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book reviews by Althea


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Dreaming Death – J. Kathleen Cheney ***

Dreaming Death
Dreaming Death by J. Kathleen Cheney
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Entertaining fantasy with a touch of mystery.

This is a world that is used to dealing with ‘sensitives’ – those who can pick up on others’ emotions and also broadcast their own. But Mikael Lee’s ‘gift’ exceeds what anyone is used to. He might even call it more of a curse. He has periodic dreams in which he enters the consciousness of a murder victim, following them all the way to their death. However, his tendency to broadcast these grisly sensations to those around him has not earned him an excess of goodwill.

Meanwhile, a young blind woman, Shironne, has her own special gift. Although her hyper-sensitivity has made her life difficult, she has agreed to work with the military, helping them identify murder victims: she has sense things about the deceased when she touches a body.

It’s nearly immediately clear that Shironne and Mikael, although they’ve never met, are connected in some psychic manner. Indeed, Shironne is eager to meet the man she senses in her dreams, whom she half-jokingly refers to as the Angel of Death.

Now, it appears that murders related to sinister ‘blood magic’ rituals are occurring, echoing a bloody massacre that happened some years before, and which lives on in infamy. Mikael and Shironne must both work to uncover the murderers before more are killed horribly.

Recommended for those who have finished reading all about Carol Berg’s or Sarah Monette’s angsty yet attractive young men, and are looking for more…

I would definitely pick up the sequel to this one! (Don’t worry, there’s no cliffhanger here, though.)

Many thanks to NetGalley and ROC for the opportunity to read. As always, my opinions are solely my own.

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Love Hurts: A Speculative Fiction Anthology

Love Hurts: A Speculative Fiction Anthology
Love Hurts: A Speculative Fiction Anthology by Tricia Reeks

A very mixed bag of stories – some are great, some… not… it’s really all over the place.

* A. Merc Rustad -The Sorcerer’s Unattainable Gardens:
Not so much a fantasy story as a drawn-out metaphor for ‘trying to get back into someone’s heart,’ with the sorcerer as the object of desire ensconced within a nigh-inaccessible garden. The idea is sappy and a bit trite; the writing amateurish.

** Carla Dash -A Puzzle by the Name of L:
Depressed after her fiance’s death, a young woman is surprised to one day find Death himself at her door. She allows him in, but refuses to agree to his repeated suggestions that she off herself immediately. Gradually, the two settle into what begins to feel almost like a routine…
The ending here just didn’t feel very satisfactory, and overall the piece reminded me of something that might’ve been written as a therapy exercise.

* Steve Simpson -Jacinta’s Lovers:
This piece starts off with an interesting (if, I thought, flawed) premise: In the near future, we figure out how to make memories and knowledge inheritable. Parents can now pass on their skills and knowledge to their children. This leads to the collapse of civilization, because people can no longer be bothered to learn anything new. (I wasn’t convinced how or why this would be the case.) After this sci-fi/post-apocalyptic setup, the author takes a hard left turn into an attempt at surrealism, and it ends up just feeling disjointed and nonsensical.

* Mel Paisley -A Concise Protocol for Efficient Deicide:
Holy run-on sentences and tortured grammar, batman! At least it was short.
There’s an apocalypse, there’s some kind of experimental procedure in a hospital… I don’t really know what was going on here.

*** Charlie Jane Anders -Fairy Werewolf vs. Vampire Zombie:
It’s funny! This one really felt like a breath of fresh air! Or rather, stale-beer scented air with a whiff of fairy dust and gunpowder. The owner of an underground bar tells the outrageous tale of how her watering hole acquired its mascot. It involves an exiled fairy princess (who’s also a kickass pub singer) and an unusual love triangle. Felt a bit like a clever take-off on Terri Windling’s ‘Bordertown’ series – I chuckled more than once.

** Terry Durbin -The Woman Who Sang:
In a harsh surveillance state where anything that is not purely utilitarian is ‘discouraged,’ a daring woman brings a man who catches her eye to a secret gathering where bright colors are worn, and ancient songs are sung. I loved the setting and the feel to this story, but it was oddly lacking in any attempt to give its characters believable motivations. At the end, we have no idea why either of the characters chose to do the things they did, and without that, their actions seem peculiar and unlikely.

*** Michal Wojcik -Iron Roses:
Steampunk tale of unrequited love. A young ‘scrapper’ learns to craft lovely (but impractical) iron roses to try to impress his colleague.

**** Michael Milne -Traveler:
Time travel can be a difficult and dangerous job. But the hardest part can be coming home for dinner, after months or years away, to a family who perceives that you just left for work that morning. This story perfectly captures the dissonance in such a relationship. Excellent story.

*** Holly Phillips -Virgin of the Sands:
Alternate WWII-era story: the Allied forces are losing ground in North Africa. Avoiding a crushing defeat may depend on the help of a necromantic witch. But the witch in question is also a vulnerable young woman. I enjoyed the story, and thought it was well-done – but I disagreed with its reinforcement of the myth regarding the mystique of virginity.

** Kyle Richardson -Catching On:
In this X-Men-influenced piece, a couple of registered mutants use their special power to go up against a huge corporation whose newest experimental device could cause the end of the world. The action-oriented part of the story was pretty good, but I felt like the ending lost focus.

*** Leah Brown -Metempsychotic:
Pregnant with her first child, a suburban housewife is haunted by the ghost of her high school boyfriend. The story rides a nice line between sweetness and creepiness, but felt slightly predictable.

*** Michelle Ann King -Possibly Nefarious Purposes:
Dayna and Amy are roommates who have something unusual in common: they’re both afflicted with extraterrestrial ‘friends’ who have a disturbing habit of interfering in their lives. Amy, the older woman, has arrived at a ‘solution’- she is reclusive, and attempts to make her life as boring as possible to avoid alien interest. Dayna still wants to go out and have fun, and is willing to cater to the aliens’ ‘suggestions.’ Amy thinks that’s a bad idea – but her reasons for thinking that will only be gradually revealed. Darkly humorous and original.

**** Jeff VanDerMeer -A Heart for Lucretia:
Weird fiction that works. Grotesque, bizarre, but coherent. Accompanied by a Flesh Dog, a young man goes on a quest to an enigmatic City to try to trade for a human heart. He needs the heart as a transplant to save his dying sister’s life. But the inhabitants of this city are hard bargainers.

* Dan Micklethwaite -Your Moment of Zen:
First of all, it’s “sake” not “saki.” It’s not even pronounced “saki.”
When a breakup and a job loss hit a young man like a one-two punch, he decides to sign up for a time-travel vacation in ancient Japan. (However, the way the story’s set up, it seems much more like a theme park experience than time travel – the whole time travel thing is unnecessary to the plot.) Samurai-style melee fighting with electric swords and fake blood doesn’t work out, so he settles into being depressed, drinking incorrectly-spelled sake, and pathetically obsessing over the geisha next door. I finished this one with a big ol’ “meh.”

**** Victoria Zelvin -Back to Where I Know You:
Wealthy heiress falls in love with another woman – a research scientist who’s nowhere near her social class. As they forge a secret relationship, the researcher divulges the secret she’s discovered: the government regularly wipes out the memories of its citizens, selectively. But she’s developed a way to distill select memories into a potion, which when drunk, allows them to be recaptured.
The premise doesn’t bear close examination (too many ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ unanswered) but I was willing to forgive that due to the story’s romantic and poignant atmosphere.

** JD Brink -Green-Eyed Monster:
If you’re willing to let yourself be experimented on by a miniaturized colleague, better make sure that colleague doesn’t bear you any ill will. This one didn’t do it for me.

**** Aliette de Bodard -By Bargain and by Blood:
Would make a good opening chapter for a novel. After her sister’s death, a woman has raised her niece as her own. After eight years, she’s unprepared to have the girl’s father suddenly appear, demanding that his daughter be turned over to his custody. She’s even more unprepared for the fact that the father is a ‘blood empath’ (it’s not fully explained what this is, but it’s some sort of ominous and possibly malevolent wizard or priest). The dilemma is nicely drawn, the world and characters fascinating – but I wanted more of the story!

*** Matt Leivers -The Ghul (A Nasty Story):
It is, as advertised, nasty. When his obsession with another young man is not reciprocated in the slightest degree, a spoiled and decadent lord turns to a particularly unpleasant magic to allow him to slake his lust.

*** G. Scott Huggins -Past Perfect:
After years of estrangement, a man is summoned to visit his college girlfriend – and her husband, the man who ‘stole’ her from him. The husband’s on his premature death bed – does he simply want one last chance to rub his ‘victory’ in the loser’s face? Or is their some other reason? Why, for all these years, has the lovely Su put up with this jerk, who treats her in a truly offensive and disrespectful manner?

*** Shannon Phillips -Favor:
Forced to fight in an alien arena for the entertainment of sentient insects, Tess is the last surviving member of her crew. In today’s combat, she fully expects to finally die. But the ways and motives of other species are obscure.

***** Hugh Howey -While (u>I) I–:
This story is also available free on Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/52488446-shor…
An android is engaged in a strange ritual, intentionally degrading and slowly destroying himself. Has he gone insane? Or is there some reason behind his actions? The answer, when revealed, is heartbreaking – and thought provoking.

*** David Stevens -The Boulevardier:
What happens when two monsters finally find each other? Unfortunately, we don’t really get to find out, in this inconclusive story.
A shapeshifter has carefully crafted his camouflage, creating a ‘normal’ life and a safe, workable routine for himself. But what he encounters in an alley one night will jolt him out of it…

** Keith Frady -Stargazer:
A smugly self-absorbed psychic spends his time eavesdropping on others’ private conversations and convincing himself he could order their lives far better than they can manage for themselves. The story focuses on him ‘listening in’ on a coffee-shop breakup. The story itself feels self-indulgent, not just the character.

** Jody Sollazzo -So Fast We’re Slow:
Steampunk romance, where the romance comes out of nowhere. The setting is interesting: the main character is a wet nurse on a FTL ship. The idea is that young mothers can drop off their babies, who won’t age while underway due to the time dilation effect. The women will pick up the kids when they’re older and more ready to care for them.
This effect is mirrored, a bit, in the romantic relationship that’s the main focus of the story. I felt like there were quite a few ideas with potential here, but they needed to be more clearly articulated.

*** Morgen Knight -Alice:
In a post-apocalyptic urban landscape, where water is fatally contaminated, a lone man is haunted by the ghost of his wife.

***** Karin Tidbeck -Sing:
Read previously: “Tidbeck is definitely an author to watch out for – she deserves recognition. I loved her collection, ‘Jagannath,’ and this is another deftly told tale. A tailor, disabled and shunned by her community, meets an off-world man who looks at her without the condemnation she is used to from her own people. She is attracted to the vision he offers her of a wider world. And he, in turn, appreciates her. But there is a secret that the people of her world do not speak of. The story captures real complexity of emotion.” Available for free here: http://www.tor.com/2013/04/17/sing/

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Trollbooth – Maureen Tanafon *****

Trollbooth
Trollbooth by Maureen Tanafon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wouldn’t it be magical to live at the edge of a wood inhabited by fairies; within walking distance of a troll bridge? Well. It certainly would be magical, but it wouldn’t actually be at all nice.

When two young children disappear, the elder members of a family are full of bluster, anger and violence. It’s left to their step-sister, a mute and frequently-overlooked young woman, do do what it will actually take to save them. And it will take sacrifice.

This is no sparkly fairytale, but a tough and quietly fierce one. Excellent work.

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The Great Silence – Ted Chiang ****

The Great Silence
The Great Silence by Ted Chiang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author’s note informs us that Arecibo, Puerto Rico is home to both an observatory known for sending out messages searching for extraterrestrial intelligence (http://www.seti.org/seti-institute/pr…) and to a critically endangered species of parrot, known for its intelligence (http://www.fws.gov/southeast/pubs/fac…). Narrated by one of these parrots, Chiang points out the irony of looking out over the horizon for signs of life when we cannot even understand – or coexist with – the intelligent life that shares our own planet.

The ending will kick you right in the gut. (As Chiang loves to do. I mean, the guy is a literary kickboxer.)

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Please Undo This Hurt – Seth Dickinson ****

Please Undo This Hurt: A Tor.Com Original
Please Undo This Hurt: A Tor.Com Original by Seth Dickinson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Since ‘The Traitor Baru Cormorant’ was one of my absolute favorite books of the year, I’m not at all surprised that this short story was also excellent. As someone who despises ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ I liked it even more.

Through an interaction between two friends, Dickinson explores the irony that life is harder for those who make life more bearable. It’s also those who are more compassionate who are more likely to have compunctions about hurting those around them by contemplating suicide. But what if you could simply make it so that you’d never been born and none of the pain had every happened?

Would you, or anyone you know, take that option? Might it be a better choice?

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And to the Republic – Rachel Kolar ****

And to the Republic
And to the Republic by Rachel Kolar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alternate-history, present day. What we think of as the USA is a Republic with shades of Ancient Rome. It’s also a harsh surveillance state, where conforming to society’s strictures is of paramount importance.

Lavinia is a civil servant with a sincere belief in the state, although she’s not above bending the rules a bit – especially when it comes to her family. Her younger sister Antonia is a rebellious, unrepentant atheist – and atheism is unacceptable to this society, where polytheism is enforced.

Lavinia wants Toni to make a show of things; at least pay lip service to the rules. But Toni has ideals.

This is an extremely well-crafted iteration of this moral/ethical dilemma. I believe that people on both sides of the argument will find themselves empathizing with both women.

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The Ways of Walls and Words – Sabrina Vourvoulias ****

The Ways of Walls and Words
The Ways of Walls and Words by Sabrina Vourvoulias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two girls form an unexpected connection.
Anica is a converso, imprisoned by the Inquisition, along with her whole family, for secretly adhering to the Jewish faith. Bienvenida is a Nahuatl woman, employed by the priests to clean the corridors of the dungeon where Anica is held. The poetry – or prayers – that she hears Anica reciting spurs her to break the rules and to try to help.

Although Anica is physically jailed for her faith, Bienvenida is barely more free. And it’s also her faith, her adherence to tradition and to home that keeps her in her menial position.

The story is beautifully and sensitively written. I’m not 100% sure what the author intended readers to take away from it. What I personally got out of it was that although faith and tradition can seem beautiful and comfortable, they can also be chains that cause us to limit ourselves, lose our adaptability and accede to our own demise.

Vourvoulias is definitely an author I’ll be on the lookout for, going forward.

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