A+ #BookReview: The Price of Redemption by Shawn Carpenter

A+ #BookReview: The Price of Redemption by Shawn CarpenterThe Price of Redemption (Tides of Magic, #1) by Shawn Carpenter
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: adventure, fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Tides of Magic #1
Pages: 368
Published by Saga Press on July 9, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

A debut female-led swashbuckling fantasy following powerful sorceress and sea captain Marquese Enid d’Tancreville as she is forced on the run where she meets a vast cast of characters perfect for fans of Patrick O’Brian’s beloved Master and Commander series.

Despite her powerful magic, Marquese Enid d’Tancreville must flee her homeland to escape death at the hands of the Theocratic Revolution. When a Theocratic warship overtakes the ship bringing her to safety, Enid is spared capture by the timely intervention of the Albion frigate Alarum , under the command of Lt. Rue Nath.

The strange circumstances make for an odd alliance, and Enid finds herself replacing Alarum ’s recently slain sea mage. Now an officer under Nath’s command, Enid is thrust into a strange maritime world full of confusing customs, duties, and language. Worse she soon discovers the threat of the revolution is not confined to shore.

My Review:

When it comes to fictional settings, the Napoleonic Wars are a gift that just keeps on giving. Admittedly, that giving is in the context of the thing about adventures being terrible stuff that happened to someone either long ago, far away, or both. In the case of The Price of Redemption, very much of both.

Because the war between the Ardainne and Albion is absolutely a rehash of the Napoleonic Wars, with Ardainne serving at the post-Revolutionary French complete with their own version of a revolution, and Albion, naturally, sailing in for the Brits holding the line to protect their status quo.

Which is when this particular take on that old conflict gets fascinating, fantastic and utterly magical. Because Ardainne’s Theocratic Revolution throws a religious crusade on top of the class warfare, and marries fanatics straight out of the Spanish Inquisition to Madame Defarge cackling at the feet of Madame Guillotine.

The equivalent of the sans culottes in this world’s Revolution hate and kill mages every bit as much and often as they do aristos – made much simpler for VERY bloody meanings of the world simple – by the fact that so many of the aristos ARE mages who have been using their magical power to increase their political and socio-economic power for centuries.

Ardainne, just like France, was ripe for some kind of plucking. Our story begins with Marquese Enid d’Tancreville, running before the wind and away from the Theocrats (just call them Rats because EVERYONE does) now in charge of the Revolution, on an Albion merchant ship that is outmanned and outgunned but nevertheless rescued in the nick of time by Captain Rue Nath and his outclassed frigate, the Alarum.

Once the smoke clears, Nath is victorious but in need of a replacement Magister – meaning Ship’s Mage – as his previous ‘Spells’ died in the recent skirmish. Enid needs a better protected way to Albion, so that she can offer her services to people who are at least doing something about the filth that has taken over her beloved homeland.

Nath and Enid strike a win-win bargain – she’ll become his temporary new Magister, he’ll convey her and her worldly goods to the place where she intended to go, and in the meantime the Alarum will at least be able to fight if another Rat ship finds them on the open sea.

And thereby, as that very old saying goes, hangs an absolutely marvelous tale of wooden ships, iron men and women, deeds of derring-do and dastardly betrayals from within.

Escape Rating A+: The Napoleonic Wars absolutely are the gift that keeps on giving, at least in the fictional sense. You’ve even seen and or read plenty of stories that used it as a base – even if some of those stories hide the base pretty well.

But one of the most respected AND popular ‘spin offs’ from this particular war is the Aubrey and Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian that begins with Master and Commander, where Jack Aubrey is in the exact same position as Rue Nath – he’s the commander of a ship, called ‘Captain’ by courtesy while in command, but whose true rank is Lieutenant. The journey of the first book in both series is for the ‘Captain’ by courtesy title to make ‘Post’ – to be commissioned as a Captain by rank and clamber onto first rung of the ladder to the Admiralty.

Both the Honor Harrington series by David Weber and the Temeraire series by Naomi Novik used Aubrey and Maturin as their jumping off points, taking their inspiration from the Napoleonic wars into SF (Weber) and fantasy (Novik, but with dragons).

One of the things that the Aubrey and Maturin series did extremely well, that is absolutely a part of The Price of Redemption, is the way that the story takes the reader through the perspective of a previously (land)lubberly point of view character – Enid here and Maturin in the original series – and uses their instruction by beautifully descriptive but still fascinating details to draw the reader into the arcane mysteries of the sea.

The story, the part that keeps the reader frantically turning pages, is, on the one hand, the story of the plucky underdog – in this case Albion – fighting the mighty empire of Ardainne. On the other hand, it’s a very intimate story about one man’s fight to protect his crew, his career, and his country against all comers – particularly the forces arrayed against them all. And on the third hand, possibly the one on the rudder steering this ship, the story of a woman desperate to find a new place in the world – one from which she can strike a blow at her own enemies, find a new perspective on what she left behind that brought her and her country to this terrible pass, and a help create a future that she can live on, and with, and into.

It’s marvelous and riveting and a compulsive page-turner every single league of its way. That this story is not over yet, that there are two more books on the horizon for this cast and crew, is the absolute best news any reader could possibly receive.

A+ #BookReview: Ivy, Angelica, Bay by C.L. Polk

A+ #BookReview: Ivy, Angelica, Bay by C.L. PolkIvy, Angelica, Bay by C.L. Polk
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook, emagazine
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Pages: 51
Published by Tor Books on January 17, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

When Hurston Hill is threatened by a suspiciously powerful urban development firm, Miss l'Abielle steps up to protect her community with the help of a mysterious orphaned girl in this charming follow up to "St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid," featured on LeVar Burton Reads.

My Review:

This was intended to be my review of Ivy, Angelica, Bay as the next in my series of Hugo nominee reviews. And it will be.

Howsomever, when I looked at the author’s website I discovered something marvelous. That this novelette is the follow-up to St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid, a short story that was published in February 2020 at Reactor Magazine, formerly known as Tor.com. Even better, the short story was read, in full, by Levar Burton on his podcast, Levar Burton Reads. (Which I highly recommend, not just this story but the whole beautiful thing!)

I loved Ivy, Angelica, Bay. I needed something short to listen to at the end of a long week. And thereby hangs the proverbial tale, so this review ended up being a bit of both.

Both of these stories are about the price of magic, which is really about that combination of being careful what you wish for because you might get it, the way that the magic ring always comes with a curse, and that having a thing may not be so pleasurable as wanting it – referring back to last Friday’s book just a bit.

St. Valentine, St. Abigail, St. Brigid is the setup for Ivy, Angelica, Bay. The young, unnamed, first-person narrator of St. Valentine may be the adult in Ivy, or may be one of her many predecessors as the magical – and magically adopted – Miss l’Abielle. That we don’t know – although we don’t really need to – in Ivy does make me curious about how the magic at the end of that first story worked out – but that’s just my curiosity bump itching.

The story in St. Valentine is a coming of age and into power story. It’s also a bit of a story about selfishness – as coming of age stories are wont to be. But it also foreshadows both the narrator’s desire to keep what is hers – no matter the cost and no matter how benevolent she might be in that keeping – and the way that the magical power in these stories is maintained and passed on.

You don’t have to read or listen to St. Valentine in order to get stuck right into Ivy, but I’m glad I found it because listening to it was marvelous and it made the story I’d just finished that much deeper.

In Ivy, Angelica, Bay we get a story that reminds me a LOT of two of Leslye Penelope’s recent books, The Monsters We Defy and Daughter of the Merciful Deep, in that both are centered around protecting black communities from, let’s call it economic encroachment although that’s not all of what’s happening. The Monsters We Defy hits more of the same notes as Ivy, as both stories feature young black women as magical practitioners who protect their communities but also assist individuals who are willing to pay both a magical and a mundane price for that assistance. And that all too often the magical price is much too high.

But there’s also more than a bit of T. Kingfisher’s forthcoming A Sorceress Comes to Call in Ivy – as that turns out to be exactly what happens in both cases. The surprise is that in Ivy, there’s more than a bit of, of all surprising stories, The Velveteen Rabbit.

Escape Rating A+: Consider that rating for the overall experience as well as for all the parts that are combined into this whole. At this point I’ve read four of the six nominees for this year’s Best Novelette and I’m at the “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” point for selection and I still have two to go.

What makes these stories work, but particular for Ivy, Angelica, Bay because it has a bit more time and heft to it – also that St. Valentine has done a bit of its setup for it – is the way that it combines its elements and then tells its story through its protagonist, the current Miss l’Abielle, so that even though we don’t know her name  we still feel the horns – and thorns – of all of her dilemmas.

She is charged with protecting her community – but that charge has just fallen on her shoulders fully at the death of her mother. She’s spent too much of her magical energy in recent weeks and months keeping her mother on this side of death’s door – and now the price of that keeping has come due. Maybe even past due.

And she’s a bit desperate and a lot heartsore and easily gulled by a likely story – to the point where she nearly brings about the downfall of all she holds dear. A catastrophe that is made all that much clearer to the reader as she dives into what has gone wrong and we see who will pay that price – and is already paying – if she falls. Because the community will fall with her.

Her salvation – and theirs – comes in the most unlikely form. Which is where that Velveteen Rabbit hops into the story in a way that is surprising, delightful and perfect. And still requires a price to be paid – but one that the Misses l’Abielle and their community can bear more than well enough to continue the fight for another day.

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo

Grade A #BookReview: On the Fox Roads by Nghi VoOn the Fox Roads by Nghi Vo
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy, urban fantasy
Pages: 38
Published by Tor Books on October 31, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

A new novelette from Hugo Award-winning author, Nghi Vo!
While learning the ropes from a crafty Jazz Age bank robber, a young stowaway discovers their authentic self, a hidden gift, and that there are no straight lines when you run the fox roads. . .

My Review:

Unlike the popular image of the infamous Bonnie and Clyde, “Chinese Jack” and “Tonkin Jill” didn’t ENTER banks with guns blazing. That didn’t mean they didn’t EXIT that way, but the guns weren’t the point.

Jack and Lai were merely following the rule laid down by their contemporary Willie Sutton, they robbed banks because that’s where the money was. Even if the kind of small-town banks that the Chinese duo robbed had a lot less of the green stuff and a lot more of other kinds of paper than either of the robbers would have liked.

That’s where the third member of this duo turned trio enters the picture, a young Chinese-American girl who stows away in their getaway car intending to steal back the deed to her parents’ store from one of the “Jack and Jill’s” earlier scores.

A seemingly magical deed that will re-open the store as soon as the deed is laid down on the ground it belongs to.

The question is whether that stowaway wants to go back to belonging to it, to being the girl their parents want them to be, prim, proper and most of all – obedient – or whether that girl wants to undergo more than one transformation – robbing banks, driving getaway cars, getting to see the big, wide world, living as a man instead of the woman that fate originally intended.

All things are possible on the magical, mysterious, ever-changing fox roads that travel no known path and go in no known direction except for the will and the whim of anyone who is on the run from a hard chase and desperate enough to drive fast and trust to fate.

Escape Rating A: This is one of those stories where my only complaint is that I wanted just a bit more than I got. Every single bit of this one is terrific, but I wish it had qualified as a Hugo nominee in the Novella category (between 17,500 and 40,000 words) instead of as the Novelette it is (between 7,500 and 17,500 words). Not that I actually WANT more options in the Novella category because it’s going to be a really hard choice for me.

On the Fox Roads is one of those book baby situations, where it feels like it owes some of its DNA to several books I’ve read – and probably more that I haven’t – but at the same time is still a thing of itself meaning that the blend creates something new and marvelous.

Bonnie and Clyde in a photo from around 1932–33 that was found by police at an abandoned hideout

In this particular case it reads like it owes something to, first of all, the real Bonnie and Clyde, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, both in the way that Jack and Lai operate and in the setting, small-town America during the Great Depression just as Prohibition is about to change everything.

But the story also has a bit of The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo in that one of the characters is a fox masquerading as a human, who is someone with a somewhat different set of morés and values than the human narrator and the fox’s human partner Jack.

And then there’s that third element, the fox roads themselves, which read a lot like the roads to alternate realities traveled by the magical muscle car in Max Gladstone’s Last Exit.

Those impressions were what I brought into this story, what I got while I was reading it was considerably more, as the narrator has the opportunity to try out a much different life than they thought could possibly be available to them as a young Chinese-American woman in racially-stratified 1930s America.

The way that the magic mixed into the heady brew of the story and swept it off down mysterious roads and sometimes equally mysterious and magical cities blended the whole delicious melange into something delightful and unexpected and yes, magical.

To the point where I’m oh-so-grateful that this got nominated for the Hugo, because I’m not much of a short fiction reader and probably wouldn’t have found this otherwise. But I’m glad that I did, even if it does make my Hugo voting that much harder.

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X Chang

#AudioBookReview: To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods by Molly X ChangTo Gaze Upon Wicked Gods (Gods Beyond the Skies, #1) by Molly X. Chang
Narrator: Natalie Naudus
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss, supplied by publisher via Libro.fm
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, dystopian, epic fantasy, historical fantasy, science fiction, space opera
Series: Gods Beyond the Skies #1
Pages: 368
Length: 10 hours and 41 minutes
Published by Del Rey, Random House Audio on April 16, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

She has power over death. He has power over her. When two enemies strike a dangerous bargain, will they end a war . . . or ignite one?
Heroes die, cowards live. Daughter of a conquered world, Ruying hates the invaders who descended from the heavens long before she was born and defeated the magic of her people with technologies unlike anything her world had ever seen.
Blessed by Death, born with the ability to pull the life right out of mortal bodies, Ruying shouldn’t have to fear these foreign invaders, but she does. Especially because she wants to keep herself and her family safe.
When Ruying’s Gift is discovered by an enemy prince, he offers her an impossible deal: If she becomes his private assassin and eliminates his political rivals—whose deaths he swears would be for the good of both their worlds and would protect her people from further brutalization—her family will never starve or suffer harm again. But to accept this bargain, she must use the powers she has always feared, powers that will shave years off her own existence.
Can Ruying trust this prince, whose promises of a better world make her heart ache and whose smiles make her pulse beat faster? Are the evils of this agreement really in the service of a much greater good? Or will she betray her entire nation by protecting those she loves the most?

My Review:

I picked this up because I had the opportunity to get the audiobook from Libro.fm, saw that the narrator, Natalie Naudus, is one of my faves, looked at the summary and thought to myself that this had terrific possibilities and figured I’d be in for a decent if not outright excellent listening/reading time.

It was not to be. It was not to be so hard that I bailed on the audio at the 30% mark and it’s not the narrator’s fault. Really, truly, seriously, it’s not her fault. Natalie Naudus, as always, does a great job with the first person perspective of a protagonist who is expected to be kickass or at least grow into that role. (In this case, it may have been a bit too good of a job, as it felt like I was right there with her in a story where I’d have much preferred to be at a remove or ten.)

That decent to excellent time is not what I got. What I got for that first 30% felt like torture porn, and experiencing that neverending torment from inside the character’s own head was literally more than I could take. To the point where, if you’ve followed my comments about the book I flailed and bailed on that set nearly a whole week of reviews off-kilter, you’ve found it. This was it.

And damn was I surprised about that.

So I flailed, and bailed – also ranted and raved (not in a good way) – but in the end I finished in text. Because when I looked at the text to see where I stopped the audio, to figure out if the situation got redeemed at all, I learned that in the very next sentence – which of course I couldn’t see in the audio – the thing that nearly made me turn this book into a wallbanger in spite of a) the potential for having to replace my iphone and b) I was driving – didn’t actually happen.

Not that the character and I hadn’t already been tortured plenty at that point. But it was enough to bring me back if only to find out whether the situation got better – or worse.

The answer, as it turned out, was both.

Escape Rating D: If The Poppy War and Babel had an ugly, squalling bookbaby, To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods would be it. I loved The Poppy War, but had deeply serious issues with Babel which pretty much sums up my feelings about To Gaze Upon Wicked Gods in a desicated, unsightly, possibly even poisonous nutshell.

And that requires some explanation. Possibly a whole lot of it.

This story sits uneasily on a whole lot of crossing points. It’s right on the border between YA and Adult AND it’s at the intersection of historical fantasy with science fiction as well as at least hinting at being a romantasy – which it absolutely is not in spite of those hints in the blurb – even as it turns out to be post-apocalyptic and utterly dystopian in ways that are not hinted at anywhere at all.

And it’s torture porn. By that I mean that the entire first third of the story focuses on a protagonist whose entire life seems to be made of various axes on which she is ground, tortured and punished.

She’s female in a society that makes her property of the male head of household – in a line where those men squandered the family fortune on gambling and drugs one after another. She has magic powers that make her a target for people who want to use her gifts until those gifts use her up – and people who want to destroy her where she stands for a gift that many deem anathema.

Her entire world is under the boot heel of an overwhelming empire – in this I believe the story is intended to reference the Opium Wars and their oppressors are intended to stand in for the British Empire even if they are called Romans.

That her sister is addicted to a substance named “Opian”, provided by the Romans and engineered by the Romans to bring their society down even faster adds to that resemblance as well as to the protagonist’s torture.

That she’s 19, her sister’s and her grandmother’s only real support, and that her cultural conditioning has her blaming herself for everything wrong in their lives – including the invasion by the Romans before she was even born – is just terrible icing on an already unsightly cake overflowing with oppression and self-flagellation.

Ruying, her family and her whole entire world are in deep, deep trouble with no way out that anyone can see. I got that. I got that LONG before the story didn’t so much come out of the mire as it did finally start sloshing through the muck to the even more epically fucked up political shenanigans that are at the heart of everything that’s gone wrong for Ruying’s people.

Once the story finally, FINALLY started to reveal what was really happening and why and how, the situation got more interesting even as Ruying wallowed even more deeply in her personal angst and kept right on torturing herself every literally bloody step of the way.

At the very, very end, after all the blood and gore and guts and not very much plot movement forward, the story finally shows a glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel, reveals that the light is an oncoming train, and at least displays a glimmer of a hint of action in this book’s sequel, titled either Immortal the Blood or  To Kill a Monstrous Prince, which will be coming out this time net year.

This reader, at least, has no plans to be there for it. I’ve been tormented enough. Your reading mileage (and/or listening mileage) may vary.

A- #BookReview: How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub by P Djèlí Clark

A- #BookReview: How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub by P Djèlí Clark"How to Raise a Kraken in Your Bathtub" by P. Djèlí Clark in Uncanny Magazine Issue 50, January-February 2023 by P. Djèlí Clark
Format: ebook
Source: supplied by publisher via Hugo Packet
Formats available: magazine, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, short stories, steampunk
Series: Uncanny Magazine Issue 50
Pages: 26
Published by Uncanny Magazine on January 3, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo

The January/February 2023 issue of Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine .

Our landmark Issue 50, a double sized issue! Featuring new fiction by Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim, Mary Robinette Kowal, P. Djèlí Clark, A. T. Greenblatt, A.M. Dellamonica, Eugenia Triantafyllou, Sarah Pinsker, E. Lily Yu, Marie Brennan, Christopher Caldwell, John Wiswell, and Maureen Mchugh. Essays by Elsa Sjunneson, John Picacio, Annalee Newitz, A.T. Greenblatt, Diana M. Pho, and Javier Grillo-Marxuach, poetry by Neil Gaiman, Terese Mason Pierre, Sonya Taaffe, Betsy Aoki, Theodora Goss, Ali Trota, Abu Bakr Sadiq, Elizabeth Bear, and Brandon O'Brien, interviews with Ken Liu and Caroline M. Yoachim by Tina Connolly; interviews with Eugenia Triantafyllou, E. Lily Yu, and Christopher Caldwell by Caroline M. Yoachim, a cover by Galen Dara, and editorials by Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, and Meg Elison.

My Review:

The title of this story is the title of the manual that Trevor Hemley receives along with the rather expensive ‘Kraken egg’ that he’s purchased from an advertisement in the back of a magazine. Which all sounds utterly dodgy when you think about it for even half a second – but Trevor Hemley didn’t. Think, that is.

All Trevor thought about was the possibility of fame and fortune, of finally proving to his wealthy father-in-law that he was worthy of the hand of the man’s daughter – even though he already had that hand, along with a lovely home and a secure position all provided by his wife’s father.

Which of course made him feel all that more looked down upon by his wife’s family and their wealthy connections.

So a kraken. Or rather a plan to hatch said kraken in his bathtub, reveal the existence of the long-believed either mythical or extinct kraken to the world, and reap the rewards that Trevor felt were his due. After all, in Trevor’s Victorian Era, the Industrial Revolution was in full swing, fantastic discoveries were being made around the globe by Englishmen of science and daring, and the sun never set on an Empire that reaped the benefits of all the countries to which it believed it was bringing enlightenment while raping their economies and destroying their cultures.

But England is unassailable from without – as history has proven time and again. Which does not mean that it can’t be conquered – or that vengeance can’t be delivered upon it – from within. One crate and one bathtub at a time.

By a monstrous and rapacious creature – in fact a whole horde of them – with appetites as large as empires.

Escape Rating A-: The whole of this story is considerably greater than the sum of its parts, which is merely one part of what makes it so much fun and so thought provoking at the same time.

On the surface, it’s a bit of a funny story about a man whose reach has very definitely exceeded his grasp, as well as a bit of a morality tale about the parting of fools and their money, combined with the message that anything that sounds too good to be true generally is and that people generally get conned because they’ve conned themselves first.

But those messages were delivered in a thrashing of tentacles and teeth which Trevor Hemley certainly deserved. What gives the story its shiver of horror mixed with delicious righteousness is the way that Trevor is merely a part of the deliverance of those messages to a much wider and even more deserving ‘audience’.

Because it’s not really about the kraken after all. Even though it still is. And it’s the double-barrelling of the story, that it’s both the tongue-in-cheek tale of a man who does something really, really stupid and pays for it, AND it’s a story about colonialism where the colonizers get more than a few tentacles of their just desserts.

The title of this is marvelous, eye-catching and true in more ways than one – much like the story it represents. However, that title isn’t the only reason I picked this up yesterday – but it is one of the reasons that I picked it first out of the Hugo Packet for this year’s awards – which leads me straight into the other reasons I chose to read this story to round out a week that’s had a whole lot of ‘meh’ in it.

As a person with at least a Supporting Membership in this year’s World Science Fiction Convention, I have voting rights for the Hugo Awards. In order to be informed about exercising those rights, the Awards committee compiles a packet of ebook versions of as much of the nominated material as the publishers will give them. That packet became available this week and I immediately downloaded the lot.

A lot that included this story by P. Djèlí Clark, whose previous work I have very much enjoyed, and in the case of the whole, entire Dead Djinn Universe (A Dead Djinn in Cairo, The Angel of Khan el-Khalili, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and the utterly awesome A Master of Djinn) absolutely loved. While there are no djinn in this story, dead or alive, I was still up for some of his work because I knew it would be a gem whether or not it had received a Hugo nod.

All of which is to explain that many of the works that have received Hugo nominations (including another story from this very issue of Uncanny Magazine!) will appear in reviews here over the coming weeks. Based on the works that I have already read, plus this first foray into the nominated shorter works, it’s going to be an excellent year for the Hugos no matter which stories ultimately go home with rockets!

A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess Hendel

A- #BookReview: Black Shield Maiden by Willow Smith and Jess HendelBlack Shield Maiden by Willow Smith, Jess Hendel
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction
Pages: 480
Published by Del Rey on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

From WILLOW and co-writer Jess Hendel comes a powerful and groundbreaking historical epic about an African warrior in the world of the Vikings.
Lore, legend, and history tell us of the Vikings: of warrior-kings on epic journeys of conquest and plunder. But the stories we know are not the only stories to tell. There is another story, one that has been lost to the mists of time: the saga of the dark queen.
That saga begins with Yafeu, a defiant yet fiercely compassionate young warrior who is stolen from her home in the flourishing Ghanaian Empire and taken as a slave to a distant kingdom in the North. There she is thrust into a strange, cold world of savage shield maidens, tyrannical rulers, and mysterious gods.
And there she also finds something unexpected: a kindred spirit. She comes to serve Freydis, a shy princess who couldn’t be more different than the confident and self-possessed Yafeu.
But they both want the same thing: to forge their own fate. Yafeu inspires Freydis to dream of a future greater than the one that the king and queen have forced upon her. And with the princess at her side, Yafeu learns to navigate this new world and grows increasingly determined to become one of the legendary shield maidens.
For Yafeu may have lost her home, but she still knows who she is, and she’s not afraid to be the flame that burns a city to the ground so a new world can rise from the ashes. She will alter the course of history—and become the revolutionary heroine of her own myth.

My Review:

Through a series of unfortunate events that can, all too easily be laid at her own feet due to an excess of pride and an inability to keep her own temper, a young black woman is torn from her home village, enslaved, and dragged across the desert to the port city where she will be sold into who knows what fate.

Although at least part of that fate can be guessed from the lecherous expression on the face of the man offering gold for the purchase of her body.

That fate is interrupted by a sword – a sword wielded by a Viking warrior leading a raid on the coastal cities of North Africa. A female Viking warrior.

Alvtir saved Yafeu’s life because she could. Yafeu followed Alvtir back to her ship because Alvtir represents so much of what Yafeu wants to be. A warrior. A leader. A person who seems to be in charge of their own destiny in spite of the fact that females are supposed to be none of those things.

Yafeu believes that following Alvtir will get her what she has been searching for most of her life. The training to be a warrior in a place where she will be permitted if not encouraged to be the leader she was meant to be.

But Yafeu and the warriors to whom she has attached her hope and her future share neither a language nor even a common frame of reference or view of the world and the way it works. The desert that Yafeu called home is an entirely different world from the frozen fjords to which Alvtir and her Vikings are bound to return.

Once they make landfall in Skíringssal, Yafeu learns that she has merely traded one form of slavery for another, and that her hopes of training and respect were all in vain. But Alvtir sees that she may have found a hope for her own people – if that hope can be tempered and forged into a weapon.

So she waits and watches as Yafeu adjusts to her new life, learns the language and ways of a people not her own, and constantly searches for a way to forge a new path. A path that leads through the friendship of a disregarded princess to, finally and at long last, the coveted place among Alvtir’s shield maidens.

Just as the hope that these three women have forged together gets put to the torch of revolt and revolution.

Escape Rating A-: I came to this book by an odd route. I watched a playthrough of Assassin’s Creed: Valhalla where the main character, Eivor, was played as female. (It’s possible to play the character as either gender and does not change the story – but it does change the visuals a LOT) I was riveted by the game even as a spectator, so when I saw the blurb for this book and realized that most of it took place in the same culture at the same time, I was hooked.

Even though the point of view character for Black Shield Maiden is Yafeu, Alvtir’s story bore more than enough resemblance to Eivor to keep me on the edge of my seat the whole way through.

Which I needed at the beginning, because the story does get off to a bit of a slow start. A start that reminded me of an entirely different story. If Alvtir is Eivor, then Yafeu is Ejii Ugabe, the titular Shadow Speaker of the first book in Nnedi Okorafor’s Desert Magician duology. Yafeu and Ejii have very similar story arcs, that they are both daughters in cultures that denigrate women, that both are feared and rejected by their home villages for powers and personalities that would be respected if they were male, and both have large and important destinies laid before them that can only be fulfilled if they come into their power by traveling far beyond their local horizon.

The story in Black Shield Maiden, while it is Yafeu’s story and told mostly from her perspective, also wraps itself around the fate of two other women; the warrior Alvtir and the Princess Freydis, who is also Alvtir’s niece.

Just as Yafeu has the dream of becoming a warrior and of finding the father who went on his own travels years before and never returned, Alvtir and Freydis have dreams of their own. Freydis’ dreams are initially small, she dreams of the fate that will be hers, marriage to an influential man of her father’s choosing and a home of her own. Yafeu’s introduction into Freydis’ life sets her on an entirely different course.

While this is Yafeu’s story – and we learn the place and the people and the culture because we learn it through her – Alvtir is the character upon whom the story pivots. Her people are at a crossroads in history, the fork in history’s road where Christianity swept all other religions before it and away. Alvtir sees another path for her people, a path that she hopes will lead to the preservation of their religion and their way of life, knowing that the only way to step on that path is to betray her brother, the king to whom she has sworn all her oaths.

The three women together have the opportunity to take new paths and forge new alliances, even knowing that the price will be that one of them will not live to see the future they bring about.

Obviously, I got caught up in this story, if not quite from the very beginning then certainly from the moment that Alvtir rescues Yafeu. And I’m glad I did even if I was up until 2 AM finishing it. At the end, I was caught by the idea that even though this is not a fictionalization of a real piece of history, it did fall just inside the line of plausibility. The Vikings who went ‘a-viking’ certainly traveled far and wide (including all the way to North America) both as raiders and as traders. Recently discovered DNA evidence proves that there WERE female Viking warriors.

In the end, I was reminded of Ash, A Secret History by Mary Gentle, the story of a female warrior in 15th century France that was not historical but was written as though it were the ‘secret history’ the title claimed it was. It was a story that, by the time it was finished, the reader WANTED to have been true.

Black Shield Maiden, especially in its rousing and hopeful ending, felt the same.

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke

Grade A #BookReview: A Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas WesterbekeA Short Walk Through a Wide World by Douglas Westerbeke
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fantasy, magical realism, literary fiction
Pages: 399
Published by Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster on April 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue meets Life of Pi in this dazzlingly epic debut that charts the incredible, adventurous life of one woman as she journeys the globe trying to outrun a mysterious curse that will destroy her if she stops moving.
Paris, 1885: Aubry Tourvel, a spoiled and stubborn nine-year-old girl, comes across a wooden puzzle ball on her walk home from school. She tosses it over the fence, only to find it in her backpack that evening. Days later, at the family dinner table, she starts to bleed to death.
When medical treatment only makes her worse, she flees to the outskirts of the city, where she realizes that it is this very act of movement that keeps her alive. So begins her lifelong journey on the run from her condition, which won’t allow her to stay anywhere for longer than a few days nor return to a place where she’s already been.
From the scorched dunes of the Calashino Sand Sea to the snow-packed peaks of the Himalayas; from a bottomless well in a Parisian courtyard, to the shelves of an infinite underground library, we follow Aubry as she learns what it takes to survive and ultimately, to truly live. But the longer Aubry wanders and the more desperate she is to share her life with others, the clearer it becomes that the world she travels through may not be quite the same as everyone else’s...
Fiercely independent and hopeful, yet full of longing, Aubry Tourvel is an unforgettable character fighting her way through a world of wonders to find a place she can call home. A spellbinding and inspiring story about discovering meaning in a life that seems otherwise impossible, A Short Walk Through a Wide World reminds us that it’s not the destination, but rather the journey—no matter how long it lasts—that makes us who we are.

My Review:

The title is only half right. The world that Aubry Tourvel walks through is indeed wide, but her walk is far, far from short – especially from her own perspective.

That walk begins in 1885, when Aubry is all of 9 years old, the protected and spoiled youngest child of middle-class parents in Paris, France. Whether her condition is caused by a mysterious puzzle ball, her unwillingness to sacrifice it, or merely the whims of fate is never 100% certain – and it doesn’t need to be.

However the malady, or perhaps curse is a better term, was visited upon her, nevertheless one evening Aubry sits down at the dinner table and starts bleeding from seemingly every orifice while going into convulsions that wrack her entire body.

Medical science has neither diagnosis nor cure. All Aubry has to go by, on, for, and with, is her meager experience that when she changes location she immediately starts to heal, but when she stays in the same place for too long, the blood starts dripping out of her nose and her condition takes over.

Fast, hard and with extreme pain in every limb.

So Aubry is off, and so is the story. At first, with her whole family, moving from hôtel to hôtel in the suburbs of Paris, but then, as she runs out of places she hasn’t been yet, out into the countryside with her mother, Aubry’s knowledge of her mother’s utter exhaustion and total depression, and her awareness of her family’s dwindling finances.

Aubry runs away and leaves her mother behind. She’s all alone, walking that wide, wide world, at the age of twelve.

This is her story. It’s not exactly an adventure, although there are certainly adventures within it. It’s absolutely a story about the journey and not the destination, because as far as Aubry can discover, the only destination is death.

But along the way, for as many steps and as much time as Aubry has, there’s an ever-changing, always moving, and utterly fascinating life.

Escape Rating A: If you could put Journey to the Center of the Earth and Around the World in 80 Days, both by Jules Verne and both still fairly new when Aubry begins her walk, into a book blender, you’d get at least the basic broth of Aubry’s long journey. A broth spiced with a bit of Nnedi Okorafor’s Remote Control.

The difference is that both of those classic stories are ‘there and back again’ adventures. The protagonists set out with every expectation that they will return home at the end, more or less safe and sound.

Aubry can neither go home, nor can she make a new one. She’s a human turtle, carrying her home on her back. And it’s HARD. It’s a hardness that both does and does not define her, and that’s what makes her journey so compelling to follow.

On the one hand, she has to be as self-sufficient as possible, because she knows that she will often be utterly alone, not because she wants to be, but because she travels through many of the empty places of the world, frequently on paths that no one else can see. At the same time, she learns that when she does find companions, the only thing she has to trade is her ability to use her self-sufficiency to help others.

But what keeps the reader with her is the emotional journey. She goes from spoiled to über capable. She goes from being done for to doing for others when possible and whatever is necessary to survive all the time.

And she goes from child to young woman to middle-aged and to elderly – one step at a time and always with the monkey of her condition on her back. She makes friends and loses them and drinks from all the springs of the world – but only to the shallowness of a teaspoon.

She samples but never stays. And we’re right there with her.

This is a story that grabbed me from the first page with the sheer puzzle of it. The idea of her endless journey, and even more fascinating still, the progress of it in a world where all the corners had not yet been filled in.

And that it was a woman’s journey and not a man’s. There were (and are) plenty of such journeys undertaken by men in fiction. When Aubry sets out, it was the age of such stories, often written by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells. Their tales often told stories of ‘big’ adventures of one sort or another.

Instead, Aubry’s journey is long rather than ‘big’. She’s not trying to become famous – although she does. She’s trying to survive and that gives her story a much different flavor and leads it towards a more authentic conclusion. In the end, as much as we may envy her ability to pick up stakes and travel, to make herself comfortable wherever she goes, we feel for her inability to ever take a break from it.

So, if you’re ever feeling like home is a bit too comfortable to ever leave, take A Short Walk Through a Wide World with Aubry Tourvel and travel by armchair with gratitude for the ability to take that walk with her without having to leave everything behind, and see the world from the perspective of someone else’s aching feet.

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang

A- #BookReview: The Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian HuangThe Emperor and the Endless Palace by Justinian Huang
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy romance, historical fantasy, M/M romance, magical realism, romantasy
Pages: 312
Published by Mira on March 26, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

“What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?”
In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex and intrigue.
In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead.

And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before.
Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them.
As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both.
An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, The Emperor and the Endless Palace is a genre-bending romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love.

My Review:

Three roads converge in the midst of a labyrinth. Three fates collide in never ending repetition. No matter where or when the tragedy recurs, nothing ever makes a difference in the ultimate outcome.

In other words, no matter where you go, there you are.

An emperor and a clerk in 4 BCE, an innkeeper and a mysterious stranger in 1740, a medical student and an artist in the now. Three times, three places, three romances, three tragedies.

Different incarnations, different times, different lives but the same results. Because this isn’t just a story of love lost and found, but a story of love lost because it has been betrayed, over and over again. An eternal triangle that hinges on the heart of the one who always remembers everything, and yet can’t stop himself from repeating the same old mistakes. Over and over and over again.

Because even death seems incapable of doing their spirits apart. Perhaps next time, because even if nothing else is certain, there will certainly be one.

Escape Rating A-: This story walks three paths, and at first it doesn’t seem like one has much to do with the other. It reminded me of stories about walking a maze of trials that leads to a central point, a trail of trials that no matter which path is walked that ultimately leads to the same place – and all too frequently the same goal or battle or contest or tragedy. A progression that, as the path is walked and the spiral gets tighter, allows brief glimpses into the spirals on either side.

But at the beginning, the relationship between Dong Xian’s precarious climb up the ladder in Imperial China, He Shican’s nighttime wanderings in the woods around his remote inn in the mid-18th century, and River’s drug-induced hallucinations of the circuit party scene in today’s Los Angeles don’t have a connection that the reader can see.

It’s only in the dreams, nightmares and drug-induced ecstasy that the characters experience in each of the timelines that the stories begin, hazily at first, to reach out for each other – even as the contemporary characters in this never-ending story, River and Joey and Winston, come together and ultimately drive each other away.

Each of the stories begins slowly, but as they draw towards their individual conclusions that are all the same tragic ending, the inward spirals get faster and faster and tighter and tighter – like the loop of a noose closing around the throats of ALL the stories, leaving the reader breathless at the end.

An ending which may not be one at all.

I’m not sure what I was expecting when I started this book, although a friend’s absolute rave about it induced me to give this debut novel a try. And I’m glad I did because in the end I was completely blown away by this sexy, queer romantasy AND that it’s the author’s first.

I can’t wait to see what he does for an encore!

A- #BookReview: The Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo

A- #BookReview: The Fox Wife by Yangsze ChooThe Fox Wife by Yangsze Choo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy mystery, historical fantasy, magical realism
Pages: 390
Published by Henry Holt and Co. on February 13, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Some people think foxes are similar to ghosts because we go around collecting qi, or life force, but nothing could be further than the truth. We are living creatures, just like you, only usually better looking . . .
Manchuria, 1908.
A young woman is found frozen in the snow. Her death is clouded by rumors of foxes involved, which are believed to lure people by transforming themselves into beautiful women and men. Bao, a detective with a reputation for sniffing out the truth, is hired to uncover the dead woman’s identity. Since childhood, Bao has been intrigued by the fox gods, yet they’ve remained tantalizingly out of reach. Until, perhaps, now.
Meanwhile, a family that owns a famous Chinese medicine shop can cure ailments, but not the curse that afflicts them―their eldest sons die before their twenty-fourth birthdays. Now the only grandson of the family is twenty-three. When a mysterious woman enters their household, their luck seems to change. Or does it? Is their new servant a simple young woman from the north or a fox spirit bent on her own revenge?
New York Times bestselling author Yangsze Choo brilliantly explores a world of mortals and spirits, humans and beasts, and their dazzling intersection. The Fox Wife is a stunning novel about a winter full of mysterious deaths, a mother seeking revenge, and old folktales that may very well be true.

My Review:

A hint of historical fantasy, a touch of magical realism, more than a soupçon of fantasy mystery, wrapped in a surprisingly lovely tissue of love lost and found. I wasn’t expecting all of those elements in The Fox Wife, but the twists and turns from one to another and back again kept me enthralled every step of this journey’s way.

The fox spirit Snow is searching for the man responsible for the death of her cub. Bao, a detective/fixer/spy, is looking for foxes. Or rather, he’s hunting for fox spirits around the edges of the other, more practical things and people he generally looks for. In this particular case, the identity of a nameless young courtesan frozen to death behind a popular eatery. And the location of a young would-be concubine missing from a rich man’s keeping, a woman he claims is his wife-to-be, who he also claims to be possessed by a fox.

Although much of the story is told from Snow’s perspective, as a fox she’s more than a bit of an unreliable narrator. Which isn’t helped at all by the fact that she’s lying to herself even more than she is to the reader. There are things she doesn’t want to face, so she’s not – not even when they are right in her face.

Bao, on the other hand, has reached a point in his life where he’s mostly honest with himself, about both his past AND his present. At least the parts of his past where other people have been honest with him.

Which doesn’t mean that there isn’t a blank spot in his narrative as well, but where Snow knows what happened and doesn’t want to even think about it, Bao doesn’t know all of the foundational elements of his story, so keeps poking at a void that he doesn’t have the filling for.

From one perspective, this is a revenge story – or at least Snow thinks it is. Her cub is dead because a photographer was paying for a fox cub to photograph. She’s following the trail of the photographer as all sorts of roadblocks, past and present, internal and external, get in her somewhat meandering way.

Bao is following the trail of a missing person. He’s doing his job. That his job is to find Snow is something he circles towards even as Snow herself gets closer to him and to her own quest. But neither of them is in pursuit of what they believed they were. And once they figure THAT out, they each find what they were truly seeking all along.

Which was never, ever, truly each other.

Escape Rating A-: The Fox Wife is a story at an inflection point, and it manages to blend in aspects of so many genres because it takes place on the cusps of so many changes – not just for its characters but for the world in which it is set.

The story itself is at the crossroads between the numinous and the mundane, as embodied in the two narratives, the literal ‘fox wife’ Snow and the pragmatic detective, who is old enough to have a foot in both camps, as his life was influenced by magic in his childhood, at a time when beliefs in the other were still very much present.

A time that has passed, as the story takes place in China at the end of the Qing Dynasty, just as the last emperor was crowned in 1908 and World War I is looming on the horizon. The remoter places where magic still had sway, such as the places where the foxes lived, are diminishing as technology conquers magic or at least the belief in it, whether literally or figuratively.

Part of that inflection is that the two narratives, Snow’s and Bao’s, follow different paths and operate at different paces. Snow meanders, where Bao mostly follows mystery conventions – at least in his actions – even if his thoughts occasionally wander to his own past.

Which gave this reader a bit of a conflicting reaction, as I was both absolutely riveted AND wished there’d been a bit more editing to cut down on the meandering. I loved the story but I’d have loved it a bit more if it had been about 50 pages shorter. Your reading mileage may vary.

(Honestly, I know which character I’d cut to get those 50 pages down.)

What brought the whole story full circle, for all of its many, many circles, was the way that Snow’s past and Bao’s past eventually intersected in the present, but not in any of the ways that these kinds of quasi-myths often do.

Instead, they intersect in a way that fits them both into the present they are actually living in, in ways that would work with magic or without. Because just as Snow owns her own past and her own responsibility for the tragedies she has tried so hard not to face, Bao finds his way back to the best of his, in the present that he has, and finds his way to the future that he’s always desired but was never able to admit.

Which resolved the two halves of this story into one surprisingly harmonious whole.

#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts

#BookReview Wild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr RobertsWild and Distant Seas by Tara Karr Roberts
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook
Genres: historical fantasy, historical fiction, literary fiction, magical realism
Pages: 304
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 2, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

A gorgeous debut, laced through with magic, following four generations of women as they seek to chart their own futures. Evangeline Hussey’s husband is dead―lost at sea―and she has only managed to hold on to his Nantucket inn by employing a curious gift to glimpse and re-form the recent memories of those around her. One night, an idealistic sailor appears on her doorstep asking her to call him Ishmael, and her careful illusion begins to fracture. He soon sails away with Ahab to hunt an infamous white whale, and Evangeline is left to forge a life from the pieces that remain.
Her choices ripple through generations, across continents, and into the depths of the sea, in a narrative that follows Evangeline and her descendants from mid-nineteenth century Nantucket to Boston, Brazil, Florence, and Idaho. Moving, beautifully written, and elegantly conceived, Wild and Distant Seas takes Moby-Dick as its starting point, but Tara Karr Roberts brings four remarkable women to life in a spellbinding epic all her own.

My Review:

He said “Call me Ishmael” – and she did. But that is not where this distaff perspective on Moby-Dick begins.

It begins with Evangeline Hussey reinventing herself for the second time. The first time was when she ran away from a past we never see and found herself on Nantucket Island as the whaling industry was nearing the end of its heyday. She marries an innkeeper and intends to settle down for the rest of her life making chowder.

But Evangeline has a gift. She has just a bit of magic, a spark that allows her to do two things she’s going to rely on and fight against in the years to come. She can see through the eyes of people she knows, and she can make people believe and even DO what she wants. Through her gift, she sees that her husband’s small boat has capsized and he has drowned at sea, but she enforces the belief among the townspeople that he is just away on a business trip and will be back sooner or later.

It’s a lie she continually reinforces because she knows that his family – who have lived in Nantucket for generations – mightily disapprove of her and her marriage, and that they will take the inn away from her if they can. It’s the only home she knows and she can’t let that happen, so she lies and MAKES people believe it – for so many years that the lie reinforces itself.

Until Ishmael and Queequeg arrive at her Try Pots Inn, just before they sign up for Captain Ahad’s ill-omened and ultimately ill-fated voyage on the cursed Pequod. The story that Ishmael eventually tells in Moby-Dick.

But before the Pequod set sail, Ishmael and Evangeline had a brief dalliance that resulted in a child. A daughter born with no knowledge of her father but an even greater portion of her mother’s gifts.

Wild and Distant Seas is the story of Evangeline’s legacy, both her gifts and the endless pursuit of the missing Ishmael that she bequeathed to her daughter, her granddaughter, and even her great-granddaughter as they journey endlessly and fruitlessly, until at last one of them finally finds her way home.

Escape Rating B: Wild and Distant Seas is a story that is constantly in dialog with its predecessor, Moby-Dick. At points it hews close, and at others it is at more than a bit of a remove, but the great white whale is always swimming in the background.

And this is the point where I confess that I never read the damn thing. Yes, I know it’s considered to be one of the ‘Great American Novels’ and a literary classic, etc., etc., etc., but I was never forced to read it in high school and had no inclination afterward. It’s somewhere between a complete sausage fest and a boys’ own adventure (even if in the same way that Lord of the Flies is a boys’ own adventure) and the American literary canon is just full of those.

So part of my interest in Wild and Distant Seas was that it gives a distaff perspective on a story that otherwise doesn’t have a female perspective in it AT ALL. Considering how many men never came home from the whaling industry, a story about what happened after that was itself an interesting possibility for historical fiction, even if this book also has a bit of a literary fiction vibe to it.

What makes the story work is that it is absolutely NOT Ishmael’s story, as the original was. Instead, it’s the story of his absence and the lengths that absence drives Evangeline and her descendants to in pursuit of the truth of their origins. He’s a gaping hole in each of their histories that they are all trying to fill.

As each of the women in Evangeline’s line tell their stories, the other thread that links them is their use, misuse and abuse of the gift that they’ve inherited from her. Each of them is capable of bending others to their will, none of them are able to resist the impulse to use that power, and all of them ultimately realize that their gift has cost more than they’ve ever gained from it, which brings them, at last, back to their point of origin.

But the way each of their stories is told is through their first person perspective, with the torch of story passing from one woman to another when they each first use their gift, making each of their stories about the price they pay for that use.

Which, oddly enough, brings the story back to Moby-Dick and the price of Ahab’s obsession, in more ways than one.

In the end, as the story shifted protagonists and perspectives, I found some of their journeys more compelling than others, and I empathized more with Evangeline’s adult perspective than I did the learning period that her descendants inevitably went through. So ultimately I have mixed feelings but this turned out to be a fascinating way to explore a classic from a sideways point of view.