book reviews by Althea

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane – Neil Gaiman *****

Probably my favorite book from Gaiman so far. When my copy arrived from the library, I was a bit dismayed by how very slim the volume is – but although it’s short, the length is just right for the story. It merges the qualities of Gaiman’s adult and juvenile-oriented work extremely well, meshing the strengths of both.

At a stressful moment in his life, an adult man, on a whim, drives to the road where he lived as a child. Once there, he begins to remember long-forgotten details from his childhood, and decides to pay a call on the house where a young friend of his used to live, down at the end of the lane. Gradually, he recalls yet more strange and unexplained things which happened to him in conjunction with his friend, her family, and a perilous trip into another realm.

The book combines the feeling of a fairy tale with a mature perspective both melancholy and wondrous.

Gaiman captures here, more perfectly than I have seen in any other work, the sensation of almost-remembering (or recalling, but not-quite-recapturing) the magic (and nightmares) of childhood; that feeling that sometimes memory must be erased or changed in form to fit into an adult reality.


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River of Stars – Guy Gavriel Kay *****

Excellent historical fiction set in ancient China, with only a light hint of fantasy in the form of mythological elements. I love nearly all of GGK’s books. This may not be his best, but it’s definitely up in the top 50% of his works.

The story is not fast-moving (although it has action-filled moments), rather it builds slowly, like a tapestry carefully growing on a loom… weaving the tales of two people, and those they touch…

Ren Daiyan grows from an ambitious boy, to an outlaw, to a military man whose decisions may change the fates of empires.

Lin Shan is an exceptional woman, a poet whose work is a mild scandal due to her gender, but whose words reach the ears of the Emperor himself.

It’s a time when invading Mongols threaten the Empire; where bureaucracy has ascended over the martial way, and when an oblivious Emperor unwittingly sows misery and destruction in his pursuit of the creation of a beautiful garden. But with all its flaws, this civilization does have beauty and value to it.

The book is rather philosophical, and is told at a slight remove, as if a poet told a tale from history. But it’s also full of convincing, authentic characters, with plenty of intrigue, and builds to a powerful climax that was simultaneously unexpected but satisfying.

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An Autumn War – Daniel Abraham *****

(Long Price Quartet #3)

I really liked the first two in this series. This one, I loved. I feel like the themes of the story come to full fruition in this one.

Otah Machi has, somewhat reluctantly, become Khai, and is working on the difficult business of ruling. His job is about to get much harder, because General Gice, of the Galtic Empire, is terrified of the Khaiates. He believes that it is inevitable that the Khaiates, if left unchecked, will use the power of the ‘andat’ to destroy his civilisation, and he has made it his personal mission to get the jump on that destruction, and destroy the Khaiates utterly.

The book does a beautiful job of presenting two believably different cultures, and showing the motivations and perspectives of each side convincingly. While I believe the action would satisfy a fan of military strategy/tactics, the real focus is on the human cost of war, the sacrifices made for power, and the difficulty of making the correct decisions in an ambiguous world; balancing personal desire against political responsibility.

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A Betrayal in Winter – Daniel Abraham ****

(Long Price Quartet #2)

A sequel to ‘A Shadow in Summer,’ set in the same location and a few years after the events of the previous book, but it also works as a contained story.

The Khai of Sarakheyt is ailing. Tradition demands that the next ruler of the city will be the last son of the current Khai left alive – it is the duty of brothers to kill each other to ensure an uncomplicated succession. However, one of the Khai’s sons has never had any interest in ruling. He’s left the city and has been living under an assumed name, pursuing a quiet life with an innkeeper, whom he loves, and making a living as a combination bike courier and spy. It’s the gathering-information part of the job that’s becomes a problem, because when one of his brothers is reported poisoned, he’s assigned to go find out what’s happening. Otah Machi would rather be as far as possible from these events – but he’d also rather not blow his cover by refusing the job for no logical reason.

Unfortunately for him, his cover is blown when he runs into an old friend (or maybe an enemy), Maati, one of the “poets” who sustain the economy (and the land’s defense) through the elemental golems called ‘andat’ that they summon into being through words. Maati is also interested in keeping informed on what’s going on, as politics is essential to the poets.

To his further dismay, Otah’s carefully maintained low profile is working against him, as public opinion has focused on his mysterious disappearance. No one will believe that Otah is not secretly plotting.

The reader, however, knows the identity of the real plotter from the outset: Otah’s sister Idaan. No one in this patriarchal world expects a woman would be involved in politics, but Idaan is brilliant, ambitious, and believes that she has her lover (whose name she expects to rule in), and the situation, under her thumb.

The story proceeds as a combination of court intrigue and murder mystery; with a rich setting and complex characters controlled by and fighting against their pasts, their ‘proper’ place in society, tradition, and their own emotions. Very well done.

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The Shattered Gates – Ginn Hale ****

(Rifter #1)

I’d read positive reviews about Ginn Hale’s books – and wow! This exceeded my expectations. I have to admit, I knew this wasn’t from a mainstream publisher, and also that it’d been released as an online serial, and both of those things made me doubtful. But I have to say, there’s absolutely no reason Hale shouldn’t be picked up by a mainstream publisher (if she wants to be – I don’t know). The writing is excellent, and the story is a fresh and interesting take on the theme of people from our world being transported into another land and forced to make their way. (I’d definitely recommend this for fans of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry).

John is a graduate student. His roommate Kyle is a little weird and disturbing, with his scars and his tendency to carry weapons and disappear without explanation. But John needs the rent money – and, though he doesn’t really want to admit it, Kyle is pretty hot, too. But when Kyle’s gone, rent is due, and a letter arrives for his roommate, John gets nosy and opens the letter. (It feels like it contains a key, and he suspects Kyle might be returning his house key and not coming back.) It IS a key – but not the house key. It’s the key that ends up transporting John and his two best friends: the new-agey psychic Laurie and her boyfriend Bill, into another land.
Little could John have guessed that his roommate was the Khalil, one of the only adepts able to make the dangerous crossing between worlds, and that his assignment was to involve killing John, who may be the prophecied Rifter, who could destroy both worlds.

There are a few disorientingly abrupt transitions, and some events go implied when I would actually rather have read about them. It’s also by no means a complete story – there are sequels. But I really do want to read those sequels.

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Somewhere Beneath Those Waves – Sarah Monette ****

I am a fan of Sarah Monette. At this point, I’ve read all her books save one – which I’ve got on the way to me right now. Her aesthetic resonates with me strongly.

‘Draco Campestris’ – A mood piece describing a museum which displays the bones of dragons. Full of lovely and disturbing details.

‘Queen of Swords’ – A king’s new bride is haunted by the ghosts of his previous wives.

‘Letter from a Teddy Bear on Veterans Day’ – A story about mourning a brother who was lost in Vietnam, and how that death tore a family apart.

‘Under the Beansidhe’s Pillow’ – Short-short about a supernatural creature moved by the plight of Irish immigrants.

‘The Watcher in the Corners’ – The child of a wealthy southern family (in the 1950s?) has disappeared. The sheriff interviews the young servant of the household. She doesn’t know what’s happened – but since she boy’s gone missing, the house seems haunted by a hostile presence. This story gets a lot of nuance and depth into a fairly standard horror plotline.

‘The Half-Sister’ – In a feudal/fantasy setting, a young woman deals with her half-sister’s decision to go back to a husband that she believes is abusive. Is he actually abusive? We don’t know, for sure, but the story perfectly captures the sorrow and rage of this situation.

‘Ashes, Ashes’ – A pregnant woman uncovers skeletons in the closet (well, skeletons, but not actually in a closet) when she moves into her husband’s childhood home.

‘Sidhe Tigers’ – short-short that perfectly captures the feeling of night terrors (as opposed to nightmares).

‘A Light in Troy’ – A fortress taken by conquerors. A woman, now a slave, part of the spoils of war. A child survivor. A librarian, who’s not a bad person, despite being one of those conquerors.

‘Amante Doree’ – In old New Orleans, a transgender courtesan gets involved in complicated politics and even more complicated emotions.

‘Somewhere Beneath Those Waves Was Her Home’ – in a seaside town, a woman is caught in a loveless marriage, a selkie is trapped by the cruel man who has stolen and hidden her skin, and a creepy museum curator hold the spirits of female ship’s figureheads in his gallery. When the three elements come together, all will gain their freedom.

‘Darkness, As a Bride’ – Unwilling to give up a flesh-and-blood woman to a sea monster that demands the sacrifice of virgins, a town creates a female automaton.

‘Katabasis: Seraphic Trains’ – A modern retelling of the story of Persephone in the underworld. Except the message (skillfully and non-annoyingly delivered) here is that sometimes a piece-of-crap guy isn’t worth venturing into hell for, and that young women should learn to value themselves and their art – which is likely to be of more value than that of any self-styled arrogant, snotty Orpheus. Every teenager with a crush on some rock-star wannabe should read this.

‘Fiddleback Ferns’ – Weeds. Taking over. They can lead to extreme actions.

‘Three Letters From The Queen of Elfland’ – A husband flies into a fit of rage when he discovers letters, clearly from a lover, in his wife’s possession. The explanation is heartwrenching.

‘Night Train, Heading West’ – a poem.

‘The Séance at Chisholm End’ – I learned a new word: ‘epergne’! And also very much enjoyed this tale of a medium who uncovers a cruel woman’s secret crimes, and the housekeeper who runs off with him.

‘No Man’s Land’ – An injured soldier mysteriously wakes up in the body of a woman fighting on the other side. His new body is horribly damaged, showing signs of not only battle wounds, but rape and torture. He knows that it is ‘his’ side that has done these atrocious things. Yet, there seems to be no option but to adjust and carry on, now fighting on the other side. There isn’t much difference, really.

‘National Geographic on Assignment: Mermaids of the Old West’ – just one page. The title says it – read it.

‘A Night in Electric Squidland’ and ‘Imposters’ – both of these are Monette’s ‘buddy-cop’ supernatural adventures featuring the investigators Mick and Jamie. Rather different from most of the stories in this book; I’d recommend them more for fans of True Blood and urban/paranormal fantasy.

‘Straw’ – Monette mentions this was based on a dream, and it has that feel. Something terrible has happened in the word. Two random strangers were drawn together by that event, psychically joined, caught in something larger than either of them. Now, they are both in a psychiatric hospital, damaged. Can they survive… or transform?

‘Absent from Felicity’ – A reimagining of elements of ‘Hamlet.’

‘The World Without Sleep’ – Kyle Murchison booth (readers will recognize him from the stories in ‘The Bone Key’) ventures into a dark land inhabited by vampires, goblins and ‘shadows,’ bound, without time, into a bizarre and unhealthy relationship.

‘After the Dragon’ – the only story here that I felt was a bit heavy-handed. A woman terribly mutilated by a dragon attack meets a cancer survivor in physical therapy, and regains the will to live and to love her body.

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A Stark and Wormy Knight – Tad Williams ***

Not a bad book, but I didn’t love it as much as I expected, either. I think Tad Williams might be one of those writers that (for me) does epic tales a bit better than short stories. Still, some of these were very, very good, although others weren’t for me. There’s an introduction by the author, but no introductions or notes on the stories – reading the cover flap is helpful, for some of them – that’s the only place you’re going to find out what’s going on for a couple of them!


‘And Ministers of Grace’ – Really well done. From the point of view of a future religious terrorist/assassin who sees the ubiquitous advertising of the future as evidence of our sinful ways. As Williams notes, it could work well as the opener to an epic story. I especially like that the Christians and Muslims are working together against the science/technology-based society – makes sense.

‘A Stark and Wormy Knight’ – A humorous dragon story, full of playful language.

‘The Stranger’s Hands’ – A re-read – this also appeared in the ‘Wizards’ anthology, edited by Jack Dann. Probably my favorite story in this book. A village takes in two wanderers – a man who seems to have lost his wits in an injury, and his caretaker. Soon, it is discovered that some who touch the disabled man’s hands have their heart’s desire magically granted. Soon, the needy flock to the town in hopes of having their wishes granted. But with greater exposure comes the revelation that the village’s miracle man is (or was) actually one of the most powerful, dangerous, and evil wizards around. Is there some trick here? A well-crafted and thought-provoking tale.

‘Bad Guy Factory’ – This is an outline for a comic book featuring a number of costumed superheroes. The cover notes say it was a proposal for DC. I would much rather read a comic book than a text outline for a comic book; and superheroes just aren’t my thing.

‘The Thursday Men’ – This is a ‘Hellboy’ story. (In text format, not comic-outline). I suspect I might have enjoyed it a little more if I were more familiar with the back story. A rather noir-ish tale of saving the world from an incursion from other dimensions.

‘The Tenth Muse’ – A battles-in-space story. A low-ranking crewmember relates the story of how a condescending and annoying passenger stepped up to the plate and saved his ship (and, possibly, a whole lot more) from a mysterious alien ship that unexpectedly popped out of a wormhole, guns blazing. Some nice twists.

‘The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (Or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee’ – If you are attracted by that title, you will probably like this story. According to the cover notes, it’s an homage to Vance’s Dying Earth novels –which I’ve never been a fan of, despite trying. A travelling mountebank buys/extorts some spells from a real wizard. Unfortunately, one of them rebounds with unexpected effects, and he finds himself bound to a dangerous, man-eating monster. How to extract himself from this unenviable situation?

‘The Terrible Conflagration at the Quillers Mint (from the diaries of Finn Teodoros)’ – As the title suggests, a man relates the story of a terrible fire that burned down an inn. He doesn’t really know who (or if anyone) set the fire, although he has suspicions. It’s set in the ‘Shadowmarch’ world, but I have to admit it’s been long enough since I read those that I’m missing the connections. (I suspect there are some important clues here to unexplained events in that story.)

‘Black Sunshine’ – This is a screenplay for what would be a really-not-very-good (and rather short) B-movie based on our social paranoia about drugs.

‘Ants’ – A horror story about a man who kills his wife and tries to cover up the crime. In a house infested by ants. Well done, if fairly standard.