Setting a fantasy novel in a rainforest is, with the benefit of hindsight, a genius idea, due to the genre’s historical love of stratified societies and hierarchical social structures.
Canopy is home to those who worship the thirteen gods and goddesses of their pantheon. Residents are closest to the sunlight, have more access to resources, and are the safest from the creatures that roam the forest, thanks to the magical barrier that separates Canopy from Understorey and Floor. This barrier also traps those who live in Understorey to the mercy of harsher, more dangerous living conditions and fewer resources. To those in Canopy, Understorians are savages fit only for slavery.
Unar, a Canopian born and bred, knows she has a powerful destiny. At the age of twelve she ran away from home to avoid being sold by her impoverished parents and gained entry to the Garden of Audblayin, the Waker of Senses and the goddess of birth and life. There she easily masters the magic that lies in Audblayin’s province, arrogant in her knowledge she was meant to serve one day as the bodyguard for her patron deity’s next incarnation.
Instead, Unar’s plan is thwarted again and again. Refused to ascend in rank in the Garden, entangled in promises and debts to a family of slaves, Unar’s destiny takes her beneath the barrier into Understorey. There she learns of another, powerful type of magic, and discovers an organized plot to overthrow Canopy—a plot that Unar has the power to aid or destroy, at the cost of everything she’s striven for.
I was ready to give Allegedly five stars. It’s a gut-wrenching thriller that hammers with pinpoint precision at the status quo and the intersection of the criminal justice system, bodily autonomy, racism, mental illness, and child abuse, as well as the struggles and roadblocks that prevent the most vulnerable and in need of help from ever getting any. The writing is tight. The plot is gripping. All of the characters have depth beyond their first impression. Also it turned my emotions into a bloody mess.
And then the last five pages happened. And I want to unpack my response.
(This will be a SPOILERY review).
Late one night on the outskirts of Kolkata, a middle-aged, lonely college professor named Alok is approached by a mysterious stranger who claims to be part-werewolf. He gives Alok mesmerising, terrifying visions, a prologue to what will become this stranger’s unbelievable story. Captivated by what he’s seen and wanting to know more, Alok agrees to transcribe the contents of two ancient scrolls the stranger possesses.
These scrolls contain a bloody, magical tale that transcends recorded history and legend both. The first tells the story of a powerful Nordic shapeshifter, one of whose many names is Fenrir, who travels east with two other shapeshifters and seeks to fuck a human woman in order to partake in what his people do not—the creation and bearing of children. The second scroll is written by Cyrah, the woman who was raped by a bestial-looking white stranger. Her story is one of resistance, sought clarity, and dissolution of boundaries as she straddles the two worlds she—and her unborn child—will inhabit.
I can’t remember the last time I read a steampunk novel, but I always knew I would be reading Nisi Shawl’s Everfair as soon as it came out. A what-if take on the outcome of the colonization of Africa and the enslavement and brutalization enacted upon the people of the Congo, Everfair uses steampunk not as a shiny gloss, but as an integral mechanism powering her alternate history in which the existence of the Belgian Congo takes a markedly different turn for the better.
Do elections become more democratic when everyone has access to to the same infinite, universal information? Does ease of access to information and universal availability and ability to vote diminish voting disenfranchisement and lead to smarter, more thoughtful voting outcomes?
Maybe. Ideally. It’d be nice if that happened.
Malka Older’s cyberpunk election thriller Infomocracy posits a late twenty-first century future in which microdemocracy is the norm. Instead of traditional, old-fashioned nation-states, Earth (or rather its participating constituents, but that’s still most of Earth) is divided up into 100,000-people voting blocs called “centenals.” Rural areas may have only a couple of centenals spread out over hundreds of miles, while densely packed cities can have a couple hundred centenals within the space of several street blocks.
I feel like I’ve failed.
Every single review I’ve seen for this book, every article about it written by people whose tastes I share or opinions I trust have praised this book to the high heavens, some citing it as good as or even better than Ann Leckie’s debut Ancillary Justice. Sure, they all said the concepts could be fiendishly difficult and that this book definitely required work to read, but that the work would be rewarding and worth it.
I’ve read Ninefox Gambit. I liked the story and the ideas behind the world-building, I loved Cheris and Jedao, and I want to find out what happens next in the sequel.
I have no fucking clue how anything works or how plans got accomplished or foiled, and I’m frustrated and sorry to say this had a significant impact on my ability to love this book alongside everyone else.
Zephyr Mourning is a harpy bred-and-born, albeit not a very good one—her fighting and magic skills are deplorable, she freezes up in the middle of a fight. She was all prepared to live the rest of her life in the mortal realm amidst the humans rather than become a fully-fledged contract killer for the Greek gods, known here as the Exalted, the high Aetherials. And then someone was ordered to kill her beloved older sister. Upon finding her sister’s body, Zephyr killed him right back … except that person was a god, one of the low-ranked Aetherials. Now she’s been condemned to spend the rest of her days in Tartarus, forever known as Godslayer, with no hope of redemption. All that changes when two teenage boys—one of whom used to be her childhood friend—come looking for her. Zephyr has a role to play, one she never would have expected.
While Zephyr is incapable of manipulating the aether, the magic of light, she has long been able to channel erebos, the dark magic of the Underworld, but forbidden to do so. For centuries, shadow vaettir like her—the offspring or descendants of humans and gods who can channel erebos—have been quietly hunted to the point of extinction by the vaettir of the aether and the Aetherials.
Zephyr may be a lousy harpy, but, as it turns out, she is also the reincarnation of the Nyx, a powerful being capable of wielding erebos with greater ability than almost anyone and the prophesied champion of the shadow vaettir. But Zephyr’s positive she’ll fail at being the Nyx, just like she’s never been able to be a proper harpy. What will she do when her entire life has been defined by failing to be what people wanted her to be?
For those who may not have been paying attention to YA trends of late, thrillers are currently the genre du jour. Not my thing personally, but I’m intrigued by the shift away from speculative genres of urban fantasy/paranormal romance and dystopia to a no-less-genre genre but still markedly contemporary kind of story. Charm & Strange, which was published in 2013, is more of an emotional thriller than an action thriller, but heart-pounding, emotions-running-high thriller it is. The best part (for me) is that it does invoke an obviously speculative trope without being kitschy, cutesy, or pandering. It uses fantastical devices the way they’ve been frequently used throughout history—to explain and make sense of the impossible and to provide comfort in the face of horror.
Drew Winters is an angry, whiny, and sickly boy, the middle child of a rich Virginian family. Surrounded by uncaring, inconsiderate, and/or abusive family members, his sole ally his earnestly protective yet fallible older brother Keith, a summer vacation with his extended family becomes the catalyst for a family tragedy, and an obscene consequence of his family’s secrets.
Win Winters is a loner teenage boy at a preppy boarding school in Vermont that he’s attended since age twelve. He has almost no friends, and that’s how he likes it. He’ll do whatever is necessary to push people away so they can stay out of his nexus of tragedy, pain, and violence.
Charm & Strange tells in alternate chapters the stories of Drew and Win, the past and present, and the battle to emerge on the other side as whole … whatever shape that may take.
This will be a SPOILERY review.
Mercy Wong of Chinatown in San Francisco has what her fortune-telling mother calls “bossy cheeks”: she is someone who gets things done. And what she wants to do is gain entrance to the prestigious St. Clare’s School for Girls. Once she elevates her own circumstances and becomes a successful businesswoman, she plans to lift the rest of her family out of poverty, so that her father doesn’t have to work as a laundryman eighteen hours a day and Jack, her weak-lunged younger brother, won’t be condemned to follow in the family business.
St. Clare’s accepts white, wealthy students only, but this doesn’t deter her. With The Book for Business-Minded Women as her guide, Mercy wangles admission into St. Clare’s through a mixture of deal-brokering and bribery. In return for arranging for a wealthy chocolatier to expand his business into Chinatown, Mercy will be allowed to attend, posing as a Chinese heiress to deflect suspicion.
Once she’s in, Mercy faces a host of new challenges, from hostile classmates to suspicious teachers. Refusing to back down, Mercy makes friends among her fellow students (as well as enemies) and doubles down on her mission. All that ends on April 18, 1906, the day a catastrophic earthquake hits San Francisco, destroying both the school and Mercy’s home in Chinatown. Now with the girls of St. Clare’s taking refuge in a public park and dependent on the army for help, what can Mercy do, with her plan and entire life entirely upended? It’s up to her find out just how far her strength, determination, and “bossy” cheeks can take her as the city burns in the earthquake’s aftermath.
The Suffering is the second book in a loosely connected duology of YA horror novels that I would honestly never have picked up— not normally being interested in horror—if Thea from The Book Smugglers had not written such a fantastic review of the first book, The Girl from the Well. While The Suffering is the logical continuation of the The Girl from the Well, the two books read more or less like standalone novels—you get a bit of benefit from having read the first one, but it’s not entirely necessary to understand or enjoy the second. (Nevertheless I will technically be alluding to characters and situations from the first book that will count as spoilers.)