A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein

A/A- Joint #BookReview: These Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy WassersteinThese Fragile Graces, This Fugitive Heart by Izzy Wasserstein
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: dystopian, science fiction, science fiction mystery, technothriller
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on March 12, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

In a queer, noir technothriller of fractured identity and corporate intrigue, a trans woman faces her fear of losing her community as her past chases after her. This bold, thought-provoking debut science-fiction novella from a Lambda Award finalist is an exciting and unpredictable look at the fluid nature of our former and present selves.
In mid-21st-century Kansas City, Dora hasn’t been back to her old commune in years. But when Dora’s ex-girlfriend Kay is killed, and everyone at the commune is a potential suspect, Dora knows she’s the only person who can solve the murder.
As Dora is dragged back into her old community and begins her investigations, she discovers that Kay’s death is only one of several terrible incidents. A strange new drug is circulating. People are disappearing. And Dora is being attacked by assailants from her pre-transition past.
Meanwhile, It seems like a war between two nefarious corporations is looming, and Dora’s old neighborhood is their battleground. Now she must uncover a twisted conspiracy, all while navigating a deeply meaningful new relationship.

Amy and Marlene’s Joint Review:

Amy: After the downfall of most governments in the US, the gap between the haves and the have-nots has gotten even bigger. In a time not too far past our own, in a mostly-dead downtown Kansas City, a young transwoman named Dora gets a visit from an old friend. Her former lover, who still lived in the commune Dora left, is dead. She goes to see, to say goodbye, and discovers that it wasn’t just an overdose — it was a murder. She’s determined to figure it all out, but while she’s walking around her old neighborhood, looking for clues and thinking things over, she gets jumped by a stranger who looks an awful lot like she used to…

From the Department of Fair Warnings: This book has a non-zero amount of bloody murders in it. It’s a murder mystery, yanno? You know to expect that. Also one brief sex scene, that I did not expect, and that might catch some readers by surprise by its strangeness.

Marlene: SF mystery is seriously becoming a ‘thing’, and I’m very much here for it in general – both because I love genre blends AND because SF mystery in particular gets to use its blending to query both sides of its equation. The SF pokes at the mystery elements and the mystery elements poke at the SF.

This particular combination of the two is very much of the Earth-bound, scientific laboratory wing of the SF genre, to the point where it would probably make a great intro to SF for someone who is primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader, as the SFnal elements are familiar in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian sort of way. It’s not that far from now in either time or circumstances and that makes the story easy to slip into.

Dora’s world is pretty much fucked, and that’s pretty clear from the get-go. She may have thrown her own set of torches into the conflagration, but her Kansas City – particularly her part of it – is very much on its way down towards a clearly yawning abyss.

She’s burned her bridges behind her, one righteously, and the other maybe not so much. Her dad wanted the boy she was assigned to be at birth – and she couldn’t be that. He’s also a douche in general which makes him REAL easy to hate. OTOH, she’s also cut herself off from the commune community that represented both family and safety. A split that had a lot of hurt and betrayal in it then – and still does when the story begins.

The mystery that Dora is compelled to solve is the same thing that caused her split from the community in the first place, and it’s a question as old as time – or at least as old as this quote from Benjamin Franklin, the one about the willingness to give up “essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

The commune has a habit of trusting people and letting people in who arguably should have been vetted a bit better first. They were, and are, unwilling to make that trade off of liberty for safety – even though it has bitten them in the ass before and quite likely has again.

But this time, the threat came from a direction none of them would ever have expected, and it’s up to Dora to unravel the mystery that has been festering – both under the city and in her own past – all along.

Amy’s Rating A: Dora has a lot to figure out, and she gets right to it. This story rocks along fast; if you’re like me, you’ll start reading, and not stop until you’re done, which won’t take terribly long. The first unfriendly stranger startled her, but when the second one shows up, and also looks rather like she would have if she had not transitioned, she starts putting the pieces together. Like all good mysteries, she’s got to sort out the who, the what, the where, and the why; the where comes first, and the remaining pieces fall into place in quick order thereafter. On its face, it’s a fine high-speed murder mystery, complete with a deeply flawed hero and a somewhat unsurprising, even more-flawed villain.

But Izzy Wasserstein has buried something deeper to think about in this tale. When presented with her clone, Dora looks at and interacts with — and even gets intimate with — someone who might have been her, if her father had gotten his way, and she’d been the son he always wanted. The interaction between this imperfect clone of her pre-transition body, and her own traumatized persona, gives me (as a queer transwoman myself) a great deal to think about: How would things have been different if I were not who I am? And how crucial to the person I have become was my transition, and my life experiences since then? It hearkens back to the whole “nature or nurture” question that mankind has pondered for a long, long time. Are we, in fact, born this way, destined to be who we are?

Obviously, it’s not an either-or question; there are shades and nuances throughout, and Wasserstein shows us some of that in her portrayal of the clone. They are imperfect, programmed from the time they came out of the tanks to be a violent killer and think of Dora as a “traitor.” Yet they don’t kill her, and they discuss with Dora at some length their “fighting their instincts” to become their own person.

So, really, there are two stories hidden in this short book: a straightforward, well-crafted cyberpunk whodunnit, and the story of a transperson squaring off with a clone of herself. Two good, thought-provoking stories under one cover…what’s not to like?

Marlene’s Rating A-: I tend to rate novellas at the A- level a LOT of the time and this book is no exception. I love the novella length because it’s fast to read, but that length means that a lot of backstory gets left on the proverbial cutting room floor because there isn’t space for it. In other words, as much as I totally got where Dora was personally coming from, how our world got fucked up into hers that fast needed a couple more steps for me to buy into it.

I also would have loved a bit more about the anarchist and commune movement as it applied to this particular story, because I was basing all of my knowledge and acceptance of the way that part of their world worked on Cadwell Turnbull’s fantastic Convergence Saga; No Gods, No Monsters and We Are the Crisis, because that near-future SF tale is also rooted a bit in the coop/commune movement – although with a completely different crisis and in an entirely different way.

The mystery part of this mystery wasn’t quite as mysterious as it might have been. Once the cadres of poorly programmed almost-Theodores started chasing after Dora it was really obvious that they were clones AND that her dad was the mad scientist (and he so was!) creating them. No matter what his employer or moneybags might have intended them to do or be.

Howsomever, the questions that Dora asks herself are the part of the story that sticks in the mind after the last page is turned – and they turned out to be considerably more fascinating than merely ‘whodunnit’.

As Amy said, it’s that age-old question of ‘nature vs. nurture’ along with a heaping helping of what does it mean to be ‘born that way’ – whatever way that may be in the mind of the person, and whether the answer to that question is based on innate characteristics or parental or societal expectations or fate or destiny.

Dora confronts those questions, not just in her own mind, but in her relationship with one of her almost-clones and that clone’s willingness to throw off their own programming. And that’s the fragile grace that gives this story its heart.

Review: The Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar

Review: The Circumference of the World by Lavie TidharThe Circumference of the World by Lavie Tidhar
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: books and reading, science fiction, time travel
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on September 5, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Caught between realities, a mathematician, a book dealer, and a mobster desperately seek a notorious book that disappears upon being read. Only the author, a rakish sci-fi writer, knows whether his popular novel is truthful or a hoax. In a story that is cosmic, inventive, and sly, multi-award-winning author Lavie Tidhar (Central Station) travels from the emergence of life to the very ends of the universe.
Delia Welegtabit discovered two things during her childhood on a South Pacific island: her love for mathematics and a novel that isn’t supposed to exist. But the elusive book proves unexpectedly dangerous. When Delia’s husband Levi goes missing, she seeks help from Daniel Chase, a young, face-blind book dealer.
Lode Stars was written by the infamous Eugene Charles Hartley: legendary pulp science-fiction writer and founder of the Church of the All-Seeing Eyes. In Hartley’s novel, a doppelganger of Delia searches for her missing father in a strange star system with three black holes.
Oskar Lens, a Russian mobster in the midst of an existential crisis, is determined to find a copy of Lode Stars. Oskar believes that the novel provides protection from unseen aliens, and that reality is only an unreliable memory that is billions of years old.
But is any of Lode Stars real? Was Hartley a cynical conman on a quest for wealth and immortality, creating a religion he did not believe in? Or was he a visionary who truly discovered the secrets of the universe?

My Review:

Unreal books, like H.P. Lovecraft’s Necronomicon, are a very real phenomenon. If you’re thinking that’s not quite correct, that Neal Stephenson wrote Necronomicon, your memory is playing a bit of a trick on you. Stephenson wrote Cryptonomicon in 1999. The first mention of Lovecraft’s Necronomicon was back in 1924 in Lovecraft’s short story, The Hound”, more than three decades before Stephenson was born. They’re not the same book.

Fictional books, as opposed to works of fiction,  as a genre, drive librarians crazy, to the point where library catalogs will have entries to said ‘unreal’ books with notes to explain to the searcher that they are looking for something that does not and never has existed. Which the searcher may or may not believe, depending on how deeply into the thing they already are. Which brings us right back to The Circumference of the World and the likely, possibly, probably fictional book within.

Lode Stars, written by the infamous Eugene Charles Hartley, may or may not be one of those unreal books. Delia Welegtabit is certain that she held a copy of the book in her own two hands when she was a child in Vanuatu.

Delia doesn’t care that the book is believed to disappear upon reading. She always preferred math to fiction, so didn’t read it then and doesn’t care about it now, as an adult living in London. But she does care about her husband who has gotten caught up in the obsession over Lode Stars, and has disappeared in his pursuit of the damn thing.

Unfortunately he’s not alone, either in that obsession or that pursuit. So Delia is chasing Levi, while the bookseller Daniel and the Russian mobster Oscar are searching for the book while Oscar, at least, doesn’t seem to care who gets in his way.

Escape Rating B: There’s always a question in the reader’s mind as to whether Lode Stars ever was a real book. That its author is clearly an avatar for L. Ron Hubbard furthers that question pretty far down the road to skepticism.

But the story is about the point where the book’s real existence no longer matters – it’s all about the obsession. Which doesn’t stop there being a whole lot of very interesting – if slightly skewed and frequently amalgamated – portraits of some of the masters of the ‘Golden Age’ of Science Fiction in the part of the story that covers the time period when Eugene Charles Hartley created the thing in the first place.

(If that part of this multithreaded and sometimes tangled story sounds interesting, I highly recommend Alec Nevala-Lee’s Astounding, which treats the period considerably more factually while still exploring all the juicy gossip and is amazingly readable over all.)

The story of The Circumference of the World is indeed multithreaded, and circles its way through multiple, disparate perspectives AND most definitely themes on its way around that circumference.

The main character of Lode Stars is not only named Delia, but that character spends that story in search of her father through the galaxy just as the real Delia is searching for her husband on Earth. The story jumps as much through time and history as it does through space, and touches on, not just the history of science fiction but also love, mental illness and the conman artistry of Lode Star’s author.

It’s a book that leaves the reader not certain where they’ve been or where the story went, or if it even came to a satisfactory conclusion, but Delia’s quest is conducted at a wild pace that keeps the reader turning pages until the very last.

One final note, because I feel the need to close the circle back to the Lovecraft reference I started with. There’s another real book that deals with a fictional book that also traipses its way through the Golden Age of SF on its way to a much more certain determination of whether or not the book that the characters are obsessing over is a real book or just a real fake. That story is The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge, and it centers on a book by H.P. Lovecraft of the same name that may be a real book, or may be a real fake. And just as in The Circumference of the World, it’s up to the reader to determine whether or not they are satisfied with the answer at the end.

Review: The Scarlet Circus by Jane Yolen

Review: The Scarlet Circus by Jane YolenThe Scarlet Circus by Jane Yolen, Brandon Sanderson
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fairy tales, fantasy, fantasy romance, Romance, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on February 14, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The Scarlet Circus, the fourth volume in Yolen’s award-winning short fiction series brings you passionate treasures and unexpected transformations. This bewitching assemblage, with an original introduction from Brandon Sanderson, is an ideal read for anyone who appreciates witty, compelling, and classic romantic fantasy.

A rakish fairy meets the real Juliet behind Shakespeare's famous tragedy. A jewelry artist travels to the past to meet a successful silver-smith. The addled crew of a ship at sea discovers a mysterious merman. More than one ignored princess finds her match in the most unlikely men.

From ecstasy to tragedy, with love blossoming shyly, love at first sight, and even love borne of practical necessity―beloved fantasist Jane Yolen’s newest collection celebrates romance in all its glory.

My Review:

This ended up being my Valentine’s Day review because, to paraphrase the author’s forward just a bit, while the stories contained within are not “Romances” with a capital R, each story does contain a romantic element – even if that element is not the center of the story and seldom results in anything like a happy ever after.

Then again, one does have to kiss a fair number of frogs – and a few outright toads – in order to find the person they’ve been looking for all along.

Many of the stories in this collection are twists on familiar themes – or at least they sound familiar upon reading. “San Soleil” is one of those. It sounds just like the kind of fairy tale we all used to read – with the same kind of sting in its tail about listening to warnings provided by witches and sorceresses. It starts as a love story but is also a bit of a ‘just desserts’ kind of story. Not that anyone is evil. A bit TSTL but not evil.

As the opening story in the collection, it certainly sets the tone for the many and varied ways that love can go off the rails.

I had a sneaking bit of admiration for “Dusty Loves” in the way it takes off on Romeo & Juliet. This is one where the ‘heroine’ really is Too Stupid To Live, and consequently doesn’t. Which is pretty much what happens in Romeo & Juliet which is, after all, a TRAGEDY and not a romance. That the teller of this particular version of the tale has their tongue very firmly in cheek as they relate it makes the whole thing work a bit better than it would on its own.

On that favorite other hand, in “Unicorn Tapestry” the heroine is really a heroine, and most definitely not TSTL. If you like stories where the underdog wins the day, then this one will be right up your reading alley. It certainly left me with a smile at the end.

My least favorite stories in the collection were “A Ghost of an Affair”, “The Sea Man” and “The Erotic Faerie”. “Ghost” because it had so much promise but ended a bit ‘meh’. I felt like I was set up for a better and happier ending than I got. “Sea Man” felt like it didn’t belong here, it gave me vibes of other, more horrific tales than fit in this collection. And “Erotic Faerie” was an interesting concept rather than an actual story, a concept I’ve seen done better in Kenneth Schneyer’s “Selected Program Notes from the Retrospective Exhibition of Theresa Rosenberg Latimer” in his Anthems Outside Time collection.

Those initial stories were interesting and fun but didn’t quite touch my heart – although “Dusty Loves” certainly tickled my funny bone a bit. These next ones, however, got a bit closer to the heart of the matter – or at least my heart.

“Dark Seed, Dark Stone” takes the idea of a warrior’s child picking up their weapons to defend their king and country and changes that child from the usual son to a daughter who uses more smarts than skills to defend her homeland. This one isn’t so much a romance as it is a story about duty and purpose – and I liked it better for that. It’s more a romance in the older meaning of the word than the current commercial definition, and I liked it all the better for it.

“Memoirs of a Bottle Djinn” takes the usual Aladdin-type story and gives it a twist that’s been seen before – but does it well. In this case, the savvy but desperate discoverer of the bottle is wary about spending his wish foolishly and without thought. At the same time, as a slave he’s all too able to empathize with the djinn’s plight. So he makes a wish they can both live with, happily ever after.

“Peter in Wonderland” was a delightful surprise. It’s clearly a takeoff on Alice in Wonderland, but shows that the real Alice Liddell still travels to Wonderland even in adulthood, and gives her a fellow-adventurer on her trip that leads to a happy ever after a bit different from the one she experienced in real life.

As much as I enjoyed the above stories, my two favorite entries in this Scarlet Circus were wonderfully entertaining indeed.

“Dragonfield” was wonderful because all of its characters are so very flawed in such human ways, and yet they manage to pull each other up and together to defeat the all too real dragon that is terrorizing the town and achieve a happy ever after that neither of them expected or thought they could ever deserve. It’s a romance and an adventure wrapped into one shiny, magical ball of a story and it’s just lovely.

Last, but not least, because the Matter of Britain can never be least of anything, is “The Sword and the Stone”, a much different story than The Sword in the Stone that you may remember from either the novel by T.H. White (part of The Once and Future King), or the Disney movie or even the episode of the British TV series Merlin. For an inanimate object, Excalibur sure does manage to get around.

This version of the tale is told from Merlin’s point of view, and he’s getting pretty jaded at this point in his long life of meddling with Britain. Arthur himself is also a bit older in this version than the more traditional versions of the tale. While he’s trying his best, he’s clearly better, and happier, at some things than others. To the point where he’d much rather fight the wars than wrangle the peace that he needs to secure and maintain. Merlin cooks up the idea of the sword in the stone to give Arthur’s rule the final stamp of popularity and legitimacy it needs. Arthur thinks it’s all mummery, magic and cheating, which it most definitely is. Until it isn’t.

Which makes the ending just that bit more magical.

Escape Rating A-: Like most collections, the stories are a bit all over the map. I adored a couple, liked quite a few more, and a small number just missed the mark for me in one way or another – as the above descriptions show. But overall I’m very glad I picked this up, and enjoyed the ways that it played with romances of many types and stripes and definitions. That “love is all there is is all we know of love” doesn’t have to mean that all loves are exactly the same type.

The author has published three previous collections in a similar vein to this one, not necessarily romances but rather whole entire circuses of fractured and reinterpreted fairy tales like How to Fracture a Fairy Tale, The Midnight Circus and The Emerald Circus. I’m sure I’ll be visiting those circuses the next time I’m looking for familiar tales with just a bit of a twist in their tails.

Review: The Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg

Review: The Unbalancing by R.B. LembergThe Unbalancing by R.B. Lemberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Birdverse
Pages: 241
Published by Tachyon Publications on September 20, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

In this first full-length novel from the acclaimed Birdverse, new love blossoms between an impatient starkeeper and a reclusive poet as they try together to save their island home. Nebula, Locus, and Ignyte finalist R. B. Lemberg (The Four Profound Weaves) has crafted a gorgeous tale of the inevitable transformations of communities and their worlds. The Unbalancing is rooted in the mystical cosmology, neurodiversity, and queerness that infuses Lemberg’s lyrical prose, which has invited glowing comparisons to N. K. Jemisin, Patricia A. McKillip, and Ursula K. LeGuin.
Beneath the waters by the islands of Gelle-Geu, a star sleeps restlessly. The celebrated new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri, who is preoccupied by the increasing tremors, confronts the problems left behind by her predecessor.
Meanwhile, the poet Erígra Lilún, who merely wants to be left alone, is repeatedly asked by their ancestor Semberi to take over the starkeeping helm. Semberi insists upon telling Lilun mysterious tales of the deliverance of the stars by the goddess Bird.
When Ranra and Lilun meet, sparks begin to fly. An unforeseen configuration of their magical deepnames illuminates the trouble under the tides. For Ranra and Lilun, their story is just beginning; for the people of Gelle-Geu, it may well be too late to save their home

My Review:

My first introduction to the Birdverse was in The Four Profound Weaves. At the time I said it had the feel and sense of a myth in the making. The Unbalancing while telling a much different story, has the sense of a myth or legend being broken and remade, as the poet Erigra Lilun and the new starkeeper Ranra Kekeri are the ones left holding the very large and torn bag, so to speak, when the most heartbreaking chapter of this world’s origin story comes home, not to roost but to destroy, on their beloved home islands of Gelle-Geu.

The island confederation of Gelle-Gau has experienced regular earthquakes during its nearly 1,000 year history. Because one of the 12 stars that are part of this world’s creation myth – which is no myth in the Birdverse – rests uneasily in the ocean between the islands. Whenever the star gets restless there’s a tremor. In recent years those tremblers have been getting bigger, longer and more frequent.

There’s clearly something wrong, and it’s getting wrong-er all the time. The last starkeeper, the person whose duty it is to monitor the health of the submerged star, didn’t want to know. Or knew too much and wallowed in despair rather than searching for a solution.

Whatever is upsetting their star is going to result in an extinction level event for the islands. And it’s already too late for their beloved Gelle-Gau. The question before the new starkeeper and the shy, withdrawn poet who perhaps should have been starkeeper years ago is whether or not it is too late for their people.

And whether they will have time for a new beginning for themselves.

Escape Rating A: I enjoyed my introduction to the Birdverse in The Four Profound Weaves and The Unbalancing was even better. Weaves was lovely but it was a bit of a quieter story in its way, while The Unbalancing is considerably more dramatic and dynamic by the very nature of the crisis it must contend with.

The world, at least as far as the islands of Gelle-Gau are concerned, is ending. Attempting to hold back that literal tide pretty much guarantees a fast-paced story filled with high stakes, epic conflicts and nearly crushing lows and blows.

At the same time, it contains a beautiful story of opposites not only attracting but discovering that they belong together and need each other – not just to overcome the disaster that has crashed into their budding romance – but because they are both unbalanced, just as their star is, and they need each other to bring balance to their lives, their hearts, and ultimately their people.

This is also very much a coming of age or coming into maturity or simply a coming into self knowledge story. Ranra, the starkeeper has always known who and what she is in all her prickly, sometimes overbearing, always pushing forward self.

Lilún, very much on the other hand, is cripplingly shy, and so uncertain of their own nature or their place in the world to the point where they almost completely isolate themself. Lilún’s part of The Unbalancing is to finally figure out who they are in relation to their wider world. Because initially the only thing about themselves that they are certain of is that they are a gardener and tender of trees.

(Even their name evokes that identity. The name Lilún is reminiscent of “lulav”, one of the four plants that epitomize the Jewish harvest holiday Sukkot. Among the other plants is the etrog citron, which is abundant on Gelle-Gau to the point that it is used as the basis for a cool citrus drink similar to lemonade.)

What gives this story its oomph – and lots of it – is the race to heal the star and save the islands. That the effort fails seems like it would be one hell of a downer – but it’s not. What makes the story rise in the end is the acknowledgement that the land, though beautiful, is not important. It’s the people that made the islands, and they’ll find a new place that they will make just as beautiful and fruitful, because they are bringing both the heart of Gelle-Gau and the heart of their beleaguered star along with them.

The more I read of the Birdverse, the more fascinated I become with this fantastic and fantastical place. The story in The Unbalancing is complete in and of itself, but it hints at depths that I found myself wishing I knew better. In other words, I loved it AND I wanted more. And I found it in Geometries of Belonging: Stories & Poems from the Birdverse, a collection of many of the foundational stories of this marvelous place. I’m looking forward to diving in and learning that MORE – and soon!

Review: The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia

Review: The Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem JamniaThe Bruising of Qilwa by Naseem Jamnia
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 176
Published by Tachyon Publications on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

In this intricate debut fantasy introducing a queernormative Persian-inspired world, a nonbinary refugee practitioner of blood magic discovers a strange disease that causes political rifts in their new homeland. Persian-American author Naseem Jamnia has crafted a gripping narrative with a moving, nuanced exploration of immigration, gender, healing, and family.
Firuz-e Jafari is fortunate enough to have immigrated to the Free Democratic City-State of Qilwa, fleeing the slaughter of other traditional Sassanian blood magic practitioners in their homeland. Despite the status of refugees in their new home, Firuz has a good job at a free healing clinic in Qilwa, working with Kofi, a kindly new employer, and mentoring Afsoneh, a troubled orphan refugee with powerful magic.
But Firuz and Kofi have discovered a terrible new disease which leaves mysterious bruises on its victims. The illness is spreading quickly through Qilwa, and there are dangerous accusations of ineptly performed blood magic. In order to survive, Firuz must break a deadly cycle of prejudice, untangle sociopolitical constraints, and find a fresh start for their both their blood and found family.
Powerful and fascinating, The Bruising of Qilwa is the newest arrival in the era of fantasy classics such as the Broken Earth Trilogy, The Four Profound Weaves, and Who Fears Death.

My Review:

On its quietly beguiling surface, The Bruising of Qilwa combines medical mystery with a Persian-inspired fantasy world to tell a story that seduces its reader into exploring the hidden depths of its world. As it tells the story of Firuz-e Jafari and their refugee family, it also manages to say quite a bit about immigration, refugees, and colonialism from the perspective of both the colonizers and the colonized.

But it all starts with Firuz doing their level best to support their family and practice their calling. Firuz is a healer, but there are so many hedges around that word that they almost can’t manage to separate the things they are allowed to say about themselves from the things they must keep hidden at all costs.

Firuz is a refugee in Qilwa. A despised refugee from a country that once upon a time ruled over Qilwa with a heavy, imperial hand. Those days are long gone, but the current refugee crisis has awakened all of the Qilwans old fears of being overwhelmed by masses of ‘others’.

That refugee crisis is exacerbated by a health crisis. Not just the old canard about refugees bringing disease, but an actual disease that is sweeping the overcrowded conditions in the slums that are the only housing the refugees are permitted to occupy. That the disease is making its way into the ‘better’ parts of the city has everyone on edge.

Firuz presents themselves to the only healer even bothering to treat the refugees, offering their services as an apprentice and assistant. Because Healer Kofi needs help every bit as much as Firuz needs both to help the Healer and to have a job to support their mother and brother.

Firuz and Kofi form what at first seems like an unlikely but quite fulfilling partnership. After all, Firuz is a refugee, their people are hated, feared and despised in Qilwa, and they are a secret practitioner of the forbidden science of blood magic.

Kofi is a native Qilwan, well-respected if not always liked, fully trained as an elemental healer and willing to go anywhere, do anything and work with anyone in order to fulfill his healing oaths. Including breaking them.

Escape Rating A+: This was a reread for me. I read this back in May for what turned out to be a STARRED Library Journal review. Because the book is awesome, and turned out to be even more so on the second go around.

The plot that powers the whole thing is the medical mystery. The first plague was just a disease of poverty and poor living conditions, malnutrition and hopelessness. But it spawns a second plague, and that’s the one that seems to drive Healer Kofi, Firuz, and Firuz’ friend Mortician Malika to desperation. Corpses of refugees are turning up that aren’t completely dead. Not that they are zombies, but that the person is dead while the body is still busily producing blood and other fluids. It’s weird, it’s wrong, and it’s a mystery that Malika and Firuz feel compelled to solve.

But the vehicle through which that story is told is the story of Firuz and their life in Qilwa – and the life of the city of Qilwa that surrounds them. Firuz’ story manages to say a whole lot of things without talking about them directly and certainly without lecturing about them. The reader is absorbed in their story rather than have it thrust at them, and it’s lovely and immersive.

As Firuz reveals themselves, we learn that they are ace, aromantic and trans. But those are things that just are in their world, as innate and unremarkable as what color eyes one has. They live in a world where those are all just a part of life and no one remarks on them.

And yet those factors still cause conflict, a conflict which intersects with their magic, which leads to all the other things the story makes the reader aware of, in a way that both points out the normalcy of Firuz’ person as they are and highlights the factors that make them different from their current neighbors. Their refugee status, their language and country of origin, the forbidden magic they practice and can’t hide well.

So, as Firuz looks into the medical mystery, the reader looks into Firuz’ perspective on their world, and we get a glimpse of just how the past of Qilwa’s colonization by Firuz’ people and the way that Firuz’ people interpret the world because they were once colonizers but no longer are has shaped current relations between the two countries and the refugee crisis that is straining that relationship to its limits.

Firuz, as they live their life in Qilwa, finds themselves at the crux of all those underlying issues of immigration, colonialism, and fear of change and fear of the unknown. But the medical mystery comes back to a bigger and more immediate question – that old one about whether the ends justify the means. Can evil ever be justified by the good that might result from its use? Who gets to decide? And who will be left to pick up the inevitable pieces?

The Bruising of Qilwa is one of those stories that makes the reader think, and feel, and think again, long after the last page is turned. As witnessed by my picking this back up months later to see if it was as good as my memory made it – only to discover that it was even better than I first thought.

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. Liu

Review: The Tangleroot Palace by Marjorie M. LiuThe Tangleroot Palace: Stories by Marjorie M. Liu
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: anthologies, fantasy, horror, short stories
Pages: 256
Published by Tachyon Publications on June 15, 2021
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

New York Times bestseller and Hugo, British Fantasy, Romantic Times, and Eisner award-winning author of the graphic novel, Monstress, Marjorie Liu leads you deep into the heart of the tangled woods. In her long-awaited debut story collection, dark, lush, and spellbinding short fiction you will find unexpected detours, dangerous magic, and even more dangerous women.
“The Tangleroot Palace is charming and ruthless. Tales that feel new yet grounded in the infinitely ancient, a mythology for the coming age.”—Angela Slatter, author of The Bitterwood Bible
“Marjorie Liu is magic! Her writing is passionate, lyric, gritty, and riveting. She belongs high on everyone’s must-read list.”—Elizabeth Lowell, author of Only Mine
Briar, bodyguard for a body-stealing sorceress, discovers her love for Rose, whose true soul emerges only once a week. An apprentice witch seeks her freedom through betrayal, the bones of the innocent, and a meticulously-plotted spell. In a world powered by crystal skulls, a warrior returns to save China from invasion by her jealous ex. A princess runs away from an arranged marriage, finding family in a strange troupe of traveling actors at the border of the kingdom’s deep, dark woods.
Concluding with a gorgeous full-length novella, Marjorie Liu’s first short fiction collection is an unflinching sojourn into her thorny tales of love, revenge, and new beginnings.

My Review:

I picked this up not for her multiple award-winning Monstress, which I haven’t read yet, but for Dirk & Steele and Hunter’s Kiss, her marvelous urban fantasy/paranormal series that I read when they came out back in the late 2000s. I loved both of those series, but I’m kind of astonished that they came out way more than a decade ago.

But it has been a while, so I was happy to see this collection as a way of renewing my acquaintance with an author I very much loved. And I’m glad I did. There’s even a prequel for Dirk & Steele in this collection, at least if you squint a bit.

My favorite stories in this collection were The Briar and the Rose, Call Her Savage and the title story, The Tangleroot Palace.

The Briar and the Rose takes the fairytale of Sleeping Beauty, adds in a bit of magical possession and body-swapping, and wraps it in a bodyguard romance. Except that this takes place in a world of myth and legend, where an evil sorceress is maintaining her youth and beauty by possessing pretty young women and discarding their corpses. That sorceress is defeated by the love that develops between her female bodyguard and the true personality of the body being possessed in stolen moments when the sorceress sleeps. And it’s a powerful story about just how strong people can be when they have something, or someone to fight beside and to fight for.

Call Her Savage was fascinating because it hints at so much world and such a rich history that we don’t get to see in this story. There’s alternate history and revolution and wars and flawed heroines and politics and lost causes and fighting the long defeat. It reminds me a bit of Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, but with an alternate 19th or 20th century instead of alternate early history. This is the one I wish there were more of. A lot more.

The Tangleroot Palace was lush and lovely and kind of perfect. On its surface its about a princess who runs away from home to find magic in order to save herself and hopefully save her kingdom from subservience to a brutal warlord. And underneath that it’s a romance about hiding behind masks to protect one’s true self, about the power of illusion and the power of agency. And of course nothing about the warlord or the kingdom or the subservience turns out to be quite what the princess was expecting. But the magic at the heart of the forest is all too real, even if, or especially because, it too is based on an illusion.

Of the rest of the collection, Sympathy for the Bones, Where the Heart Lives and The Last Dignity of Man were interesting and I’m glad I read them but they weren’t quite up there with my faves. After the Blood played with a supernatural/paranormal take on a post-apocalyptic story but didn’t give enough details to really hang together. Not that some characters weren’t hung or otherwise eliminated, but this one felt like it had been done before, and better, elsewhere.

Still and all, I’d have read this for those three favorite stories, and I’m glad I stuck around for the whole thing. It was just the right amount of lovely and romantic and creepy to while awhile a rainy evening with a cat on my lap.

Escape Rating A-: This is a strong collection, filled with stories that grip the heart, ramp up the adrenaline and occasionally wring the tear ducts. They’re not new stories, but they were all new to me, and I got completely wrapped up in every single one. They have the feel of feminist fairy tales, in that all but one of the stories are led by women, and are from mostly female perspectives. So these are heroine’s journeys – and occasionally villainess’ journeys, rather than told from the point of view that such stories are usually told.

Although the one story that is told from a male perspective, The Last Dignity of Man, while it was not among my favorites was one of the most purely lonely stories I have ever read. It was so sad and so heartbreaking and had so much possibility but the monsters, and there certainly were monsters, were more disgusting than scary, not that they weren’t scary too. Still, the idea of someone emulating a supervillain in the hopes that a superhero would arise to thwart them, just like in the comic books, was a great idea that I’d love to see explored more fully with less puking. Seriously.

The Tangleroot Palace reminded me just why I loved this author so much, and has made me resolve to get stuck into Monstress at the earliest opportunity!

Review: The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg

Review: The Four Profound Weaves by R.B. LembergThe Four Profound Weaves by R.B. Lemberg
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Birdverse
Pages: 192
Published by Tachyon Publications on September 1, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

“Thoughtful and deeply moving, The Four Profound Weaves is the anti-authoritarian, queer-mystical fairy tale we need right now.”-Annalee Newitz, author of The Future of Another Timeline
[STARRED REVIEW] “A beautiful, heartfelt story of change, family, identity, and courage.”-Library Journal
Wind: To match one's body with one's heartSand: To take the bearer where they wishSong: In praise of the goddess BirdBone: To move unheard in the night
The Surun' do not speak of the master weaver, Benesret, who creates the cloth of bone for assassins in the Great Burri Desert. But Uiziya now seeks her aunt Benesret in order to learn the final weave, although the price for knowledge may be far too dear to pay.
Among the Khana, women travel in caravans to trade, while men remain in the inner quarter as scholars. A nameless man struggles to embody Khana masculinity, after many years of performing the life of a woman, trader, wife, and grandmother.
As the past catches up to the nameless man, he must choose between the life he dreamed of and Uiziya, and Uiziya must discover how to challenge a tyrant, and weave from deaths that matter.
Set in R. B. Lemberg's beloved Birdverse, The Four Profound Weaves hearkens to Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness. In this breathtaking debut, Lemberg offers a timeless chronicle of claiming one's identity in a hostile world.

My Review:

The Four Profound Weaves has the feel and the sense of a myth in the making, or perhaps a fairy tale. Reading it has filled my head with a weave of more thoughts – profound or otherwise – than one would think that a book this slim would hold between its pages.

It’s the kind of story that, although I’ve finished reading it, I feel like it hasn’t finished with me yet. Perhaps its that the lesson of the fairy tale is still being absorbed.

On the surface, this is a story about two people who want to be different, or want the world to be different, or both, than they or it is. The initial part of the story is their recognition that they have, in their own completely separate ways, handed control over themselves and the changes they wish to make to others.

The beginning of this story, their initial quest, is to take back that control.

Which leads them, directly and almost inexorably, into the path of a ruler who wants the world and everyone in it to remain unchanged, exactly as they are, precisely as he wills it. And them.

This is a world where, as Emily Dickinson once said, “Hope is the thing with feathers”. But this is Birdverse, where so, also, is death. A place where a master weaver can take them both and weave them together into a cloth, and a song, and change, if not the world, than at least one corner of it.

Escape Rating A-: I’m all over the map about this one. In the end, I loved it, but the beginning was slow. I think that part of that was because this was my first trip to Birdverse, and it took me a while to get my bearings in it.

Also, the story begins slowly because it feels like it is meant to. Both of the protagonists have spent 40 years not living their truths. That’s a long time to wait for anything, let alone wait to fulfill their dreams. But they’ve been holding themselves back, so it seems natural that it would take them a while to get moving toward a future that they’ve been inching towards at a snail’s pace for so many years.

Once they finally begin their journey, it initially seems like a lesson in being very, very careful in what you wish for, because when you get it it isn’t anything like you imagined while you were wishing your life away to get to it.

Which is another lesson.

The thing that I kept coming back to while reading was the contradiction and the interchangeability – and the contradiction of that interchangeability – between change and death.

Both Uiziya and the Nameless Man want to change. And they both want that change to be both accepted and acceptable. The irony is that the people having the most difficulty accepting their changes is themselves.

But the Collector of Izya refuses to accept any change, of anything. And he believes that the only way to protect things from changing is to hide them away where only he can see them. He believes that death is the ultimate preservation. The dead, after all, stop changing.

At the same time, change is itself a death. When something or someone changes, it kills the thing or person that came before, even if, or perhaps especially because, the new thing or person marches on. And continues to change.

As my thoughts about this book kept spinning, the image I was left with was the Tarot card of Death, which represents both death and change. The most familiar rendition of Death in the Tarot is of a skeleton riding a pale horse as it steps over a fallen king. Which feels like a piece of the literal interpretation of this story, that not even royalty can stop change.

But this is a story that feels open to as many meanings as any myth. It’s a story about not just discovering your authentic self, but becoming that self and accepting that self, no matter how much childhood programming, loved one’s attempts to call back your tide, or social opprobrium stand in your way. And no matter how much you stand in your own way.

It’s also a story about the price of change, and the cost of redemption. And that the sins of the past may be halted but not eliminated. And that sometimes that’s all you can do, and that it’s enough.

I think there’s more in this story, and more in Birdverse. I look forward to going back and discovering it.

Review: Driftwood by Marie Brennan

Review: Driftwood by Marie BrennanDriftwood by Marie Brennan
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Pages: 224
Published by Tachyon Publications on August 14, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

Who is Last?
Fame is rare in Driftwood- it’s hard to get famous if you don’t stick around long enough for people to know you. But many know the guide, Last, a one-blooded survivor who has seen his world end many lifetimes ago. For Driftwood is a strange place of slow apocalypses, where continents eventually crumble into mere neighborhoods, pulled inexorably towards the center in the Crush. Cultures clash, countries fall, and everything eventually disintegrates.
Within the Shreds, a rumor goes around that Last has died. Drifters come together to commemorate him. But who really was Last?
About Driftwood
Driftwood is the invention of bestselling author Marie Brennan. Mirroring the world that many people are currently living in, the Driftwood stories chronicle the struggles of survivors and outcasts to keep their worlds alive until everything changes, diminishes, and is destroyed. Driftwood is the first full-length novel in this world.

My Review:

This is what happens after the world comes to an end. And it was nothing like I expected. But it was absolutely marvelous all the same.

This is also a story about the indomitability of the spirit. And it’s also a story about stories, as much of the narrative takes place on a single night when many of the inhabitants of the Shreds get together in a kind of no-person’s land to tell the story of one singular being who touched all their lives.

A seemingly immortal being who may, or may not, be gone. Some gather to mourn, while others are there to prove that the being they call Last can’t possibly be dead – because they believe he’s a god, and gods don’t die.

A lot of the denizens of the Shreds don’t think he’s a god, and I don’t think either. I do think that Last is a genius loci, the spirit of the place called Driftwood. The place where worlds go after they come to an end.

And Driftwood is a marvel. And a grave.

A remnant of worlds that have ended emerge in the Mist that surrounds Driftwood and attach themselves to its outer Edge. These remnants contain a large enough portion of their original world to have mountains, and cities, and spaces between those places. Big enough parts of their old world for the inhabitants, for a couple generations at least, to ignore the outside worlds that are not theirs.

But time is inexorable, and so is the pull of the Crush at the center of Driftwood. Worlds from the Edge are drawn inward, shrinking as they get closer to the Crush, while other worlds emerge from the Mist and become new Edge worlds. By the time worlds reach the middle of Driftwood, called the Shreds, their worlds are literally shreds of their former selves, and the people remaining are not just forced to acknowledge the existence of other worlds, but their people have become part of the blended population of the Driftwood, no longer one-bloods restricted to their own kind, whatever that kind might have been.

Last is the last of his own people. A one-blood from a world that went into the Crush long ago. He has lived long past the usual lifespan of his own people and makes his living as a guide to Driftwood, a translator of many of its varied languages, and a repository of a history that no one else remembers.

But he has disappeared, and it has been left to the many, many people that he has helped on their way through Driftwood to tell the small fragments of his story that they know.

And it’s utterly captivating.

Escape Rating A+: Some books are just WOW! And Driftwood is definitely one of those books.

The bare description makes you think that the book will be a downer. After all, it’s about worlds ENDING and it’s people telling stories about someone they believe is dead. But it’s so totally not. A downer, that is.

Because the worlds that have joined Driftwood may be ending, but their inhabitants clearly are not. Some of them do rage against the dying of the light. Sometimes it’s literally raging and sometimes it’s literally about the light dying. But some of them do. Both, or either.

Howsomever, the stories that this group has gathered together to tell are about, well, togetherness, in one way or another. They are all stories about working with Last, or about Last helping them or their Shred, or simply about Last standing with them when they do something incredibly brave, like the story “Into the Wind”, or something incredibly stupid and ill-advised, like “The Ascent of Unreason”, which manages to be stupid, brave, ill-advised and a whole lot of fun all at the same time.

Many of the stories in Driftwood have been previously and separately published, but together they make a surprisingly wonderful and cohesive whole. A whole that is entirely too short but begins, middles and ends exactly where it should. A beautiful puzzlement and a fantastic read.