fantasy


A stand-alone fantasy/SF novella.

Publication year: 2018
Format: Audio
Running time: 6 hours 44 minute
Narrator: Nancy Wu

Yên has wanted to be a scholar but when she failed her university entrance exams, she lost her passion, even though she’s hoping to retake the exams in a couple of years. Now, she’s just helping her mother, the village healer. But they live in a village where only the most useful members are allowed to survive. Because this world was used and abused by beings called the Vanishers who have now gone. They left behind an planet filled with diseases and pollution. The healers, like Yên’s mother Kim Ngoc, are doing what they can but their magic is too weak heal everyone.

When Yên’s friend falls ill, the only way for Kim to heal her is to summon the local dragon. The dragon comes in the form of a noble but cold woman. She heals Yên’s friend but in return demands a life. She expects to get the girl she healed but the village elders consider Yên to be far more expendable. By threatening Yên’s mother, they get her to volunteer.

Yên expects the dragon to kill her. But to her amazement, the dragon has two children who require a tutor. Yên agrees. She fears the dragon but is also attracted to her. The children are unruly but polite to her. The palace exists in a spirit realm and is shifting around her. It has rooms where she shouldn’t go because she could die there. And the dragons themselves have many secrets.

This story has a very complex background and it allows de Bodard to explore not just the issues of colonization but also of consent, racism, and power. The dragon, Vu Côn, turns out to be rather ethical (perhaps not surprisingly) and she tries to teach the children about the ethics of consent between people who have very different levels of power. She’s also a healer and is combating the diseases (or viruses as she sees them). On the other hand, she has a lot of power and is used to wielding it without consulting anyone else. And yet, when the Vanishers were on this planet, Vu Côn and the other dragons were their servants. So, she has seen the power imbalance on both sides.

Again, the background is very complex and needs a careful reading to pick out just what’s happening. I’m hoping de Bodard will explore this fascinating world some more. Also, there are things that aren’t explained enough, such as the magic system.

This is often pitched as a Beauty and a Beast retelling which made me uncomfortable because that story always has too much Stockholm syndrome to me. Clearly, de Bodard knows that baggage and is circumventing it by talking carefully about consent. Excellent!

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The second book in a trilogy of children’s fantasy books.

Publication year: 2003
Format: print
Publisher: Atom
Page count: 182

After the events of the previous book, the Troll King, every troll in Bonespittle wants to make Rollo the king. Even the comely troll maiden Ludicra finally notices Rollo and decides to become his queen. This is all a bit much to Rollo, who is only 14, and he flees the town. He tells everyone that he wants to keep a promise to a friend and to do that he needs to return to Bonny Woods where all the scary elves and pixies live. So, he runs.

Everyone celebrates their new-found freedom so much that nothing gets done. When two weeks have gone by, Ludicra finally decides to organized the trolls and ogres a little. But mostly, she’s worried about her own declining status and to keep it, she needs Rollo back. Together with a small group of trolls, ogres, and gnomes Ludicra and Rollo’s sister Crawfleece head to the scary woods. They also need to cross the Great Charm and they don’t know how.

Meanwhile, Rollo encounters some elves. For a short while, it looks like Rollo might make some new friends, despite an elven prince who is very suspicious of him. Unfortunately, things go wrong and the elves capture Rollo. He needs to be rescued.

This was a fun continuation to the Troll King with lots of adventure. Once again, we’re shown that things aren’t what they look at first glance. This time the POV shifts between Rollo and Ludicra who even grows a little during the dangerous journey. However, it does have a lot of violence and some unnamed characters die in battle scenes. Otherwise, it’s a great read for younger fantasy readers. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but most likely trouble awaites our intrepid band of unlikely heroes.

The first book in a trilogy of children’s fantasy books.

Publication year: 2002
Format: print
Publisher: Atom
Page count: 216

This is book for older children. It’s set in a fantasy world with ghouls, gnomes, trolls, ogres, and faeries. But it’s set in the land of the “bad guys”, so that’s a bit different than usual.

For centuries, sorcerer Stygius Rex has ruled ogres, trolls, the ghouls, and gnomes in fear. Now, Rex has seen a vision and has decided that he’s going to build a bridge over the Great Chasm, from his land Bonespittle to the Bonny Woods which is home to the ferocious elves and pixies. Of course, Rex intends to conquer that disgustingly forested land. To do that, he needs workers.

Enter our hero Rollo. He’s a fourteen year old troll and one of the apprentices of a master bridge builder. Trolls live under bridges and that’s why the Troll Town has a lot of bridges. Sadly, trolls are also the most oppressed race in this nation and so Rex sends his ogres to kidnap trolls and force them to work. Unfortunate Rollo is the first one to be kidnapped.

Despite being a troll, Rollo is quite a typical main character. He’s not very brave but when needed, he will do the right thing. He’s scared of Rex but he’s basically a good-natured boy who doesn’t like the sorcerer’s plans. The ghoul General Drool also frightens him. And there’s a young troll girl whom he admires and tries to talk to.

It’s a fun, quick read. It’s rather a straightforward story of finding out that things aren’t necessarily as you have been told they are (hmmm… maybe some adults need to (re)learn that as well…) It doesn’t quite end in a cliffhanger but definitely has a hook to the next book.

A short story collection of steampunk tales. Most are reprints.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Publisher: Robinson
Page count: 518

Many steampunk stories are set in Victorian England but I’ve read some set in the Wild West settings and of course those set in fantasy worlds with steampunk machines and magic side-by-side and alternate worlds without actual magic. This collection has wide variety of settings from imaginary worlds to Mongolian steppes and rain forests of South-America.

The characters are also quite varied. Some of the stories are from “SteamPowered II: More Lesbian Steampunk Stories” so we also get lesbian lovers (no sex scenes), along with the usual spies, adventurers, detectives, and apprentices. The moods of the stories range from adventurous to horror to contemplative. However, especially those stories that are set in the past, racism and sexism is shown affecting the main character. Also, I don’t consider all stories to be adventure but they do have social conscience, so they definitely have a “punk” attitude. In some stories that conscience is hidden, rather than overt and some explore the evils of tech (such as genetic engineering) slightly sideways. A couple of the stories are about the horrors of war.

Tobias S. Buckell: “Love Comes to Abyssal City”: Tia is a young diplomat whose job is to meet the people who come to Abyssal City. However, that job demands that she spends time away from her social duties, spending time with the travelers when they’re quarantined before letting them into the city. Even the day when she’s supposed to meet her future cardmate, she instead spends three days together with a young traveler from another city. She’s fascinated by his stories and him. Perhaps more than she should be because the city itself notices the anomaly when she doesn’t like the man the city has computed to be her perfect match.

A.C. Wise’s “A Mouse Ran up the Clock” is set in Nazi Germany. Simon Shulewitz can build mechanics inside animals and they don’t die. Unfortunately, his skills attract attention from the ruling Nazis.

Cherie Priest: “Tanglefoot” is set in her Clockwork Century series, even though you don’t need to know anything about the series. Dr. Archibald Smeeks is an inventor and a builder but is now quite elderly and lives in the basement of a sanitarium. Edwin is one of the orphans there and does his best to assist the doctor both in work and in remembering. Edwin has his own job, too; he’s building a mechanical boy as a new friend.

Jay Lake: “Benedicte Te”: Algernon Black-Smith is a secret agent for Her Majesty. But someone tries to murder him quite spectacularly with a runaway steam train. Then the Consul-General sends him to a secret mission into the Republic of Texas. However, Algernon strongly suspects that the Consul-General himself tried to assassinate him. So, he must be very careful.

Benjanun Sriduangkaew: “Five Hundred And Ninety-Nine”: This story starts in the modern day Krungthep (Bangkok). Nathamol and Rinnapha are roommates in a university. At first, Nathmol’s biggest problem is that she’s in love with Rinnapha. But when China and America go to war, electricity and other modern comforts are stripped away.

Christopher Barzak: “Smoke City”: The main character of this story has two lives. She lives in the modern world with her husband and kids. But she’s from Smoke City where she has another husband who must work in the steam factories. She also has other children whose destiny is to work, too, in those same factories.

Carrie Vaughn: “Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil”: This is essentially a female Indiana Jones story. Harry (a woman) steals the talisman and then must try to take it back to England in Marlowe’s airship. However, while she and her handsome partner Marlowe have been getting the talisman, the Germans have blockaded the whole island.

Jonathan Wood: “Anna In The Moonlight”: In this world, England has been torn by civil war because some people have had animal parts ingrafted into them and others think that’s against god’s will. Frank is a soldier in that war. The killing hardens him. Until he meets a woman.

Chris Roberson: “Edison’s Frankenstein”: Set in the Chicago World Fair and in a world where prometheic matter has replaced the fledgling electricity as the main power source for steam engines and “Antediluvian” machinery. Archibald Cahabane is the leader of the Algerian Exhibit and he’s trying to get the Exhibit to be built in time. But then a strange man is found and Archibald hears that someone has been murdered.

C.S.E. Cooney: “The Canary of Candletown”: The coal to power steam engines must come from somewhere. Candletown is a coal town where the children born are automatically put to work, with barely enough food to survive. Canary is one of those children. One day she meets with a woman from outside the town.

E. Catherine Tobler: “Green-Eyed Monsters In The Valley Of Sky, An Opera”: Dinosaurs! Opera! Mechanical dinosaurs! In South America.

Alex Dally MacFarlane: “Selin That Has Grown in the Desert” in set on the Mongolian plain. Dursun’s parents are talking about finding a husband for her. But she doesn’t want that because she isn’t attracted to men. However, no other woman is like that and she knows she must do her duty. But then the traders come and with them is a strange looking woman who has many secrets.

Gord Sellar: “The Clockworks Of Hanyang”: MacMillan is a brilliant and famous English detective. He and his long-time friend Lasher are in Hanyang, Korea. They’re disturbed by the local mechanical constructs, the mechanika, which can’t speak and which are built without the knowledge of language. That and the fact that they’re built with the five relationships of Confusious are supposed to ensure that they never rebel, unlike the Western mechanika. However, a mysterious young lady asks MacMillan to investigate on her behalf and he agrees, even though Lasher has more doubts than usual.

Tony Pi: “The Curse of Chimère”: Professor Tremaine Voss has been invited to the screening of one of the first color films, an new invention by alchemists. However, when he arrives, people are running away from the cinema in panic or unable to move and bleeding from the eyes. Luckily, Voss is a very experienced investigator of supernatural things gone wrong. The story’s available for free online at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Aliette de Bodard: “Memories In Bronze, Feathers And Blood”: Nezahual used to be a Jaguar Knight. Now he builds mechanical creatures and some of them even come alive. Then Acamapixtli tries to convince Nezahual to start building a different, more peaceful world with his machines. Even the idea is threatening to some. The story is told from the POV of one of Nezahual’s mechanical creatures. The story’s available for free online at Beneath Ceaseless Skies.

Nisi Shawl: “The Return of Chérie”: Lisette is an agent of Kalima, an independent African state. She returns with secret offers of alliance from two different nations to the head of state. She also meets Daisy, who is a secret agent for Kalima and Lisette’s former lover. Oh, they’re both over 50.

Lisa L. Hannett: “On The Lot And In The Air”: A mechanical crow is part of an carnival show where people try to throw rocks at him to make him drop the golden cog in his beak.

Genevieve Valentine: “Terrain”: A steampunk Western. Fa Liang, who builds mechanics, Shoshune siblings Faye and Frank, freedman Joseph and his wife Maria, and Elijah, who is the only one of them who can own land legally, are living and working together on a small farm. They also run a message service where the boys ride mechanical dogs instead of horse. But the railroad is coming and threatening their livelihood and their very lives. Available for free at Tor.com

Sofia Samatar: “I Stole the DC’s Eyeglass”: Pai-te is a servant in the DC’s household. One day she steals his eyeglass. She gives it to her sister who develops a “spirit eye” and starts to build strange things.

Caitlín R. Kiernan: “The Colliers’ Venus (1893)”: Professor Jeremiah Ogilvy is a curator of his own museum and a geologist. When the local miners find a woman trapped inside a mineral deposit, the professor demands to speak with her even though she has killed two men.

Cat Rambo: “Ticktock Girl” is told from the POV of an automata which was built to by wheelchair-bound Lady Sybil to be her legs and fists. A reporter is asking the robot to remember her life and she remembers snippets of it.

K.W. Jeter: “La Valse”: The wealthy with long, long pedigrees are preparing for their annual New Year Eve Ball. Herr Doktor Pavel and his young assistant Anton are making sure the mechanical orchestra functions and that the aristocrats of both genders are property tightened into their mechanical body cages which will make them seem somewhat younger. Then something goes wrong.

Margaret Ronald: “The Governess And The Lobster”: Rosalie has come to Hakuma as a governess for four orphan children. She’s also required to find out if a school should be started in that town. However, Hakuma is a city of transients; both humans and automata rarely stay there for longer than a few months. Apparently, the automata have their own city nearby. The children have had no formal education and pretty much left to their own devices.

Samantha Henderson: “Beside Calais”: In this world, flying machines roam wild, like a cross between birds and horses. Some have been captured and tamed to work and when war threatens, humans start breeding the flying machines for war. In France, the breeding is planned to begin on a seaside farm where éoles and a couple of other breeds of machines still fly wild. Ian Chance has taken a commission to oversee it. On the farm is Ian’s previous lover Claire. When Claire was grievously hurt, crippled, four years ago, Ian ran away. Now he must face her again.

Ken Liu: “Good Hunting”: Liang’s father is a monster hunter and when Liang turns 13, his father takes him along to hunt a hulijing, a fox woman. Young Liang finds out that his father doesn’t know everyone. But the British are building a railroad through China and the old magic is disappearing. Both monsters and their hunters must find new ways to survive.

All of the stories have fascinating worlds. I liked all of the stories although not all of them have adventure. My favorites were “Beside Calais”, “The Governess and the Lobster”, and of course Carrie Vaughn’s story. The stories set in other countries than US or Britain brought a whole new angle to steampunk which I very much enjoyed.

The first book an fantasy series which follows sisters Aurie and Pi in a school of magic. However, it can be read as a stand-alone.

Publication year: 2016
Format: ebook
Publisher: Black Moon Books
Page count: 316 at GoodReads

The story is set in an American city of Invictus which is famous for the Hundred Halls of magic. Each Hall takes only teenaged initiates; they must all pass tests (called the Merlins) where they compete against each other and the tests must be passed before their 21st birthday. The Halls are like American collages; it’s expensive to go there but they also provide room and board. In fact, if you get in, the first year students are forbidden to go out of the Halls, at least on their own. The reputation of each Hall vary. The most exclusive of them is the aptly named Coterie where all students are expected to come from rich families who have members already in that Hall. Also, the students must have patrons to support them during the second year and beyond.

Aurie and Pi (Aurelia and Pythia) are orphans; their parents died in a magical accident seven years ago. They’ve drifted from one foster home to another and are now living together in a very poor part of the city. Aurie carries a lot of guilt from the accident and has tried to take care of her younger sister as best she can. This makes Pi think of her older sister as bit of a domineering pain-in-the-neck. But they clearly love and support each other. Aurie is very responsible and studious but also caring and a creative thinker. She works as a volunteer at the local hospital, caring for children who have very serious magical diseases. However, she’s dismissed from that job because of the actions of an arrogant girl. Oh and the sisters aren’t white.

Aurie wants to get in the Halls at the same time as Pi, so that she knows Pi will be taken care of. Also, they both work to get the money. This is the last year Aurie can take the trials, just before her 21st birthday. She’s studied hard and is sure she’ll make it. However, that arrogant girl who got her dismissed, is also in the trials and makes life really hard for Aurie.

Meanwhile, Pi wants to get into Coterie. She wants it so much that she contacted a Corterie patron and almost forced him to give her a mission. That mission is to summon a demon and find out where the Rod of Dominion is. So, Pi does that. In order to summon a demon lord, she sells her soul to a city fae for three years. And the trouble just starts from there.

The story is very exciting with some twists, too. Pi is more reckless than her sister and pushes her powers and knowledge often to the limit, sometimes dangerously so. They both attract enemies just by being lower class orphan (non-white) girls trying to better their lives. Personally, I sometimes found the hostility from some of the other students a bit much; surely a teacher should have intervened, unless they are deliberately teaching the students to form exclusive cliques and become bullies. Maybe they are, at least in the Coterie.

The magic system isn’t explained much. The sisters use hand gestures and words and require a lot of concentration to do magic. Aurie also writes truth magic. It’s powered by something called faez which apparently those with magical ability create. However, demons are also called faez demons and some places also seem to generate it.

However, the story was mostly exciting and I loved the gaming store where Pi works. It’s owner, Hemistad, is man with many secrets and having side characters playing Magic and role playing games on the side was great. I also loved the sisters. We get alternating view points from them.

The first book in the Daevabad fantasy trilogy inspired by Middle-Eastern folklore.

Publication year: 2017
Format: Audio
Running time: 19 hours 36 minute
Narrator: Soneela Nankani

Nahri is a young street hustler. She poses as a soothsayer and a healer who can summon and banish spirits. But it’s all just for show; she doesn’t believe it. She lives in 18th century Cairo which has been invaded by the Franks who fight Turks over the ownership of Egypt whose people they despise. She’s an orphan; her parents died when she was young, leaving nothing. She speaks many languages and dreams of being a real doctor.

But when she performs a mock-summoning, something very strange happens: she summons a real daeva, a powerful spirit. That act also brings strange and strong enemies who can even summon the dead. Nahri is forced to trust Dara, the daeva, who is furious at her and put her down all the time. But Dara also says that he knows what Nahri is, so she’s intrigued almost despite herself. However, Dara says that the only place were Nahri can be safe is Daevabad, the city of the daeva. Despite her protests, he essentially kidnaps her, and takes her to a wild flying carpet ride.

The other POV character is Prince Alizayd, or Ali. He’s the younger son of Daevabad’s king. He’s also a djinn, a magical being, like all his family and most of the people who live in the city and country. He’s lived and grown up in the military and so has lived quite a sheltered life. He’s aware, of course, of the injustices in the city and has tried to help in his own way. The shafits are people who are half-human and the djinn oppress them mercilessly: they can’t leave but they also can’t work. Ali is trying to help them but because of his family, he must conceal himself. But then things go terribly wrong and in the end, Ali is summoned to live in the palace.

This is a very ambitious work with very complex world-building. The history of this world is woven with history, especially Islamic history. The djinns are divided into lots of fractions and races, which complicated the reading. Apparently, the print book has a glossary but they audio doesn’t. The writer also uses occasional Arabic words for clothing. This isn’t a book you can just breeze through. However, this also means that much of the book is spent exploring these cultures and tensions.

Ali and Nahri are very distinct from each other; one might call them even opposites at the start. Ali is a very religious young man and a dutiful son to the king. He’s lived almost monastic life and scorns the pleasures his station would give him. Nahri has lived on the street almost all her life. She hasn’t had anything that Ali takes for granted. Yet, they’re both bright, curious people. They’re also loyal and want good for other people. Nahri is a very pragmatic person while Ali is an idealist.

Dara is a very interesting character. He’s very old and has spent centuries as a slave, so his outlook is quite different from the others.

For the most part, I enjoyed the book and the complexities of the djinns. However, I didn’t care for the start of a romance because I didn’t see at all (except that as a case of Stockholm syndrome). For me, there was also the disconnect between Islamic religion being younger than some of the characters who are supposedly following it. The stories about Djinn are also older than that religion. Devas are divine, other-worldly beings from Hinduism and Buddhism.

The ending leaves everything wide open. I already have the second book.

The first short story in the historical (fantasy) Avon Calling serial.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook
Publisher: SpearPoint Press
Page count: 33 (at Amazon)

Avon Calling serial is set in the 1940s New York. At a first glance, Betty Jones has everything a middle-class woman could want: she’s a stay-at-home mom for two kids and has an adoring husband. Sometimes she sells Avon’s cosmetics products. Yet, she has a side that her family doesn’t know about. Betty can hear other people’s thoughts and has formidable combat skills. She also has a troubled past and has changed her name.

This was a great starting story: it introduced Betty and her world and yet left a lot of questions unanswered. We find out that Betty’s mother also had the same ability and that she was cruelly used.

In this story, Betty goes to sell the cosmetics to a woman she knows but finds another woman, who has been battered by her boyfriend. Betty smiles and pretends not to notice, but when the evening comes, she pays a visit to the boyfriend and his small band of drug dealers.

I found the combination of cosmetics and Betty’s secrets surprising but also appropriate. Cosmetics can be used as a mask, to change a woman to appear more appealing to men and also to other women. It can be an armor, to shield a woman from the outside world or a way to fit in. Seeling cosmetics is also a great way for her to meet women who need help. Betty definitely has two sides and she works hard to fit in as mom and wife while going out at night to kick the backsides of cruel men.

Season 1 collection has ten episodes.

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