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The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi by Shannon Chakraborty
What? You’ve never heard of the legendary pirate, Amina Al-Sirafi? Whose gold-toothed smile and enormous figure was the last thing seen by who-knows-how-many men? The nakhudha of the infamous ship, the Marawati, which roamed the Indian Ocean, stealing horses from the Emir of Hormuz, and setting fire to the customs house in Basrah, and poisoning an entire feast in Mombasa?
And who, of course, had the audacity to be a woman.
But now Amina Al-Sirafi has retired, or perhaps merely gone into hiding. She has a leaky house to maintain, and both an aging mother and a ten-year-old daughter to care for. She has a bad knee. Her trusted crew are either dead or likewise retired. Her ship is getting by, doing routine trading (smuggling and only a little piracy) and she has not been on it for years. She does not miss her old life. At all. Really.
Which is why she protests when forced to embark on a new and dangerous mission. But not very much. The story, told in her own irreverent and cynical words, unfolds as most adventures do. There are sorcerers, sea monsters, storms, and ancient legends brought to life. There is an alliance with an island of mythical creatures and a treacherous demon possibly-not-ex-husband. But underlying all of it is worry about her daughter and true concern for the lives of her crew, informed by the triumphs and tragedies of their shared past.
Amina Al-Sirafi is one of the best “strong female protagonists” I have read. She is an indomitable fighter, courageous and fearsome. But the way she chooses to fight, and what she chooses to fight for, is all female. She is lusty, foul-mouthed, contrary, stupidly brave, and without a doubt a woman.
Nettle and Bone by T. Kingfisher
This is another insightful fairytale by one of my current favorite authors. It begins with a poetic but rather dark tale—because it would be terribly uncomfortable to make a dog out of bones or a cloak of nettles — but the story quickly develops Kingfisher’s usual sideways, unexpected humor.
Our heroine Marra is a Princess, but the third-born one, scheduled for marriage only after her two older sisters wed. She is neither plucky nor beautiful. She is a short, shy girl who is good at embroidery and solitude. When she is assigned to a convent to keep her out of the way, she does not mind at all. She has never dreamed of Princes.
Which is just as well, because the Prince in this story is really not very nice. He has, one after the other, married her two older sisters, killing the first and using the second only to produce heirs. The middle sister is fighting a terrible battle against abuse, using pregnancy and the promise of a son as her only weapons.
There is certainly darkness around the edges of the story, but it is told through the eyes of Marra, who does not dwell on it. Her magic is ultimately of the practical sort enjoyed by women who, like Terry Pratchett’s witches, operate with a bit of knowledge, unshakeable good humor, and a lot of common sense.
Now available in trade paperback!
Deeplight by Frances Hardinge
I’ve been a fan of Francis Hardinge’s wonderful, morally complex novels for young adults since reading The Lie Tree, which won a Costa Book Award for Children’s Book (best novel by an author residing in the UK or Ireland) in 2015. Her novels have consistently brought a teen protagonist through an adventure which requires obtaining, not increased physical or mental prowess, but the maturity to make a difficult decision.
The young protagonist of Deeplight, Hark, is an orphan who has grown up (at age 15) to be a thief and con man, dealing in magical relics. He starts out as the typical street-kid-with-a-heart, but becomes much more interesting. He is joined eventually by Selphin, a young woman whose mother is a pirate, who also has unexpected steel in her moral fiber. She is, interestingly, “sea-kissed,” which means she has lost her hearing during undersea diving. There is a community of “sea-kissed” and most of Selphin’s conversations in the book take place in sign language.
Hardinge’s books all have unique fantasy worlds with interesting magic operating under unusual conditions. Deeplight is no exception. Its world is called Myriad, a huge chain of islands which had, until fifty years ago, been ruled by vast, Lovecraftian undersea Gods. They have left behind relics with incredible power, an economy which centers on harvesting those relics, and an abandoned priesthood aging on a deserted island.
And Gods also, of course, leave behind secrets for unsuspecting teenage protagonists to discover. The secrets of Myriad are layered and complicated, but well within the understanding of the people like Hark and Selphin, who can grow to treasure them.
This is a note to let you know that as of today, our flat-rate postage has gone up to $6.00. We stuck by our five-dollar rate through several rises in postage rates, but finally had to boost it.
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The Ballad of Perilous Graves by Alex Jennings
This is the story of three kids from Nola—an alternate, post-apocalyptic New Orleans, where music is magic, the dead drive taxis, and graffiti comes alive—who fight a great evil in the form of a devastating Storm. The Storm is Hurricane Katrina and also possibly a metaphor for generational trauma. It is eternal, but this time it is being brought about by a dangerous rogue Song and an undead bureaucrat. It is killing, one by one, all the other Songs whose magics power the city, and Nola is disappearing.
Perilous Antoine Graves is a young magician who is afraid of his budding power and his music. His sister Brendy, is young enough to have that childlike, illogical ability to see the truth. Perry’s best friend, Peaches, is a semi-magical girl who is very strong and virtually indestructible (and who seems to be based on Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking). Perry is probably in love with her. They are sent on a fairytale-ish quest and must find the courage to make the right choices even when it is not clear what they are choosing between.
The kids are not the only people whose choices effect the Storm. There is Casey who has different lives in different cities, Jaylon who first makes graffiti live, Mama Lisa the Wise Woman, and the ghost of Lafcadio Hearn. They are aided or hindered by the embodiments, or perhaps performers, of the archetypal Songs. But unlike in European fairy tales, they can rely on their family and the songs that are their history and heart. And everyone seems to know that there are no real grown-ups, only big kids, pretending. Everyone has room to grow.
The writing is as magical as Nola. Alex Jennings jumps seamlessly between street dialog and prose with the cadence of myth and music. A quote might be the best description.The kids have never ridden a “dead taxi” before, and perhaps it should be scary. But this is the description of its arrival, from page 157: “Perry heard hoofbeats clopping down the street. The sound didn’t seem quite right to him, though. It sounded—not dishonest, not exactly—but like it was pretending to be hoofbeats so as not to worry anyone.”
The author’s acknowledgments state that he was challenged to write “the Blackest fantasy he could concoct.” I think he succeeded, and now there is a new version of my childhood heroine, who is strong enough to carry a horse, and confident enough to believe her Pirate King father into existence, and has become indisputably Black.
April 7-9, 2023
Minicon is put on by the Minnesota Science Fiction Society every year during Easter weekend. This is the 56th year of Minicon. DreamHaven’s very own Greg Ketter is fan guest of honor! Below are scans of this year’s flyer for Minicon. If you would like to know more about Minicon, please visit www.mnstf.org/minicon56
Two More New Manga Titles for 2023
I couldn’t get the formatting to work, so I divided this post and added another title!
Magic Teacher, by Rui Sekai and Kyou Kitazawa
The actual title (I Got Fired as a Court Wizard so Now I’m Moving to the Country to Become a Magic Teacher) is way too long, and pretty much sums up the plot so far. But I love the trope of the older, quietly powerful mage put in charge of a class of delinquent but brilliant students. This first volume introduces a cute middle-aged mage, his adorable (also middle-aged!) female student teacher, several disdainful and aristocratic faculty members, and an assortment of students with wonderfully ridiculous goals and talents.
Thunderbolt Fantasy, by Gen Urobuchi and Yui Sakura
This is a manga adaptation of one of the most unusual recent Japanese series; a saga set in China, written by Gen Urobuchi (of Madoka Magica and Fate/Zero fame), and “animated” by Pili, a Taiwanese puppet theater. For a puppet show, it is surprisingly intricate. And violent—my anime-watching group called it “Murder Puppets.”
So far, the new manga follows the first season of the serial closely, though the costumes are less spectacular. The plot has everything you might want in a fantasy—ancient sects guarding magical items, loyalty, betrayal, sword fights to the death, and an ancient evil awakening. It requires an enormous cast of heroes and sorcerers, both male and female. It also offers, not one, but two enigmatic and powerful young men who may or may not be on the side of righteousness. The one on the cover of Volume One is called (appropriately) “Enigmatic Gale,” but for now his name is Gui Niao.
Two New Manga Titles for 2023
Touring After the Apocalypse, by Sakae Saito
Youko, a young girl who is apparently the last living human, is on a motorcycle tour of a ruined Japan, accompanied by her cyborg guardian, Airi. She is oddly cheerful and entirely free of worry for her own safety. Her excitement about the places she discovers, all famous Japanese destinations, contrasts with the desolate landscapes depicted, making a bittersweet and wonder-filled story.
The Saviour’s Book Cafe Story in Another World, by Kyouka Izumi and Reiko Sakurada
A middle-aged woman is transported to a fantasy world where she is given magic powers and ordered to become a heroic savior. She decides to use her new powers to open a bookstore/cafe to her exact specifications. Judging from the cuteness of her first few customers, there may be a lot more romance that heroism in store, but those of us who believe in the power of bookstores will likely be heartened by their ability to cope with whatever evils need to be fought.
Shuna’s Journey by Hayao Miyazaki
Even after decades of watching every Hayao Miyazaki film that I could get my hands on, I hadn’t realized that he was a peerless artist who began his career as a manga writer and illustrator. Shuna’s Journey, his third manga, was published in Japan in 1983, just before he launched Studio Ghibli, which produced some of the best animated films in the world. This is the first time it has been translated into English.
Those of you who have seen Miyazaki’s films will recognize some of the elements. There is a wide-eyed but tenacious young man who goes on an epic journey to follow a dream. He is eventually joined by an equally wide-eyed, gently ferocious young woman and her sister. They ride an oddly familiar animal through desolate landscapes, parts of which can be recognized in some of the later films.
For those who have not seen ‘Laputa: Castle in the Sky,’ ‘Nausicaa,’ and ‘Princess Mononoke’ (to name a few), this book will be a wonderfully strange and inexplicable journey. Miyazaki uses a different sort of storytelling, in which the characters accept the unknown without question while holding tightly to their own, essential selves. There is a certain wisdom in finding that everything does not need to be explained.
This hardcover book is read front-to-back like a manga, but every page is a gorgeous full-color illustration. There are no word balloons, just simple text telling a story which could be read aloud to a child. The illustrations tell a slightly different story though, less heroic and somewhat melancholy, hinting at past disasters and future hopes. It is a book to be examined over and over, an experience which grows the more you pay attention to it.
Light from Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki
This is Ryka Aoki’s first genre SF/F novel, though she has published one previous novel and two poetry anthologies (both finalists for the Lambda Award). She is a trans woman of Japanese descent, a musician (including violin, of course), a professor of English and gender studies, and holds a black belt in Judo. Light from Uncommon Stars was a finalist for the 2021 Hugo Award.
The story is an intersection of three unlikely people: Katrina Nguyen, a runaway transgender teen, is a violinist with a deep understanding of music but almost no training. She will find the teacher she needs in Shizuka Satomi, also known as the Queen of Hell, who has already raised six violin prodigies to both fame and tragic endings. They both find comfort at the Starrgate Donut Shop where, beneath a giant donut, Lan Tran is leading her odd family or, really, alien starship crew, in the pursuit of making the best donuts on Earth.
The formula for producing excellence in both music and donuts is not, as it turns out, very different. Both require practice, perseverance, and a willingness to explore the tiny differences in each performance that is the basis of a human connection with an audience. That resonance also requires hope, self-acceptance and, possibly, love. But before they can bring their unique talents to fruition, Katrina must deal with her abusive past, Lan Tran has to finish the stargate she is constructing inside the giant donut, and Shizuka has a literal appointment with a demon from Hell.
It shouldn’t work to have aliens, demons, and violinists in the same book, but it does. Beautifully.
Babel: An Arcane History by R.F. Kuang
Babel is an extraordinary book: It is outstanding in its intelligence, precise prose, and undeniably new and creative system of magic. It is the story of the fall of the Tower of Babel at Oxford University and, perhaps, the beginning of the fall of the British Empire and the reign of the English language.
The Tower in the book is the Royal Institute of Translation, standing at the center of Oxford University in 1828. Its exalted students learn the theory of language, the art of translation and, ultimately, the use of translation in magic. In this world, magic occurs in the gaps between the shades of meaning of the same word in two different languages, inscribed on each side of a bar of silver. To find the word pairs and activate the magic, an intimate knowledge of both languages is mandatory.
Babel is the story of Robin Swift, born in Canton, China and brought to England by a stern, distant guardian after the death of his mother. He joins three other brilliant and obedient young people who have shown an ability to learn the important languages—Greek, Latin and English—along with their own native tongue. The British Empire is expanding its boundaries and, together with trade alliances and all the world’s silver, it is scooping up languages. The successful few magician translators at Oxford can enjoy all the comforts of empire.
But Robin and his friends—two foreign men and two women—will never be truly accepted into society, despite their standing as student magicians. They also might not want to be a part of the system that trained them, no matter the benefit to themselves. They must learn the truth of the phrase, “An act of translation is always an act of betrayal.”
Zachary Ying and the Dragon Emperor by Xiran Jay Zhao
On the surface, this book looks like just another rousing adventure for the video game generation. The First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang, fails to take over the body of twelve-year-old, Chinese immigrant Zack, and instead manifests in his video game AR glasses. Zack is rapidly joined by two other young people who are inhabited by two different ancient Chinese emperors. The three (or six, really) set off on an exciting quest through Chinese mythology.
I have to admire the skill of the author in providing background information about Chinese history and culture. Xiran Jay Zhao is a first-generation Hui Chinese immigrant to Canada, and has an extensive knowledge of both China and the way all things Chinese are overlooked by Western school systems. They are also hilarious. Like, how can you not read a chapter titled “How the Creation of China was Exactly Like American Idol” or “How Chinese Sherlock Holmes and Chinese Leroy Jenkins Can Help a Museum Heist”?
But what sets the book apart for me is the moral ambiguity that becomes apparent as the story progresses. All three Chinese emperors historically did great things, but also initiated heinous acts of murder, betrayal, and genocide. (One does not unite the Seven Warring States, as the First Emperor did, into an enduring nation called China without deaths. Lots of them.) As with most good books written for middle school, the protagonists are faced with difficult moral choices. But in this story, the kids must also learn that good and evil exist side by side, and sometimes cannot be separated from each other.
Book of Night by Holly Black
I’ve been a fan of Holly Black since before The Spiderwick Chronicles was made into a movie, which was quite a long time ago. Her books are usually quirky, edgy, occasionally dark fantasy, aimed at a young adults audience. Book of Night is her first novel marketed for adults.
Charlie Hall is a young woman who is trying to reform her past as a child thief and con artist, by working as a bartender at a shady tavern. This is working out about as well as such things usually do, which is . . . not very well. So it takes only the murder of a total stranger to hurl her back into a dangerous, magical world that wants her for past crimes and suspects her of present ones.
Charlie’s world works on shadow magic, using interchangeable human shadows which can be molded into decorative playthings or corrupted into powerful beings. The magic system is unique, sinister, and oddly limited, so that the most menacing thing in the book is the magicians and not the creepy magic they use. There is plenty of suspense, but no lurking horror, though I admit that, once I’d picked it up, I had to read all the way through to the end.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Silvia Moreno-Garcia is the Mexican Canadian, best-selling author of numerous books and stories. She is a winner of The World Fantasy Award, British Fantasy Award, and Locus Award. Her books fall into a gap between mainstream literature, historical romance, and dark fantasy. This book has the dreamy feel of magical realism, but makes no attempt to pretend to be grounded in reality. The writing is gorgeous, full of meaning and a little bit of sorrow.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau is a loose retelling of H.J. Wells’ The Island of Dr Moreau, set in 19th century Mexico. It is told from the viewpoint of Moreau’s daughter Carlotta and his somewhat disreputable “mayordomo,” Montgomery. Doctor Moreau’s experiments seem informed by a 19th century science-fictional view of biology, only slightly brought forward to a 21st century understanding. The exact nature of his experiments is much less important than their increasingly obvious immorality.
Carlotta is an amazing woman, curious and intelligent. She is at once naive and sensual; raised to be obedient and unobtrusive, but never learning the shame that is often used to ensure such behavior. She treats the people around her, most of whom are the results of Doctor Moreau’s imperfect attempts at creation, as siblings. Though she has been taught to believe that she is fragile and prone to illness, she is yet able to find the strength she needs to protect the people who are important to her.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers
Becky Chamber’s books have always had a sort of gentleness about them. In The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, the first book in her Hugo Award winning “Wayfarers” Series, the galactic journey of the Wayfarer spaceship is far less important than the relationships between its crew. The result is a very personal story about the lives of a diverse group of people, against a backdrop of space adventures.
A Psalm for the Wild-Built, the first novella in a series titled “Monk and Robot,” takes a similarly personal, close-up view. Dex is a “tea monk” who feels vaguely dissatisfied with their profession, though they seem to be quite good at serving tea and advice. “Splendid Speckled Mosscap” is a robot who has decided, more-or-less on it’s own, to investigate and observe humans. They meet entirely by accident, in the wilderness between the human and robot colonies.
Behind the peaceful but completely separate societies that both inhabit, there is a past which may not be quite as utopian as everyone believes. A forgotten time ago, humans invented robots to do the hard work, then freed them. There has been no contact since then. Perhaps it is time for humans and robots to reunite. Perhaps there are world-changing implications in the meeting of the monk and the robot. Or perhaps not. The one thing that is certain is that their unexpected relationship will change the two of them.
The second novella in the series, A Prayer for the Crown-Shy arrived in July 2022.
We Sold Our Souls by Grady Hendrix
I keep hearing good things about Grady Hendrix, whose novel The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires was a best-seller and whose guide to ‘70s and ‘80s horror fiction, called Paperbacks from Hell is still a favorite at DreamHaven.
We Sold Our Souls is about a washed-up heavy-metal guitarist named Kris, who has never come to terms with the break-up of her band decades ago. Her lead singer, Terry, who became enormously rich after leaving the rest of the band behind, is about to embark on his final tour. Kris sees a disaster in the making, and sets out to stop him, following the instructions in the lyrics of the group’s final, unreleased album.
I am not a fan of horror or music-as-magic fantasies, but this book is one of the best I have read recently. The writing is gripping from the first page, Hendrix’s descriptions are as electric as the music he describes. Kris is an incredible female protagonist, broken and hurting, but far from defeated. Though she’s lost everything else, she’s damn well not going to lose herself.
Kris may not be able to save the world. She may not even need to. But she offers a way through soulless times to anyone willing to pay attention.