new imperial tailor will be selected, and Kalsang Tamarin is summoned to the Summer Palace to compete for the position. Too broken by drink and grief, Maia’s father has not sewn in years, while her youngest brother is still recovering from the war, and cannot equal his father’s skill anyway. Disguised as Keton Tamarin, Maia answers the call to represent her family, plunged into a world of imperial politics, and impossible challenges set by a reluctant bride who has been sold by her father in exchange for peace. Only with the help of the Lord Enchanter may Maia have a chance to survive the intrigues of the court and prove her skill as the best tailor in the land.

Spin the Dawn in the first in a duology that follows the trials and adventures of Maia Tamarin. Elizabeth Lim has divided the novel into three parts, including The Trial, The Journey, and The Oath. The first part of the book focuses on Maia’s arrival at the imperial court, and the fierce competition for the position of imperial tailor. The incumbent died under mysterious circumstances, and the selection of his successor is looking to be equally fraught. As the youngest candidate without a reputation of her own, Maia is in a weak position despite her evident skill. She has also drawn the attention of the Lord Enchanter, who may know her secret, or have some other reason for watching her so closely. The other tailors are determined to win the post at any cost, and the Lady Sarnai has no interest in making the competition any easier. In fact, it seems that the shansen’s daughter will do anything to delay her marriage to the emperor. After setting a series of impossible challenges in the competition, she throws down the final gauntlet; the winner must gather sunbeams, moonlight, and the blood of the stars in order to sew the three dresses of the Goddess Amana for the imperial wedding.

Lady Sarnai is one of the more interesting characters in the book, but not one that we get much chance to explore deeply, as she disappears from the narrative when Maia leaves on her journey to gather the materials to make the legendary three dresses of Amana. Honestly, I would have been more interested to see what could have come from an alliance between Maia and Lady Sarnai than the romance that is developed in the second half with Maia and the Lord Enchanter. A fierce huntress with ideas of her own, Lady Sarnai has been betrayed by her own father, who promised never to marry her off. She is reportedly in love with Lord Xina, but has been forced into a marriage alliance instead, with a man who has been the enemy of her people. Biased by the differences of a five year war, she and Maia are set at odds where perhaps they could have been allies.

The second part of the book takes Maia out of the palace to gather the magical materials demanded of her impossible task. She is accompanied by Edan, the Lord Enchanter, who has become an unexpected ally but one she does not know much about or have a great deal of reason to trust. However, she needs his magic and knowledge to accomplish her impossible task. Over the course of their journey, Maia comes to understand the nature of Edan’s binding to Emperor Khanujin, and how he has been forced to serve the throne of A’landi for generations. On the road, the two fall in love as they face the dangers of the Halakamarat Desert, Rainmaker’s Peak, and the Forgotten Isles of Lapzur. They are racing against time, as the Lady Sarnai has declared the dresses must be complete by the time the Red Sun rises on the ninth day of the ninth month.

The final part of the book wraps up the challenge of the dresses of Amana, but opens a new challenge for Maia and Edan, surrounded by the circumstances of his oath, and the consequences of the choices they made on their journey. As I was not particularly invested in their relationship, I think that I will be unlikely to finish this series.

You might also be interested in The Star-Touched Queen 

Over the Woodward Wall

Cover image for Over the Woodward Wall by A. Deborah Bakerby A. Deborah Baker

ISBN 978-0-7653-9927-4

“Are you sure you want an ending? Endings are tricky things. They wiggle and writhe like worms, and once you have them, you can’t give them back again. You can hang them on hooks and sail the seas for sequels, if you realize you don’t like where your story stopped, but you’ll always have had an ending, and there will always be people who won’t follow you past that line. You lose things when you have an ending. Big things. Important things. Better not to end at all, if you can help it.”

Once upon a time, on an ordinary street, in an ordinary suburb, in an ordinary town, two perfectly ordinary children wake up on what should be an entirely ordinary day, only to find themselves on an adventure. Restless and quick, Zib Jones loves messes and surprises, and playing in the woods behind her house. Quiet and steady, Avery Grey is a boy who likes order and polish, and long hours spent at the library looking for the secrets of the universe. Though they are neighbours, these two very different children have never crossed paths, so the paths are about to cross for them, whether they will it or not. Despite being students at two entirely different schools, both children find a mysterious wall cutting through their neighbourhood where it has no right to be, blocking their way to school. On the other side is the Up-and-Under, and the adventure that awaits them there.

Over the Woodward Wall is the middle grade debut of fantasy author Seanan McGuire, writing as A. Deborah Baker (she also writes horror as Mira Grant). Tor describes it as a companion book to Middlegame, one of her books that I have not read yet. In many ways, however, it actually feels like a sibling book to McGuire’s Wayward Children series, but for a slightly younger audience. A wall leads to the Up-and-Under, not a doorway, but what comes next is much of a kind, a portal fantasy with two children on an adventure that is about self-discovery and finding their place in the world(s). This is as much about knowing where you do not belong as where you do, the choices that you make along the way, and the companions that you choose or discard.

Over the Woodward Wall employs a fairly self-conscious narration style, wordy and clever, one that draws attention to the fact that the story is being narrated rather than allowing you to relax into it. Baker does not want you to forget that this is a story, and that stories have rules, even if rules are meant to be broken, or at least interrogated. Although it is like a fairy tale, it is one that warns children against many of the things fairy tales sometimes perpetuate. The Queens of the Up-and-Under are beautiful, but “it is a myth that goodness is always lovely and wickedness is always dreadful to behold; the people who say such things have reason for their claims and would rather those reasons not be overly explored,” Baker warns. Similarly, “sometimes anger is a good, true thing, because the world is often unfair and unfairness deserves to be acknowledged. But all too often, anger is another feeling in its Sunday clothes, sadness or envy or—most dangerous of all—fear,” she cautions.

This book is only two hundred pages, and the ending still came more quickly than I expected, but Over the Woodward Wall is listed as first in a series, so there is likely more to come for Zib and Avery. I’ll definitely be sailing the seas for that sequel.