Archive for Not a Comic Book

For Mercies’ Sake

Here’s a little piece of brilliance I just can’t believe I haven’t blogged about yet. Let’s review The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke.

Our setting in this very loose retelling of Beowulf is Vorseland, a generic medieval/fantasy version of the Scandinavian nations. And our lead characters are a small group of teenagers who are members of the Boneless Mercies, freelance mercy killers who roam Vorseland granting quick, merciful, painless deaths to the old and the sick — and sometimes to the healthy and abusive and cruel, if their victims will pay the fee to hire their blades and their poisons.

The Mercies are:

  • Frey, the leader, is a compassionate girl who has grown tired of the death trade and dreams of better things. She was apprenticed by an older woman named Siggy who died a few years ago.
  • Ovie, the oldest of the Mercies, maybe 19 or 20 years old. She’s also the quietest, and she wears a patch over her lost eye.
  • Runa, angry, skeptical, independent, the most likely to dissent and seek conflict.
  • Juniper, at 15, the youngest of the Mercies, comes from the Sea Witches, where she gets her magic skills and her pale, sea-green hair.
  • Trigve is not a Mercy because he’s not a woman. But he travels with them, the most light-hearted in the grim business, with his mind on matters of healing, not death.

But spending your life dealing out death, even if it’s welcomed, and spending decades shunned because of your profession — it wears on you, and the Mercies would kinda like to stop being Mercies someday. And when news starts circulating about a monster roaming the jarldom of Blue Vee, slaughtering warriors and innocents alike, and prompting Jarl Roth to offer a generous reward for anyone who can slay the Blue Vee Beast, Frey starts thinking she’d like to try her hand at fighting a monster, being a hero, and grabbing the glory she’s always dreamed of. But can a Boneless Mercy become a celebrated hero?

Verdict: Thumbs up. This is a fantastic book, and if you love heroic fantasy, kickass heroines, fantastic characters, cold and snow, and a constant sense of impending doom, this is something you’ll want to read.

The book is filled with beautifully realized settings, from the various inns and forests where the Mercies sleep piled together like dogs, to the Merrows, where the Sea Witches live atop their giant witch trees, to the Red Willow Marsh, home of the terrifying Cut-Queen and her fanatical army of murderous girls, to the desolate beauty of the snowbound and horror-stricken land of Blue Vee, to the lonely cavern where the Blue Vee Beast hides.

I absolutely love the characters in this book. Tucholke could’ve stopped with giving us our five outstanding lead characters and filled the rest of the book up with boring placeholder characters — but she didn’t. As the Mercies travel around Vorseland, they meet fellow Mercies like Sasha, Gunhild, and Aarne, facing terrible life-changing challenges; Mother Hush, wise leader of the Sea Witches and weaver of magics; Elan Wulf, the Cut-Queen, an utterly terrifying spell-caster and conqueror, whose power and charisma is contrasted with her surprising youth; Leif and Vital, members of the forest-dwelling archers called the Quicks; Indigo, a fierce, passionate warrior wandering through her life; Jarl Roth, watching over the slowly dying Blue Vee jarldom, strong and proud, but melancholy to find himself surrounded by death; Siggy, who we never even meet, but whose wisdom and kindness is reflected in everything she’s taught Frey and the other Mercies; and even the Blue Vee Beast herself, who has secrets no one suspects.

This is a beautiful and sad book, filled with glory and magic and blood. Every page — nearly every paragraph — reads like a lyric from an epic Norse ballad. You will dread the coming end of the tale almost from the first chapter, because quests that end in glory must also end in heartbreaking loss, but you will read the end more than once, and your heart will fill with pride and sorrow every time.

Go get this book, read it, love it. It’s going to be part of you forever after.

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Destination: Lagos

I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to get around to reviewing this, ’cause it’s been something that’s really stuck with me ever since I read it. Let’s take a look at Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor.

Okorafor published this Africanfuturist sci-fi novel back in 2014. The basic premise is: What if first contact between humans and aliens didn’t take place in a large, rich Western nation? What if it took place in Lagos, Nigeria?

Our lead characters are Adaora, a marine biologist whose husband’s religious devotion is pushing him into abusive rage; Agu, a soldier on the run after he attacked comrades attempting to rape a woman; and Anthony, best known to the world as Anthony Dey Craze, a hip hop superstar from Ghana. These three strangers find themselves on Lagos’ Bar Beach one night and end up getting startled by a tremendous sonic boom and then pulled out to sea by a strange wave.

And then a few minutes later, they get pushed back out of the ocean, accompanied by a woman who calls herself Ayodele. She looks perfectly normal — as long as you don’t look close enough to fall into the uncanny valley — but she’s not human. She’s not even biological. Ayodele is more like a collection of shapeshifting alien glass nanites, and her mission is to learn what she can about humanity, make friends, and decide what happens after that. So the four go to Adaora’s house, which she shares with Chris, her Christian fanatic husband, and her two children, so they can decide what to do.

It’s not long before word gets out. And all hell breaks loose in Lagos. While one bunch of goons decides to kidnap Ayodele, Chris’ church members, including the manipulative Father Oke, decide to hold an intervention to either convert her or kill her. And Anthony has announced an impromptu concert at Adaora’s house so they can tell everyone in the city about Ayodele and her people. And once a trigger-happy soldier shoots the alien, the biggest riot in the city’s history erupts.

Can the trio of humans escape the violence, convince Ayodele not to give up on or destroy humanity, retrieve Nigeria’s dying president, placate the monstrous human-eating highway that’s been roused to life by the chaos, discover the secrets that brought them together, and survive attacks by the ocean’s newly intelligent and upgraded sea life so they can meet with the aliens in person?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Okorafor is the American-born daughter of Nigerian parents, and she’s spent much of her life in Lagos. So she knows the city and the people there very well. She knows their strengths and their weaknesses, their nobility and less-than-nobility. She knows what makes the city succeed and what makes it fail. She brings all of this to this novel, giving us a strong but broad overview of life in Nigeria’s largest city.

And what we see is something very much unlike what we see in Western nations — except for all the ways it’s really, really similar. Yeah, it’s a different culture on a different continent. People think differently about life and death, gods and religion, money and jobs, law and crime, government, entertainment, poverty, and more. But it’s also been heavily influenced by the West. Nigeria isn’t Wakanda, an African paradise untouched by the decadent West — it’s a nation that’s grown up being told it should be more like the West, even while trying to hold on to the old traditions.

There’s also a lot of Nigerian slang and pidgin, which can be a little difficult. You can generally figure out the gist of what’s being talked about through context. However, Okorafor does provide a glossary of Nigerian language and slang in the back of the book, which I didn’t discover ’til I’d finished reading. So if you find yourself stumped, you can go check the glossary.

I often feel that Okorafor’s characters are a little touch-and-go — some of them are very strong, some feel more like they’re placeholders. In this novel, Adaora gets the most screen-time, but often feels like one of the least developed characters. Agu is pretty interesting and well-developed, but I most wished we could spend more time with Anthony, who felt like someone with a very interesting story to tell but no time to tell it — we barely even get to hear him rap, fer cry-eye. Ayodele is a mystery from beginning to end — we never learn much about her or the aliens, and often what she says once is contradicted by something else a few pages later.

But many of the best characters are less important ones. Chris and Father Oke are basically strawmen, but they do offer a look into the over-the-top evangelical mindset that seems to rule much of Christianity in Africa. Fisayo is a minor character with a fascinating backstory — office worker by day, prostitute by night, and with the coming of the aliens, a newborn proselytizer about the end of the world. A mute beggar boy gets a chapter of focus, just to make sure you really care about him before he runs into serious trouble.

Once the riots really get cooking, several chapters are devoted to individual Lagosians who witness the chaos and interact in some way with something strange or frightening, and these interludes are some of the best short character studies in the book.

And some of the most fun — and often most tragic — characters aren’t human or alien — namely, a furious and dangerously upgraded swordfish, a handicapped but admirably optimistic tarantula, and the most enlightened bat in the world.

And a few deities show up for the festivities, too, specifically Papa Legba, a god of languages and crossroads in a few different cultures, appears in more than one disguise, including a 419 scammer, and Udide Okwanka, an Igbo spider spirit who serves as a trickster, a master storyteller, and the bedrock of Lagos itself. Plus there’s the Bone Collector, a highway given monstrous life and an endless appetite for tasty humans.

And the biggest non-human characters in the book are the city of Lagos itself and the ocean — it’s the first place the aliens visit, the place where they offer the creatures there all the enhancements they can dream of, the place our heroes must travel through to speak with the aliens.

So is it worth reading? Heck, yeah. It’s a rapid-fire thrill ride through science fiction, fantasy, and a real city you’ve never heard of but probably won’t forget. There’s lots of action and excitement, short chapters so it’s easy to burn through, and a host of cool and weird characters, all wrapped around a crash course in a culture you’ve probably never experienced. Go check it out!

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Living After Midnight

It was just a few months back that I reviewed Jane Yolen’s story collection “The Emerald Circus,” and it was while I was writing that one up that I discovered there was a sequel to that book! (Actually, a couple of sequels, but I haven’t gotten the other one yet.) I grabbed it up as fast as I could, and now it’s time for a review of The Midnight Circus by Jane Yolen.

If you’re not familiar with Yolen, she’s one of the most prolific and admired authors around. She’s been writing for at least 50 years and has authored at least 400 books, ranging from fantasy and science fiction to children’s books, from nonfiction to poetry — and even a few comic books.

While “The Emerald Circus” featured Yolen’s short stories that were more fairy tale-focused, this book is considerably darker. Very few outright horror stories, but definitely many more dark fantasy tales.

Some of Yolen’s stories in this book include:

  • The White Seal Maid – A very well-told tale of a man and a selchie.
  • The Snatchers – Who is the strange stalker following a young man? And what’s his connection to a dark corner of Jewish history?
  • Wilding – When future technology allows young thrillseekers to change their shape, who will be the predators hunting them? And who will be the protectors keeping them safe?
  • Winter’s King – The bittersweet tale of the hard, cold life of a small boy born into hardship and dreaming of his lost people in the snow.
  • Inscription – A young woman turns to magic to ensnare her love, but doesn’t reckon with the toll she must pay.
  • Become a Warrior – The story of a princess who flees her fallen kingdom for the wilderness and eventually takes vengeance on her enemies.
  • An Infestation of Angels – A reboot of the Biblical Exodus, complete with a plague of genuinely dreadful angels.

And like Yolen’s previous collection, the book is rounded out with a section on “Story Notes and Poems,” which include her notes on how the stories were written, along with one of her poems on the same general theme.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a really wonderful collection of stories, again holding to a general fairy tales theme, just with a bit more violence, a bit more blood, and a bit more sorrow.

No story collection is perfect, of course. I think I may have preferred “The Emerald Circus” — this edition had at least one story I thought was weird in all the wrong ways. But for the most part, these are thoroughly excellent tales, and they more than drown out the stories I didn’t enjoy as much.

Particular favorites of mine included the beautifully sad “Winter’s King,” the brutally downbeat “Dog Boy Remembers,” the twisty “Little Red,” the filthy but still powerful “Infestation of Angels,” and “Become a Warrior,” which lures you in with a princess fairy tale and then jams a hatchet through your sternum.

If you enjoy stories that put the Grim into the Fairy Tales, you’ll certainly want to pick this one up.

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Convention Invention

Well, it’s been a year of lockdowns and quarantines and Zoom meetings and sourdough bread — and I know a lot of people have been missing going to conventions. So let’s take a look at a new novel about sci-fi conventions — with a few twists. Here’s The Con by J.D. DeLuzio.

This is the story of a convention. Two conventions, actually, both booked into the same Canadian hotel on the same weekend. One con is a very traditional science fiction convention; the other is a weekend-long meeting of the Jane Austen Society.

And because you can’t write about conventions without writing about people, this book is about a large-ish group of people attending one or the other con.

There’s Telfryn Tyde, a middle-aged geek with a history of mental illnesses; Brian and Augusta Slesak, married nerds with secrets; Patti Washington and Chelsea Ashe, supergeeks supreme; Thomas and Mark, nerd brothers chasing girls; Denise Moon, frustrated musician; Kate the Athlete, attending a con she doesn’t understand solely to chase her love; and Lady Susan Vernon — or rather, the hardcore roleplayer cosplaying as the minor Austen character.

Oh, and also Azogo of Uirtkauwea’ki, who might be someone wearing a stunningly complex costume… and might not be.

The book starts out a bit confusing, as a lot of characters are dropped on the reader in the space of just a few pages, and some of them are more important than others. But soon enough, all the characters get sorted out, aided by short spotlight chapters that let us get acquainted with everyone quickly.

It actually comes as a shock when the plot suddenly barrels onto the scene. Telfryn gets a couple sudden shocks that unexpectedly re-awaken the mental issues he thought he’d conquered long ago, and a chunk of the rest of the cast is enlisted in one way or another in locating him and helping him get back on a more even keel.

The story wraps up as the cast members make new connections, new friends, new relationships, ponder the nature of conventions, cons, and truths, and pack their cars to return to their normal lives.

Verdict: Thumbs up. A slow starter, but a book I came to enjoy a lot.

Far and away the most fun part of this novel is the characters — which was a little surprising because there were a few of these folks who I really disliked! Thomas and Mark, the nerdy girl-chasing brothers, were infuriatingly familiar, at least initially, though they got a lot more bearable as the story went on. And I never got to a point where I liked the Slesaks at all.

Lady Susan Vernon was also someone I had a hard time liking. All of her spotlight chapters were told through Lady Susan’s internal voice, which was entirely in-character as a scheming, shallow, seductive, judgmental Regency-era woman — in other words, it’s almost exactly as if Lady Susan Vernon were plucked out of Jane Austen’s unpublished novel and dropped into a modern sci-fi convention.

And I want to emphasize that my dislike of some of the characters was not in any way a bad thing! They were all fully realized and detailed. They felt like real people — it’s just that some of them had personalities I disliked, just like other real people.

The plot itself isn’t the most complex one in fiction, but it’s well-described, engrossing, even intense. And intensely weird, too, as that’s the point where we start to see something that might be science fictional going on — if we can believe our senses, that is.

And outside of the main plot, there are plenty of wonderful moments. The impromptu battlebot tournament in the garage. Kate’s meeting with the Doctor Who cosplayer. The genuinely moving, even glorious, Anglican evensong performed by Denise for the Janeites (and possibly a visitor from another planet).

It’s a great book about real people, even if they’re technically fictional. Go pick it up, okay?

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Fridge Logic

Hey, it’s about time we threw down another book review, right? And let’s make it a good one — time to take a look at The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente.

So this book takes much of its inspiration from a specific bit of pop culture. Way, way back in 1999, comics fan (and future comics writer) Gail Simone, along with a larger group of comics fans, set up a website dedicated to “Women in Refrigerators” — women characters in comic books who got killed off, maimed, and abused solely as a method for giving male superheroes angst and drama. Gwen Stacy, Karen Page, Alex DeWitt — all killed off so the lead character would get a chance to grit his teeth and swear vengeance.

That brings us to this book, published in 2017, where author Catherynne M. Valente introduces us to a group of women, some superheroes, some girlfriends, some a combination of the two, who all end up in Deadtown, filled with dead people and gargoyles, where all the food comes from extinct animals and you never get to change out of the clothes you were buried in. These members of the Hell Hath Club meet and tell the stories that never managed to make it into the comic books.

So we meet Paige Embry, girlfriend of (and accidental creator of) Kid Mercury. She gets between her beau and an angry supervillain and gets thrown off a bridge.

We meet Julia Ashe, massively powerful mutant who gets edited out of the universe because her power scared her teammates and mentor.

We meet Pauline Ketch, high-spirited and psychotic girlfriend of the murderous Mr. Punch.

We meet Bayou, princess of Atlantis, shipped off to an undersea mental hospital because she dared to mourn her child.

We meet Daisy Green, promising actress driven to destruction by her relationship with a hero called the Insomniac.

And we meet Samantha Dane, the newest member of the Club, butchered by a manipulative villain and stuffed into a refrigerator to get back at her superhero boyfriend.

They’re all stuck in Deadtown for the rest of eternity, unless some superhero decides to get off his butt and restore them to life, and they’re not very happy about that.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The book is wonderfully written and grand fun. It’s great to see these characters — who are normally remembered almost entirely as “That One Superhero’s Girlfriend Who Got Killed by that One Supervillain” — given the opportunity to tell their own stories, explain their own viewpoints, and vent their own anger about being killed off and forgotten. It’s very much like reading “The Vagina Monologues” for the goddamn furious superhero set.

And yes, with enough comics knowledge, you can recognize nearly all the characters in the book as the characters they’re supposed to represent from the comics. But that isn’t necessary to enjoy the book.

In fact, there are plenty of fun changes made to the personalities. For example, in the Aquaman comics, Mera is an Atlantean of human appearance, fully comfortable with her roles as both a warrior and a queen; Bayou, her counterpart in this book, looks much less human and has a much more punk rock attitude, preferring to escape from her palace so she can raise hell with her band in sleazy Atlantean nightclubs.

If you love superheroes — and especially if you crave an enthusiastically angry and funny antidote to the Women in Refrigerators phenomenon, you’ll certainly want to read this book.

Also, they say Amazon Studios is working on an adaptation of this book, to be called “Deadtown,” so keep an eye out for that somewhere down the road…

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Beauty and Sorrow in the Collapsing Future

Okay, I’m ’bout to recommend you a book that I think is unquestionably beautiful and also deeply, desperately saddening. Let’s review Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack.

Some spoilers for the book will follow.

So this is a sci-fi novel, written back in 1993. It’s part of Womack’s “Dryco” series, but you don’t have to read any of the other books to enjoy this.

The story is set in the nebulous near-future, in a United States beset by high unemployment, riots, and a rapidly decaying national government and society. Our lead character is a 12-year-old girl named Lola Hart. She goes to a prestigious private school for girls. Her father Michael is a screenwriter struggling to sell new scripts. Her mother Faye is a teacher who can’t find a teaching job and uses Xanax and other pills a bit much. Her little sister is Cheryl, but everyone calls her, for unspecified reasons, Boob. (Boob’s nickname for Lola is Booz.) They live in a nice apartment on 86th Street in New York City. Lola is keeping a diary, addressing every entry as if she were writing a letter to a fictional person named Anne. Lola has two best friends, Lori and Katherine.

Lola’s life is about to go straight to hell.

So we follow her over the course of a terribly and shockingly short five months as the Harts lose more money, take terrible jobs, and lose their home. Multiple presidents are killed, either by assassination, accident, or “accident.” The riots get worse, the government crackdowns get worse, and a new monetary system is created that seems to be designed to make everyone less secure.

Lola loses friends, explores her sexuality, and gains new friends who bring her into a new, more dangerous lifestyle even while they treat her with love, kindness, and support. She loses her family, too, bit by heartbreaking bit. She loses her new friends, too, and she loses the girl she loves most in the whole world. And she loses herself — or at least gains a new self.

And through her diary, we watch Lola gradually change from a typical prep-school teenager to an angry, murderous street rat. She gradually picks up new slang and attitude as the months pass — if you read the last page before you read the rest of the book, you may not understand what she’s saying. But when you follow along with her life, you learn the slang as she uses it, and by the end, you can follow almost everything she says.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a tragedy and a deeply disheartening story, and it’s also a glorious and beautiful book. Lola’s life and passions, her friends and family, her downward spiral, and her joys, even amidst her new life, are all portrayed with compassion. This isn’t tragedy porn — no one exults in Lola’s pain. You feel her losses as you’d feel your own because Womack clearly loves Lola, her family, and her friends. But tragedies are not unheard of, in either fiction or real life. The history of war, refugees, dictatorships, and poverty are littered with people like the Harts.

The book is not well known among sci-fi fans, which writer Jo Walton attributes to a combination of the book’s unwieldy title, cover art that was considered unappealing, a release schedule that allowed it to be overlooked during awards season, and the fact that it didn’t really fit in with the most popular brands of science fiction at the time. But Walton and many others love the book dearly and can easily be encouraged to evangelize about its greatness.

I can’t recommend this book for everyone — it’s a heartbreaking tale, and not the sort of thing you want prowling in your mind as you contemplate your children’s futures. But it’s a beautifully written character study of a girl on her way over the edge, and if you can find it, it’s worth a read.

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Scholars of the Superhero

Every once in a while, we get to talk about serious, scholarly nonfiction. What, scholarly works about comic books? Yeah, they’re out there, so let’s talk about a book that collects a lot of academic works on comics and superheroes: The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester.

So a reader is basically a collection of short articles, often written from an academic or scholarly viewpoint, that detail a broad selection of information, history, theories, and research on a specific topic. The audience for these are generally professors, students, or dedicated fans of the topic — they’re rarely of much interest to the general public. I’ve got a small selection of other readers — one on horror movies, another on horror movies about ghosts, one on Halloween, and one on lycanthropy.

So this one is, obviously, a reader about superheroes. And you’ll note it isn’t a reader about comics. Comic book history is obviously a big chunk of anything having to do with superheroes, but this is a book about guys and gals in capes and spandex — not underground comix.

Anyway, the book is divided into three major sections, with eight essays in each. The first is “Historical Considerations,” followed by “Theory and Genre” and “Culture and Identity.”

The historical section is probably the most straightforward, as it focuses on the history of the superhero. Some of these essays detail the proto-superheroes who came before Superman’s debut in 1938, the early lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creation of Wonder Woman, and the first comics fanzines. But what really makes this section interesting is the inclusion of historical documents, including an excerpt from Philip Wylie’s novel “Gladiator,” which influenced the creation of the Man of Steel, and a chapter from Dr. Fredric Wertham’s discredited “Seduction of the Innocent,” which nearly killed off the comic book entirely in the 1950s.

The “Theory and Genre” section seems like the most complex, with dueling essays from the 1970s to the present hashing out the borders of the superhero genre and the relevant tropes from the Golden Age to the Dark Age and beyond, as well as thick discussions of Jack Kirby’s contributions to the Marvel style of storytelling, the concepts of the multiverse as addressed by different comics creators, and the iconic use of cities as superhero settings.

And finally, the “Culture and Identity” section addresses the impact superheroes have had on Western culture and how they’ve been adopted and adapted by marginalized groups. We get essays about Batman and camp, the Invisible Girl as Marvel’s first important superheroine, superheroes of color at Marvel, DC, and Milestone, and even an essay by Gloria Steinem on Wonder Woman’s influence on feminism.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This definitely isn’t going to be for every reader. It’s a thick book full of academic-level discussions of complex topics. If you’re not up for serious scholarship on comics history, sociology, theory, and more, you might want to give this a pass.

But honestly, for most of us who are serious fans of comics and superheroes, this is fun (though sometimes difficult) reading. It’s a great place to get some historical documents that are hard to come by nowadays. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in serious comics theory in a way you just can’t get arguing with fans at the comics shop. And it’s a great way to expose yourself to new viewpoints that can challenge the way you view superheroes.

The essays are sometimes a mixed bag — some researchers argue for views that are now considered dated, particularly in the “Theory and Genre” section. Scholars in the ’70s generally felt that superhero stories were no different from Westerns, science fiction, or cop dramas — simple tales for children, never real literature. And of course, Fredric Wertham’s essay is full of rhetorical acrobatics designed to tar all comics as poisonous to children. But it is important to see the full scope of comics history and theory, to see where we came from and where scholarship needs to evolve further.

Again, if you can handle a lot of challenging reading (and a bit of a high sticker price), this is going to be a rewarding book for any fan of comics and superheroes. Go pick it up!

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Damn Everything But the Circus

Hey, y’all know I’m always up to screaming about Nazis and how much we really ought to be shooting the hell out of all of ’em, right? But listen, I’m tired. This week has been a lot, and I’m tired. So instead, let’s do a review. Let’s look at The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen.

Jane Yolen’s long writing career has seen her creating classic works of fantasy, science fiction, children’s fiction, poetry, and more. Here she combines many of these interests and styles into a new collection of tales taking inspiration from the well-loved stories we read as kids, then spins them off in new, exciting directions.

Some of Yolen’s stories in this book include:

  • Andersen’s Witch – A boy from an impoverished family makes a deal to improve his future and the world around him — but what happens when it’s time to pay the witch?
  • Lost Girls – A girl is kidnapped from her world and forced to toil as a kitchen slave for an immortal swashbucking brat. Can she lead her fellow servants to freedom through the power of a union?
  • Blown Away – A girl is whisked away to new adventures during a tornado — but what happens to the family she’s left behind, and how will they react when she returns?
  • The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown – The strange and magical friendship between Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli is explored.
  • The Confession of Brother Blaise – A dying monk reveals the genesis of an Arthurian legend.
  • Rabbit Hole – An elderly Alice plans one final trip to Wonderland.
  • Sister Emily’s Lightship – An isolated poet discovers truth and art from beyond the stars.

On top of that, there’s a lengthy and glorious appendix on “Story Notes and Poems,” which includes some extra details about how each tale was created and a poem to go with each story. Extra value!

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are very few perfect anthologies, even by master writers, but this book seems notable by how few outright clunkers there are. And the less-great stories are certainly drowned out by the colossal volume of amazing ones, including the wonderfully funny (and character-stuffed) “Lost Girls,” the lyrical “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” the sumptuous “Evian Steel,” and the heart-stoppingly glorious “Blown Away.”

If you enjoy clever, humorous, and often beautiful stories, this one’s for you. Go pick it up.

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Stories Within Stories

Awright, it’s Christmas Week, and nothing’s slowed down yet! Everything’s still goin’ crazy! Who has time to review anything? I DO, BECAUSE I LOVE YOU ALL SO MUCH I JUST GOTTA BRING Y’ALL MORE REVIEWS!

So we’re gonna review a short novel called Buffalo Soldier by Maurice Broaddus

Our story follows Desmond Coke, a Jamaican spy turned renegade, who is escorting a quiet, strange boy named Lij as they flee through an alternate-steampunk version of the Wild West while trying to escape from agents of the global empire of Albion.

They run into far too much trouble in the Free Republic of Tejas, but manage to cut through a bunch of corporate mercenaries. Unfortunately, the gun-slinging Pinkerton agent Cayt Siringo is a more dangerous foe, but they still manage to hobble over the border into the Assembly of First Nations, but not even this most technologically advanced territory may be able to protect them from their enemies.

Can Desmond and Lij escape to freedom? Can they find anyone they can trust? And what is the secret hiding in Lij’s genes?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Broaddus’ novella revs up fast and rarely slows down. The action is excellent, and the settings, particularly the extremely high-tech Assembly of First Nations, are lots of fun.

Characterization is also a very strong point. Desmond and Lij are both skillful and subtle creations, but some of the secondary characters are especially great, like the desperate but mannerly Cayt, the dignified fury of Inteus, and the calm, commanding, but compassionate Kajika.

It’s also a story about stories. Seems like everyone tells stories to Lij at one time or another, generally about legends and mythology. He’s on the run because someone decided they could decide what the story of his life was going to be — the stories show him he can decide for himself.

If you’re looking for grand, action-packed fantasy with a steampunk-Western twist and a fun, diverse cast, you’ll want to pick this up.

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Irresistible Orbit

We’ve already talked a bit about the “Wayfarers” series, with our previous review of “The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet,” remember? Well, let’s check out the sequel — A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers.

So Chambers’ followup to her much-loved debut novel leaves the crew of the Wayfarer behind and focuses on a couple characters who were mostly supporting cast in the first book. Pepper is a genius with electronics, and she helped out the crew of the Wayfarer several times, while Lovelace used to be the Wayfarer’s AI. After an accident wiped out her memories and reloaded her with her old default programming and personality, she was uploaded into a new hypertech artificial body. Unfortunately, giving Artificial Intelligences realistic bodies is illegal, and if she’s caught, she’ll be destroyed, and those who helped her will suffer severe penalties. Now Lovelace has to learn how to function out in the real world, with the aid of Pepper and her friends.

This novel follows a couple different storylines. In the first, Lovelace interacts with the world around her, chooses Sidra as her new name (Lovelace is a common program for AIs and would cause too much trouble for her if she kept it as a name), tries to figure out ways around the limitations of her new body, cautiously makes new friends in Blue and Tak, and endures a few personal crises on her way to becoming the best person she can be.

In the second storyline, we backtrack to Pepper’s childhood as Jane 23, a cloned factory slave. After she escapes into the desolate wastes of her hostile world, she must fight for her survival, with her only shelter a broken-down spaceship and her only companion an outdated but deeply loving AI named Owl.

As with Chambers’ first book, the characterizations truly shine, and the compassion of the writing really drive the book forward. Pepper’s lonely and frightening childhood and Lovey’s lonely and frightening transition from disembodied intelligence to bipedal life form are countered beautifully by the friendships they build — with abandoned humans, with understanding aliens, with an old AI willing to devote herself to keeping a lost child alive, and sometimes with surprise doses of kindness delivered by unexpected people — soon after Jane’s rescue from her wasteland exile, for example, she’s offered a simple hug from a large, intimidating alien who understands how stressful and traumatic her new life has become.

If you haven’t read it yet, you should certainly go check it out. We live in a rough and often unkind world. You deserve to enjoy some of this compassionate, diverse, welcoming, and vastly wonderful science fiction.

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