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This is the first novel in what will likely be a massive fantasy series by a very promising Nigerian author. Unlike several new epic fantasies, which I never quite got through, I finished this one in two long days of obsessive reading. It is a gritty novel that takes place on the continent of Oon, a small land of desert, rainforest, and savannah and home to several complex, interconnected countries. Though clearly not based on the European model of Courts and Kings, the warring states on the continent are every bit as domineering, corrupt, and nasty as those of any fantasy version of Europe.
The book has been described as an “African fantasy,” possibly because the phrase “African Game of Thrones” has already been taken (by Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf). As in Game of Thrones, the story is told from multiple perspectives. There is no one who is typically heroic, and almost everyone is misguided and a bit self-centered, if not actually evil. Unrecognized by most of the inhabitants, Oon is being threatened by drought and encroaching seas. Magic is rare, costly, and seems to involve a lot of blood and suffering. However, unlike in GoT, the author is acutely aware of the forces wrought by discrimination based on class and race, with the darkest Black people claiming superiority and very willing to kill to prove it.
The two main protagonists are Danso, a student of history at a prestigious university, and Estheme, his “intended,” studying law at the same university. They are both outcasts, though for different reasons, and will clearly have to take different paths to the gain the acceptance they crave. There is wisdom between the lines of their journeys; insight from the author into the causes and effects of racism, as well as acknowledgement of the difficulty of bringing about change. The end of this first book leaves a lot of questions, the answers to which will undoubtedly be riveting but not necessarily pleasant.
This book is a collaboration between author Joanne M. Harris, known best for her mainstream books (most famously, Chocolat, which was made into a movie), and fantasy/comics illustrator Charles Vess (Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Stardust). It is a series of short “original fairy tales,” none longer than a few pages, which together tell a deceptively simple tale of the Kings and Queens of the Folk, and their often-mystifying interactions with humans.
The illustrations are lovely and entirely fit the story, which is told with the distant, dispassionate prose often used for myths and children’s folk tales. The artwork, rendered in both in black-and-white and watercolor, likewise seems childlike, with spare lines and expressionless faces. But there is complexity behind both story and art, a deep exploration of morality, imagination, and the many ways in which humans deceive themselves.
This is not a book for children, even read aloud. It is not a book to be read quickly for excitement or thrills. It is meant to be read and re-read, examined and pondered. It is quite likely that each tale will say something a bit different with each reading, and that the book will change its lessons over time. It is a book to be treasured, a beautiful volume that will sit happily on a shelf to be returned to time and again, for years.
CatNet is a social media platform managed by a sentient AI known, at least to our adolescent protagonists, as CheshireCat because of their interest in cat pictures. (CheshireCat uses the singular ‘they’ pronoun.) CheshireCat revealed their identity to some of those adolescents in the first book, Catfishing on CatNet. In many ways, CheshireCat is also an adolescent, and both human and AI must learn how to be best friends and support each other, though one of them is a powerful, virtually unlimited internet entity.
Local writer Naomi Kritzer has won many awards for her CatNet stories, including a Hugo several years ago for the short story ‘Cat Pictures, Please.’ Catfishing on CatNet won a hefty list of awards in 2019, including an Edgar Award, a Minnesota Book Award, and a Lodestar Award. It is not necessary to read the first book in order to follow the second, but I’d recommend it anyway, because it also is pretty wonderful.
Chaos on CatNet is another solid story, with a cast of engaging, confident, diverse adolescents. It also, surprising for a young adult book, has several reliable adults, including a loving polyamorous family. The story explores the power of the internet both to bring people together and, for better or worse, to influence those people’s actions. It takes place in a Minneapolis that, ten years from now, has made some recognizable, optimistic changes following the riots of 2020. We probably should apologize in advance for what happens to the James J. Hill House, though.
This is a much-acclaimed first novel, including being a New York Times bestseller and winner of the Coretta Scott King-John Steptoe Award. Legendborn is now also nominated for a Lodestar Award for Best Young Adult Book (presented by the World Science Fiction Society, the same group that gives the Hugo Award).
The novel deftly weaves traditional fantasy based in Mallory’s King Arthur with her invention of a more esoteric old magic shared by Black women. Deonn’s version of women’s magic, unsurprisingly, was learned during slavery and passed down in secret. But her Round Table is almost unrecognizable; a hierarchical secret society resulting from careful cultivation of wealthy blood lines. The author’s world-building is excellent, infusing both types of magic with her own creative mix of old and new ideas.
Legendborn is essentially a love story between a privileged Black girl who has been denied her magical heritage, and a white boy who doesn’t want his own very privileged magical station. It is an exploration of race and privilege, providing mild instruction for the reader on the annoying effects of subconscious racism. But it also has demonic enemies, magic rituals, and teenagers with what amount to magical superpowers. It is a gripping magical adventure with fighting, suspense, friendship, and betrayal.
Sadly, though the ending is not too much of a cliffhanger, the end of the book is clearly not the end of the story. It seems to be the beginning of a series, but I couldn’t find even a title for a second book.
This is a raw, chaotic, difficult novella, bursting with righteous anger and inconsolable grief. It is a graphic documentation that violence against people of color has not ended; it is the only thing we see in Onyebuchi’s dystopian near future. The tally of injustices flashes by, unexplained and unmoored in time, skipping randomly among present events, memories from the recent past, and glimpses of a terrible future.
The story is told by two siblings, a younger boy (Kev), born during riots that destroy San Francisco, and his few-years-older sister (Ella), whose magical abilities enable her to see visions of violence. Ella’s visions both predict the future and replay past memories held by people and places. But her magic turns destructive in her teens, particularly after smart, successful Kev loses his way in violence. Kev must learn to control his rage in order to survive prison, though he is never allowed to forget it. Ella tries to channel her powers, but her own rage builds with every vision. In the end, it may be best for their world to burn.
This novella has been nominated for a 2021 Hugo Award.
Witch Hat Atelier has become my new favorite manga. It is a great place to start if you are interested in manga but confused by the enormous number of titles and volumes available. It is well-written, beautifully drawn, and easy to follow, though it does have to be read from front to back of the book. It has proven itself in Japan, coming out regularly since 2017 and collected into books (called tankobon) about every six months. At only seven volumes so far, there is plenty to be captivated by, and it is still easy to catch up with the story.
I highly recommend it for just about anyone age eight and up. To read a more complete review, go to www.twincitygeeks.com.
There has been a rash of young adult fantasy novels featuring strong teenage girls coming into some sort of magical power. A Deadly Education, billed as “Lesson One of the Scholomance” is one of my favorites.
The Scholomance is inspired by Hogwarts, but it is orders of magnitude less benign. In this world, monsters called maleficaria are everywhere, and they find magical adolescents particularly tasty. So, the kids are walled off in an inescapable magical high school to keep them safe during those tender years. As a side benefit, the school is supposed to teach them to use their magic. But the school’s protections have worn down over the years, and the school itself is an unreliable teacher. There are no remedial lessons and failure is often rewarded by death.
Our wonderfully snarky heroine, Galadriel (El for short, certainly not Gal) is a junior. She is extremely powerful, but only if she uses evil magic, which she absolutely refuses to do, so she is barely surviving her schooling. Her likely-fatal pathway changes when she meets a privileged, popular classmate named Orion Lake, who is quite clearly the wrong guy for her.
What follows is a delightfully chaotic mix of dangerous lessons–about magic, class privilege, true friendship, romance, and the cost of evil. Given the increasing number of maleficaria, it seems unlikely that anyone will make it through the year. Though Lesson One doesn’t end on too bad of a cliffhanger, we know that El and Orion still have another year to get through.
A Deadly Education is coming out in paperback soon. Lesson Two of the Scholomance, called The Last Graduate, is expected in July 2021.
It’s that time of year again! It’s time for Independent Bookstore Day, but this year because of the pandemic, it’s going to be a little different. April the 24th is still Independent Bookstore Day, but it you’re going to take part in Rain Taxi’s “passport” event, you have a week to do it, starting Sunday, April 18th.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with it, for the last few years, Rain Taxi has organized an event with a “passport”, where you go around and collect stamps from different bookstores. Each stamp turns into a coupon for the next time you’re in the bookstore. If you get 10 stamps, you activate the coupons for all 23 participating stores. If you collect all 18 available stamps (5 stores are participating, but not yet open for in-store shopping or getting stamps) you qualify for their drawing of one of five literary prize packs, or the grand prize.
Full details are on the Rain Taxi website here: https://www.raintaxi.com/literary-calendar/twin-cities-independent-bookstore-day-passport/
This book came highly recommended by a customer, who said it was so good she read it in less than two days. It took me a bit longer than that because I wanted time to savor the elegant prose, and because some scenes were so wise and emotionally wrenching that I had to stop and let them sink in. I can certainly second her recommendation.
For me, the book was not a page-turning fantasy adventure, but a melancholy love story exploring the effects of time and memory. Addie LaRue’s story is a cautionary tale about being careful what you wish for, because wishing badly could be (literally) damning. But she is a strong woman, able to resist her assigned fate and play a centuries-long game with the being who subverted her wish by fulfilling it too exactly.
Despite her trials, Addie is a joyous observer of life, always looking for something new and exciting, though she, herself, must be forgotten as soon as she is out of sight. She becomes the embodiment of the mysterious women who appear in countless works of art, influential but entirely unremembered. The book is a lovely exploration of the fullness of life and the lasting nature of art: Would you rather your life be remembered or create something that persists through the ages?
This is a first novel from J. Elle, and one of the first fantasy novels from Simon and Schuster’s Denene Millner Books line, described on her web site as “a love letter to children of color who deserve to see their beauty and humanity in the most remarkable form of entertainment on the planet: books.” Wings of Ebony may not be the most original fantasy ever, making free reinterpretation of tropes we have all seen before. But it has the thing that I look for above all else in young adult fantasy novels: a unique and powerful voice.
The first-person narrator of the story, Rue Jelani, grew up in Houston’s East Row neighborhood (as did J. Elle), but was forced to leave her home after her Moms’s murder. She was taken away by her estranged father, something she still bitterly resents a year later, even though he turned out to be a powerful mage (but the only Black one) in a magical world called Ghizon. For Rue, the powers she gained, parceled out reluctantly by a world where she is an outsider, can never make up for the home and people she lost. Then she discovers the connection between her two worlds, and must learn to use her magic to fight the oppression she finds in both places.
Rue is a wonderful character; all attitude and slang (but very little profanity), and full of a fierce caring for the people she considers her “fam.” She proves to be willing to change her mind when necessary, and able to work to change the minds of others. Her conversations with her white Ghizoni friend Bri, are valuable reading for those of us who are trying to be anti-racist. The conclusion involves some obvious similarities to events in Minneapolis last summer, moved into a fantasy setting where they are rather more effective than they were here. The book is dedicated, on its final page, to George Floyd
In the acknowledgments, the author reports that this story of fourteen-year-old apprentice baker and wizard, Mona, was repeatedly rejected for being too dark for a children’s book. So, it eventually got published under the name T. Kingfisher, which is the name Ursula Vernon uses for her books for grown-ups. I think the story would be delightful for any age. The only thing Mona does which might cause any consternation in a young adult is continually reminding the reader that she is “only fourteen.”
The story does start with a dead body in Mona’s aunt’s bakery, though. Perhaps this would be more upsetting if it weren’t described with Kingfisher’s usual breezy humor; a first-person voice who notices that the blood is “definitely not raspberry filling” and that the murdered person’s socks sadly don’t match. Mona continues in the same unruffled, practical voice even when confronted with corrupt Inquisitors and armies of Carex mercenaries at her city’s gates.
According to Mona, she is not much of a wizard. Her magic lies only in making the best sourdough in the city and briefly animating dancing gingerbread men. She keeps her possibly sentient sourdough starter (named Bob) in the basement at the bakery. But the impressive wizards who are supposed to defend the city are called away, and the people whose magic is deemed inconsequential must step up. Mona’s cleverness and courage and, of course, magical talent for making bread, have to be enough.
This decidedly weird novel is narrated by a smart domesticated crow named S.T. (short for Shit Turd) who has been lovingly raised alongside a not-so-smart bloodhound named Dennis. Their master, a guy they call Big Jim, was clearly not the finest specimen of humanity, though both crow and dog are so adoring that they never seem to realize this. S.T. unironically refers to humans (the ones he likes, anyway) as MoFos, and believes that junk food is the holiest of mankind’s many achievements. The story begins when Big Jim succumbs, along with the rest of the MoFos in Seattle, to something very like a Zombie Apocalypse.
S.T. is a hilarious storyteller, spouting a combination of comic expletives, almost-childlike misunderstandings and, oddly, actual wisdom. The first chapters are pretty liberally salted with four-letter words, sophomoric potty humor, and disdain for almost everything. But S.T. must tone down his obnoxiousness in order to coax Dennis to leave Big Jim’s house in search of help. Eventually S.T. forms a family (or, rather, a murder—he is a crow, after all) with Dennis. The two undertake an increasingly complex and outrageous series of missions as S.T. realizes that no help is coming from the humans, and the animal kingdom is on its own.
As the story progresses, S.T.’s cocky voice is overtaken by a different voice, obviously that of the author. Since I am not a particular fan of horror, I appreciated having the gory decline of humanity described by the snarky, detached voice of the crow, who is in love with all the wrong things about civilization. But author Kira Jane Buxton is in love with nature in its all its glory. To her, even the dangers are wonderful. As Seattle becomes a wilderness populated by rescued pets and freed zoo animals, the narrative switches toward Buxton’s own lush, gorgeous prose. The zombification of mankind has never been more vibrant, ecologically sound, or sadly appropriate.
This is a dense fantasy by an accomplished New Zealand writer who seems to be informed by a degree in literature and a historian’s interest in myth, rather than a voracious consumption of (or borrowing-from) the modern fantasy genre. It merges Arthurian legend with Norse and Christian mythology in a unique way, cemented by a vision of fairie (the Sidhe) that feels like an extra-dimensional alien race. This works surprisingly well, bringing moments of revelation that feel exciting, wise, and new. It doesn’t hurt that a meditation on the history of libraries and books, particularly those lost in fires, is mixed in with the lot.
The book’s strongest aspect is the writer’s sense of place. Knox describes the marshes of Norfolk, the streets of Aix-en-Provence (where there is a library), and the forests of the Sidhe with equal, loving attention. The paragraphs of description, rather than feeling intrusive, are to be savored and leave the reader feeling present in the landscape. This makes for a long, slow read, but it is not a story that drives relentlessly to an overwhelming conclusion. The fun is in the small discoveries and the insights dropped along the way.
Here is one phrase that made me think. It is on page 202, and related by a mysterious, part-Sidhe man named Shift. He says, “The Great God of the Deserts, the God from the Void, sequestered himself many hundreds of years ago. His worshippers had too many competing views of his nature, and it unsettled his mind. That’s a thing that can happen to gods. They’re very impressionable.” This twists the anthropologic theory that men create gods, rather than the other way around, by assuming absolutely that the Judeo-Christian God exists. I’ve heard worse, and weirder, explanations for the state that the world is in right now.
This is a first novel by a very promising new writer. It feels a bit like Ursula K. LeGuin and NK Jemison, in that it tells a sweeping galactic tale by focusing on the intensely personal consequences of scientific advancement. At the center of this story is the time-distortion postulated for faster-than-light travel—the theory that people travelling through space experience only a few day’s passage of time, while years go by for those they have left behind. The people who travel frequently can bear witness to hundreds of years of history but are left with a sense of missing out on the important things in life.
The story skips through time and space, linked by three space-faring, lonely protagonists. We see the establishment of lovely, bird-shaped space stations after the extinction of the birds on Earth, through the eyes of an ancient woman. Through letters sent to her colony ship from the woman she left behind, we see the end of life on Earth. We see the wonder (and, eventually, corruption) of the newly-colonized galaxy, barely registered by a space captain who left her family too soon and a pre-teen boy who never had a family. It is a beautiful but melancholy story, a thousand years of galactic history condensed by the people it has left untethered.
A bit over half way through the novel, as the captain, the boy, and a small group of ship-mates deliberately pass centuries of real time by planet-hopping, the author tells us, “They were always leaving.” It took me a while to realize that, if one is always leaving, of course, one must also be always arriving. I’m not sure Jimenez ever realized this—he is a young man probably living in pandemic isolation amid world-shattering change. But, for me, the book became a story about the importance of learning to arrive; a reminder that where you are at any moment must be more important than the places you thought you might be going next.
This week is Will Eisner Week, devoted to the reading of Graphic Novels.
Eisner, creator of The Spirit, was one of the greatest champions of storytelling through comics graphics. He used the graphics to help tell the story in unique and exciting ways. His Contract With God is credited with making Graphic Novels “literature” and therefore OK for children (and adults) to read. We celebrate Eisner and his legacy this week by promoting the reading of Graphic Novels.
This is one of the strangest, and strongest, young adult novels I’ve encountered for a while. The first-person narrator, a young man from Seattle named Noa, is delightful, and manages to be hilarious and irreverent while telling a harrowing tale of science fictional misadventures. The tale begins with Noa literally waking up in space one morning, wearing a space suit labelled “Nico” that is running out of oxygen and tethered to a space ship that is about to explode.
The space adventures are decidedly weird, but the love story is not. Noa falls right away for another guy, named DJ, from Florida, who has also inexplicably woken up on the same space ship. But because of bad experiences with another boyfriend, Noa is conflicted in love. There is one other person on the ship, named Jenny, who interestingly never questions the validity of or interferes with the budding gay romance. As Noa works through his past issues to accept the relationship that DJ offers, he tells a genuine love story about two kids who question, not their gender or sexuality, but their suitability for love.
As an added bonus, the story managed to surprise me completely with an outrageous but science fictionally satisfactory explanation for the weirdness. The unexpected revelations add a whole new layer of complexity to both the space adventures and the love story. It is, indeed, complicated. And set in space!