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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.
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 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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Frieren: Beyond Journey’s End is an ongoing manga series written by Kanehito Yamada and illustrated by Tsukasa Abe, and has recently won several prestigious awards in Japan. The Japanese title is “Sousou no Furiren,” which translates more directly as “Frieren of the Funeral.” This captures the somewhat melancholy feel of the manga, but Beyond Journey’s End is also an appropriate title. The center of the plot is indeed a journey; a fairly typical quest by a fairly typical group of adventurers. But the manga begins as the group returns home at the very end of their ten-year quest.
The elf mage named Frieren, faces the journey’s end with an unsettling indifference. As an elf, her expected thousand-year life span far exceeds that of her (one) dwarven and (two) human companions. She wanders off with no particular goal in mind. When she returns decades later, the reader finds that she has missed time that has been precious to her companions. Perhaps she does not understand how important those ten years had been for all of them.
Yet, Frieren eventually sets her wandering path to retrace the quest journey. Along the way she acquires an apprentice named Fern and a scared but skilled warrior-in-training named Stark, but Frieren seems to be deliberately avoiding attachments. The reader travels with them on their new adventure, while reliving the original quest in quiet flashbacks of both difficult and happy times. The beautiful artwork and lovely pacing allows the reader to feel the grief, and the joy, that Frieren does not seem to acknowledge,
It is possible that Frieren is learning lessons about making connections and paying attention to life but, even if she is not, the reader certainly will. And the story is not over. As with most manga, the series continues in serialization in Japan, with an eighth volume expected in June. The English edition of the fifth volume is due in July.
Iron Widow, by a new Canadian-Chinese author, Xiran Jay Zhao, is one of the nominees for the 2022 Lodestar Award for the best young adult science fiction novel. But there is nothing childish about this book. It burns with the anger of a generation born knowing that women have always been shamed and punished for the desires of men, and finding out that powerful men are still standing in the way of change.
The novel takes place in a far future China that benefits from advanced technology while still insisting that proper Chinese women must have bound feet and be subservient to their fathers and husbands. Wu Zetian, who becomes the iron widow, is an ordinary peasant girl whose family has tried to shame her into obedience. The “strong woman protagonist” of prior decades would have to discover that she has nothing to be ashamed of. The Iron Widow knows this already, and the novel begins with her rage at the injustice.
Most of China has taken refuge from a centuries-old alien invasion behind something resembling the Great Wall. There is an ongoing battle with alien machines called “Hundun,” fought by human pilots wearing battle machines made from stolen alien technology. But the battle machines are powered by spiritual energy (Chi), and supposedly require both male (yang) and female (yin) Chi to operate. The men who pilot these machines are hailed as heroes, but the women who go into battle with them usually die. One of those women was Zetian’s sister.
Zetian is a confident, strong woman, who can barely walk on her bound feet. Denied agency and opportunity, she enlists in the army, hoping only to get revenge on the pilot who killed her sister. She is a terrific protagonist; resourceful, courageous, bitter, able to endure physical and emotional trauma, and almost too angry to be rational. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It’s good to know that female protagonists are now allowed to be violently angry and still be heroes.
My favorite supernatural cop, Detective Constable Peter Grant, is back, in this ninth novel in Ben Aaronivitch’s “Rivers of London” series. He’s still working for the London Metropolitan Police Special Assessment Unit (the one that takes care of the “weird bollocks” without using the “M” word unless absolutely necessary) and learning magic from DCI Thomas Nightingale. And he is every bit as good at following police procedure, criticizing London’s architecture, and messing up magic spells as he has always been.
This time there’s something that looks like an avenging angel loose in London, possibly called up by an ancient lamp and definitely associated with seven mysterious enchanted rings. Someone is stealing those rings, and their owners are ending up messily dead. Given the title, Amongst Our Weapons, and section headings (“Surprise . . .,” “Fear . . .,” “Ruthless Efficiency . . .,” and etc.), you should totally expect the Spanish Inquisition, though the plot will work just fine even if you don’t.
I’ve always been fond of Peter Pan stories, both the retellings of J.M. Barrie’s original story (the Mary Martin musical remains my favorite because . . . nostalgia) and the works that are essentially Peter Pan fanfic (like the book Peter and the Star Catchers and the movie “Hook”). The God of Neverland is in the latter category, and does a great job of expanding the legend while staying true to the essential elements of the original story.
It’s 1925, and Michael Darling, the youngest Lost Boy, is all grown up and done with adventures. He has quit his career in the Knights of the Round, a secret society that investigates supernatural incidents, and gone to work as a railroad engineer. But the organization that Michael gave up is in need of his services, because Peter Pan has gone missing. And, despite trying to ground himself in the mundane, Michael has not forgotten his days in Neverland.
Peter Pan, it seems, is the God of childhood adventure and imagination, a sort of cross between a trickster god and an eight-year-old boy with an oversized ego and ADHD. Without him, Neverland will fail and our world will become a dark and dismal place. Peter cannot save himself, but those who grew up without forgetting their childhood dreams might be able to find and free him. This is a well-paced adventure story for those of us who managed to leave childhood behind without losing the joy of imagination. There’s pirate ships, flying with fairy dust, the ghost of Captain Hook, and a Cthulhu-powerful ticking crocodile in the sewers of London!
For those of you who don’t know, “kaiju” is the generic name for those giant monsters who appear in Japanese movies and usually devastate Tokyo. Preserving them is not something that is often considered.
Our hero, Jamie Gray, is underemployed and definitely unhappy working as a “deliverator” for a food delivery start-up company in New York City at the beginning of the pandemic. But at least he’s making enough money to pay the rent for the tiny apartment he shares with two theater grads. At least until he gets fired. Fortunately, he receives a timely job offer from an “animal rights organization” that needs immediate assistance in the field working with “large animals.” It will come as no surprise that kaiju are involved, nor that those kaiju are about to make trouble.
John Scalzi is an enormously popular science fiction writer, with numerous books and awards over the past decades. His books are full of thankfully-under-explained science, wild adventure, and hilariously snarky characters. Jamie Gray’s new job introduces him to a diverse group of irreverent coworkers, all of whom have sarcastic attitudes and PhDs in respectable sciences. Jamie only has a Masters (in science fiction literature) but The Kaiju Preservation Society will soon allow his massive talent for snark, and for heroics, to reach its full potential.
The Last Wish is an older book, written in 1993 and translated from Polish by Danusia Stok in 2007. It is the first book in the world-wide franchise surrounding The Witcher, Geralt of Rivia. Before the video games, animations, and Netflix TV series, there were several story collections and five novels. Andrej Sapkowski is said to be the second most popular Polish fantasy writer (after Stanislaw Lem) and won a World Fantasy Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2016.
The Last Wish is a collection of short stories or, rather, a collection of fractured retellings of fairy tales. They’re extremely fractured, actually, with their essentially violent and misogynistic cores laid open. The violence is graphic but understated. The sexism is a matter-of-fact part of this fantasy world, but the protagonist is gently feminist. Ordinarily this would not be terribly interesting to me, but people keep recommending The Witcher. I don’t have Netflix. But I have books!
The casual cruelty and violence of the gritty magical world is offset almost completely by the character of Geralt of Rivia. He is an intriguing mix of quiet power and immense restraint. He is no longer quite human, and is bound only by his own moral code, built during an angsty backstory which is revealed in fragments and seems to be waiting to destroy him. The book also introduces Geralt’s friend Dandelion the bard and his powerful love interest Yennifer. These two also promise to become very interesting, and I intend to keep reading the series. Really, it’s sort of hard to put down.
On April 23rd, the 2022 Twin Cities Independent Bookstore Passport will be available at your favorite local independent bookstores. Pick it up and spend the week visiting bookstores, getting your passport stamped to activate coupons and qualify you to win literary prize packs. Full info here: Rain Taxi Bookstore Day
April 30th is Independent Bookstore Day! You can come in and pick up the most recent Midwest Indie Bookstore Roadmap and check out what sale and freebie items we have for you.
Behind the over-the-top battles and “let’s do our best!” heroes in Japanese manga and anime, there is often a person quietly doing the simple things that keep ordinary chaos at bay. These are things that need to be done, like airing the futons, vacuuming the tatami mats and, most importantly, cooking tasty and healthy meals. The heroes that have such a housekeeper often receive magnificent bento box lunches that make their peers jealous, because everyone acknowledges them as a sign of love and care. While some of these loyal support-heroes are traditional mothers, many, happily, are not.
In The Way of the Househusband by Kousuke Oono, an ex-Yakuza assassin cares for his absent-minded wife while she works at an ordinary office. He takes his duties hilariously seriously, and is particularly scary during flash sales at the local grocery store or chopping vegetables with an enormous knife. In the new series, Penguin and House by Akiho Ieda, an odd, penguin-like creature grumbles as he does the housework in the low-rent apartment of a slacker and his friends. Then there’s The Masterful Cat is Depressed Again Today by Hitsuzi Yamada, where an enormous black cat takes over the housework for an unmotivated, messy female office worker. Neither Pen the Penguin nor the Masterful Cat talk, but their exasperation and concern for their careless charges are sweetly evident.
But my favorite current manga housekeeper is Seere from Mama Akuma by Kuzushiro. “Akuma” is the Japanese word for a type of malevolent spirt, and Seere is in fact an immortal demon from something like Hell. He is summoned by fourth-grader Sakura who makes a contract with him to be her Mama. But she does not ask to have her dead mother back, or to have a likeness of her mother around—Sakura wants Seere to actually perform as a mother for her family. Fortunately, housekeeping isn’t too hard with a bit of magic, and Seere has become quite a good cook in the centuries he has spent terrorizing the world for his previous summoners. However, nothing has quite prepared him for parenting Sakura and her older brother, not to mention getting along with her somewhat bemused father.