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July/August 2020
Book Reviews
Charles de Lint
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Michelle West
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Off On a Tangent: F&SF Style
Kathi Maio
David J. Skal
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Pat Murphy & Paul Doherty
Jerry Oltion
Coming Attractions
F&SF Bibliography: 1949-1999
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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

The Doors of Eden, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Tor UK, 2020, £18.99, hc

Ninth House, Leigh Bardugo, Flatiron, 2019, $27.99, hc

One Man: A City of Fallen Gods Novel, Harry Connolly, Radar Avenue Press, 2019, $17.99, tpb


I write this in the middle of an extended Covid-19 shutdown; as of today, all nonessential services have been shut down, the schools, colleges and universities being among them. The science fiction and fantasy bookstore at which I work part-time has also been closed for a week, and that's extending into the foreseeable future. People I know have been laid off, but oddly enough, rents are still being charged, so it's a pretty grim time.

This has certainly affected my ability to read, and it's been a while since I've struggled to read; I keep bouncing off things that I know I wouldn't have bounced off before.

So: these are the books that managed to penetrate a reading slump that is in no way indicative of the quality or range of really good books being published right now.


*   *   *


Adrian Tchaikovsky has long been known for his fantasy novels, but in the past year he's turned to science fiction, with Children of Time and its sequel, Children of Ruin. The Doors of Eden continues the sf trend—although when I started it, I thought it might be contemporary urban fantasy. It's not.

The reason I made this unfortunate mistake is the book's beginning. Two young women, Mal (Elsinore Mallory, and no, she never forgave her parents for her name) and Lee (Lisa Pryor, née Chandrapraiar, whose parents entered the country when someone in immigration was having a very bad day), have been interested in the Fortean Times view of the world for as long as they've been friends. They are misfits of a particular type; Mal can fit in if she wants—she has that charisma—but she lacks the interest. They bond over a book that Lee loves that no one else she's ever met has read, and they become best friends. More.

They also become inveterate explorers; they take holidays based around their search for cryptids, seeking things that might make good articles for the Fortean Times. They're therefore used to roughing it, and their ebullient cryptid search takes them to Bodmin Moor. Someone has been losing farm animals—cows, sheep—and his security cameras captured a flicker of movement or motion that seems…wrong. Strange. Definitely something that Mal and Lee want to investigate. They're old hands at this; they can spot the obvious fakes now, can figure out how videos, etc., were made. This one seems almost genuine.

To their great misfortune, it is. Things are stirring on Bodmin Moor in July, in the summer heat; they investigate, they find the farmer's farm, they make their way to his door. He's not known by locals to be a friendly or welcoming person, but, well. Investigators.

The six brothers—a series of small henge-like stones—seem seriously misnamed because there are only three stones. But it's not a misnomer, and as the weather turns dangerously cold in the heat of July, the three missing stones appear. They're not the only things that do. Caught in a land that is now at the height of a winter—a very non-UK winter—and possibly pursued by creatures that are in no way human, the freezing and confused Lee Pryor flees—leaving Mal behind.

Mal, who was right behind her. Mal, whom she would swear was right behind her.

Life is not the same without Mal. Lee answers the questions asked of her honestly, knowing that in spite of her presence in the hospital due to injuries gained by exposure to extreme cold, she's going to be considered a quack—at best. She goes home. She writes articles. She processes the guilt by trying very, very hard not to think about The Thing that Happened.

And then, one night four years later, Mal calls. It's short. The call itself leaves no records in her phone log. She has to make a choice: meet Mal or fail to meet her. Which is no choice at all. Lee heads out the door.

Lee and Mal are not the only people caught up in these inexplicable events; doors are opening, and have been opening, between our world and other worlds. Julian and Alison work for MI5. Their caseload is about to get heavier, and the tangle of bureaucracy makes it almost impossible to balance intelligently, because…the elements they're investigating verge on the insane, and that's not a good look for continued employment. Julian has a family to support. Alison has a cat. What they have in common is the job that Julian can't discuss with anyone else, not even his wife.

Julian is a very down-to-earth, practical man. Alison is a very down-to-earth, practical woman.

The situation they find themselves in is not a terribly down-to-earth problem. Yes, they have to protect Dr. Kay Amal Khan, a specialist in an obscure branch of physics who just might hold the key to saving the universe. They're accustomed to poaching and kidnapping when it comes to very specialized knowledge. They're not accustomed to the kidnappers they will be dealing with.

All of these people will converge as truth is revealed, layer by layer. The problem is: It's a truth that all of the people present have no way of clearly understanding.

If you liked The Three-Body Problem, this is the book for you. It's very, very different; the books are not the same in terms of either plot or tone. But there's something about both that have the same hooks for me. The Three-Body Problem, though, has elements of an almost '50s social environment; it's classic sf with modern science. Tchaikovsky's book is written and grounded in the 2020s. It's smart, and the people feel lived in, their lives and desires relatable, as are the problems they face. It's classic sf with modern science and modern people.

There's a nuance to the writing, a tone, that gives weight to the unknown, awe to it, while still driving forward; there's a lovely turn of phrase, a dry humor, that I found delightful. Also: read all of the interstitial bits. They are couched in almost dry biology—but regardless, they're a delight, and they become increasingly relevant as the book moves toward its end. All the unknowns fall into place; this is almost a perfectly structured book.

Highly recommended.


*   *   *


Leigh Bardugo is justifiably well known for her young adult novels. Frankly, those books would have worked just as well for an adult audience; she is exceptional with layering plot, character, and world into a beautiful and cohesive whole. Ninth House is her first foray into adult fantasy.

It's an impressive start.

The beginning is slow and the story is told in a non-chronological fashion, and I know this has caused some readers some difficulty. I'm here to say: Stick with it.

Alex Stern (named Galaxy) is from the wrong side of the tracks. She's never known her father, and her mother is an echoing leftover of a sixties hippie who never found her feet on the ground. They've moved a lot for the entirety of Alex's childhood, because Alex has a terrible issue: She can see the dead.

She's always been able to see the dead. As a small child, she wasn't aware that what she was looking at were dead people. This caused the expected social ostracization. It caused isolation. She learned, with time, that speaking about what she saw—what other people couldn't—was a quick road to that isolation, and she learned to hide it.

But her life, her early life, was all about pain—until she met Helen Watson in a crash space for junkies and drug users.

And that life ended with the death of Hellie, and of every other person in that crash space except Alex herself. A new life, a new unexpected life, started. She was offered a place at Yale. She was offered a job. She took it with both hands; it was hope. It was a way out. A way into a normal world, a normal, secure life, a steady job. Alex has never had that, and she desperately wants it. Because maybe, if she gets it, she'll survive.

Survival has been her motivation for many years. She relies on her instincts, on self-preservation. She's not good at thinking about others much—although she still does. She likes her roommates at Yale. She doesn't much care for her senior, the Dante to her Virgil, the man who is supposed to teach her everything she knows in order to do her job.

And her job? It's to keep people safe from the dead. To drive them off. The dead who tormented her. The dead whose existence destroyed her life.

Her Dante is a man named Daniel Arlington—called Darlington by pretty much everyone who knows him. He's an old hand at this, and she considers him a pretentious stick-in-the-mud, and a condescending one at that. For his part, what he had hoped for was someone who would take the job—and its hallowed history—as seriously, as almost reverently, as he himself has.

Neither of them are getting what they want out of this.

It's just possible that they'll get what they need, but the shape of that need for Alex, for so long, has been survival. Keep her head down. Stay out of the way of danger.

This is not the job for that. The first job we see Alex perform occurs about two-thirds through the book's timeline, but is the book's first chapter. One of the Houses is doing a prognostication ritual—one in which they take an unconscious living person and poke around his entrails looking for signs and symbols that will allow their patrons to become, well, richer.

There is no question of morality here. Not for Alex. She has long understood that the powerful devour the powerless. In order to not be powerless, you need money and power in your own right. The man on the table has none. Alex has none, but she has the hope of having some in the future, and Alex is not the person to somehow rescue a vagrant at risk to herself.

And that's pretty much why I was both ambivalent about Alex, and also liked her greatly. She's rooted, grounded, in her life and her life's context. She comes from a set of experiences, and she's carrying them with her. Sometimes you can practically smell the fear and uncertainty radiating off her like heat waves.

Does it make her likable? Well, no, not really. But it makes her relatable, at least to me, and what I want from a character arc isn't so much perfect people doing perfect things, but people who are reaching up, who are trying to find a way out of the grim isolation and despair in which they've spent so much of their lives. People who are, in their own view, stupid enough to have hope.

Alex has almost none. Almost. And when things go south, it's the slow unfurling of that hope, of that desire not only to climb out of the abyss, but to become a better version of herself, that drove me through the book.

As for the book itself? I had expected (there's that word again, expectation) a contemporary fantasy with the usual hidden-beneath-the-fold magic. That is not this book. The magic itself is up-front and center in the fraternity houses; if the Ninth House is the house in which Alex works, it's called the Ninth for a reason. The other houses are pressing the boundaries of their magic and the various chemicals and rituals that allow it. Alex is working for the magic police; it's their job to keep tabs on the activities of the other houses, and to make certain that the laws that govern the magicians aren't broken.

Yale is a hotbed of magic and magical activity, and it always has been. There's no place—on the page at least—where magical nexii are stronger. Alex understands viscerally that nobody loves a cop, and she understands the chain of command. And she understands murder, because even that's something she's seen in the earlier life she considers over.

But there are some murders that are acts of magic, and are therefore illegal and left to the auspices of Lethe, the Ninth House. One officer is on a double payroll: he's the liaison with Lethe and the magical crimes that might occur, and it's his job to brush things under the carpet of normal at need. The murder victim is young woman. Something about the murder bothers Alex, beyond the fact of it itself.

Tara Hutchins is the victim. She's been stabbed multiple times, her body left at the modern equivalent of a crossroad. There's nothing about her to suggest that she's involved with magic, and everything about her to suggest that she, like Alex, was a young woman trying to gather money with which she might have power—the power to avoid the death she received.

Alex has been told by her direct boss that this murder is not their problem; that it's off limits, and being taken care of. And if Darlington were here, and Darlington said it, she'd believe it. But he's not. And he was the one who always so noble, so knight in shining armor. She's not him. She's never been him.

And she can't quite make herself believe that this murder has nothing to do with Lethe duties. Which still shouldn't make it her problem—but it is. It is because she understands that Tara Hutchin's death could have been exactly hers.

I like that it's not an easy decision for Alex. It's what makes her real.

But her view of Darlington changes, by slow degree, and I liked Darlington a great deal. Especially the breaking of fine china, about which I will say no more.

This is dark, in case the review itself didn't make that obvious. It's dark, it's heavy with the despairing pragmatism of those who live in shadows until shadows become all they can see. But it makes the moments of hope, of direction, of self-examination and acceptance, shine much more brightly.


*   *   *


One Man is Harry Connolly's latest book, an ambitious fantasy novel that implies epic scope without being epic in and of itself. It's about Kyrioc son of No One, a man who runs a pawnbroker's shop in the lower part of town.

And lower part is the correct word here: The city in which he lives is built on the skeletal remains of two gods. Their bones shine, providing light and structural stability for the citizens, people who themselves fled conflict in a different country and settled here.

I am not a terribly visual person, but I would love to see a visual artist's take on the city that Connolly has created: the skeletal remains of dead gods, serving as moorings for the platforms upon which the city's houses stand. Here, height is power—the higher up you are, the more money or power you must have. It's the reason Kyrioc lives where he lives. He has no power.

No power he wants to own.

Kyrioc first appears at a funeral, or rather a memorial for…himself. For Kyrionik, heir to the Safroy family, who sailed out on his First Labor, and failed to return. No one returned from that mission; seven years have passed. Kyrioc carries the guilt for that like a shield that encompasses everything. But he made a promise to those who are now dead, and he intends to keep it; they paid with their lives.

He is forced to flee his own memorial service, because the younger brother, the new heir, sees him, and although he looks nothing like the older brother of Culzatik's memory, Culzatik revered him, and something in his gait, something in his presence, pushes those buttons for the younger son. Kyrioc manages to flee. And can I just say that I really appreciated the fact that the younger brother's respect and honor for the older, presumed dead, is genuine? He is not gleefully rubbing his hands at the possibility that all the power will be his.

He has his hands full, however; word of a plot to embarrass and dethrone the head of the Safroy family has fallen into his hands, and he orders one of the local police—for want of better words—to investigate. Onderishta is that officer, a woman beholden to the Safoys. The concept of such is complicated; different officers are beholden to different families of note. In theory, they serve the greater populace, but in practice, they can be called upon to be personal police. Onderishta is good at her job; she mostly appreciates it; she mostly doesn't appreciate playing games for the Safoys.

But her investigation and Kyrioc are tied together by one unfortunate point: a drunk and bold mother who decides to steal something in a handoff during festival day. This woman doesn't know what she's stealing until she sees it, and when she does know, she knows that if she's discovered, she is worse than dead.

But her daughter is a child of poverty, and she lives close to Kyrioc's single room, which is attached to the pawnshop he runs. She comes when hungry; Kyrioc feeds her from time to time. She is the only person that Kyrioc has allowed to come close to him; the only person he cannot, and perhaps doesn't want to, hold at a distance.

Had he been Kyrionik, finding the child when both she and her mother are discovered would be simple. He has no intention of abandoning the child, and no intention of returning to his former life.

To be honest, I didn't understand why; I accepted that there were reasons. It's not until the breakneck ending of One Man that it all made sense—and it made a hugely disturbing and incredibly powerful version of sense by that point.

This is truly magical worldbuilding, from the skeletal city itself to the dark and desperate magic that runs through it, beneath it, like a hidden bomb in a fireworks factory. It's dark, and the poorer areas of town are realistic; it's not pretty. But the whispers of gods, of godkind, of the ancient Kings who destroyed the gods—and let me add, the skeletons of the gods in which the city was built are three miles long—make the past a place of profound horror for the mortals who now make this home.


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