book reviews by Althea

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Mythangelus – Storm Constantine ****

Very good, very consistent anthology. I enjoyed all of the stories here. Highly recommended.

The origin story of the Wraeththu.
If you haven’t read any of the novels, this may raise more questions than it answers, but I found it very enjoyable.

The Law of Being
A rock star messiah is investigated by an arm of the government devoted to keeping paranormal talents under control – or eliminated. A definite step better than most stories in the ‘paranormal investigation’ genre.

The Green Calling
‘Researcher in a jungle goes native’ story – with some extra supernatural elements, and a not-totally-necessary subplot about eugenic research. Not totally original, but eerie and effective.

Angel of the Hate Wind
A strange and morally ambiguous tale of lust and jealousy, set in a bizarre (future?) (post-apocalyptic?) setting full of biologically enhanced individuals. The narrator, a traveling performer, has long harbored a crush on her partner – but he develops an ill-fated obsession with a ‘variant’ woman.

The Feet They Dance
A museum curator is strangely affected by the mummy that’s the centerpiece of his new Babylonian exhibit. A strange episode in the midst of a speech at the opening gala is only the beginning, as an ancient curse (and an ancient love) is revisited on the reincarnations of the long-dead.

Return to Gehenna
An office worker, depressed by her stultifying existence, finds a way to escape into a strange alternate reality of passion and emotion… provided as strange elixirs. This one made me really glad that I didn’t accidentally become one of these ‘oops, I forgot about the future’ individuals… I easily could’ve been.

A Change of Season
Amoral – or possibly evil – a trickster character arrives in a small town with the intent of making trouble. He meets a set of orphaned teenage twins, and has dark and seductive intents toward them – but with these two, he may have gotten more than he bargained for.

How Enlightenment Came to the Tower
Locked within a tower, a sorcerer is imprisoned by his own devices. But an angel/oracle opens his eye to Truth. An allegory presented as a legend…

By The River of If Only…
Another story of the Wraeththu. Set much later, at a time when established tribes of hara have staked out their territory and created their own traditions and customs, it deals poignantly with the conflict between human emotions and the posthuman consciousness.

Dying of a broken heart, a woman bemoans that her lover has left her for another woman. Her closest companion is also filled with anger at the situation, and sets out to seek a boon of revenge – but her motivation is not as pure as she’d like you to think.

Heir to a Tendency
A companion piece to the ‘Grigori’ novel, ‘Stalking Tender Prey.’
A young woman knows that she is a member of a group of tribes of supernatural creatures, kept secret from humanity and the world at large. But it takes an unexpected visitor to open her eyes to the unexpected secrets that her own all-too-familiar house hides from her…

Spinning for Gold
The Nothing Child
Living With The Angel
These three stories form a series, following the same characters. Weaving in retold elements from Rumplestiltskin, Beauty & The Beast, and several other less-well-known fairy tales, the result is romantic and original. As one would expect from Constantine, androgyny, jealousy and ambiguity are major themes.

The Oracle Lips.
Just read this in another of Constantine’s collections, ‘Mythophidia.’ Not sure why it’s in both. A plain young woman with low self-esteem has a chance encounter with a confident, beautiful woman in a public restroom. Through a strange impulse and her psychic abilities, this seemingly-random moment will change how she sees herself. Nicely done.


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The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. LeGuin *****

A re-read, of course.
It’s been quite a few years since I revisited this one. I have to admit, it’s not my favorite book by LeGuin – so I nearly gave it 4 stars just because I do think most of her work is better. However, in the grand scheme of all-the-books-out-there, and considering its place in the history of science fiction – it really does deserve 5.

It’s very much an ‘idea’ book.
The premise: George Orr, an unexceptional man in other ways, has come to believe that his dreams come true. This isn’t as good as it sounds: it’s not like he has control over what he dreams. And not all dreams are pleasant… or moral.
In search of a cure, he goes to a psychologist. As one might expect, the sleep specialist is skeptical at first – but soon becomes a believer. Rather than attempting to cure Orr, he seeks to use Orr’s ability to both aggrandize himself and improve the world.
Disturbed that his therapist is using him as a tool against his will, Orr next seeks out a lawyer. She’s not sure if there’s anything she can do to help – but she’s willing to try. Orr gradually develops a relationship with her, through a shifting series of realities…

The characters of Orr, Dr. Haber, and the lawyer Heather LeLache are complex and believable, even though they are somewhat representative of ‘types.’ The dystopic visions of possible futures, somewhat eerily, barely feel dated at all. Our concerns haven’t changed much (or rather, LeGuin was quite prescient about what our real problems would be.)

The main theme of the book is the ethics of the use of power. It discusses and shows various arguments and aspects of the topic, without giving any quick and easy answers. Thought-provoking and worthwhile.

Diversion Books has just released this book in e-book format for the first time; and NetGalley provided me with a copy. Time to update from that old paperback

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Child of a Hidden Sea – A.M. Dellamonica ****

Great fun! I challenge you to read this book and come away from it without wishing that you, too, could acquire a travel pass to the world of Stormwrack!
Sophie Hansa, 24, is procrastinating about defending her thesis, feeling a bit like she’s in her brilliant younger brother’s shadow, and having a bit of existential ennui. In an attempt to contact her birth family (she’s adopted), she gets a bit stalker-ish… and then ends up accidentally capitulated into a world other than our own – and in the midst of a huge mess encompassing family drama, lawsuits, trade agreements, magical curses and even murder. The plot’s fast-paced and twisty, and I enjoyed Sophie’s reactions, her scientific and natural curiosity and her modern, progressive sensibilities.
The whole thing is not just fantasy in the genre sense, but also in the wish-fulfillment sense. However, I have zero problem with that. It reminded me of a more mature version of any number of childhood favorites in the ‘portal fantasy’ genre – it’s not nearly as juvenile as the cover art might indicate.
Stormwrack – an archipelago world which may or may not be a far-future Earth – has a near-infinite number of cultures and settings, with hundreds of independent island-nations. It’s got a lot of potential for future books – I hope to get the opportunity to go back and visit again! This was the second book I’ve read by Dellamonica, but I feel that here, she’s really hit her stride.

Copy provided by NetGalley. Much appreciation for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are unaffected by the source.

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Welcome to Bordertown – Holly Black & Ellen Kushner, eds. *****

This volume comes the closest to recapturing the feeling of the original two books as anything that’s been published since then. There are a couple of stories here that didn’t work for me, but the rest delighted me enough to keep it at 5 stars. Holly Black Gets It.

I was excited enough about this book being released that I preordered it. (Very rare, for me.) I got it in the mail… continued to be excited… and then it disappeared. I loooked and looked… couldn’t find it anywhere. It just resurfaced, nearly 3 years later. Considering the premise of the book, I found that odd and appropriate: The ‘way’ to Bordertown mysteriously disappeared. In Bordertown, only a couple of weeks passed. Out in the World – thirteen years went by. Many humans began to believe that the Border was mythical. Others lost contact with those they loved. (And, it’s an excuse to have more modern characters enter a basically-unchanged scenario.)

Bordertown Basics (Letter from the Diggers)- Set out in the form of a local newsletter, this sets the stage…

Welcome to Bordertown – Terri Windling & Ellen Kushner
A ‘typical’ guy sets out to find his runaway older sister, who’s been missing for thirteen years. He makes it to Bordertown, and keeps looking. However, while he searching for her, he finds a life for himself. In the end, both he and his sister must re-evaluate what it is they really want from life. Perfect. Wonderful. Everything I’ve loved about this series, my whole life, is somehow channeled here. (I suppose it doesn’t hurt that this is by the originators…)

Shannon’s Law – Cory Doctorow
I can see that some people might have mixed feelings about this one [due to too much focus on technology?], but it totally worked for me. The new arrival to Bordertown here is a young IT entrepreneur, who sees the spotty communications and intermittent workings of magic and technology as a challenge and an opportunity. He’s got a punky, DIY-flavored start-up – and his Grail is to establish communication with the Realm. The story gives just enough – and holds back from demystifying things too much.

Cruel Sister (poem) – Patricia A. McKillip
Throughout this book, there are poems and lyrics which really give a sense of the art, music and creativity that’s so much of Bordertown’s milieu. I have to admit, I’d rather have had a whole story by McKillip, but this is a good poem.

Voice Like a Hole – Catherynne M. Valente
This is one of the stories that didn’t work for me. I’d read it recently, in ‘Magic City.’ It just doesn’t have the feel of the original stories. It’s an OK story, but the magic wasn’t there. Two runaway girls are on a downward spiral, and make it to the Border. But their transportation is just a bit too deus ex machina, and doesn’t fit with the original… The Bordertown bit felt a bit tacked-on.

Stairs in Her Hair (song*) – Amal El-Mohtar
Definitely song lyrics. Loved it. I could almost hear the music…

Incunabulum – Emma Bull
I expect good things from Bull, and she does not disappoint. A young Trueblood (elven) man finds himself in Bordertown, with no memory of his name, or why he’s there. Disoriented, he meets a woman he believes to be a witch, but who is actually an artist. (Is there a difference?) Gradually he comes to consider: what is more important – who he was, or who he can become?

Run Back to the Border (song) – Steven Brust
I think this is a hard rock one… Fun – but again, I would rather have had a whole story from Brust.

Prince of Thirteen Days – Alaya Dawn Johnson
A fairytale of a virgin girl in love with a beautiful statue instead of a real boy… This story, one could argue, is only coincidentally set in Bordertown, but Johnson really does have a feel for the setting – and the way in which the story works everything out is just about perfect. [It’s nicely sex-positive, you can have your dream and then have more…]

The Sages of Elsewhere – Will Shetterly
Shetterly return to his beloved character Dogboy here, with a tale of a rivalry between two bookstores, curses, and a priceless book of elven magic. Great fun.

Soulja Grrrl: A Long Line Rap (song) – Jane Yolen
As it says… I’ve never thought of Yolen as a rapper, but hey…

Crossings – Janni Lee Simner
Two naive girls come to Bordertown. Each is hoping to find love: one is obsessed with werewolves, and one with vampires. Each, briefly, thinks they’ve found their dreams – but neither works out as they hoped. The story rang more true in some ways than I’d like to admit; and is also a reminder of the darker side – while most of us survive and live to laugh at our younger selves’ reckless foolishness, not everyone makes it through intact.

Fair Trade (Comic) – Sara Ryan & Dylan Meconis
I really enjoyed this brief graphic representation of Bordertown. The story was fairly basic: A girl whose dad’s in jail is being threatened with foster care. She runs to Bordertown in search of her mom, and finds a place that might be for her…

Lullabye: Night Song for a Halfie (song) – Jane Yolen
OK, this is more what I expect from Yolen…

Our Stars, Our Selves – Tim Pratt
An aspiring rock star makes it to Bordertown, and quickly realizes that the town’s a bit rougher than she expected. Luckily, she meets an astrologer (who misses her former expertise in astronomy, rendered obsolete by the oddness of the Border). The story becomes one about wishes – their use, and misuse – the adjustment of expectations, and the importance of self-reliance. All good stuff. I also liked the glimpse of the Nevernever.

Elf Blood – Annette Curtis Klause
I kind of felt that one story with a vampire theme was enough for this book, because while blood magic is fine, that’s not what Bordertown is all about. But both ‘Crossings’ and this story are done so well, I can’t really object. Here, a street artist finds the redemption she longs for. Klause is new to Bordertown, but she does a great job with it.

Ours is the Prettiest – Nalo Hopkinson
Just because you make it to the Border, doesn’t mean your life isn’t a mess. In the midst of Carnival celebrations, a group of lesbians negotiate a complex web of love, jealousy, violence and resentments. And get blindsided by some unexpected magic. Probably the best thing I’ve read from Hopkinson.

The Wall (poem) – Delia Sherman
Another good poem…

We Do Not Come in Peace – Christopher Barzak
Friendship, sorrow, initiation and exploitation are all explored in this piece. Nicely done – I think I’ll seek out more writing by Barzak.

A Borderland Jump-Rope Rhyme (poem) – Jane Yolen
And… Yolen gets three in this anthology? It’s OK, she deserves it…

The Rowan Gentleman – Cassandra Clare & Holly Black
An actress at the local theater company finds a group of masked vigilantes… and love. Art, justice, and the Bordertown way. Great fun, with mystery and action. As I said before, Holly Black Gets It.

The Song of the Song (song) – Neil Gaiman
Gaiman’s always good for contributing a poem to a good anthology. This is particularly beautiful.

A Tangle of Green Men – Charles de Lint
Rather a huge disappointment at the end of the book. Honestly, I’d say skip it and end on the Gaiman poem. Read this later, separately. This is not a story of the Border – Bordertown is unnecessarily tacked on at the end. The story has nothing to do with the themes I expect…
Mainly, this is an arrant attempt to drum up atttendees for FaerieCon. It’s a FaerieCon/FaerieWorlds story. Don’t get me wrong, I love FaerieCon, but this is just not a very good story. Native American convention worker randomly meets blind FaerieCon exhibitor and falls in insta-love. She dies, he gets suicidal. Blah.

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The Girl With All The Gifts – M.R. Carey *****

‘The Girl With All the Gifts’ is zipping right up to my ‘best zombie books’ list, right alongside World War Z and Zone One.
The book hits pretty much everything I might want from my literary zombies:
Tight, tense pacing? Check.
Believable, multi-faceted characters? Check.
A good number of familiar genre tropes, mixed with some strikingly original (and extra-creepy) elements? Check.
Violence, action, and gore? Check.
Total apocalypse? That too.
All that, and a super-sweet, delicately treated musing on the innocence of childhood, love, ethics, and the nature of what it truly means to be human.

In many ways, Melanie is a typical ten-year-old girl who loves stories, has a bright and curious mind, and a hero-worshipping love for her favorite teacher. But in other ways, Melanie is very, very different… The story starts with a tight focus on Melanie (it couldn’t be much tighter, as she has no memories of ever being much outside of her classroom and her personal cell…), but the view gradually pans outward, encompassing a blasted wasteland, an apocalyptic London, and eventually, the world…

I looked up the author, as it wasn’t a name I was familiar with. M.R. Carey is actually Mike Carey, well known for his work on (high-quality) comic book titles and some other novels. I wasn’t surprised – this doesn’t read like the work of a novice in any way. Highly recommended for fans of The Walking Dead – and just about everyone.

Copy provided by NetGalley – much (really, in this case a LOT of) appreciation. As always, my opinion is my own.

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Shield and Crocus – Michael Underwood **

A description of this book comparing it to China Mieville got me to read it (as such comparisons often will). Underwood’s city of Audec-Hal does owe an admitted debt to New Crobuzon, and I don’t think Mieville would have any problems with the politics here – but this is straight-up a costumed-superhero-team story.
The city, built amongst the bones of a fallen Titan, is ruled by five oppressive Tyrants, who are planning a summit to consolidate their power. Against them stand the Shields, a half-dozen individuals with special powers who hope to incite a revolution before it’s too late. I thought this story would’ve made a great comic book. Its colorful descriptions of various peculiar characters, the different races that inhabit the city, the bizarre structure of the city itself, and the blow-by-blow fighting descriptions are all practically tailored for a graphic format. I wanted to see it illustrated! (And – I do see here on Goodreads that a comic is apparently in the works…!)
As it is – a non-graphic novel – I thought it was OK. The reader is told, right off the bat, that the main character, the aging seditionist Wonlar, has a superpower that he refuses to use, because of the horrible things that happened last time he used it, which resulted in the loss of his true love. It’s kind of obvious that eventually, he’s going to have to use his power; so a lot of the story feels like a waiting game until things get bad enough to force his hand. The tone wobbles a bit between very serious, almost grim – and funny/cartoony, especially in some of the fight scenes. The setting is very imaginative, and there are lots of great ideas here – but I wanted some of the backgrounds and characters to be fleshed out more.
One super-nitpicky thing. I have crocuses in my garden. I’ve never observed them to have any noticeable scent at all. I’m just going to assume that the fragrant crocuses mentioned several times here are an alien cultivar… 😉

Recommended for fans of superheroes… [which, I have to admit, I’m usually not.]

Copy provided by NetGalley – thanks so much for the opportunity to read!

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The Keys to the Realms – Roberta Trahan **

(Dream Stewards #2)

I was in the mood for a light fantasy – and found myself wondering ‘what happened next?’ after reading the previous book by Trahan, ‘Well of Tears.’

Here, the perspective shifts from the sorceress Alwen’s point of view to that of her second-in-command, Glain. The Stewardry continue to pursue their backing of Hywel, whom they believe to be the prophecied ruler who will unite their land. At the same time, they continue to deal with dissension and treachery within their ranks.

The writing is a bit smoother than in ‘Well of Tears.’ I’d recommend this for fans of David Eddings.