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review 2017-07-04 17:44
Tender by Sofia Samatar
Tender: Stories - Sofia Samatar

This is a beautiful, original, often surprising, and yes, tender, short story collection by a fantastic author. Samatar’s novels are lovely, but I think she may excel even more in the short story format, which combines her exquisite writing with compressed plots that necessarily move briskly. And her wide command of genres is impressive: fantasy, science fiction, historical fiction, fairy tales, contemporary, young adult. Most of the stories are sci-fi and fantasy, and while I love fantasy I typically avoid sci-fi, but I absolutely would read more if Samatar wrote it. Her stories never use characters simply as a long-winded way of examining an idea or making a point; instead the characters are the point, and no matter how inventive their settings, the stories are about the people, their lives and relationships. And to the extent they’re about larger issues, they are issues that matter in human society today, like race and religion.

But then there are stories that break the mold I would expect from a genre author. “Olimpia’s Ghost” is a work of epistolary historical fiction set in 19th century Europe, involving a relationship that may or may not have existed between two real people (I won’t say who since figuring it out myself was so much fun), while “Those” is an answer to Heart of Darkness, written in a similar vein but with the frame story narrated by a mixed-race character, which changes everything.

There are a lot of fantastic stories in this collection, and from perusing the reviews it looks like different readers have different favorites, which is a sign of strong writing. I’ll mention my favorites here:

“Selkie Stories Are For Losers” – A young woman in the contemporary U.S. builds her life in the shadow of a fairy tale. This could easily be a novel and I’d love to read it.

“Walkdog” – This is an epistolary story written with a certain amount of deliberate inelegance, since it’s meant to be by a typical high school girl. It’s an achingly sad story about love, bullying and social conformity, with a bit of mythology wrapped in. Unlike in a lot of YA, which seems to be a weird adult vision or fantasy of teenagers, I completely believed this one; no one would want to admit to making Yolanda’s choices, but they feel realistic.

“Honey Bear” – This is a lovely post-apocalyptic tale. In the tradition of my favorite short fiction, it’s a story you’ll want to read twice, because everything comes together at the end in a way that changes your entire view of the story, and so you re-read it with new eyes and understand all those references that didn’t quite make sense before. But despite the post-apocalyptic world, the story is closely focused on its main characters, and its heart and primary source of tension is a couple who react to changed circumstances in very different ways.

“How to Get Back to the Forest” – I’d classify this one as dystopian; it reminds me of Never Let Me Go, with young people raised in superficially pleasant institutions, slowly and imperfectly discovering how their world really works. The key difference is that here the characters resist, at least in small ways.

“Request for an Extension on the Clarity” – This is superficially science fiction, but it’s really about race and immigration and isolation; the protagonist finds refuge in the stars from a world where she doesn’t seem to belong anywhere. The collection includes several stories with similar themes, but this is the one that brought it all together for me.

“The Closest Thing to Animals” – Straight-up science fiction, set on a quarantined world, but about a character whose abandonment issues cause her to see rejection where it doesn’t exist and prevent her from seeing the ways in which others need her. The story is lovely and so are the weird images of its world.

“Fallow” – This is a novelette, by far the longest piece in the collection, set on a world inhabited by refugees from a self-destructing Earth. It’s a meditation on religion (eventually we’re given enough information to figure out what group is involved) and social pressure, hearkening back to the Puritans despite its otherworldly setting.

Of course, as with most collections, I didn’t love all the stories; some seemed opaque or didn’t quite land for me. In particular, there’s a stretch from “Tender” through “Meet Me in Iram,” of stories dealing with alienation and characters feeling out of place in their own skin – sometimes, though not always, related to immigration – that I bounced off of until I reached “Request for an Extension on the Clarity.” A few of the other contemporary or parable-like stories also didn’t strike any particular chord with me. But these are skillful stories that clearly landed for others, so I’ll chalk that up to my limitations as a reader rather than Samatar’s as a writer.

Overall, I loved this collection and would absolutely recommend it, probably even ahead of Samatar’s novels to those with any liking for short fiction. To my surprise, I especially loved Samatar’s science fiction and hope to see much more from her along these lines in the future.

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review 2017-01-22 20:37
A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
A Stranger in Olondria - Sofia Samatar

Beautiful, slow-paced, sad. Linear storytelling makes it a more accessible starting point than The Winged Histories.

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review 2016-10-24 03:10
The Crown of Stars series by Kate Elliott
King's Dragon - Kate Elliott

I reviewed this first book, King's Dragon, after reading it; you can find that early, enthusiastic review here. That was close to a year ago and that enthusiasm feels a long way away. So this will be my commentary on the series as a whole.


But before you think this means Crown of Stars is a lousy series, you should know that the fact that I finished a seven-book saga means a lot, and the fact that I did so without hating any of the books means even more. While I was only enthusiastic for the first three books, I at least mildly enjoyed the following four. Normally when I read more than three or four volumes of anything, I not only wind up one-starring at least one of them, I hate those one- or two-star books so much that I visit the pages repeatedly in search of other one-star reviewers to upvote and commiserate with. I got to the end of this seven-volume series without actively disliking any of them, which may sound like faint praise, but it isn't.


So, the first three books are a lot of fun. Elliott makes some unusual choices, and creates a fantasy world that's well-grounded in the early Middle Ages, and clearly based on tons of research, but is also a living, breathing place. And it's the Middle Ages with a twist: defined gender roles are a thing, but instead of "men do everything and women make babies" (which is obviously a massively oversimplified version of how the medieval period really worked, but let's roll with it for the moment) it's "men fight, and women administer estates and run the church." Which creates something of the feeling of a rigid society, while allowing for a range of stories to be told that don't just tread the same old ground of sexism. Meanwhile, while Elliott deviates in some respects she hews much closer to history than most fantasy authors in others; religion and the church play a major role in the series, and it's dynamic and interesting, with some clerics as heroes, others as villains and others in between, just as in the rest of society. It isn't preachy; from everything I can tell Elliott finds religion much more interesting than your typical fantasy author does, but she's not Christian, let alone Catholic. This is a rare thing for fantasy and adds a lot of dimension to the world. And then she makes some unusual choices and lets characters take surprising paths.


But around the fourth book, it starts to become a little stale; the paths Elliott takes become too familiar with use, to the point that I felt less was at stake even as the scope grows broader, and my excitement waned. Nor do the characters stand up to such a long series; they never grow three-dimensional enough for that. I won't say it's just me and my impatience for series, because a lot of people seem to have grown disillusioned with these books. But it seems to me to maintain its quality better than most more popular series, which descend into endless travelogues and non-events. Perhaps Crown of Stars just drew the short end of the marketing stick and didn't build the hype or the huge, devoted sort of fanbase that any series needs to survive the natural leaching of interest that comes with such a long work.

It's too bad, because there are good ideas here, and I wish they'd been presented in a trilogy rather than a seven-book series. Happily, Elliott has also written some strong fantasy trilogies, and is at work on more! Go read them, they're good. As for this series, it's worth a try, especially if you like long sagas. And if you read the first two or three or four and decide not to finish, that's okay too.

King’s Dragon: 4
Prince of Dogs: 3.5
The Burning Stone: 4
Child of Flame: 3
The Gathering Storm: 2.5
In the Ruins: 3
Crown of Stars: 3

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review 2016-03-21 02:40
The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
The Winged Histories: a novel - Sofia Samatar

I didn’t always understand this book, but it is beautiful.

This is a fantasy novel set in an empire during a time of civil war. It isn’t a story of battles or magic, but of the lives of four women involved in events: Tav is a noblewoman who runs off at a young age to join the army, and later helps foment rebellion; Tialon is the daughter of an ascetic priest whose zealotry and influence over the king have made more enemies than friends; Seren is a singer from a marginalized group of nomads, who becomes romantically involved with Tav; and Siski, Tav’s sister, is a socialite who’s running away from love but will finally have to face her fears. I tend to avoid books with multiple narrators, as they often run together, but here each section has a distinct format and structure, and some are in third person while others are in first; so the technique works well.

The writing and imagery are particularly lovely, and the story comes together well. You do have to give it some time – the beginning can be confusing (perhaps less so if you’ve read A Stranger in Olondria), and I often found myself flipping back to re-read sections after learning new information. The book provides a wonderful mix of otherworldliness – it feels like only a small window on a strange and beautiful place – and real-world themes, concerning war, privilege, and the ways people use power over one another. I would have liked a bigger climax and more definite conclusion, but I enjoyed this book and would read another by this author.

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review 2016-02-01 17:06
The Burning Stone by Kate Elliott
The Burning Stone - Kate Elliott

I am continuing to enjoy this series, which deserves more attention than it’s gotten. Come on, it has everything you’d want from epic fantasy: intricate plotting on an epic scale, several major threats coming from different directions, battles that can and do go either way, complex political situations, charming and devious villains, a bit of romance, some magic that we’re only slowly learning anything about, an expansive world that feels real and lived-in, and of course interesting and sympathetic characters.

This book expands the scope of the story quite a bit, and seems to be the series’ transition from the early, more self-contained books (each building up to its own big climax) to the more long-term plotting that will carry it through the next several books. This doesn’t slow down the story though – in fact, while there are lulls early in the second book, this one maintains its momentum throughout. Many epic fantasies start to stagger under their own weight, and since Elliott is a detail-heavy writer I wasn’t sure what to expect, but if there is a slump coming here I haven’t seen signs of it yet.

I continue to really enjoy this world, which is closely based on the early Middle Ages, and in particular the way the series goes all-in on the depiction of the medieval church, which is usually brushed aside in fantasy. The way Elliott riffs on medieval ideas about gender to create a system of gender roles that are believable and organic to the society, yet quite different from Europe’s at that time, is also a lot of fun. For instance, take the medieval idea that women had less brainpower because their ovaries sapped mental energy, and turn it into the idea that ovaries provide a steadying force and therefore women are better as administrators and landowners while men go off to war. There are exceptions to all the rules, just like there were in real life, but Elliott has created a world that allows a range of possibilities for all its characters, without all the women’s stories being about sexism (which gets old) and without sacrificing the feeling of a medieval world.

As for the characters themselves, I criticized the secondary POVs in the second book, Rosvita and Hanna for being too personally removed from events despite being located in the thick of things, and Ivar for being too physically removed from the rest of the story. All of that improves in this book, especially Ivar’s plotline. Though the new POV, the ex-cleric, ex-Quman captive Zacharias, is boring so far and I’m disappointed to see him returning for book four. Sanglant is finally coming into his role as a main character, playing a much larger role than in the first two books. Liath’s and Alain’s plotlines continue to be the most eventful and entertaining, both of them taking unexpected roads. I am starting to suspect Alain is an actual saint, yet he is so much more likeable and believable than those mealy-mouthed “good” characters one encounters in most fantasy. Meanwhile Liath becomes a wife and mother, which is very unusual for a fantasy protagonist less than halfway through the series, and even more so for one whose role isn’t that of a political leader or consort. It seems like many readers are frustrated by Liath’s reactions to Hugh, but this depiction is painfully realistic; he is her abuser and so she’s never going to respond to him the way she does to other people. (At the same time, I’d be pleased to have them on opposite sides of the continent for the next several books, because reading about their encounters is draining.)

This book does wrap up with a battle, but we’re too far along now for each volume to have a neat conclusion. So there are a lot of threads left open for the next installment, and I really don’t know what will happen next. So, on to the next book. This is fun, you guys! Why don’t I read more fantasy?

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