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.
This lovely book is the fourth novel by award-winning Minnesota writer Kelly Barnhill. This is perhaps for a younger audience than Barnhill’s The Girl Who Drank the Moon, which won the Newbery Award and the World Fantasy Award in 2017 (and which you should also read if you haven’t already). Both books are fantasies aimed at middle school, but have plenty of things for the older reader to think about.
The Ogress and the Orphans is a sweet story about the power of kindness, following the philosophy that gifts, given freely and without expectation, are returned in abundance. The orphans have nothing except their love for each other; the ogress has nothing but the lonely land where she has built her house and productive farm and garden. None of them are truly welcome in the town of Stone-in-the-Glen, where a stingy, egotistical mayor is deliberately sowing suspicion and discord in a place that used to be lovely.
The ogress is secretly sharing the bounty from her garden, leaving food on the townspeople’s doorsteps in the dead of night. The orphans are willing to share their love, fueled by intellect and ingenuity gained from the remnants of a semi-magical library. But the mayor is dangerous, and has magic of his own.
DANGEROUS VISIONS AND NEW WORLDS from editors Andrew Nette and Iain McIntyre (PM PRESS) is exactly the sort of trivia-filled science fiction resource I’ve loved since I first encountered Charles Platt’s DREAM MAKERS back in the 80s. This is a great rabbit hole, kids. I’d go so far as to label it “IMPORTANT.”
DVANW has much to offer any true believer. It is informative and enriching. It boasts many fascinating and erudite essays on topics ranging from author bios to important publishers of the New Wave era of science fiction.
There’s also plenty to glean and learn here. Much to observe and marvel over. A treasure trove of details describing a vital era in the history of this rich genre. Even a fan of some 50 years, a child of the New Wave, even I encountered a number of authors and works heretofore unknown to me.
Of particular interest here is an essay on R.A. Lafferty written by Nick Mamatas which in less than 1000 words does more to promote the eccentric Oklahoman than many long-winded introductions I’ve read. And Lucy Sussex’ portrait of James Tiptree, Jr. (Alice Sheldon) is as intense and poignant as a fan might ask.
This is unabashed radical reading with a high literary value. It’s certainly a thrill; and really you can’t do without it.
This book, the first book in the Noumena Series, was published last year. It has slowly been gaining recommendations from the SF community, helped by the recent arrival of the second book, called Truth of the Divine. The first book stands on its own so well that I didn’t want to wait until I’d finished the second one.
Axiom’s End is in my favorite category of science fiction, those books like Martha Wells’ Murderbot books and Becky Chambers’ Wayfarer series, that deal more with the lives of the characters than with the earth-shattering events happening around them. This book deals with alien contact rather than space travel, but its exploration of first contact through the lives and politics of both human and alien characters gives it a similar personal feel.
Cora is the estranged daughter of a well-known conspiracy theorist who has for years tried to expose the US government’s supposed cover-up of the capture and imprisonment of a small group of aliens. Few believe him, but Cora’s crack-pot, self-serving father is not entirely wrong. “Ampersand” is a powerful and unknowable alien whose arrival, thirty years after his fellows, sparks political controversy as the government tries to preserve its secrets. Cora and Ampersand must find common ground both linguistically and personally in order to survive the government’s misinformed attempts to shield the truth. It becomes increasingly obvious that the future of the human race also depends on their ability to understand each other.
I have a particular fondness for stories that mess around with world religions, particularly if they do so with humor, respect, and insight. Two of my favorites are Saiyuki by Kazuya Minekura and Saint Young Men by Hikaru Nakamura. Saiyuki is currently available in a four-volume complete hardcover “Resurrected Edition.” Saint Young Men is an ongoing manga, now with seven omnibus volumes available in hardcover.
Saiyuki is a very loose retelling of the ancient Chinese legend of the Journey to the West (Xiyouji), first told in 1580 by Wu Cheng’en and continued in numerous tales about Son Goku, the Monkey King. Journey to the West is itself a very loose retelling of a real journey by a sixth century holy priest to bring religious texts to China from India, though I rather doubt that the historical Sanzang was accompanied by Son Goku and two other demons. I’m told that the kanji for the title in the manga Saiyuki are pronounced the same as the Chinese name but can also mean “messing around to the extreme.” There are elements in the manga that are recognizable for those who know the history and legends. But for most readers, the journey toward India (in a Jeep) by a very unholy Sanzo priest and his three angsty demon companions on the worst road trip ever, is just pure gonzo fun.
Saint Young Men is a series of short stories with the unlikely premise that Jesus and Buddha are given a year off from Heaven after humanity’s successful reaching of the new millennia, and are living together in a small apartment in Tokyo. The background assumption is that everything written in the history of both Christianity and Buddhism is completely true, even though it might be contradictory. Jesus is into computer games and Buddha can’t resist modern appliances. The two pals entertain their apostles and disciples in the tiny room they can barely afford (because Heaven is not up to date on the cost of living) and enjoy visiting prime Tokyo tourist attractions, leaving random miracles and inner peace in their wake.
English-speaking fans of speculative fiction have been barely aware of the contributions to the genre from China. By the time The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu was translated into English, it had already been widely popular in Asia for almost ten years. The excellent translation by Ken Liu, who has his own body of F/SF work in English, was an enormous success, and became the first Asian novel to win a Hugo Award, in 2015. This was followed by Ken Liu’s translations of the other novels in Cixin Liu’s “Remembrance of the Earth’s Past” trilogy. Most recently there is a short story collection called The Wandering Earth, translated by five different people, including Ken Liu.
Now there seems to be a small wave of fantasy novels from China. Strange Beasts of China by Yan Ge (translated by Jeremy Tiang) is series of interconnected stories about a cryptozoologist who investigates encounters between humans and various types of “beasts,” who usually appear human but are eventually revealed to have strange and often fatal habits. (On an oddly similar note, from Korea comes The Cabinet by Un-Su Kim (translated by Sean Lin Halbert), an interconnected series of short stories detailing encounters, mostly by phone, between people with odd abilities and the rather boring office worker in charge of the filing cabinet where their cases are catalogued.) Both books are full of metaphor exploring what it means to be human, and offer pointed, barely-concealed criticism of those who call themselves human. Both are also deeply weird.
Death Fugue by Sheng Keyi (translated by Shelly Bryant) is the story of a poet who grows away from his exciting youth as a protestor and into an unhappy and emotionally distant man seeking empty sexual encounters. The event he protested, the appearance of a “nine-story pile of excrement” in the town square, is clearly a metaphor for the events in Tiananmen Square. The narrative seamlessly and beautifully switches timelines between his past and a present in which he seems to have stumbled into a sort of utopia. This “dystopian meditation on art and freedom” was supposedly banned in China.
Perhaps if one wants to try to understand a culture through its speculative fiction, it might be better to go for the fun stuff, though at this point that is hard to find. I am having a lot of fun with Grandmaster of Demonic Cultivation and Heaven Official’s Blessing by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu (translated by Suika). But I suspect that neither of these actually qualifies as great literature. I also quite enjoyed Julia Lovell’s translation of Monkey King: Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’En. At least no one can argue that a retelling, even vastly abridged, of a 400-year-old Chinese classic tale, doesn’t count as important literature.
These books are all expertly translated and (mostly) seem to me to be intended as high literary works of fiction, more like “magical realism” than belonging to the genre we call fantasy. They are all beautifully written and inexplicably surreal, leaving me wondering whether they are representative of Chinese thought or amazing works from creatively demented outsiders.
Transgender manga artist Keito Gaku won the 77th Tetsuya Chiba Prize for a one-shot manga about a transgender teen. His four-volume series based on that story, Boys Run the Riot, was released in Japan in 2020. In an interview in the back of Volume One, Gaku says that he wanted the book to be about, not just coming out as transgender, but about the way fashion is related to identity and gender. The fourth and final volume of the English translation of Boys Run the Riot is now available, and includes the earlier story, called Light.
The protagonist, Ryo, says he was “born in a healthy female body,” but hates his schoolgirl uniform because he doesn’t want to be treated like a girl and doesn’t feel at ease in a body identifiable as female. Things begin to change, not necessarily for the better, when he meets a new classmate, Jin, who shares his taste in fashion. Jin convinces Ryo to start a fashion design “brand” with him, saying, “Let’s destroy all their stupid assumptions with our clothes.” They call it Boys Run the Riot.
The story is based somewhat on the experiences of the author, though he never started a fashion brand. It may reflect some of the experiences of transgender kids worldwide, though some experiences, like the use of pronouns in Japanese and gendered school uniforms, might be unique. The result is a complicated and intensely personal story. It is a vivid exploration of the way appearance influences our attitudes and prejudices, and of how difficult it can be to live outside of societal expectations.
“Living freely also comes with sacrifices. If you still want to do it, then please, don’t give up,” Keito Gaku.
Ferryman by Scottish writer Claire McFall and Along the Saltwise Sea by A. Deborah Baker (Seanan McGuire) are both beautifully written fantasies with protagonists who seem to me much younger than the teenagers they’re supposed to be. Both stories are told from the perspective of the wise older women who wrote them, providing insight into the growth of their young protagonists. But the strength of both books is the descriptions. All the teens journey through fantasy worlds so intricate and surprising, that their landscapes becomes both character and metaphor.
Along the Saltwise Sea is the second novella in the Up-and-Under Series. (A rather delightful synopsis of the first novella is provided as part of this new book, but the first book, Over the Woodward Wall is still available.) It involves two children of opposite temperament and upbringing who have together fallen over a Wall into another world. Wild Zeb and cautious Avery seem to be not so much falling in love as bonding by the necessity of their adventures. As they navigate the hazardous and ever-changing world they find themselves in, they need to learn to understand each other and, as a result, themselves.
Ferryman is a straight-forward romance between a very naïve teenage girl named Dylan and a person who calls himself Tristan, whose job it is to guide her across the wasteland between death and eternal life. It’s an intriguing idea, and the landscape of Dylan’s voyage is both ordinary and inexplicably surreal. This purgatory, it seems, is heart-wrenchingly dangerous and, in the end, possibly not worth surviving. The romance broke no new ground for me in the magical-being-falling-in-love-with-ordinary-teen-girl genre, but I very much liked the book’s unique and thought-provoking exploration of the landscape of heaven and hell.
Ropa Moyo is a fourteen-year-old high school dropout with green dreadlocks, black lipstick, and a massive attitude fueled by a ferocious intelligence. She has taken over her grandmother’s marginally profitable business as a ghost-talker, conversations which are made possible by finding the right tune on a Zimbabwean instrument called a mbira. She lives in a caravan parked outside a near-future ruined Edinburgh. Her biggest problems are sore feet from delivering messages from beyond the grave to their paying living relatives, keeping her little sister in school, and caring for her grandmother. Then she runs into a ghost who begs her to find her living son, who has disappeared.
The Library of the Dead would be Ropa’s dream come true, if she weren’t a trespasser on ground reserved for a privileged few. It’s a repository of all magical knowledge—along with the grave of David Hume—in a carved-out cavern below Calton Hill. Fortunately, some members are willing to bend the rules just a little to provide her with the dense textbooks she needs to learn to work magic. The ghost’s missing child is part of a series of disappearances, and no one but Ropa and her two friends from the Library, Priya and Jomo, seem willing to try to find the lost children.
This is a wonderful book with a fresh new voice. The author, T.L. Huchu, was born in Zimbabwe, but lived most of his life in Edinburgh. His familiarity with both cultures results in an unforgettable strange world, narrated by a completely realistic voice. I don’t think this is the last adventure for Ropa and her friends. Tiny print on the title page labels this book as “Edinburgh Nights Book One.”