Oct 26 2020

Above All Else by Dana Alison Levy

When I was younger, I loved a good climb. Mostly of trees and free-standing structures, tho if I’d had a shot at a climbing wall, I’d have totally been up for that, too. So when my college roommates invited me to join the hiking club, you’d think I’d be all in. Unfortunately, club hiking required club camping, and an adolescence of indifferent living conditions in the pursuit of boarding-school-mandated “character building” had already made me deeply suspicious of any endeavour that eschews climate control and indoor plumbing for more than 8 hours at a stretch.

Thus it is no surprise that mountaineering is not high on my list of fun activities. The entire anathema idea of “roughing it” aside, I literally have no idea why anyone would throw themselves at a mountain side given the high risk of injury or worse. This may also be my bad knee talking: the first time I blew out my knee after a weekend of waitressing and paintball, I cried with fury at being immobile for several days, which is one reason I’ve given up hiking in favor of biking whenever possible, to preserve my mobility.

Which is all to say that entertainment about risky mountaineering activities is not something I would choose on my own. I remember watching the trailer for Everest and thinking, “Disaster porn, ugh, hard pass.” So when Dana Alison Levy’s Above All Else crossed my desk, I was skeptical as to how much I’d enjoy a tale of two teenagers facing the challenge of summiting Mount Everest.

I was immediately drawn in by the two narrative voices tho, of our heroes, Rose Keller and Tate Russo, teenage climbing prodigies who are about to ascend Everest. Rose is the half-Puerto-Rican, half-white overachiever who is absolutely gutted when her climber mother is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, ending Maya’s climbing career. She wants to summit Everest to honor her mom, even as a gnawing Dread at all the unknown variables of her future dogs her every step.

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Oct 23 2020

Of Salt And Shore by Annet Schaap

This is like The Secret Garden but with mermaids and pirates instead, and with characters that I, at least, liked from start to finish (as a pragmatic child, I found it hard to care for any of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s insipid and annoying creations.) Billed as a sequel to The Little Mermaid, Of Salt And Shore tells the tale of Lampie, a lighthouse keeper’s daughter. Tasked with far too many responsibilities at a young age, she fails to light the great lamp one stormy night, resulting in the breaking of an important ship on the rocks off port. Her father is locked up in the lighthouse as punishment, while she is whisked off to be a servant at The Black House, where a monster supposedly lurks in the tower.

Shy, illiterate Lampie arrives to a household in turmoil, and tries her best to be of help to the overwhelmed housekeeper Martha, as well as to Martha’s silent, hulking son Lenny and to eccentric Nick who hides out in the garden. But what she really wants is to climb up the tower and look out to sea, to make sure that her father is alright and that the lighthouse beacon still glows when it should. She doesn’t believe that there’s a monster hiding up there, despite Martha’s tight-lipped admonitions… until she sneaks into the tower to look out the windows one night and discovers that something vicious is indeed hiding in the shadows.

But Lampie isn’t the kind of girl to let a little feral temper get in the way of making friends. With Lenny’s help, she coaxes out the monster and sets about trying to solve his problems as well as her own. But the return of the Admiral to whom The Black House belongs may have unintended, even life-shattering consequences for all of its inhabitants and the people they love.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/23/of-salt-and-shore-by-annet-schaap/

Oct 20 2020

Shadows Of The Short Days by Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson

Imagine Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus crossed with Doris Lessing’s The Good Terrorist, filtered through a China Mieville sensibility of industrial magic set firmly in the history and myths of Iceland. That’s what you’re getting in Shadows Of The Short Days, Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson’s wildly inventive, deeply thoughtful debut novel, which he translated himself from its original Icelandic. Set in an alternate universe Reykjavik rife with sorcery, the country of Hrimland is still under the control of the Kalmar crown, who use the natural, mostly magical resources of the area to enrich themselves, their chosen representatives and favored human Hrimlanders, while oppressing other races and disappearing dissidents into a prison known colloquially as the Nine.

Half-human, half huldufolk Garun has always felt like an outsider. Whether growing up in her small huldufolk town or struggling to survive as an adult in Reykjavik, she’s always been treated as an outcast for not being fully one race or another. It’s no surprise then that she gravitates towards a political movement that fights for civil liberties and justice for all, even if she finds her radical viewpoints increasingly at odds with the rest of her fellow protestors’.

Her ex-boyfriend Saemundur has his own set of problems. A gifted magician, he’s grown increasingly frustrated by what he views as the suffocatingly conservative doctrine of the local college of magic. After his professors finally kick him out, his burning desire to prove his former teachers wrong sets in motion a deadly chain of magical events. When Garun comes looking for his help in fomenting revolution, their blind desires to achieve their goals, no matter the cost, could have unthinkable consequences, not only for them but for Hrimland itself.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/20/shadows-of-the-short-days-by-alexander-dan-vilhjalmsson/

Oct 19 2020

Black Sun (Between Earth and Sky #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse

One of the things I was most impressed by in this first novel of Rebecca Roanhorse’s new epic fantasy series is how effortless it all feels. She’s created a brand new universe using the indigenous cultures of the Americas as its basis, and there isn’t a single moment of self-conscious telling instead of showing. It’s a wonderful repudiation of the default Euro-Mediterranean settings of most English-language adult epic fantasies, centering an under-explored/represented facet of world history in a way that feels natural, as if to show how perfectly suited the cultures are to this sort of interpretation, and how much we as readers have been missing out by not encouraging fantastic fiction from authors with roots in those traditions.

The next thing I was most impressed by was how our protagonists feel less like conventional heroes and more like real people with complex motivations just doing their best to survive their extraordinary circumstances while still remaining true to themselves and their beliefs. The two native Tovans, the Sun Priest Naranpa and the trained Shield Okoa, are the characters closest to being traditional heroes, as they explicitly seek to do the most good for their peoples. Teek ship captain Xiala is mostly a hedonist but won’t hesitate to put her own life in danger in order to save her crew. And even Serapio, the enigmatic figure blinded as a boy and intended for use as a vessel for a dead god, acts not out of selfishness or small-mindedness but because he’s been trained for no other purpose than to challenge the priestly Watchers who decimated his clan of his grandparents’ generation (trigger warning for the abuse he endured as a child tho. His mom and teachers were some truly fucked up people.)

The paths of our four protagonists are set on a collision course when Xiala is hired to carry a mysterious passenger from the southern city of Cuecola across the open waters of the Crescent Sea to Tova, the holy city from which the Watchers rule after quelling the old gods and barbaric magics in favor of their more scientific religion. Xiala’s unique heritage makes her the captain most likely to be able to bring Serapio to Tova in time for the Solstice, when he will fulfil a dark and bloody prophecy. But travel across the open sea carries more challenges than even a Teek can overcome on her own, and she and Serapio soon find themselves bonding in unlikely ways.

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/19/black-sun-between-earth-and-sky-1-by-rebecca-roanhorse/

Oct 16 2020

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe

It’s been so long since I’ve read a standalone YA novel that I barely know what to do with myself at the end of A Golden Fury, in no small part due to Samantha Cohoe’s gifts as an author. Despite the ending being quite firmly The End, I’m so invested in these characters and their milieu that I can’t help wanting to know so much more about what happens next to our heroine Thea Hope and her friends.

Ofc, I should start at the beginning: Thea is the only daughter of Marguerite Hope, the greatest alchemist of her generation. Marguerite has gained renown for the alchemical armor she created for Louis XVI and, between that and the beauty elixirs she skillfully prepares, could enjoy a life of comfort and wealth despite being English in a politically turbulent France. But Marguerite has ambitions to cement her place in the history books by synthesizing the long lost Philosopher’s Stone, and has trained up Thea as her assistant.

The relationship between mother and daughter has recently been strained, however, by Thea’s own relationship with Marguerite’s last apprentice, Will Percy. Once Marguerite realized that her seventeen year-old daughter had fallen in love with charming, handsome Will, she quickly sent him packing. But Thea has been keeping up a secret correspondence with her love as he travels first to Prussia then to England while plying his trade.

Concerned by rising anti-British sentiment in their adopted country, Marguerite makes plans for Thea to return to their motherland. Not even Thea’s small delight at the opportunity to see Will again can make up for how hurtful this feels. She and her mother are so close to finally making the stone, and to be sent away at this crucial juncture feels like the worst professional and maternal rejection. But when things go horribly awry in France, Thea must flee the country in search of a father she’s never known, whose interest in the Stone may be far stronger than any paternal feelings he may have for a daughter he never even knew existed. Can Thea complete her mother’s work without courting disaster, madness or worse?

This was probably one of the most realistic depictions of an intelligent, angry young woman I’ve read in a long, long while. Told from Thea’s point of view, it’s easy to sympathize with her completely legitimate feelings even as the discerning reader can see clearly between the lines of what’s actually happening around her. I also very much appreciated her complicated relationships, especially with her parents. Whether through design or neglect, they molded Thea into an extraordinary young woman who is smart and sensitive while still being relatively sheltered. Ms Cohoe deftly balances Thea’s skills with her limitations to create a wholly believable teenage heroine who makes intelligent choices based on her experiences as we’ve seen them. I wish that that wasn’t as much of a rarity in YA as it often feels, but it was truly nice here to see an actually smart heroine do actual smart things to further the story.

There’s a lot of fascinating scholarship here as well on the subjects of alchemy and the events and mores of the late 18th century. Ms Cohoe’s treatment of the Philosopher’s Stone brings to mind Dr Jekyll’s ill-fated elixir (tho that latter, in retrospect, bears zero distinguishing characteristics from straight booze.) AGF is a wonderfully atmospheric tale of a young alchemist trying to find a place for herself — incorporating questions of what it meant to be a woman of that age along with the lessons that that can still teach us today — even as she is constantly undermined by people claiming to want the best for her. It’s a terrific coming-of-age tale, and hopefully the first in Ms Cohoe’s long and successful oeuvre.

A Golden Fury by Samantha Cohoe was published October 13th, 2020 by Wednesday Books, and is available from all good booksellers.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/16/a-golden-fury-by-samantha-cohoe/

Oct 15 2020

An Interview with J. S. Barnes, author of Dracula’s Child

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did Dracula’s Child evolve?

I think it’s been evolving ever since I first read Stoker’s extraordinary novel at around eleven or twelve (oddly, and I suspect not entirely coincidentally, the same age as Quincey in my book!). More recently, I was asked to adapt the original story as faithfully as possible for an audio drama starring Mark Gatiss. It was this process of adaptation – of taking the narrative apart, seeing how it functions and putting it back together again in a slightly different shape – which led me to consider a direct sequel. It seemed to me almost as if Stoker had left deliberate clues for just such a follow-up. And it struck me as quite a mystery as to why he never attempted it himself!

Q. Bram Stoker’s Dracula has been dissected for its depiction of a Victorian-era England fearful of foreign influence and the sexual liberation of women. What social themes, if any, did you find yourself considering while writing Dracula’s Child?

It’s such a rich, dense text, full of all of the fears of the age, a good many of which have barely shifted in more than a century. In my own story, I wanted to continue what Stoker had done much as he might have done so had he set himself the task. Of course, it’s inevitably the case that, writing as I was in the twenty-first century, I’d end up reflecting a few of the concerns and terrors which are unique (or, more accurately, which seem unique) to our own age.

Q. I enjoyed the overtly political nature of Dracula’s ascension to power in the pages of your novel. In particular, the scene with the motorist refusing to assist our heroes struck a chord. What inspired in you the greater ambition of this version of Dracula?

There’s a line in the original novel when Dracula describes himself as a man “who commanded nations”. This element of his complicated personality seems very much to have fallen into abeyance by the time that Stoker introduces us to him. I wondered how his defeat in the book might have affected his psyche – whether, having been so thoroughly rejected by modernity he might not reach back into the past, to a time when he was in his pomp, and seek to recreate it. Were this case, it’s not too great a stretch to imagine that there’d be plenty of folks who’d be very happy, for their own reasons, to aid him in that objective.

Q. Do you write with any particular audience in mind? Are there any particular audiences you hope will connect with this story?

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Oct 13 2020

The Fallen Hero (The Dragon Warrior #2) by Katie Zhao

The Fallen Hero continues the epic drama of The Dragon Warrior series as Faryn tries to find her place with the New Order based out of Manhattan’s Chinatown, only to discover that the gods aren’t done with her yet.

Still reeling from her younger brother’s decision from the end of her last quest for the gods, while working through her feelings regarding a father who has no memory of who she is, Faryn is having a hard enough time fitting in without the animosity of the prickly Ashley Liao, another young girl who, with her older brother Jordan, form a pair of outcasts similar to Faryn’s own situation growing up with the Jade Society out west. Luckily, Ren is still by her side… until he tells her one day that his destiny lies in learning to control his dragon heritage under the tutelage of the Dragon Kings. Alone and anxious, Faryn has no intention of stepping up when the gods Guanyin, Nezha and Erlang Shen show up with another hero’s quest. But Xiong, the leader of the New Order, makes a stirring plea, and so she and the Liao siblings find themselves heading west in search of another weapon to rally the gods. Along the way, they’ll have to attempt to enlist the aid of the Monkey King himself, and travel to the depths of Diyu and back. But at what cost?

I loved how Katie Zhao incorporated more aspects of Chinese mythology into this action-packed sequel. While I was already pretty familiar with Sun Wukong, the perils of Diyu were entirely new to me, so it really felt like a wholly fresh landscape for me to explore alongside our heroes. I also really loved the emphasis on family, carrying over from the previous book. As with TDW, however, there were odd lapses in logic (e.g. the whole thing about New Order warriors retiring at 18 was about the dumbest reason I’ve read for an age limit on a quest) and the dialog was occasionally unlikely at best, but this was made up for with lots of verve, suspense and humor, with parts making me laugh out loud at the collision of 21st century adolescent sensibilities with ancient mythologies.

I’m really glad Ms Zhao is bringing these books to the world, showcasing a young girl’s quest to save humanity from certain callous Chinese gods. I kinda hope it runs for more than three books tho, because there’s so much to be covered still in this series! Aside from saving humanity, Faryn still has to rescue her mother’s spirit and find out more about the Mediterranean side of her family, and what’s up with Alex’s parents, too?! There’s so much, and I’m eager to read it all!

The Fallen Hero by Katie Zhao comes out today from Bloomsbury and is available from all good booksellers.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/13/the-fallen-hero-the-dragon-warrior-2-by-katie-zhao/

Oct 12 2020

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley

Bear with me for a moment while I serve up a relevant anecdote here.

When I was 8 years old, on a layover in London, I climbed the stairs of the narrow house of the auntie who was hosting my mother and me, and turned on the TV in the bedroom. I was fresh out of things to read and figured I could sample some of what England had to offer in terms of televised entertainment. There was an episode of Doctor Who on: I’d heard of it, and I was into sci-fi, so I was definitely interested. But after about ten minutes, I had to turn it off as being deathly boring. Some guy with wild hair in a coat and scarf was running around and away from robots while wielding a screwdriver, and I just didn’t care, an antipathy that has carried through the decades despite the appalled cries of “you don’t like Doctor Who?!” from other nerds in my various fandoms. If I had all the time in the world, I’d give it another go, but I can’t even find enough hours in the day for all the shows I want to watch, so soz everyone, it’s not you, it’s me.

Which leads to Greensmith, which, for all my relative ignorance of Dr Who (one can’t help absorbing quite a bit by cultural osmosis, ofc,) felt like what I imagine a grown-up version of the Doctor might be. Penelope Greensmith has inherited the task of cataloging the world’s flora, specifically its flowers, from her dad, using an unusual device called, ahem, the Vice. Now divorced and with a grown daughter she doesn’t see very often, she’s retired to a hilltop cottage to better focus on her work, tho she does think wistfully of the pleasures of adult companionship from time to time. But then a mysterious stranger called Doc– I mean, The Horticulturist, shows up on her doorstep, asking for her help. Turns out, there’s a terrible virus that’s turning the greenery of many worlds to sludge, and she and her Collection might be the only way to save the universe.

If you’re familiar with Aliya Whiteley’s superb The Arrival Of Missives then you’ll smile at the repeated motif here of the woman who finds greater reservoirs of strength in herself than she knew, who’s going to save the universe on her own terms (and if you’re not familiar, please do consider getting a copy of one of my favorite books of 2018.) Greensmith is also a wonderful update of the cosmic-savior-who-needs-a-sidekick story, centering the “sidekick” and giving her the agency to make the necessary choices. I especially loved Penelope’s complicated relationships, not just with Hort, as she calls him, but also with her daughter, whose own chapters are great, if wrenching.

I wonder if my enjoyment of Greensmith would have been enhanced were I a Whovian. Doesn’t really matter tho: this is another terrific work of speculative fiction from one of the most creative, genre-bending writers working today.

Greensmith by Aliya Whiteley comes out today from Unsung Press and is available from all good booksellers.

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/12/greensmith-by-aliya-whiteley/

Oct 09 2020

The Dragon Warrior (The Dragon Warrior #1) by Katie Zhao

Oh, wow, a book that updates Chinese mythology for young Western readers! You know, I’ll admit that I don’t know much about Chinese deities beyond Kwan Yin, aspects of Buddha and what I remember from absorbing various tales of the Monkey God via TV and comics (as well as the usual prominent holiday-related mythologies) so this was an entirely fascinating pantheon for me to get acquainted with. Honestly, it’s a bit like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, only I’m much more familiar with Greek legends than I am with Chinese: I put that down to better marketing of the Western canon. Like the Rick Riordan, this book — the first of its own series — turns the mystical gods, demons, creatures and places into wholly accessible and absorbing characters and locations in this charming if somewhat uneven debut.

Faryn Liu is the teenaged eldest daughter of a warrior sworn to the Jade Society, an organization dedicated to the protection of humans from the demons that escape Diyu to terrorize mortals. Unfortunately, the society seems more interested in expanding its business ventures rather than in upholding its traditions of demon hunting, so when Liu Bo leaves their San Francisco compound to continue hunting monsters round the world, leaving his children in the care of his father, the little family is treated shabbily, almost in retaliation for Bo’s repudiation of their chosen path. This changes when the God Of War himself shows up at the Jade Society compound one Lunar New Year, heralding the arrival of the Heaven Breaker from their midst. The Heaven Breaker, it is foretold, will complete three challenges before being granted entrance to the pleasure island of the Lord of Heaven, the Jade Emperor himself, and being placed at the helm of his armies. Almost all the young men of the Society line up to prove themselves, but it is ultimately Faryn who will prevail. With a motley crew of companions, she must set off on a perilous journey to prove her worth and reach Peng Lai Island. But not all the gods are benevolent, and some have their own nefarious plans for what to do with the girl who would break heaven itself.

Such a cool premise, and Katie Zhao carries it off with aplomb, throwing in any number of unexpected twists that lend further verve to this unabashedly modern Chinese diaspora mash up of the culture’s traditional stories with the archetypal, if 21st-century, young hero’s tale. There are a few odd bumps, mostly to do with stilted conversational choices and teeny tiny lapses in logic (e.g. Faryn was totally bleeding from her first fight with the nian but by the time she got home, she was fine?) but nothing egregious enough to halt suspension of disbelief. Tho oh yikes, the description of Washington DC sounded like it came from someone who’d never been to the city, much less seen our extremely tiny Chinatown (or Chinablock, as it’s more commonly known.) I’m seriously thinking of flogging my services to any creators who need localization help with this city and its immediate suburbs. Writers, my emails are open!

But I digress. Younger me would have loved this book, and grown up me is busy trying to get my 9 year-old to read it. It’s a wonderful addition to the bookshelf of any kid who loves fantasy, urban or otherwise, and dreams of seeing themselves represented as the hero of a badass mythical adventure. Plus also, Ms Zhao’s pushes for diversity — the twist about why the gods wanted to leave China is really great and thought-provoking — teach an excellent lesson about what makes a society strong. Also, I loved what she had to say about family, as well as her occasionally snarky voice while channeling her teenage characters.

I actually bought this novel in anticipation of reviewing the sequel, The Fallen Hero, next week! TFH comes out 10/13 and my review will come soon after. After this exciting debut, I have very high hopes!

Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/09/the-dragon-warrior-the-dragon-warrior-1-by-katie-zhao/

Oct 08 2020

An Interview with Sharon Doering, author of She Lies Close

Q. Every book has its own story about how it came to be conceived and written as it did. How did She Lies Close evolve?

The inspiration for She Lies Close came from my family’s move to a new neighborhood years ago and finding out that a guy down the street was being prosecuted for a child crime. Within months he was convicted, sold his house, and went to prison. While it was creepy (and I wouldn’t let my little boys play near his house), I never felt desperate. I had a good support system in my husband.

It got me thinking though…What if you moved right next door to a dangerous man, a suspect in a child kidnapping (maybe murder), and what if you had no support system, no sounding board? What if you were recently divorced and financially strapped? What if you had secrets of your own and mental health issues complicating your life? What if your sinister neighbor started talking to your little girl, giving her gifts?

I took the premise of a dangerous next-door neighbor and added a big old bag of What Ifs. I wanted to write a psychological thriller that was dark, desperate, and also funny. I wanted to write a thriller where the characters were stretched too far, where we get to witness some of them snap.

Q. As a mom who is the temperamental opposite of Grace Wright, the narrator of She Lies Close, I felt little empathy but a lot of sympathy for her. The demands of modern motherhood are so high, and can fracture stronger psyches than Grace’s, especially when coupled with the fragile social support systems America is notorious for. How does your own experience with motherhood inform your writing, particularly here with Grace?

What a beautifully worded question!

Some of the feelings Grace has all the time, I have experienced briefly. Most of us have. Anxiety. Deep love. Rage at the world. Anger at the kids. Fear of being caught as incompetent. Irritation with our partner. Shame. So much in here is honest. But the story and characters are invented.

I have felt some of Grace’s anxieties, but on a small, manageable scale. I am pretty laid back.

I have several women in my life who are juggling too much on their own. They have primary custody of their kids, they are working full time, struggling with finances, managing a home, doing the cooking, the cleaning. I am doing only half of what they are doing, and sometimes my workload feels overwhelming. I don’t know how these women do it. I think about this a lot.

I wonder how many of us who are feeling stable—emotionally, mentally, physically, and financially—are just two or three catastrophes away from going off the deep end. I wanted to explore that.

Being a mother was most helpful in the manifestation of the children’s characters in She Lies Close. Children are fascinating and complex, and I wanted to write a novel where we get to see their pure hearts, their evil genius, their intelligence, and their mindlessness. In writing She Lies Close, I didn’t use anything my kids have said, but having kids made writing their dialogue feel natural.

Q. Grace is a bold choice for a sleuth: overwhelmed, with poor impulse control and a tendency to make bad decisions. I kept wanting to yell at her to embrace both sleep and therapy. What inspired you to so fearlessly depict Grace’s mental and emotional unraveling as she insinuates herself into the case of 5 year-old Ava Boone’s disappearance?

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Permanent link to this article: http://www.thefrumiousconsortium.net/2020/10/08/an-interview-with-sharon-doering-author-of-she-lies-close/