Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph Adams

Review: Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms edited by John Joseph AdamsLost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms by John Joseph Adams, James L. Cambias, Becky Chambers, Kate Elliott, C.C. Finlay, Jeffrey Ford, Theodora Goss, Darcie Little Badger, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, An Owomoyela, Dexter Palmer, Cadwell Turnbull, Genevieve Valentine, Carrie Vaughn, Charles Yu, E. Lily Yu, Tobias S. Buckell
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: action adventure, fantasy, horror, science fiction
Pages: 384
Published by Grim Oak Press on March 8, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

From the legends of Atlantis, El Dorado, and Shangri-La to classic novels such as King Solomon’s Mine, The Land That Time Forgot, and The Lost World, readers have long been fascinated by the idea of lost worlds and mythical kingdoms.
Read short stories featuring the discovery of such worlds or kingdoms―stories where scientists explore unknown places, stories where the discovery of such turns the world on its head, stories where we’re struck with the sense of wonder at realizing that we don’t know our world quite as well as we’d thought.
Featuring new tales by today's masters of SF&F:
Tobias S. BuckellJames L. CambiasBecky ChambersKate ElliottC.C. FinlayJeffrey FordTheodora GossDarcie Little BadgerJonathan MaberrySeanan McGuireAn OwomoyelaDexter PalmerCadwell TurnbullGenevieve ValentineCarrie VaughnCharles YuE. Lily Yu

My Review:

Here there be dragons – or so say the old maps. Or so they say the old maps say – although not so much as people think they did.

Just the same, once upon a time the map of the ‘real’ world used to have more blank spaces in it. Long distance travel was difficult and time-consuming, long distance communication was an impossible dream, life was short and the road was too long to even be imagined. But speaking of imagining, I imagine that every place’s known and unknown stretches were different – but in the way back each city, country, people or location only had so much reach and stretch.

And then there was the era of European exploration and eventually industrialization. For good or ill, and quite frequently ill, those blank places on the map got smaller and were filled in. Which didn’t stop and probably downright inspired a whole library’s worth of stories about imaginary places that might exist whether on – or in – this planet or those nearby.

But as the terra become increasingly cognita, the well of those stories dried up. Which does not mean that the urge to explore what might be beyond the farthest horizon has in any way faded.

This is a collection intended to feed that human impulse to go where no one has gone before – and report back about it before we invade it with, well, ourselves. Some of the stories that explore that next frontier are fantasy, some are science fiction, and a few trip over that line from fantasy into horror.

And they’re all here, vividly described to make the reader want to be there. Or be extremely grateful that they are NOT.

Escape Rating B: Like nearly all such collections, Lost Worlds and Mythological Kingdoms has some hits, some misses and one or two WTF did I just read? in a convenient package for exploration.

Let’s get the WTF’ery out of the way so we can move on to the good stuff. The two stories that were set in strange hotels, Comfort Lodge, Enigma Valley and Hotel Motel Holiday Inn just did not land for me at all. The second made a bit more sense than the first but neither worked for me. Of course, YMMV on both or either of those particular trips.

Three stories were misses – at least from my perspective. They weren’t bad, they just didn’t quite live up to their premise. Or something like that. The Light Long Lost at Sea was a bit too in medias res. There’s a world there with lots of interesting backstory but what we got was more of a teaser than a story with a satisfying ending. The Expedition Stops for the Evening at the Foot of the Mountain Pass had some of that same feel, like there was huge setup for the story somewhere else and we weren’t getting it. But we needed it. The Return of Grace Malfrey is one that had a fascinating premise that kind of fizzled out.

One story in the collection hit my real-o-meter a bit too sharply. That was Those Who Have Gone. It does get itself into the “did I find a hidden civilization or was I dreaming?” thing very, very well, but the way it got there was through a young woman on a scary desert trip with her 30something boyfriend who she is rightfully extremely afraid of. That part was so real it overwhelmed the fantasy place she fell into.

There were a bunch of stories that I liked as I was reading them, but just didn’t hit the top of my scale. They are still good, still enjoyable, and hit the right note between teasing their premise and satisfying it. In no particular order, these were Down in the Dim Kingdoms, An Account, by Dr. Inge Kuhn, of the Summer Expedition and Its Discoveries, Endosymbiosis and There, She Didn’t Need Air to Fill Her Lungs.

Last, but very much not least, the stories I plan to put on my Hugo Ballot next year, because they were utterly awesome. The Cleft of Bones by Kate Elliott, a story about slavery, revolution and rebirth as seen through the eyes of an absolutely fascinating character. The Voyage of Brenya by Carrie Vaughn, which is a story about gods and heroes and the way that stories turn into myths and legends. Out of the Dark by James L. Cambias, one of two space opera stories, this time about a corporate hegemonies, a salvage crew consisting of lifelong rivals, and a pre/post spacefaring civilization in which Doctor Who’s Leela would have been right at home.

Three stories were utter gems from start to finish. Pellargonia: A Letter to the Journal of Imaginary Anthropology by Theodora Goss, which consists entirely of a letter written to the afore-mentioned journal by three high school students who took the founding principles of the journal – that imaginary anthropology could create real countries – and ran with it all the way into Wikipedia, the nightly news, and a civil war that has captured one of their fathers somewhere that never should have existed in the first place.

The Orpheus Gate by Jonathan Maberry reaches back to the Golden Age of lost kingdom stories by taking the utterly science driven great granddaughter of Professor George Edward Challenger (hero of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World) and putting her on a collision course with a friend of her great grandmother’s – a woman who challenges the scientist’s belief in everything rational and provable in order to force the young woman to finally open her mind to a truth she does not even want to imagine, let alone believe.

And finally, The Tomb Ship by Becky Chambers, which is a story about a loophole, about the evil that humans do in the name of a so-called ‘Greater Good’, and just how easy it is to fall into the trap and how hard it is to even think of a better way. Or even just a way that lets the protagonist sleep at night with a somewhat clear conscience. That it also feels like a tiny bit of an Easter Egg for The Outer Wilds was just the right icing on this gold-plated cake of a story.

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuire

Review: In an Absent Dream by Seanan McGuireIn an Absent Dream (Wayward Children, #4) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: publisher
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #4
Pages: 204
Published by Tordotcom on January 8, 2019
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook DepositoryBookshop.org
Goodreads

This fourth entry and prequel tells the story of Lundy, a very serious young girl who would rather study and dream than become a respectable housewife and live up to the expectations of the world around her. As well she should.
When she finds a doorway to a world founded on logic and reason, riddles and lies, she thinks she's found her paradise. Alas, everything costs at the goblin market, and when her time there is drawing to a close, she makes the kind of bargain that never plays out well.

My Review:

As the story began, it was easy – very easy – for me to empathize with Katherine Lundy. In 1964, when Lundy was six years old, she was learning that the world had a very tiny box into which it shoved little girls – and that it was more than willing to lop off extra limbs – or at least what it called inappropriate thoughts, feelings, ambitions and ideas – in order to force those little girls to fit into the box labeled “womanhood” when the time came.

Lundy knew it wasn’t fair – and if there was one thing Lundy believed in, it was fairness – a fairness that this world did not provide.

So she found a door to a world where she could thrive – a world where fairness, absolute fairness – was enforced by an invisible but inexorable hand. Lundy found her door to the Goblin Market, a place governed utterly by the concept of “fair value”.

Which does not mean that there is not a price for everything in this fair and just community – just that the system is set up so that no one can take advantage of anyone else. Whether the Goblin Market takes advantage of everyone it claims as a citizen is a deeper philosophical question than six-year-old Lundy is capable of understanding.

Yet. Or possibly ever.

Unlike many of the worlds behind the doors in the Wayward Children series, the Goblin Market allows children – as long as they remain children – to jump between the Market and the world that gave them birth. In fact, it wants them to see both sides, to “Be Sure” of their choice, before that choice is forced upon them at age 18.

So Lundy jumps back and forth between the worlds, staying in each long enough for the consequences of her absences to be visited upon her when she returns. In the Goblin Market, a friend who loses her way in despair and almost gives up her humanity. In the “real” world, a family that loves her, hates her and misses her in equal measure, that pulls at her to stay and be part of them, and a younger sister who needs her to be her guide, mentor and above all, a sister who will put her first as no one else does. Just as no one ever put Lundy first before she went to the Goblin Market.

Lundy, being a person who likes rules because once she understands them it’s easy to find a way around, wants to, as the saying goes, “have her cake and eat it, too.” She wants to keep her promises on all sides, even though she knows that there is not world enough or time enough for that to be possible.

So she hunts for a loophole. And finds one. But loopholes are cheats. They do not provide the fair value that the Goblin Market enforces at every step.

“Cheaters never win and “winners never cheat.” – or so goes the quote. I remember this saying, or at least a version of it, being flung about during my childhood, which was at the exact same time as Katherine Lundy’s childhood.

It’s a lesson that Lundy should have taken to heart. Because when she finally does learn it – it takes hers.

Escape Rating B+: Everything I picked up this week struck me wrong in one way or another. Sometimes very wrong as yesterday’s book demonstrated a bit too clearly. In desperation I went looking for comfort reads that were short and punchy to get me out of my reading slump, and that’s something that the Wayward Children series has definitely provided.

So here we are at In an Absent Dream, the fourth book in the series that began with the bang of a slamming door in Every Heart a Doorway.

There were parts of this one that I really, really loved. It was terribly easy for me to empathize with Lundy and her total unwillingness to step into the box that society expected her to close herself into because she was female. Along with her frustration at her father who refused to look at her and see her and not just a biddable child he didn’t have to think about much – even though he could have helped make a Lundy-shaped space for her in the real world.

When both Katherine Lundy and I – I was seven in 1964 – were born, the world expected girls to become wives and mothers, have no career ambitions, only work at certain “acceptable” jobs until we married and had those expected children. We were born into the expectations of the 1950s.

Then the 1960s happened. Those expectations were still there, but, if you pushed hard enough, worked hard enough, tried hard enough and were stubborn enough, a space could be made that did not meet those expectations. It was hard, the pushback was intense, but the world for girls did start opening up. With Lundy’s father as a school principal he could have encouraged her academic ambitions and he just didn’t. Because it was hard and he didn’t want to make waves or upset his own personal applecart.

I loved the portrayal of the Goblin Market, and could easily understand why Lundy found it such a compelling place. What fell just a bit short for me was the way that Lundy’s biggest and most catastrophic adventures in the Market were glossed over. That glossing made the story lose a bit of its oomph every time she left.

The choice she had to make was an impossible one – which was something she refused to acknowledge. But the imposition of “fair value” in the Goblin Market doesn’t allow people to cheat. Searching for loopholes is a value of this world and not the world of the Market, because using a loophole is just another way of getting something over someone or something else. And that is not fair value.

But Lundy was young and not nearly as smart as she thought she was. In spite of her time in the Market, Lundy was much too used to having only herself to rely on because she was the only person she could really count on. Which meant that in the end, she cheats herself most of all. And it’s heartbreaking.

This series is special and awesome in a way that’s hard to describe. It’s as though the dreams of all of us who were bookish misfits as children dreamed all our dreams only to see those dreams come true in the form of nightmares. Some gifts come at just too high a price – and sometimes we’re desperate enough to pay that price anyway.

I’ve read the Wayward Children series mostly out of order, so now I have just one book left to catch up to myself before the new books in the series come out next year. Which means I’ll be reading Come Tumbling Down the next time I’m looking for a story with the power to cut me like knife.

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuire

Review: Where the Drowned Girls Go by Seanan McGuireWhere the Drowned Girls Go (Wayward Children, #7) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #7
Pages: 160
Published by Tordotcom on January 4, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Welcome to the Whitethorn Institute. The first step is always admitting you need help, and you've already taken that step by requesting a transfer into our company.
There is another school for children who fall through doors and fall back out again. It isn't as friendly as Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children. And it isn't as safe.
When Eleanor West decided to open her school, her sanctuary, her Home for Wayward Children, she knew from the beginning that there would be children she couldn't save; when Cora decides she needs a different direction, a different fate, a different prophecy, Miss West reluctantly agrees to transfer her to the other school, where things are run very differently by Whitethorn, the Headmaster.
She will soon discover that not all doors are welcoming...

My Review:

We were introduced to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the first book in this series, Every Heart a Doorway. The children aren’t “wayward” in the way that the word is usually meant. Rather, the children who come to the school, like Eleanor West herself, once upon a time opened a door from our world to another – a place their hearts called home.

They come to Eleanor after they, like she, found their way, or were forced or pushed or stumbled, back to the world they were born in, will they or nil they. It’s usually nil. Whatever world they went to, they’ve been gone a long time from their young perspectives, have grown and changed and adapted to their new circumstances in ways that don’t fit in the old ones.

They’ve left our world as children and come back as teenagers. They left as dependent children and come back after having been forced to look after themselves. They left as innocents and come back with experience that no one believes.

Their parents desperately want them to be “normal” again, unable or unwilling to recognize that they ARE normal for the life they led on the other side of their door.

The lucky ones find themselves at Eleanor West’s, a place where their experience is accepted as having been real – even if their hope for return to it is seen as extremely unlikely at best. Eleanor West gives them the chance, not so much to accept that they’re stuck as to find a way to live with their situation rather than pretend that it never happened.

Not all of the children are lucky enough to end up at Eleanor West’s Home. Some of them end up in psychiatric institutions, and/or drunk or drugged into insensibility, whether by themselves or others.

And some of them end up someplace worse. They get sent to the Whitethorn Institute. If for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, then the Whitethorn Institute is that opposing reaction to Eleanor West’s. In every possible way.

Cora Miller, whom we met in Beneath a Sugar Sky and whose story continues in Come Tumbling Down (which I haven’t read and I seriously need to!) feels like the Drowned Gods she invoked in that second adventure have followed her back to Miss West’s. And that they’re coming for her.

In desperation, Cora turns to the one place where belief in the doors and the worlds on the other side of them is ruthlessly suppressed. She believes it’s done with the power of science and cold, hard logic. So she commits herself to the Whitethorn Institute in the hope that they will cure her of her longing for the worlds behind the doors – and of their hunger for her.

What she finds is something else altogether. And it’s just as hungry for her and her power as the Drowned Gods ever were.

Escape Rating A-: Where the Drowned Girls Go, at least so far, was the hardest read in this series. Not that any of them are easy, because much of the series is about accepting yourself for who and what you are, and finding a family that will accept you as the person you are and not the person they want you to be.

Overall, it’s a series about diversity and acceptance. That means two things. One, that it explores all types of diversity, not just race – actually not explicitly race at all – but rather the way that people don’t fit into stereotypical boxes at all and learning to celebrate those differences.

What makes this a particularly hard read is that the way the story showcases that acceptance is by first showing its lack – in intense and painful detail. Cora is already outside the box labeled “normal” because she came through a door. She’s asexual due to a birth anomaly. And she’s built tall and strong and plump, because she lived in water worlds where those were survival traits. And none of them are what girls in this world are supposed to be.

She’s already internalized the messages for girls to be “girly”, flirty and tiny and weak and thin, and has a lot of self-hatred because she’s none of the above. The Whitethorn Institute encourages the children in its dubious “care” to show the worst of themselves, so Cora is bullied and teased for being different – in addition to everything else that’s wrong at Whitethorn.

It starts out being a school where the mean girls seem to be pampered princesses and everyone else is either under their thumbs or outcast. It’s an environment that was hard to take before Cora starts digging deeper into just how wrong things really are.

The Institute’s methods are cruel and repressive, forcing the children to lie to themselves and each other about their experiences, punishing transgression and nonconformity through bullying, and as Cora discovers, using the magic of the doorways to suppress individuality and identity. Cora has a choice to make, to let herself be lost or to be a hero one more time.

And that’s the point where things finally start looking up.  Because that’s where the adventure aspect of the series kicks in, when Cora accepts that she can’t do it all alone and that she needs her friends from Miss West’s to help her get to the bottom of a situation that is way too big for one girl to solve alone.

Which is part of the message of the whole series. None of the stories so far have been just one person’s story. These are stories about accepting people for who they are, and learning to accept oneself the same. They’re adventures that require friends and found family to come out the other side, whole as part of a greater whole.

While this particular entry in the series turned out to be an unexpected readalike for A Spindle Splintered, the whole series interweaves back and forth in ways that make a bit of mockery of any concept of reading order and downright encourage readers to rove from book to book, from door to door, and back again.

I read Where the Drowned Girls Go in the middle of my exploration of Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. I started with the first book first, Every Heart a Doorway, Then book 6, Across the Green Grass Fields (Cora finds the heroine of that story at Whitethorn’s), then this book, and finally books 2 and 3, Down Among the Sticks and Bones and Beneath the Sugar Sky.

The next book in this series, Lost in the Moment and Found, won’t be found on bookshelves and ereaders until a whole, entire year from now, so I’m lucky I still have In an Absent Dream and Come Tumbling Down to look forward to!

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire

Review: Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuireBeneath the Sugar Sky (Wayward Children, #3) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #3
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Beneath the Sugar Sky, the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, returns to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children in a standalone contemporary fantasy for fans of all ages. At this magical boarding school, children who have experienced fantasy adventures are reintroduced to the "real" world.
When Rini lands with a literal splash in the pond behind Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, the last thing she expects to find is that her mother, Sumi, died years before Rini was even conceived. But Rini can’t let Reality get in the way of her quest – not when she has an entire world to save! (Much more common than one would suppose.) If she can't find a way to restore her mother, Rini will have more than a world to save: she will never have been born in the first place. And in a world without magic, she doesn’t have long before Reality notices her existence and washes her away. Good thing the student body is well-acquainted with quests...
A tale of friendship, baking, and derring-do. Warning: May contain nuts.

My Review:

I have read the Wayward Children series completely out of order, so instead of the usual 1,2,3 progression it’s been 1,6,7,2 and now three. And it still makes sense – or at least as much sense as it’s supposed to consider that many of the doors that the children who come to Miss West’s School have come through have been from worlds with more than a bit of Nonsense in them.

As does the world of Confection, the place the late and much lamented Sumi came from, and to which she expected to return. Not just hoped, but actually expected, because Sumi was from Confection, and she had been told she had a destiny there that she had to go back and meet when the time was right.

But Sumi’s destiny was interrupted by Jack and Jill’s bloodthirsty quest to re-open their door back to the Moors in Every Heart a Doorway – and I just realized that the title is a bit of a macabre pun because by a certain interpretation Sumi’s bloody heart was literally Jack and Jill’s doorway. So when Sumi’s daughter Rini, a daughter Sumi was much, much too young to have already had before she was killed, literally drops out of the sky into a fountain at the school, there’s more than a bit of problem and a quest has certainly come knocking on Miss West’s door – in spite of the sign that prohibits quests on school grounds.

Rini is in the middle of a Back to the Future situation. Specifically, the situation in the first movie where Marty starts disappearing because he’s changed the timeline too much and won’t be born. Rini is in the same predicament, even though it’s not her fault that her mother won’t be coming back to Confection to marry her father and give birth to her.

But it’s not just Rini herself that’s being erased. The entire timeline where Sumi saved Confection from the evil and entirely too Orderly and Logical Queen of Cakes is also being erased – with disastrous consequences for the people of Confection.

In order to save Rini and save her world, several of the children are going to have to whistle Sumi’s bones out of her grave and take them on a journey to the Lord of the Dead to see if there’s a way to bring Sumi back from death and save both her world and her daughter.

It’s an adventure. It’s something to do while they each wait for their own doors to open again. And it will save Sumi, Rini, and their entire world. Unless the children lose themselves along the way.

Escape Rating A-: I picked this up now because I read Where the Drowned Girls Go for a Library Journal review last month and, while I didn’t have any problems getting into the story, it was pretty clear that the characters in that 7th book in the series had been on previous adventures together. Beneath the Sugar Sky looked like one of those previous adventures, so I was determined to get to it as soon as possible.

Not that one can’t read this series entirely out of order as I seem to be doing. It’s just that there’s clearly important stuff that I missed and now I want to know what it was. So here we are. Or there they are.

The story in Beneath the Sugar Sky is a story wrapped around found family and friendship. It’s not that Kade, Cora, Christopher and Nadya don’t want to save Rini and her world, because they absolutely do. But their real motivation for taking on this quest is to save their friend Sumi. They don’t know Rini yet but Sumi is loved and missed and their quest is to bring her back to life.

Along the way the quest becomes as much about saving each other as resurrecting their friend, with a huge heaping helping about body shaming, accepting yourself for who you are and living your best life as that person, and learning how to make your strengths really, really count when the chips are down – even if most people see those strengths as faults or weaknesses.

All of that is at the heart of Cora’s story, a story which continues for certain in Where the Drowned Girls Go, but also possibly in Come Tumbling Down, which I have not read yet and obviously need to. Because it was Cora’s story in Drowned Girls that made me go flying backwards through the rest of the series. I picked this up because I wanted to know more about Cora’s story and now that I know more I want to know even more. And I will.

But first I have In an Absent Dream to look forward to. And I so definitely am!

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuireDown Among the Sticks and Bones (Wayward Children, #2) by Seanan McGuire
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, portal fantasy, urban fantasy, young adult
Series: Wayward Children #2
Pages: 187
Published by Tordotcom on June 13, 2017
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Twin sisters Jack and Jill were seventeen when they found their way home and were packed off to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children.
This is the story of what happened first…
Jacqueline was her mother’s perfect daughter—polite and quiet, always dressed as a princess. If her mother was sometimes a little strict, it’s because crafting the perfect daughter takes discipline.
Jillian was her father’s perfect daughter—adventurous, thrill-seeking, and a bit of a tom-boy. He really would have preferred a son, but you work with what you've got.
They were five when they learned that grown-ups can’t be trusted.
They were twelve when they walked down the impossible staircase and discovered that the pretense of love can never be enough to prepare you a life filled with magic in a land filled with mad scientists and death and choices.

My Review:

I’ve read this series completely out of order, at least once I read the first book, Every Heart a Doorway, first. I’m coming into this book, the second book in the series, after having read the sixth, Across the Green Grass Fields, and the seventh, Where the Drowned Girls Go.

There are a few messages that permeate the series, lessons about learning to march to the beat of your own drummer, recognizing that conformity is a trap, that magic is real and that there is no one right way to be a girl, or a boy, or a human, or a monster, or all of the above at the same time.

But the number one lesson is that adults can’t be trusted. It’s a lesson that Jacqueline and Jillian Wolcott seem to have absorbed along with their parents’ continuously reinforced messages about being who their parents want them each to be and not anything about who they really are. Except twins, and sisters, and forced into opposing straitjackets.

Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have applied that number one lesson nearly broadly enough.

Escape Rating A-: Jack and Jill Wolcott are just two of the Wayward Children that we met in Every Heart a Doorway. This is the story of how they got to be the people we met in that first book, and it’s a doozy.

This is a story about the power of choice and also about the force of choice denied. Jacqueline was expected to be the girliest of girls, a perfect fairy tale princess, because that’s what her mother planned for her daughter to be. Jillian was the scruffiest and most adventurous of tomboys, because that’s what her father decided to settle on when he got a second daughter instead of the son he expected.

The problem with their childhood wasn’t that either of those roles are either right or wrong, just that neither of them got to try out anything except their parent’s expectations, and neither of them ever got to experiment or deviate from the role they had been assigned just about at birth.

When they stepped through their door into the dangerous world of the Moors, they were each faced with a choice. And they each chose to have the experience they’d been denied. Jill became a pampered princess, and Jack became a hard-working apprentice.

But this is the Moors, where everything follows the pattern of stories about monsters. The pampered princess was enthralled by her vampire master, and the apprentice was learning her trade from a mad scientist.

So each got to explore the parts of their nature that their parents refused to even acknowledge, letting Jill finally be pretty, pampered and cruel, while Jack was scrupulous, intelligent and practical. Until Jill’s ruthless cruelty destroyed Jack’s hard-won life and they both had to return to the world of their birth.

A world that isn’t ready to take either of them back, leading them to their residence at Miss West’s Home for Wayward Children and bringing the entire story full circle.

Down Among the Sticks and Bones could be read before Every Heart a Doorway, but they probably work better in the proper order. It feels deeper to learn about how Jack and Jill got to be who they are after seeing the place they end up. We’re also able to appreciate the tragedy of their story, not just because Jack loved and lost in the Moors, but because Jack really had found a home that was perfect for her, a home she was forced to give up to save her sister.

But the lessons are still there. Jack and Jill couldn’t trust their parents before they left and can’t trust them after their return either. Jill shouldn’t have trusted her Master on the Moors, where Jack’s skepticism served her very well. The choices of their own hearts served them better, for select definitions of better in Jill’s case, than did the expectation of their parents. That happiness and fulfillment can be found in the unlikeliest of places.

And that love is all there is is all we know of love.

Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuire

Review: Across the Green Grass Fields by Seanan McGuireAcross the Green Grass Fields (Wayward Children, #6) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: portal fantasy, urban fantasy
Series: Wayward Children #6
Pages: 174
Published by Tordotcom on January 12, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A young girl discovers a portal to a land filled with centaurs and unicorns in Seanan McGuire's Across the Green Grass Fields, a standalone tale in the Hugo and Nebula Award-wining Wayward Children series.
“Welcome to the Hooflands. We’re happy to have you, even if you being here means something’s coming.”
Regan loves, and is loved, though her school-friend situation has become complicated, of late.
When she suddenly finds herself thrust through a doorway that asks her to "Be Sure" before swallowing her whole, Regan must learn to live in a world filled with centaurs, kelpies, and other magical equines―a world that expects its human visitors to step up and be heroes.
But after embracing her time with the herd, Regan discovers that not all forms of heroism are equal, and not all quests are as they seem…

My Review:

Across the Green Grass Fields is the sixth book in the multi-award-winning Wayward Children series. It also seems to be the first book in the series that does not somehow center around Miss West’s Home for Wayward Children.

Not that the ending of this one doesn’t lead the reader to wonder if Regan, the central figure of this particular story, isn’t going to wind up at Miss West’s sometime after the book ends. Not after the story ends, because like the best of stories, this doesn’t feel like it ended so much as it feels like the author has moved her gaze away from Regan onto the next child and more importantly, the next doorway.

If the first book in the series, Every Heart a Doorway, read as post-Narnia, a look at the lives of children much like the Pevensie children AFTER they came back from Narnia and had to adjust to being children and commoners and depressingly normal again. Or whatever normal they each managed to approximate.

Because you have to wonder just how hard that “normal” was to fake. Based on what happens to the children who have come to Miss West’s, that faking is NOT EASY very much in all caps.

But Across the Green Grass Fields is Regan’s story, but not Regan’s story of re-adjustment. Instead, it’s the story of Regan as she finds her own special doorway, the one that leads her to the place her heart calls home.

Regan’s doorway leads to the Hooflands, a place filled with centaurs and unicorns and kelpies and every other kind of mythical creature that has hooves – with or without unicorn horns. The Hooflands are Regan’s special place because Regan, like many young girls, loves horses.

But the reason that the doorway between our world and the Hooflands has opened at all is because the Hooflands need a human at this moment in their history as much as Regan wants a place to escape to.

The Hooflands need a human to rescue them from something terrible, even if the centaur herd that adopts Regan doesn’t yet know what that terrible something is. And Regan needs time to come to terms with being, not so much perfect in itself as no human is perfect, but with being perfectly Regan – no matter what anyone else, not even her ultra-conformist and uber-bitchy former best friend has to say about it.

Escape Rating A: One of the things that the beginning of this story conveys extremely well is just how vicious and cutthroat playground “politics” can be among grade school children – especially girls. And just how parents seem to forget that fact when they reach adulthood.

I know that’s a strange place to start but then this was a bit of a strange book at the start for me. I loved it but also found the opening a bit hard of a read. When Regan first learns just how truly vicious her best friend Laurel can be, after Laurel rejects and ostracizes their former friend Heather for violating Laurel’s rigid rules about what constitutes girlhood, I was right there for all of it. I was a Heather, someone who colored outside those lines when I was 5 or 6 and spent the following years in virtual isolation because there was a Queen Bee just like Laurel who determined that I was less than nothing and enforced that over the whole playground and classroom. And I know I’m not the only person who went through that experience. It happens, it happens a lot and it still happens as this book clearly shows.

So that part was so hard and so real.

We can all see Regan’s coming falling out – or rather her being pushed away – from Laurel long before it does. There’s already a part of her that wants to do more things and different things from her controlling “best friend”, an impulse that’s only going to get stronger as the girls get older and develop separate interests.

But puberty arrives first, and brings Regan’s world crashing down. Because in the competitive race to maturity among those little girls, Regan is not merely losing, but is being left behind. And every one of those little girls makes her feel it.

When Regan learns that she is intersex, it answers her questions but leaves her feeling deceived by her parents – they’ve always known that she had XY chromosomes instead of the expected XX – and needing to vent to her best friend about the injustice of it all.

Only to face utter, humiliating rejection. Followed by that desperate run towards the door that will take her to the Hooflands, a place where she’ll be the only human anyone has ever seen. Where she’ll have time to deal with her feelings about being different from other humans without having to deal with other humans.

At least not until she has to meet her destiny and save the Hooflands.

There’s so much that ends up packed into this story. And all of it ends up being pretty much awesome.

On the one hand – or hoof – there’s Regan who, in spite of her constant trying is not going to be able to shoehorn herself into Laurel’s tiny box of girlhood. A fact that actually has little to do with chromosomes and everything to do with Laurel’s box in specific and society’s box in general being too tight and too constraining and too restrictive to fit lots of humans who are born female or appear female – and for that matter lots of humans who are born male or appear male. Strict gender roles are a straitjacket for everyone.

On top of that – or on another hoof – in addition to the whole concept about gender being destiny being complete BS – while Regan is in the Hooflands she also has to deal with the local concept of species being destiny. Or at least the local myths, legends and history that all say that a human comes through a door because the Hooflands needs someone to fight some great evil. And that the fight with evil somehow requires not just opposable but downright flexible thumbs.

Regan, being the human who has just walked through their door, is therefore destined to save the Hooflands and then leave everyone she has come to love behind. Whether she wants to or not.

It’s not just that species is destiny with a capital D. Regan is still a child. Even if the local people – and they are all people who just happen to have hooves instead of or in addition to hands – believe she must save them from whatever, Regan knows she’s not ready to save anyone, at least not yet.

Very much like the young protagonist of the utterly awesome A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking, Regan can’t help but question why the hell the adults in the Hooflands are not taking matters into their own hooves and hands and saving themselves. It should not be up to her just because she’s human. It should be up to them, not just because it’s their world but because dammit they are GROWNUPS!

On top of, and underneath and woven all through, there’s an adventure story about a girl who loves horses getting to live in a place that’s all horses all the time. She gets to find a family and become part of a community and discover the best of friendship and the worst of people all at the same time. And it’s lovely.

It also makes Regan’s ultimate sacrifice all that much more heartbreaking.

Excuse me, there seems to be a bit of dust in this post.

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

Review: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuireEvery Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children #1) by Seanan McGuire
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: Dark Fantasy, magical realism, mystery, urban fantasy
Series: Wayward Children #1
Pages: 173
Published by Tordotcom on April 5, 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward ChildrenNo SolicitationsNo VisitorsNo Quests
Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of the matter.
No matter the cost.

My Review:

What happens AFTER someone comes back from Narnia? Peter and Susan and Edmund and Lucy got off really, really easy when they came back through the wardrobe. (Well, Lucy didn’t – at first) But after years of growing up in Narnia and becoming kings and queens and having all sorts of adventures, when they popped back through the wardrobe at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe they all seem to have gone back to being their original ages without much peering back through that looking glass.

The children who are sent to Eleanor West’s boarding school for wayward children aren’t quite like the ones who went to Narnia and returned seemingly unscathed if not completely unchanged. These children, like Eleanor herself once upon a time, found their way through a doorway, a wardrobe or a portal that was meant just for them, taking them to a place that their hearts and souls knew as home.

But their homes spit them back out again, ejected them back into our so-called “real” world, into a place where they no longer fit. And since they were children, back to parents who could not believe the stories their children told about the places that they had been and the things that they had done.

Parents who were certain that their children could be “fixed”. That with enough time and therapy – and even medications – their “real” children would return to them.

Nancy is the latest of Eleanor West’s wayward children. She spent years in the lands of the dead – and she wants to go back. Just as the other children at Miss West’s want to go back to their own worlds.

Some of them might manage it. But lightning seldom strikes the same place twice. Some of the children will have to grow up and learn to live in the world that gave them birth rather than the one their hearts call home.

Unless one of the other children kills them first.

Escape Rating A: Seanan McGuire is an author who has been recommended to me any number of times. One of my friends absolutely adores her work. But I bounced hard off of her October Daye series years ago and just never managed to get into anything else of hers despite repeated attempts.

But the latest book in this series, Across the Green Grass Fields, popped up on another list of “must reads” for this year, and this week went to overcommitment hell in a handcart, so I needed something relatively short, and I decided to try one more time. I don’t know how many attempts this makes, but whatever it is it was finally the charm.

Every Heart a Doorway sits at a very creepy corner between urban fantasy, mystery, dark fantasy and magical realism, imbued where snarkitude has blended with the macabre in a way that left me half expecting to find Wednesday Addams pulling the strings and telling the über-chilling campfire stories.

At the same time, it felt like an inside out version of Marie Brennan’s Driftwood, where instead of remnants of dead worlds crashing together it’s a story about lost refugees from closed worlds clinging together in all-too-frequently manic desperation.

To make the story even more compelling, on top of this marvelous creation, this place where children who have “seen the elephant” or whatever perspective-altering strange and terrible wonder applies to the world they visited, we have a murder mystery. Someone is killing the children, and it’s up to those few among them who have been, not to bright and happy worlds but rather to somber underworlds, to find the killer among them before it’s too late.

And it’s utterly marvelous every single step of the way.

I’ll be back to see who next comes to Miss West’s the next time I need a short book to take me out of whatever. Because this series is a portal to a fantastic world all by itself. I’m looking forward to seeing what’s Down Among the Sticks and Bones the next time I want to step through that door.

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah Wolfe

Review: Robots vs Fairies edited by Dominik Parisien and Navah WolfeRobots vs. Fairies by Dominik Parisien, Navah Wolfe, Mary Robinette Kowal, Ken Liu, Jonathan Maberry, Seanan McGuire, Annalee Newitz, Tim Pratt, John Scalzi, Lavie Tidhar, Catherynne M. Valente, Alyssa Wong, Madeline Ashby, Lila Bowen, Jeffrey Ford, Sarah Gailey, Max Gladstone, Maria Dahvana Headley, Jim C. Hines, Kat Howard
Format: ebook
Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook
Genres: anthologies, science fiction, short stories, urban fantasy
Pages: 373
Published by Saga Press on January 9, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

A unique anthology of all-new stories that challenges authors to throw down the gauntlet in an epic genre battle and demands an answer to the age-old question: Who is more awesome—robots or fairies?

Rampaging robots! Tricksy fairies! Facing off for the first time in an epic genre death match!

People love pitting two awesome things against each other. Robots vs. Fairies is an anthology that pitches genre against genre, science fiction against fantasy, through an epic battle of two icons.

On one side, robots continue to be the classic sci-fi phenomenon in literature and media, from Asimov to WALL-E, from Philip K. Dick to Terminator. On the other, fairies are the beloved icons and unquestionable rulers of fantastic fiction, from Tinkerbell to Tam Lin, from True Blood to Once Upon a Time. Both have proven to be infinitely fun, flexible, and challenging. But when you pit them against each other, which side will triumph as the greatest genre symbol of all time?

There can only be one…or can there?

My Review:

Are you Team Robot or Team Fairy? After reading this collection, I’m definitely Team Fairy, but your mileage will definitely vary. And it may depend a bit on where you start from.

The introduction to the collection sets up the premise. Either robots or fairies are going to end up as our eventual overlords. So half of the stories in this collection are fairy stories, and half are robot stories. All of the introductions and afterwords to all of the stories play on the theme that half the writers will be vindicated and the other half were misguided.

Personally, I think that they are all misguided and cats will be our ultimate overlords – not that they aren’t already. But that’s an entirely different collection that I hope someone writes someday.

About this collection, half the stories, the fairy stories, fall into urban fantasy, more or less, and the other half, the robotic arm, so to speak, are science fiction.

Overall, it was the fairy stories that moved me the most. My taste for fairies in contemporary fiction was set long ago, by the magically wonderful War for the Oaks by Emma Bull, and quite a few of the fairy stories in this collection fit into that vein, with fairies hidden in plain sight of our contemporary world.

The thing about robots is that they are only interesting, at least to this reader, if they reflect us in some way – where fairies already are OTHER. The one robot story in this collection I really enjoyed felt like space opera – which I definitely do love. The robot in this particular story was a prop and not the centerpiece.

That being said, the stories that I really liked in this collection were the fairy stories.

Build Me A Wonderland by Seanan McGuire surprised me in a good way. I’ve bounced off her work, both as McGuire and as Grant, multiple times, but this story was just lovely. It was also one of the few upbeat stories in the collection. The fairies are hiding in plain sight by being the miracle workers in a contemporary magic factory. In other words, they work for an amusement park. And the elves want in!

Murmured Under the Moon by Tim Pratt combined two things I love – fairies and libraries – into something super-awesome. This story is one that I would have loved to see expanded into a novel because this world is so interesting. It’s all about the magic in books, and both the power and the joy of being a “master” librarian.

Bread and Milk and Salt by Sarah Gailey is a great story for Halloween, as is Just Another Love Song by Kat Howard. Both stories deal in the dark side of magic, with a heaping helping of revenge served at the appropriate temperature and evil getting the desserts it has so richly deserved. Read with the lights on.

The one robot story that I really enjoyed was Sound and Fury by Mary Robinette Kowal. I liked this one because it didn’t feel like a robot story at all. There’s a robot in it, and the robot does play a big part in the story, but the robot is not remotely self aware. It’s a tool. It’s technically a tool for one of the characters who is also a tool, but it becomes a tool in the hands of the spaceship crew and it’s really about them. In other words, this story felt like space opera.

And one robot story got me in the feels. That was Ironheart by Jonathan Maberry. But again, this doesn’t feel like a robot story. It feels like a very, very human story. A heartbreaking one.

A Fall Counts Anywhere by Catherynne M. Valente is the perfect ending for this collection. It takes the premise literally, with a robot and a fae commentating on a sports match up between the two sides in an epic free-for-all melee-style brawl. Their commentating is a laugh a minute – until it suddenly isn’t. They say that Mother Nature bats last – but who bats for Mother Nature?

Escape Rating B-: Like all short story collections, this one was a bit uneven. Overall I found the fairy stories more interesting and absorbing than the robot stories, with those two very notable exceptions. I’m sure that those on Team Robot think the exact opposite.

Review: Shadowed Souls edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes

Review: Shadowed Souls edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. HughesShadowed Souls by Kerrie L. Hughes, Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, Kevin J. Anderson, Rob Thurman, Tanya Huff, Kat Richardson, Anton Strout, Lucy A. Snyder, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Erik Scott de Bie
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Pages: 352
Published by Roc on November 1st 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

In this dark and gritty collection—featuring short stories from Jim Butcher, Seanan McGuire, Kevin J. Anderson, and Rob Thurman—nothing is as simple as black and white, light and dark, good and evil..
Unfortunately, that’s exactly what makes it so easy to cross the line.

In #1 New York Times bestselling author Jim Butcher’s Cold Case, Molly Carpenter—Harry Dresden’s apprentice-turned-Winter Lady—must collect a tribute from a remote Fae colony and discovers that even if you’re a good girl, sometimes you have to be bad...
New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire’s Sleepover finds half-succubus Elsie Harrington kidnapped by a group of desperate teenage boys. Not for anything “weird.” They just need her to rescue a little girl from the boogeyman. No biggie.
In New York Times bestselling Kevin J. Anderson’s Eye of Newt, Zombie P.I. Dan Shamble’s latest client is a panicky lizard missing an eye who thinks someone wants him dead. But the truth is that someone only wants him for a very special dinner...
And New York Times bestselling author Rob Thurman’s infernally heroic Caliban Leandros takes a trip down memory lane as he deals wih some overdue—and nightmarish—vengeance involving some quite nasty
Impossible Monsters
.
ALSO INCLUDES STORIES BYTanya Huff * Kat Richardson * Jim C. Hines * Anton Strout * Lucy A. Snyder * Kristine Kathryn Rusch * Erik Scott de Bie *
From the Trade Paperback edition.

My Review:

Shadowed Souls seemed like an absolutely perfect book to review for Halloween. This is a collection of slightly creepy, slightly spooky urban fantasy stories where all the heroes are anti- and all of the action is conducted in the darker shades of gray. And by gray I mean cases where the heroes commit acts that may seem villainous, or at least questionable, in order to prevent an even greater evil.

These are stories where the ends actually do justify the means, as long as you like your means on the dark and grim side of the equation.

Most story collections have hits and misses. It’s the nature of the beast. That’s not true in this case. All of the stories in Shadowed Souls are at least very good, and many rise to excellent, sometimes hauntingly so.

While I liked every story in this collection, there are a few that stood out from the ghostly crowd.

Tanya Huff’s If Wishes Were is a return to the world of her Vicki Nelson series, 20 years after the end of Blood Debt. Victoria Nelson has been a vampire for 20 years, and looks permanently in her mid-30s. But the man who keeps Vicki tied to her humanity, Mike Cellucci, is now pushing 60. Vicki is forced to face the inevitable future, that the man she loves will die, possibly of his current injuries, but certainly in what will, to her, seem like a short and painful 20 or 30 years. Even if Mike were willing to become a vampire, it is no solution. If he changes, they will be forced to part. If he dies, they will be forced to part. When a villain tempts Vicki with a third choice, she has to decide just how much she is willing to sacrifice to retain what’s left of her humanity – along with what’s left of her heart.

This story is haunting and bittersweet, and resonates both with Vicki’s particular situation, and for anyone who has faced the inevitable loss of a loved one.

Sales. Force. by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is definitely a story from the dark side of the house. Like If Wishes Were, this is also a story about love and loss. And not just the loss of love but also the loss of humanity. The revenge in this story is served icy cold. Even as the reader shivers with that cold, one is left with the feeling that it wasn’t enough. That as dark as this ending is, nothing would be enough. Read it and weep.

In all of the deep and dark and serious in this collection, there is one ray of light. Definitely call it gallows humor. Eye of Newt by Kevin J. Anderson is a short story set in his Dan Shamble series, and it is laugh out loud, read out loud to your partner, funny. In this definitely urban fantasy series, where the private investigator is a zombie, his girlfriend is a ghost, and nearly every name is a pun, the author manages to set up both a mystery and a riotous send up of TV cooking shows at the same time. You will laugh until your sides ache. And want more of the series.

Escape Rating A: I don’t DO this for collections. There are always at least a couple of stories that fail for me. But not this time. The stories are all different. Except for Eye of Newt, they all reside creepily in the neighborhood of dark urban fantasy. And they are all at the least compelling, if not absolutely enthralling.

Read this one with the lights on, and have a scary good time.

Happy Halloween!