Autumn Reading: Short Book Reviews

Witchmark, by C. L. Polk (Tor) is one of the most unusual and compelling love stories I’ve read this year. The setting, very much like England in the throes of national PTSD following the First World War, a magic-yielding aristocracy, a conflicted hero, and so forth, are familiar enough to be recognizable, yet integrated into a freshly imagined world.

A brutal war has dragged on to end in a draconian peace. Men returning from the front are all too often shattered in mind as well as body, although the effects of their trauma are poorly understood. In our own world, WW I veterans were said to suffer from “battle stress” or “shell shock,” and both were associated with cowardice or lack of moral strength. In this world, however, some of them carry a spiritual darkness within them, visible only to those with magical sight. One such magician is our hero, working as a physician under an assumed name to escape the enslavement of being a “second-class” magician. He alone makes a connection between the dark presence and the reports of his patients that a mysterious he wants them to murder their loved ones. Creating a metaphor for dissociation born out of guilt and trauma is one of the things I love about fantasy. In this case the darkness is also a real, separate thing, related to the retaliation plotted by the losing side in the war, but again, I found myself wondering at the parallels between Polk’s vengeful, decimated vanquished and the rise of the Nazi Party following the Treaty of Versailles. One of the hallmarks of thoughtful fantasy is how it invites us to look at our own world, our own lives, through new perspectives.

Witchmark, however, is not at all a diatribe about the root causes of war. It’s an intensely personal story of a man who, fleeing one sort of persecution (the exploitation of his magical talents), dedicates himself to healing and then, without meaning to, gets caught up in increasingly larger crises. Through this all, he forges a connection-of-the-heart with a man of another race, an Amaranthine, this world’s version of Fae. Like Fae, they are immortal or nearly so, and are said to be incapable to loving as humans do. All of this makes the slowly evolving love story between Miles Singer and Tristan Hunter both tender and bittersweet.

The book has a lot of different elements, from the murder mystery that launches the action to the politics of the hospital where Miles works, to the aristocratic magic-wielders who subjugate those of lesser talents, to the international politics, to the bicycles criss-crossing the city. It would all be too much in the hands of a less skillful author, but Polk introduces each aspect of the setting, characters, traditions, and drama in such an easy, natural fashion, they all fit effortlessly.

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Free Chocolate, by Amber Royer (Angry Robot Books). Ah, chocolate. It must be one of Earth’s finest natural creations, right? That’s the premise underlying this charming YA novel in which First Contact with all those alien worlds out there is not for the purpose of cultural exchange, mathematical enlightenment, military domination, or any of the hundreds of rationales. It’s to raid Earth of its chocolate! Well, and a few other things, too, like coffee and vanilla beans.

Within a short time, humans and alien races are mixing freely, some combinations with more success than others, and chocolate production is rigidly controlled by a huge corporation, HGB – Hershey, Godiva, and Bissinger — which “sprouted in the wake of the First contact War. They quietly made proprietary trade agreements with other planets…making it the most powerful organization ofn the planet.” Bodacious Benitez is living her life as a student, dating a gorgeous guy from Krom (whose irises change color depending on his emotions), when she’s catapulted into an interplanetary scheme to liberate chocolate. Her mother hosts an immensely popular cooking show, bolstering the HGB image.

The most charming aspect of the book, however, is its use of language. It’s told in first person, as is much YA today. Bo is fluent in several languages, notably English, Spanish (her birth language), and Portuguese. This makes sense when you think about it because most cacao-growing regions are Spanish or Portuguese speaking. Bo liberally strews her English with words in Spanish and teen-speak:

I need a hot shower and un poco alone time with Love Hurts, my favorite flufferiffic soap opera – a guilty pleasure Brill knows nada about.

Icy certainty settles in my stomach. I am muerto. Pero, I keep fighting the womborg [a wombat cyborg] anyway.

“Mamá, I only tell the celebarazzi things like how unfair it is that the chocolatiers have to work an extra hour…”

On the down side, the deliciousness of the language forced me to read more slowly than usual. Although most of the meanings can be deduced from context, I kept consulting my Kindle dictionary to get an added bit of certainty. This, combined with the length of the book, had the effect of flattening the dramatic intensity. There’s plenty of action in the story, but it takes place over such a stretched-out length that the overall shape of rising tension and climax, etc., is diminished. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the hours spent with Bodacious, Brill, and their friends.

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Unwritten, by Tara Gilboy (Jolly Fish Press) A story in which a character finds her way into the world of a book has enduring appeal, and I’m at the front of the line to read such adventures to my favorite imaginary places. So when I read the description of a story in which our young heroine escapes from the world of a book into our own, I was intrigued. Unwritten fulfils the promise of its premise with quirky, immediately sympathetic people whose personalities warp and evolve as they are revealed through the plot. Gracie and her (single, waitress) mother are exiles from a storybook world in which, Gracie has always been told, she dies. Our ordinary world is the only place they’re safe from the evil queen. They keep their heads down, trying to not attract any attention that might draw the queen to them.

When the author of the book comes to town to do a bookstore signing, Gracie defies her mother and sneaks into the store to find out more about her own story. “I don’t know,” says the author, “that book never worked, so I threw away the manuscript.”

A series of mishaps, catalyzed by Gracie’s act of rebellion, catapult her, her mother, the man who might be her deadbeat father, and her best friend and his parents, along with the author, into the storybook world. Just as she was warned, the story itself begins shaping each character according to how she has been written. Despite her best intentions, Gracie finds herself acting out her own plot line, not as the tragic victim but as the villain.

The way the book played with subjective versus consensus reality, not to mention a plot paced briskly enough to hold the attention of younger readers, was enough to carry me along, through twists and turns, star-crossed love stories, and questions about how much control any of us have over our destiny. Although it’s marketed as Middle Grade (Gracie is 12), it’s a fine, fast read for fantasy lovers of any age.

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Torn, by Rowenna Miller (Orbit). In a land and time not too distant from our own Western European late 17th Century, first-generation immigrant Sophie is at last achieving her dream and pulling herself out of poverty. She’s managed to get a license to operate her dressmaking shop and even hire a couple of assistants. It’s enough to not only support her but to help her brother, Kristos, a day laborer who also has a dream: achieving fair working conditions for his comrades. But Sophie is no ordinary seamstress: she has a flair for design, and she’s inherited her mother’s magical gifts. For special projects for special patrons, she stitches in spells of love, of protection, of luck. Her upward mobility blinds her to the nativism and bigotry that give rise to endemic social and economic injustice. Just as Sophie gets her big break, creating spell-stitched garments for the aristocracy, the workers’ revolution begins to heat up. Initially nonviolent, the protests become increasingly confrontational — and deadly — under the direction of a mysterious leader, an academic who himself has foreign roots and who has an agenda of his own…and a use for Sophie’s special talents.

Sophie is an interesting character, and we see her changing world through the lens of her own frantic attempts at head-in-the-sand neutrality. In times of upheaval, those who have scratched together a little are even more desperate to hold on to it than those who have nothing. It would be easy to portray the workers’ movement as ill-conceived and naïve, playing into the hands of an unscrupulous, power-hungry manipulator. Certainly, from Sophie’s vantage, the revolution lurches from one fulminating disaster to another, and if the leaders would just go home and let her continue in her business-as-usual, that would be fine with her. In some ways, the noble ladies who include her in their salons are more politically astute, and more aware of how unstable their society has become. For this very reason, telling the story from Sophie’s viewpoint highlights the hypocrisies on all sides, for she is both an innocent victim caught in the cross-fire and complicit in the maintenance of an oppressive regime. Yet if bloody upheaval comes at too great a cost, what is a better path forward? Our world has yet to figure that out. Perhaps, as this series unfolds, Sophie’s world will.

The verdict: Surprisingly deep socially aware fantasy, plus a very cool magical system.

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The Wild Dead, by Carrie Vaughn (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). I loved Vaughn’s Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel, Bannerless, and eagerly dove into this, its sequel. Vaughn’s vision of an egalitarian, post-collapse world struck me as a welcome and necessary antidote to the commonly portrayed descent into dog-eat-dog chaos. In her world, people worked cooperatively after “The Fall” to select and preserve technology and to establish social structures that promoted communities living in ecological balance, carefully limiting overconsumption/overproduction and birth rate. In other words, the survivors were intelligent about how they went about rebuilding civilization. That’s just the background, the setting, to the murder mysteries in Bannerless and The Wild Dead.

Given lots of knowledge but scarce forensic resources due to a generation-ago picking and choosing, how would you go about solving a murder? You know basic chemistry and anatomy, and you have solar power and well-machined instruments, but have no way to analyze DNA, trace evidence, or microscopic kerf marks. When Enid and her apprentice, Teeg, arrive at the Estuary as investigators, this world’s traveling magistrates, their initial task, the one they’ve been requested to adjudicate, pertains to the fate of an old house that’s one of the few relics of “Before” yet is too badly damaged to be easily repairable.

As they examine the issue of the house, a body washes up in the river, a young woman of the wild folk who live outside the communities of Coast Road, and it’s up to Enid and Teeg to solve the murder. Without modern forensics or knowledge of the history and social interactions of the Estuary households, yet with a deep moral sense and compassion for this unknown victim, Enid dives into the case. As with Bannerless, Enid’s own intelligence and intuitive understanding of human nature guide her to the unexpected but perfectly prepared result.

I can’t praise Vaughn’s work highly enough. The elegance of her prose rises and falls like harmonic waves, from serviceably transparent to downright poetic, enhancing the emotional beats. Even her secondary characters are beautifully depicted. Most of all, I admire her decision to place her unusual murder mysteries in a world that gives me hope for the survival of sanity and kindness.

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Implanted, by Lauren C. Teffeau (Angry Robot). This dystopic YA novel revolves around several nifty premises: the Earth has been so polluted that the majority humans survive only in domed cities, while efforts are underway to ameliorate the toxins and re-establish a viable ecology; the dome cities are stratified, with the rich elite living on the topmost levels, with access to greenery and sunlight, while the poor scrabble for a living in the “Terrestrial” slums; brain implants that permit direct mind-to-mind communication as well as social media are near-universal and because of this, data is highly insecure, so… sensitive material gets encoded in the blood cells of specially trained couriers who physically transport it from sender to recipient. That’s only the setting.

The plot itself draws together a variety of threads. The heroine, Emery, comes from a lower level and has worked her way to better prospects. She’s been on a crusade that’s pit her skills against the thieves who rip implants from the skulls of their victims. She’s also become romantically entangled with a fellow gamer, although they’ve never met in person and she doesn’t even know his real name. As for the agency that recruits her to carry encrypted data in her blood, she uncovers plots within plots as New Worth (the city built on the ruins of Ft. Worth, Texas) stumbles toward “Emergence” into the supposedly restored outer world.

The setting, main character, and evolving action were absorbing enough to keep me reading for most of the book, but toward the end I had problems with the lack of focus. It seemed to me that the book couldn’t decide what it was about, and my attention kept being pulled in different directions: ecological disaster story? Romance? Techno-spy thriller? Victim seeking revenge? “Betrayal and reconciliation”? Other readers might feel differently. The book certainly stands out for creativity of conception and narrative voice. I’ll be keeping an eye out for the author’s next adventure.

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