readingtrance

book reviews by Althea


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Wonders of the Invisible World – Patricia A. McKillip *****

I forgot my book at work, and needed to buy something for the commute home. If I’m going to pay full price for something, it’s going to have to be in support of an author I love: thus, this book.

Excellent, excellent stories – but I was disappointed, a bit, that I’d read most of them before. There’s no previously-unpublished material here, except for the transcript of a speech McKillip gave at a con.

Wonders of the Invisible World – A bit of a strange choice for an opener, as it’s a bit atypical of McKillip’s writing. Very good story, but it reminded me quite a lot of Connie Willis or Kage Baker: a ‘modern’ time-traveller goes back to meet a religious fanatic (Cotton Mather) for academic purposes.

Out of the Woods – Here, McKillip uses a fantasy setting to illustrate a point, which one moght more-commonly expect to find in contemporary fiction, about how too much work and too many commitments can tear a relationship apart.

The Kelpie – (previously read in ‘The Fair Folk’) – Definitely one for anyone who loves the Pre-Raphaelites. The characters here are all fictional, but it takes place amidst a group of artists and models clearly modeled after Rossetti & co. A woman artist arrives on the scene, and is delighted to find another female painter who invites her participate in her salon… however, another artist pressures her into modeling for him, and his attentions soon progress to the level of blackmail. It takes an encounter with the titular kelpie to bring things to a head. Lovely, powerful story.

Hunter’s Moon – Two children, visiting their relatives’ rural hunting cabin, experience a dramatic encounter that may change how they view the world.

Oak Hill – A ‘Bordertown’ story. A runaway girl seeks magic – and finds it in a most unexpected place – within herself.

Fortune Teller – (previously read in ‘Coyote Road’). A woman living a life of thievery and mischief meets a former compatriot who’s ‘gone straight’ – and causes her to reassess her life choices.

Jack O’Lantern – (previously read in ‘Firebirds Rising’). A young girl from a rather staid and upper-class family meets the young son of the painter who’s been commissioned to paint her sister’s bridal portrait. A small but magical adventure illustrates social roles, and barriers created by expectations.

Knight of the Well – A novella-length, well fleshed-out tale of a city brimming over with water magic and on the brink of disaster.

Naming Day – (previously read in ‘Wizards’). A young woman eagerly anticipates her ‘naming day,’ when her magical academy conducts a ceremony in which the students choose their magical name. But her mother has a lesson about values to teach her daughter.

Byndley – (previously read in ‘Firebirds’). A wizard on a long, hard quest, bearing an item stolen from the land of Faerie, enters a seemingly ordinary town – and learns that nothing may be as it seems.

The Twelve Dancing Princesses – (previously read in ‘A Wolf at the Door’). A retelling of the classic fairy tale.

Undine – (previously read in ‘The Faery Reel’). Sirens usually entrap human men a drag them under the waves… but when this one encounters an environmentalist fisherman, somehow things don’t go as planned… and next thing she knows, she’s out of water, and somehow being dragged around to a series of rallies for clean water, unable to find the unsullied place she needs…

Xmas Cruise – A surreal contemporary tale of a couple who take a cruise and are caught up in obsession. A nice commentary on the odd and stultifying nature on enclosed environments, artificial ‘experiences’ and planned activities.

A Gift to be Simple – The aging members of a celibate religious cult come up with a uniquely modern way of solving their problem of attrition. Nicely ambiguous – disturbing or uplifting?

The Old Woman and the Storm – (previously read in ‘Imaginary Lands’). A beautiful story with the feel of an authentic legend. On a seemingly simple walk, a man experiences a mythological/existential crisis – and reaffirms him love of life and his wife.

The Doorkeeper of Khaat – Deceptively simple tale that deals with complex realities – differences between cultures, connections between humans, obligations and ethical choices. Reminded me a bit of Ursula LeGuin.

What Inspires Me – A speech by McKillip on her writing process.


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Waking Up Dead – Margo Bond Collins ***

Paranormal Southern mystery; highly recommended for fans of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse/True Blood books.

Callie Taylor wakes up as a ghost in Alabama – a place she’s never been. She’s not sure why she’s there – but she finds herself compelled to bring the murderer of another young woman to justice. In order to do so, she goes about trying to recruit local ‘sensitives’ to her cause.

It’s a short novel, simply told, but it moves along at a good clip. A good couple of hours of entertainment. Definitely intended as the start of a series.


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Dreams Underfoot – Charles de Lint ***

A collection of short stories that actually works very well as a ‘novel.’ They all share a setting and theme – that of troubled, often creative young people encountering myth and magic in the imaginary city of Newford. Having never been to either city, for some reason Newford conjures up a sort of cross between the Seattle and Vancouver of my mind.

Some of these stories are very, very good. I’d say some of them are some of de Lint’s best work.

However, around the second half of the book, it began to bother me in the same precise way that so much of de Lint’s work ALWAYS bothers me. And this time, I pinned it down:

de Lint reminds me, exactly, of any one of a number of usually well-meaning counselors, teachers and other ‘adult’ figures, who, when I was a teenager, were CONVINCED that due to my ‘alternative’ look, creative bent, and independent, rebellious attitude, that I must be suffering from low self-esteem, and hiding some sort of dreadful trauma that had ‘made me that way.’

There’s even a story here where a girl tells a counselor a story of trauma and then says, “Oh, I’m lying, I just said that because I knew it was what you wanted to hear.” I said “YES! FINALLY! He’s admitting that sometimes counselors TRY to elicit this stuff from you whether it happened or not!” But then the twist ending to the story is that it really DID all happen to her. Ugh.

Believe it or not, some people are just creative and adopt an unusual look because it fits their personal aesthetic. Some people are eccentric without being mentally ill. Some people leave home early and go their own way because they are naturally more independent than others.

de Lint’s writing makes me feel conflicted, because while people with the kind of attitude I’ve described are DEEPLY ANNOYING, his stories also make a reader (if the reader is me) feel guilty for being annoyed by them, because of course you have to have sympathy and empathy for any character who’s been through the traumas his characters have, and appreciate people that are trying to ‘help.’ And bad things DO happen to lots of young people; and some of them are impelled out of the ‘mainstream’ due to those things.

So – I feel it’s a good and helpful thing to encourage empathy and understanding of people who’ve been through a rough time. But on the other hand, I DON’T think it’s helpful at all to encourage the false stereotype that people that are non-mainstream are always depressed, abuse survivors, or ‘damaged goods’ in some way.


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Lycanthia, or The Children of Wolves – Tanith Lee *****

I must admit to a deep affection for Gothic Romances, cheesiness and all. ‘Lycanthia’ is decidedly the best entry into that field I’ve encountered, with the twists that one expects from Tanith Lee elevating the book past all the clichés of the genre.

Here, in a 19th-century French (?) setting, the hapless (?) protagonist is a young man, Christian Dorse. Finding himself the unexpected heir to an ancestral manor house, he betakes himself to languish in his new property. Languishing is what he aims for – Christian believes himself to be an invalid (although it’s not quite clear if he is), and is a self-centered, not very likable individual. All he wants to do is to be left alone, to play the piano, and to feel sorry for himself.

However, his house, with its strange servants, the insular village nearby, and – most of all – the neighboring woods, seem to harbor sinister secrets. It’s not clear if Christian’s destiny is to fulfill a traditional role in a way of life he has never known, or if he will be shunned as an outsider.

He meets a strange couple, outcast from the village, and seemingly helpless to resist, falls into a web of supernatural depravity (or is it natural, beautiful love?). Christian is spurred to become more than he was – to re-examine what in life is truly meaningful. But will he succeed in breaking from the mold he has created for himself?

Lycanthia is a genre novel, a werewolf story – and also a beautiful, challenging and thought-provoking work.


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The Arrivals – Melissa Marr ***

Fun book, with a comic-book kind of feel.

Random people from different time periods have suddenly awakened in an alternate world with an Old West/Post-apocalyptic/Fantasy flavor. Some of these ‘Arrivals’ have banded together against a local honcho who seems rather villainous – and may have something to do with their displacement.

I thought there was a lot of potential in the scenario that Marr sets up, but the book didn’t live up to that full potential. We’re dropped into the action in media res – this situation has been going on for a while. The starting point is one woman’s ‘arrival,’ but she’s not really the ‘main character’ [it’s more of an ensemble work] and the voice is third-person. The backgrounds of the different characters are sketched very briefly, and the result is that they seem rather flat and similar, where they should be very different.

There’s some enjoyable action, drama, a bit of romance, some intriguing details about the world that Marr’s introducing, as the characters try to figure out why them, why here? (Not all questions are answered…) There’s the big showdown – and plenty left over for some sequels.


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Phoenix in the Ashes – Joan D. Vinge

***** Phoenix in the Ashes.
In a post-apocalyptic world, the United States has fallen. Brazil sends ‘prospectors’ north to scavenge for oil. In what was once Southern California, one of these hotshot prospectors crash lands, and is only saved by the rebellious act of a local woman – a semi-outcast member of a strict religious society. Amnesiac and cut off from everything he’s ever known, his rescuer and he slowly set about forging a new life.
Beautiful and bittersweet, this story raises questions about what in life really holds meaning.

**** Voices from the Dust.
A geologist and her colleague – with whom she has a stormy relationship – investigating signs of an alien civilization on Mars, are both seized by a weird compulsion to commit an act neither would consciously ever have agreed to.

***** The Storm King.
A classic fantasy with fairytale and feminist undertones. A questing prince seeks power, and magic to defeat a dragon. Although he lacks respect and understanding, he gets what he wants – but the fulfillment of his desires does not necessarily lead to happiness.

**** The Peddler’s Apprentice (with Vernor Vinge)
Lord Buckry clearly occupies a prominent place in his feudal society. But he wasn’t always a man of power. This story tells of a strange encounter in his youth that set him on an unexpected path.

**** Psiren.
A companion piece to Vinge’s ‘Cat’ novels, this story relates an episode where Cat finds himself in a position to help a drug-addicted woman of his mother’s people. It’s good, but (as I feel about all the books in this series) not my favorite of Vinge’s work.

***** Mother and Child.
A re-read. Beautiful, thought-provoking novella in three parts. Impressively done – the three pov characters are antagonists, each on a different side of a conflict, with very different perspectives. Although many difficult and complex issues are brought up by the narrative, each individual has a compelling viewpoint. Love, war and sacrifice are among the themes which Vinge deftly discusses. There’s also a brilliantly original take on ‘supernatural’ abilities.

This collection of 6 of Vinge’s shorter works also includes brief notes from the author on each piece – which makes the book worth picking up, even if you’ve already read the stories (if you’re a Vinge fan, like I am!)


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The Way of Shadows – Brent Weeks **

Picked this up because of high ratings on goodreads.

I will say this: it’s a quick read. it didn’t feel like 650+ pages. Unfortunately, at no time did I really find myself absorbed in the book. I found the colloquial, simplistic writing style very distancing. This may be a personal preference, but I like fantasy writing to have a certain timelessness; I don’t want the characters to sound like people hanging out on the corner down the block. References to “having a crush on someone,” worries about “whether he’s cheating on me,” and “tits” just sound contemporary in a way that draws me out of the story.

It might work in a different setting, but the setting here is 100% generic. It’s the world where there is a feudal system of royalty in place, a thieves’ guild, with apprenticeships, brothels, gutter orphans, magic and Magical Artifacts… you know the one. The worldbuilding is completely rudimentary to the point of being skipped over, because the reader is expected to already know this scenario and take it for granted.

I have to admit, I LIKE this world. I like this sort of story. And I did feel there was an enjoyable story lurking in here. But the execution just didn’t do it for me. I love twisty-turny plots, but when there’s a big revelation, the reader should be able to go: “OH! That explains x, y & z!” Here, you just go, “What? He’s really x? Huh? Wait a minute. Why?”