Monday, April 19, 2021

Review: The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

This uplifting tale of found family will restore your faith in humanity, and in your own power to work good in an imperfect world.

One thing I found wonderfully unique compared to other found-family stories is how it follows the perspective of a parent-figure protecting children. While a coming-of-age story where young adults connect with peers can be wonderful, as a mother with children of a certain age, I found much more in common with middle-aged Linus and his sense of inviolate responsibility for the children in the orphanages he inspects.

Ah, Linus. Before we even get a hint of the found family, we're sold on our wonderful main character. T.J. Klune starts readers with Linus on the job, inspecting an orphanage for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth, watching a child levitate bricks. Immediately, we see that the Department itself has its bureaucratic, soul-crushing flaws, flaws that Linus dare not recognize because that would question his entire purpose in life, but that Linus himself cares deeply for the children. This makes him perfectly suited to his job, yet at the same time, also causes him to clash with his boss and workmates.

Linus' position at work is ultimately untenable, despite the fact that he thrives on rules. When the Department hands him a top-secret assignment above his paygrade, perhaps his worst fear will come to fruition, and the mission will end with the termination of his employment--or, perhaps he will discover that the loss of his job is not his worst fear after all. For someone who cares so deeply about the children, it can't be.

The emotional depth of this story makes me thrilled to call it a slow-burn romance (M/M). The way both men put the kids absolutely first speaks volumes to their character. They have a job to do, one more prescient than the romantic attraction of two strangers who have just met. Both men protect their hearts, needing to check, first, that the other is a trustworthy partner. This is especially true for Arthur, the master of the top-secret orphanage Linus inspects. I don't want to give too much away about Arthur because remains a bit of a mystery for most of the book. And for Linus, even as he hopes that Arthur's intentions for the children are good, it's the results that matter, results that can be difficult to measure when dealing with magically powerful children from troubled backgrounds.

And did I mention that one of the children is the son of Satan? This wholesome fantasy, with its perfect touch of oddball humor, will have readers begging for more.

Find T. J. Klune on Twitter, and on his website, http://www.tjklunebooks.com/

Check out T. J. Klune's upcoming release for Fall 2021, Under the Whispering Door


Monday, March 1, 2021

Review: The Islevale Cycle by D.B. Jackson (@DBJackson)

When I first saw Time's Children come out, I snatched that baby up, and I'm glad I did. Time travel and demons with an epic fantasy adventure feel? Yes, please! Angry Robot publishes a lot of great stuff, and I see D.B. Jackson (pen name of David Coe) on a lot of people's shelves alongside my favorite books. Now I see why. 

The Islevale Cycle by D.B. Jackson delivers a gripping, well-paced fantasy adventure with compelling characters and a unique magic system.

Time's Children (book one) hooked me with its drastic magic costs, the inclusion of small children, and demons that are truly "other." D. B. Jackson takes time travel to the next level by exacting daunting costs for those who Walk through time, giving his magic system a unique feel, and keeping his human characters grounded, relatable in their struggle to outwit high odds with limited resources. 

And did I mention that there's a baby? Children are naturally left out of most adventure fantasy because they're fragile and can't stick it to the antagonist. With Islevale's themes of maturity, love, and family, including a child works excellently. In book two, Time's Demon, time demon Droë brings her own layer of complexity to these themes with her child-like appearance and her almost-love fascination with human Walker Tobias, who is actually 15 but now appears older and finds himself taking care of a baby. 

In following these themes, the Islevale Cycle includes NSFW scenes of nakedness, and scenes portraying sex, without delving into explicit erotica. Genre-wise, characters become couples or wish to become so, but the series starts with a heavy dose of adventure that drives the plot apart from romance. Sex and violence are all handled well and definitely not just for shock value. It's an adult-audience series with complex, adult views on humanity and love.

Speaking of Droë, I don't want to spoil too much, so let's just say that the demons in the Islevale Cycle give off a spine-shivering sense of "other," as one tends to do when one's sustenance is literally the years stolen from human lives. And while time demons appear humanoid, one demon type is literally a mist cloud and figures wonderfully into sailor's lore. And, of course, where there are pirates, there are also beautiful, enigmatic sea demons. Readers who enjoy fae in fiction but crave something new will love D.B. Jackson's unique demon classes.

Also, there are pirates! D. B. Jackson shows a wide range of lifestyles as his characters cross vast distances in a complex world, with a mind for how age and gender effects experiences. We start in a school for young mages but soon visit castles, pirate ships, port towns, and seaside slums, and all the nooks and crannies of human existence that those imply. There's also a bit of political intrigue, as politics underpin why Tobias Walks back in time in the first place, and how he ends up with a baby. I prefer character-driven stories, so I was pleased with how all the politics and cool magic feeds directly into character motivations.

This might sound a little strange, but I love how nice and considerate the characters are to each other. (Uh, to their friends. You know. The ones they're not murdering or getting murdered by?) The dialogue feels real and I quite enjoy the considerate attitude of POV characters for their loved ones. There are high stakes a-plenty, but characters also talk to each other like you would hope a friend would talk to you if your lives were in danger. This not only contrasts well with the demons, who are a step removed from human emotion and the workings of human relationships, but also provides depth for conflict between the antagonists and the protagonists. Without sacrificing a sense of right and wrong, D. B. Jackson shows how characters like Droë set on their paths, how they, too, fight from a sense of something good to pursue or protect.

Pick up the D. B. Jackson's Islevale Cycle and let Tobias and Droë take you on an epic fantasy adventure full of time travel, demons, and the harried pursuit of life, liberty, and love:

Book 1: Time's Children

Read an interview with D. B. Jackson based on book one here. Another interview asks about Islevale's magic system here.

Book 2: Time's Demon

Read an excerpt from Time's Demon and meet winged demons here
Another interview talks about time travel and how it's handled differently for an anthology David B. Coe edited, Temporarily Deactivated.

Book 3: Time's Assassin

Once you've read the books, give them some love on Amazon and Goodreads!


Like my review? Follow me on Twitter (@mrsmica), my Facebook author page, and sign up for my newsletter for a roundup of all my short story and novel reviews posted in various locations.






Sunday, January 3, 2021

Best SFF short stories of 2020!

Oh, how I wish I could read every SFF short story published in 2020! If you missed these excellent stories, they're worth going back for (yes, even into 2020).


We’re Here, We’re Here” by K.M. Szpara (@KMSzparais an unapologetically sweet narrative where music executives attempt to keep transgender singer Tyler and the rest of the boy band in line by removing Tyler’s voice when he goes off-script. Szpara constructs a compellingly intricate social setting where Tyler’s transgender status is openly accepted and well-known, but his affection for another bandmate pits him against unwritten rules and the unbalanced power differential between band members and their record label. Tyler’s simple need to be himself plucks the universal cord of human rights, while the tender friendship of he and his bandmates calls to our need for tribalistic support against any who abuse their power over us. Szpara’s accessible characters and solid story structure plunges readers into a compelling narrative of empathy and self-actualization.

In “Two Truths and a Lie” by Sarah Pinsker (@SarahPinsker), Stella’s help cleaning out the house of a deceased childhood friend unearths reality-shifting evidence of a past that should only exist in her web of compulsive lies. When Stella blurts out the name of a childhood show she believes she’s invented for a lark, she soon learns that not only does the ultra-creepy “Uncle Bob” show exist on VHS tapes, but that she herself has ties to the show that she has no recollection of. Stella’s memories of her dead friend Denny take on new significance as she learns more about the show that nearly every kid in town took part in. Pinsker cultivates the traditional theme of prophecy and fate into her own brand of horror, blending folk-tale elements with modern knowledge of hoarding and compulsive lying. Stella’s own tenuous grip on reality keeps readers guessing which way she’ll go until the very end.

In “Exile’s End” by Carolyn Ives Gilman (http://www.carolynivesgilman.com/), museum curator Rue finds herself at odds with a representative from a culture long persecuted for destroying their possessions. When Traversed Bridge and his people insist that burning a famous painting will release the ghost inside, Rue and the museum must decide who truly owns art, and if ownership includes the right to destroy. Gilman’s timely dive into cultural reparations brings us skillfully into the worlds of both the dominant and persecuted cultures, through the eyes of a protagonist whose wish to preserve both runs aground on the rocky shores of liberty. Sympathetic characters and gentle pacing elevate this story above a prescriptive guilt trip of dominant culture; like Rue and Traversed Bridge, Gilman leaves us to interpret the art of “Exile’s End” for ourselves.

Flight” by Claire Wrenwood (https://clairewrenwood.com/lays out the vivid bones of its social commentary from the start, opening with a winged mother’s decision to finally address her five-year-old son’s micro-aggressions against women. Scenes then unfold in reverse chronological order, prying back to the origin of the mother’s wings and beyond, bringing the narrative full-circle to her wingless childhood. From its brave opening to the punch at the end, Wrenwood’s delicate depiction of trauma provides readers with moving, powerful insight into cycles of victimization against women. Content warning: sexual abuse.

What Comes Before” by John Nadas (@John Nadas), psychologist Dr. Brosz attempts to refuse the implementation of new magic-tech that claims to photograph the condition of a person’s soul, showing halos around those destined for heaven. When his patients, all violent criminals in prison, are photographed against his wishes, his superiors then expect to condemn the supposedly lost souls to a solitary confinement where there will be no rehabilitation, and therefore no danger to the public. While Dr. Bosz and his colleagues question who—or what—can possibly be trusted to sort irredeemable criminals from those who might yet be saved, the narrative poses a question of determinism, from subtle details like Dr. Bosz’ inability to quit smoking, to an inmate’s claim of undeniable impulses, to the government forcing Dr. Bosz to use the thaumatic cameras he declined. Nada’s voice is both efficient and compelling, balancing a philosophic exploration of Calvinism with a passionate, earnest character surrounded by high stakes. A haunting tale that reveals even more on the second read.

After Me, The Flood” Elizabeth Zuckerman (@LizCanTweetdraws readers into an immersive first-person narrative of a selkie-child’s attempts to distance herself from a king who sees her as a replacement for the selkie wife who abandoned them. Unhappy on land and at the constant beck-and-call of her father, Princess Dahut promises to keep a room ready for him if he’ll build her a city on the sea, and he agrees, expending a fortune on an enchanted wall to keep out the ocean waters. Yet, this measure of freedom proves insufficient, as glimpses of private conversations with her father build on the subtle picture of familial abuse hinted at in little, casual moments from the start. It’s no accident that Zuckerman opens “After Me, The Flood” with Dahut asking her father for a story: her father’s been telling her the story of her captivity all her life. Can the brainwashing of an over-controlling father keep his half-selkie daughter from answering the call of the ocean? Zuckerman’s clever use of structure and detail transforms a classic selkie’s quest for freedom into the profound tale of a daughter discovering her magic and her Self under the suffocating oppression of those who should be her protectors. Content warning: sexual abuse.

And The Ones Who Walk In” Sarah Avery (@SarahAveryBooks), readers follow our young protagonist beyond the charmed borders of her city’s luck spell, a journey driven by the conviction that no amount of magic safety is worth the misery of another. The inhospitable outer lands will immediately test not only her moral mettle, but her ability to survive—and her ability to empathize with those who chose to walk back into her city of misery-powered prosperity. Astute readers will recognize the reference to “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” by Ursula K. Le Guin, yet knowledge of Le Guin’s story is not strictly required to plumb the depths of Avery’s subversive piece, which stands on its own. In a story with no easy answers, Avery pits her protagonist’s untested conviction against the down-trodden acceptance of those who walk back into the luckbringer’s unwilling blessing, for no one knows a more foolproof way to protect the frail loved ones that the world consumes in fire and bloodshed.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

Review: Fledgling, by Octavia E. Butler (NSFW)

A masterfully written story dealing with consent, mutual need, and racism, but read further before you decide if this NSFW book is right for you.

"Fledgling" by Octavia E. Butler

Readers considering this book need to know about the "underaged" consensual sex. We learn early on that Fledgling's narrator "looks 10 or 11," and then she seeks out and has sex with a young man who firsts protests that he's uncomfortable with her apparent age. Many readers will correctly expect consent themes in a vampire book (more on that later), but that particular detail deserves mention.

Now, by the time we encounter sex in Fledling, we're made to understand that, if anything, it's the humans she meets that are at a power disadvantage--physically as well as physiologically. Later, we're told by one of her kind (an "Ina") that she's at an appropriate age for her kind to explore sexuality. Her appearance is used to accentuate her otherness, and its certainly not the first speculative fiction novel to play with the appearance and sexuality of "nonhuman" creatures. We're not surprised to learn later that our MC is much older than she appears, but its worth noting that she's physically incapable of having children yet, which harkens back to "10 or 11" territory.

Fledgling tackles a lot of fascinating power and consent issues that are expertly woven together. For example, humans become addicted to the Ina who feed on them as part of a symbiotic relationship, and these human symbionts do have to obey their vampire's commands. On a political powerplay level, our MC is genetically superior to all other vampires, yet the violent politics of ancient biogtry threaten her life from the outset. 

All-in-all, Fledgling is a powerful, engaging story about how racism unfairly puts the burden of knowledge and preemptive action on its victims, with death waiting on the other side of failure.

Butler's thought-provoking take on vampire lore questions the conflation of pleasure with need and sex, and power with the right to order and possess. Ina communities are essentially polyamorous to suit their need for several blood donors (symbionts), and symbionts receive the benefits of a longer life with faster healing. Throw a bit of ageism in there, where older Ina try to dismiss our MC as a "child" who is too mentally damaged by her trauma to testify against her oppressors, and one can see why Butler chose to create a protagonist that's younger than the elders in charge of the justice system. Since age-ism is a thing, can we call the dismissal of victims trauma-ism, or is there another term? Whatever you call it, I much appreciated how Butler wove both issues naturally into the text.

However, I would have preferred a protagonist who appeared older. That one line gave me pause and nearly caused me to quit reading, and reading the rest of the book hasn't convinced me that this detail was necessary. Having a sexually active character who appears "10 or 11" sounds like pedophilia. Many books do feature sexually active minors, but usually in the 14+ range, an age where real teens are sometimes sexually active (40% of never-married teens ages 15-19 are sexually active in the US). The only reason the book didn't lose me so early on is because I knew that the narrator would end up being older than she appeared, and I'd heard Octavia E. Butler recommended many times. While it is important to the story that other Ina see her as a child, this particular detail seemed to be designed for shock value. I fear that this detail potentially overshadows other aspects of the book. If not for this one detail, I would whole-heartedly recommend this book for anyone who does not mind the NSFW exploration of consent and need. I found the book thought-provoking and moving overall, yet this makes me want to find a similar author handling similar themes, rather than necessarily pick up another book by Octavia E. Butler.

I'm open to suggestions for further reading--either of books by Octavia E. Butler featuring "older" characters, or books like Fledgling by other authors. 


Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Review: Strong Fort Spathi by Heather C. Wright

Strong Fort Spathí by Heather C. Wright is a delightful ticking-clock urban fantasy with engaging characters. Although this first book stands well on its own, readers will want to see more of best friends Sinikka and Jordan, their pack, and the wolf who's fallen head-over-heels for Jordan (m/m).
Strong Fort Spathí (Swords & Shields Book 1) by [Heather C Wright]

Strong Fort Spathi follows werewolf Jordan as he scrambles to find his missing Spathi--his magical shield and, more importantly, his best friend since childhood, Sinikka. Jordan's only clue is Sinikka's scent disappearing into thin air and his magical bond with Sinikka, which lets Jordan know that his best friend yet lives. That small reassurance and the help of his packmates might keep him sane enough to entertain visiting Oplarchêgós hopeful Andrew Farkas, whose arrival marks the immutable start of the Dokimés, ritual paw-to-teeth contests for the title of Oplarchêgós.
When Sinikka wakes up with twelve other missing witches, she immediately realizes two things: her captors need her for a powerful ritual, and Jordan might not get there in time, if at all. Her captors know exactly how to hide her and how to force her hand, and they're ready to start now. What they don't know is that spilling her blood will give her komistês Jordan the power to find her anywhere on Earth. As the strongest and most knowledgable witch under her captors' thumbs, it's up to her to figure out a way to thwart the ritual and call in reinforcements.
Werewolf Andrew Farkas came prepared for the usual politics of the Dokimés. He did not come expecting to fall for a distraught werewolf consumed by a missing person search, in the middle of his own battle for Oplarchêgós. When Andrew offers to help search, Strong Fort pack politely declines, and his protege Tyler warns him to stay away from Jordan. As much as Andrew wishes to spare Jordan the politics of his attraction, he can't help the way his interest shows whenever Jordan walks into the room. With tension in the fort as volatile as a gathering thunderstorm, Andrew must choose his words carefully if he says anything to Jordan at all.
Strong Fort Spathí delivers an engaging read with great pacing and strong characters that could easily carry a series.
Readers will fall in love with Wright's refreshing portrayal of werewolf pack mentality that kicks toxic masculinity to the curb: Wright's werewolves cuddle and kick ass better for it, because they know that a little empathetic/platonic touch can go a long way to keeping their wolves at bay. The pack offers what we all need on some level: cooperative friendship, where members can support and care for each other without it being misconstrued as amorous. Yet, is romance banished from Wright's world? Hardly. Wright skillfully weaves in a slow burn romance while keeping the pack's puppy pile platonic. Where Jordan and Sinikka care for each other like close siblings, Andrew's infatuation enters the page the moment he walks into the narrative, promising a longer story arc that readers will want to follow in sequels.
Strong Fort Spathi offers readers a kidnapping plot that gleefully defies expectations. Sinikka is anything but a maiden in distress as the stakes rise against her and the other witches. She knows the value of her own agency even in the face of stronger magic, and her bond with Jordan is anything but a crutch. Werewolves are everything we want werewolves to be, and more. Strong Fort Spathí is a delightful urban fantasy that hits all the genre sweet spots while offering its own unique flavor.