Review – European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman by Theodora Goss

This is the second book in The Extraordinary Adventures of the Athena Club. The first book in the series, The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, was nominated for the Nebula award and the World Fantasy award, and was a fun read.

This book starts off planning the trip set up at the end of the first one, an expedition to visit Mary Jekyll’s former governess, Mina Harker nee Murray, and to rescue Lucinda Van Helsing. And the adventure itself is fun, full of adventure, kidnappings, fights, romance, and lots of familiar names. The seven women from the first novel all have their parts to play in this one, with several new women in this, from Dracula and Sherlock Holmes. After the rescue, our heroines take off to stop a Royal Society-type organization that is creating more monsters.

I didn’t enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one, and I think the reason is that, at 720 pages, it was too long. There are two stories, related, but I think it would have worked better if the stories had been separated. And, since the book was so long, the comments from the other women, which tend to be funny and add color and character, became distracting.

I’m hoping that the author gets advice to shorten her books so that the next entry in the series will be as entertaining as the first one.

Goss, Theodora. European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman. New York, NY: Saga Press, 2018. Kindle edition. Amazon.

Review – Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik

I suspect that, like Uprooted by the same author, Spinning Silver will be nominated for the Nebula and Hugo awards next year.  It is engaging and well-written and will certainly be a good contender for either award.  I especially enjoyed this novel because the central characters are all female and willing to take action to change their lives, and because it isn’t set in the standard Western European fairy tale kingdom, but an Eastern European one, which means that things aren’t as standard.  (Warning: there are spoilers in this review for the novel.)

The novel revolves around three young women, all of them isolated, belittled and scorned, who decide to take what actions they can to improve their lives or the lives of those they love.  Miryem Mandelstam, the Jewish moneylender’s daughter, is the only one who truly feels loved at the beginning of the novel, is also the one who sets things in motion. When the Staryk, winter fairies, begin expanding the winter, her mother becomes sick.  Her father is notoriously bad at collecting the debts owed him, so Miryem goes out and begins doing so to get what is needed to help her mother get well. Her parents are horrified, but aren’t capable of taking over the job, so she continues.

The second of the three young women is Wanda, the daughter of one of the farmers in the nameless town in which the novel begins.  Her mother dies after giving birth to eight children, of whom only three survive: Wanda, Sergey and Stepon. While trying to recover from the final birth, her father Gorek borrows six kopeks from Miryem’s father.  After drinking two and gambling two, he uses the last two to get medicine for his wife, which isn’t enough to save her. Years later, when Miryem begins collecting what her father is owed, Gorek claims he cannot pay.  Deciding that this is probably true, Miryem bargains instead for Wanda’s labor to care for the Mandelstams.

For Wanda, the most passive of the three young women, this is a rescue.  As long as she has to work for Miryem, her father can’t sell her off to be married.  In addition, once she begins to work for Miryem and her family, she discovers love and care that she hasn’t had since her mother’s death.  It is Wanda who uses the metaphor that Miryem can spin silver into gold by watching her employer turn a small investment into a greater profit.

The Staryk king hears this and comes for Miryem.  He first gives her a silver kopek and tells her to turn it to gold.  She goes to the jeweler fiance of her cousin, he turns the silver into a ring, and they sell that ring to Vysnia’s duke in return for a single gold coin.  As is common with fairy tales, the king demands greater quantities of gold. In return, he will not kill Miryem, but will marry her. The second quantity is turned into a necklace and the third into a crown.  All three are bought by the duke to give to his daughter, Irina, to convince the tsar to marry her. Irina is the third of the young women at the center of the novel.

Each of the young women has to face a trial at the hands of the brutal and violent men in control of their lives and, ultimately, wrest control back to their own hands.  Each of them finds strength in community, and in the women, and sometimes the men, in their lives. As with traditional fairy tales, the risks are perhaps greater than the reward, but that reward is not insubstantial.  And in the end, these women rescue each other.

The connection to Rumpelstiltskin is a little on the thin side, but that was never the main charm of this novel anyway.  That is in the women.
Novik, Naomi.  Spinning SIlver.  New York, NY:  Del Rey, 2018. Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

In 1969, the four Gold siblings, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, go to visit a fortuneteller on Hester Street.  They don’t go to get their fortune told, but to find out when they will die.  The rest of The Immortalists follow the siblings as they live their lives until each of them, except the last, dies.

This book is an unusual one for me.  When I read fiction, it is usually genre fiction: fantasy, science fiction, alternate history, mystery, and combinations thereof.  This novel is none of those: it is a story of a family as they live, and die, from 1969 until today, with forays into the past to see their parents and where they come from, in both literal and metaphorical terms.

Although I had a hard time getting involved with the story, I suspect that was less to do with it and more to do with me.  The characters were complex and the story was well-told, with forays into pre-and-early-AIDS San Francisco, stage magic, and longevity research.  The story focuses on the four siblings, but we get to see four generations of the Gold family, in glimpses at the very least.

As would be expected from the synopsis, it’s a story about family, about dying, about living, and, of course, about love.  Love and life in all its messy glory.

Not my usual cup of tea, but I enjoyed it more than most of its type.

 

Benjamin, Chloe.  The Immortalists.  New York, NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Kingdom of the Wicked by Helen Dale

Typically, when I review a series, I review each of the books separately.  For Kingdom of the Wicked, however, I’m going to review both of these books together.  This is largely because, even though the first one did come to a conclusion, they really are two parts of a larger work.

To address the technical issues first, although I didn’t have any trouble with perspective in these books, the tenses were not always consistent, which I found more annoying than confusing.

The other thing has to do with how alternate histories, or at least the ones I read, are usually written.  Typically, there is one event (a shard from an artwork carving out a six mile sphere of 2000 West Virginia and dumping it in 1631 Germany) and everything after follows logically (at least in the author’s mind) from that point.  These books, however, were specifically written to examine what how ancient Rome, with today’s technology but their legal system, would respond to a certain Yeshua Ben Yusuf (Jesus son of Joseph, or Jesus Christ).  It’s an interesting idea, and one that will work on my mind.

Although Roman sexual mores were much stricter than Dale portrays, I believe she is doing two things here.  First, she is positing what technology may have done to the sexual morals.  Second, I think she is comparing Rome and the Jews, with American and Muslim (or maybe just Middle Eastern) cultures today.

Certainly, her Rome is very concerned with law, and very concerned that the law be kept no matter what.  At the same time, they don’t believe that helping the poor or disabled helps anyone.  “Just giving to the poor encourages them to continue asking for help instead of making their way out of poverty,” seems to be the basic attitude.  Anyone who has been involved in a political debate about Medicaid and/or welfare in the U.S. will recognize the argument.  At the same time, the Jewish people are very concerned with taking care of the poor, even if that means some unworthy people get helped along the way.

The core of the story, though, is Jesus and his story.  Kingdom of the Wicked only focuses on the events of the “Holy Week”, from Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt to the end of the trial.  It is in this examination that I most enjoyed these two books.  The main characters we know are here, although you do need to know a little about Hebrew and Aramaic to recognize the names, (Yehuda is Judas, Petros is Peter, the Virgin Mary is Miriam Bat Amram), although others are clear, such as Mary Magdalene and Joseph of Arimathea.  The familiar villains are here; some, like High Priest Caiaphas are much as expected although others, like Pontius Pilate, aren’t quite as villainous as might be expected.  (Much of that depends on what you know and what else you’ve read, as well.)

In this telling of the story, Jesus doesn’t come off quite as well as he does in the Gospels.  He’s more human, even as it’s obvious he’s trying to tell a story about God as Love, he’s more likely to make mistakes, lose his temper, and not treat people maybe as well as he should.  There are other stories from other traditions that Dale tells as well:  Yeshua Ben Yusuf’s father is a Roman soldier named Pantera, a story that was told in first and second century Jewish tradition.  Saul the tentmaker has an important role to play as well.

In the end, although there are many things I would quibble with, and although I would love to see an editor correct some of the technical shortcomings of these two books, this story of first century Jerusalem and Yeshua Ben Yusuf will stick with me.  I give it four stars.

 

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book One: Rules.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2017.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Dale, Helen.  Kingdom of the Wicked Book Two: Order.  Balmain, NSW:  Ligature Pty Limited, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Good Guys by Steven Brust

Good Guys is a detective story: the main characters have to find out who’s killing people with magic.  Seems simple, but along the way they have to figure out if they’re actually the good guys and if they’re working for the right people.

I have a complaint about Good Guys that I’ve run into a couple of times lately.  I’m not sure why this isn’t being caught/addressed, or if this is a factor of growing older and more aware of the technical aspects of writing, but Brust is not good, especially early on, about signalling that the story is being told from a different character’s point of view.  I went several chapters before realizing that the sections being told from the bad guy’s perspective weren’t being told from Donovan’s.  It’s not that I didn’t know who the person was who had the perspective, but that I could so easily mix them up.

Other than that one complaint, I enjoyed Good Guys.  The “whodoneit” aspect of the story is answered early on, the “whydoneit” follows within a reasonable amount of time.  When the characters do something stupid, the results of their stupidity (impatience) are what you would expect.  The guy who falls into the “magic is real” actually acts like someone would in his position, and the confrontation with the higher-ups actually feels real.  There are no loose ends dangling, although this could easily be turned into a series.

I enjoyed it, although I’m not sure it will go onto my “reread” list.  A solid 3.5 stars.

Brust, Steven.  Good Guys.  New York, NY: Tor Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente

The description of Space Opera looked entertaining: the fate of humanity hanging on how we do in a Eurovision-type performance.  Unfortunately, I didn’t find the book living up to the promise of its description.  Then again, I’m middle-age, have never seen a Eurovision competition, and don’t enjoy absurdity or surrealism.  Finally, the writing style sounds too much like Douglas Adams, of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe, and even Adams can grate on my nerves after a while.

The novel consists of two stories that weave together into the third main story.  First, it is an exploration of the history of and behind the Metagalactic Grand Prix,  and all of the different races that have participated in it.  Valente shows that she is comfortable in the science fiction genre, there are multiple races, all of them wildly different, all of them extraordinarily strange, and none of them predisposed to like, or hate, Earth and humanity.  It’s a strange, strange universe that Valente gives us.

The second story is that of Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, three musicians who had one hit many years ago.  The band has broken up: Dess tries to continue as a solo artist, Mira dies, and Oort goes “straight”.  The stories of their lives could come straight out of the gossip magazines.  But when, through the standard absurdity, the band is called to represent Earth, they rise, or try to rise, to the challenge.

The main question of the book is, as Valente asks, “Do you have enough empathy and yearning and desperation to connect to others outside yourself and scream into the void in four-part harmony?  …  Do you have soul?”

Without giving away how Dess and Oort, and the aliens who try to help and hinder them do, and while admitting that I didn’t much care for the book, won’t be rereading it, and only finished it to write this review, I will tell you this.  Valente does have soul, a lot of it.

 

Valente, Catherynne M.  Space Opera.  New York, MY:  Saga Press, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – D.A. by Connie Willis

When the recruiter from the International Space Academy comes to Winfrey High to solicit applications from the students there, Theodora Baumgarten is one of the few students who has no interest in applying.  As she tells the recruiter, “There’s no air, you’re squashed into a ship the size of a juice can, and it takes years to get anywhere interesting. If you get there and aren’t killed first by a meteor or a solar flare or a systems malfunction.”  So, it’s something of a surprise when she finds out that her (nonexistent) application has been accepted.  And, since everyone would be thrilled and honored to be accepted, no one but her best friend, Kimkim, believes her.

This is the setup for Connie Willis’s novella D.A.  The meaning of those initials, and why Theodora was “accepted” as a cadet, are too good to spoil, and getting there is much of the fun.  Especially good is the name of the Academy space station, the Robert A. Heinlein.

For those of us who loved traditional science fiction since childhood, but are now far too aware of what can go wrong, D.A. is a delightful treat.

Willis, Connie.  D.A.  Burton, MI:  Subterranean Press, 2007.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – American Hippo by Sarah Gailey

American Hippo is not one novel; it is a collection of two novellas and two short stories, all set in the same alternate universe.  The two novellas, River of Teeth and Taste of Marrow, are two complete stories that tell a larger story when combined.  The two short stories, “Nine and a Half” and “Worth Her Weight in Gold”, are vignettes that add color and additional detail to the novellas.  Finally, I gave a brief review of River of Teeth earlier, when I reviewed the finalists for the Nebula and Hugo awards.  It did not win the Nebula; the Hugo has not yet been announced.

I was pleased that I didn’t read River of Teeth before Taste of Marrow was published even if I didn’t read it right away.  Although River of Teeth tells a complete story, there are still stories left to tell about some of the characters.  Those stories, the most pressing at least, are told in Taste of Marrow.  The ending of that story wraps everything up, although there are still more stories that could be told in this universe.

The alternate universe in which American Hippo is set is one in which a plan debated in the U. S. Congress in the early twentieth century was actually carried out in 1857.  Hippos were imported and raised in the Louisiana bayous for meat.  Since horses aren’t well-designed for working in rivers and marshes, other hippos were raised and trained to herd the meat hippos.  Basically, instead of the Wild West, you have the Wild Mississippi or the Wild Bayous or the Wild Delta.

The stories are essentially Westerns set in that universe.  River of Teeth is a caper (“It’s not a caper; it’s an operation!  All legal and above-board!”) in which the feral hippos fenced in at the mouth of the Mississippi are to be released into the Gulf of Mexico.  This goes as well as you would expect, with deaths, and life-threatening injuries, to the main characters.  Taste of Marrow follows the survivors of the original crew through the aftermath, consequences, and the one mystery barely hinted at in the first story.

Finally, apparently one of the things that went right in this universe (hippos are just different) is that women and LGBTQ+ people are much more acceptable than they are in ours.  In a group of five highly talented and dangerous (admittedly criminal) people, two are women, one is nonbinary, and four are bi or gay.  Not something I expect would have been accepted in our Wild West.

All in all, these were delightful stories and I enjoyed them.  Highly recommended.

Gailey, Sarah.  American Hippo.  New York:  Tor.com Books, 2018.  Kindle edition.  Amazon.

Review – Shtetl Days by Harry Turtledove

The novella Shtetl Days, by alternate history writer Harry Turtledove is set about a hundred years after the War of Retribution in which Nazi Germany won.  Veit Harlan and his wife Kristina are actors, portraying Jakub and Bertha Shlayfer in the village of Wawolnice, a Jewish reenactment village in Poland.

As actors who take pride in their work, they do their best to be as true to their roles as they can.  This involves studying the no-longer-practiced rites, rituals, customs and beliefs of a way of life that the Nazis worked hard to get rid of.  To the tourists, Wawolnice is an example of the dirty people that the Germans had to get rid of.  To the actors portraying the hated, hateful Jews, it’s … something else.

I enjoy Turtledove’s works, and this is one of my favorites.  A poignant reminder of “what might happen if …”

Turtledove, Harry.  Shtetl Days.  Tor.com, 2011.  Amazon.

Review – I Met a Traveller in an Ancient Land by Connie Willis

Although this isn’t one of my favorite of Connie Willis’s stories, it is a worthy addition to her oeuvre.  Told in the first person, the narrator is doing publicity for his blog, Gone for Good, about things that are just that.  He is also trying to get a deal to turn his blog into a book.  After a particularly bad interview, he takes a walk in midtown Manhattan, is caught by a rainstorm, and finds shelter in Ozymandias Books.

The rest of the story is his experience within Ozymandias Books, what he finds there, and how it changes him.  As he is led through the shop by Cassie, an employee, he notes many of the book titles, including an old favorite of his from childhood.  As he realizes what the shop truly is, his agent calls him that an interview has been moved up and he has to leave.  I’ll leave what happens next for the reader to enjoy.

Unlike my favorite Willis stories, there is little humor.  It does have the character’s obsessive noting of details, the strangeness of the setting, and action that moves the plot forward.  The story is a quick read, and one that will stick with me.  I recommend it.