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review 2017-09-08 16:39
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe by Kij Johnson
The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe - Kij Johnson

I really enjoyed this novella. It is in dialogue with a short story by Lovecraft, which I have not read, but you don’t need to read that to enjoy this. And fortunately for me, this is fantasy, not horror. It is set in a portal world clearly conceived as the stuff of nightmares, with monsters, shifting natural laws and an angry sky; if this were made into a movie the horror would be inescapable. But through the eyes of a protagonist who hails from that world, these are simply facts of life, evoking no fear or disgust.

Vellitt Boe is a professor at the Ulthar Women’s College. She had an adventurous youth before going to college and settling down, so when a student runs off to the “waking world” (ours), putting the college in danger, Vellitt sets out on a quest to retrieve her. It’s an engaging story, written in Johnson’s smooth-flowing style that makes the book feel as much like literary fiction as fantasy. The world is highly imaginative, brought to life with a texture that must be Johnson’s own. And Vellitt is an interesting and endearing character, with a quiet toughness and the good sense one would hope for from a middle-aged adventurer.

This could easily have been expanded to a full-length novel, and I’m unsure why it wasn’t: Johnson takes some shortcuts through the waking-world portion, and the end is really the beginning of something else, providing little resolution. But it succeeds in telling a good story, while responding to the sexism and racism that was apparently rampant in Lovecraft. Sometimes Johnson is quite pointed in this, in other places subtle: Vellitt is apparently a woman of color, but the only indication I saw was the description of her hair. And when she arrives in the waking world, she remarks on the large numbers of women there, a clever dig at male-created fantasy worlds populated overwhelmingly by men.

Overall, I definitely enjoyed and would recommend this, along with Johnson’s other works, particularly Fudoki. I haven’t seen a bad book from this author yet, and look forward to more!

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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 2016-03-21 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 2016-02-27 20:35
Six-Gun Snow White by Catherynne Valente
Six-Gun Snow White - Catherynne M. Valente

Valente’s writing can be pretty “out there,” to my mind. The Orphan’s Tales duology is great and Deathless also very good, but I wasn’t able to get past the sample of Radiance. Six-Gun Snow White is deceptively grounded: it’s a retelling of a familiar fairytale, and it’s set in the 19th century American West. Valente shows her extraordinary versatility by writing the book in the language of a western: from other work I know she is capable of lyrical writing heavy on figurative language, but this one is stark, stripped-down and straightforward. Or at least so it appears.

Like any good retelling, this one is told with twists. Valente’s Snow White is a tough young woman of mixed race who is an excellent shot with a pistol and embarks on a journey to find her mother’s Crow tribe. Fairy tale elements appear here in fresh guises: the kiss, for instance, is not a romantic moment (because who kisses a sleeping stranger? A sexual predator, obviously).

But I feel as if much of this book went over my head; many of Valente’s choices left me confused, wondering “but what does this mean? Why is this here?” The chapter titles are perhaps emblematic of my confusion: titles such as “Snow White Juggles Her Own Eyes,” “Snow White Fights a Lump of Pitch,” and “Snow White’s Stepmother Gives Birth to the Sun” neither describe the events of those chapters nor those of pre-existing versions of the tale. In the same way, many of the plot elements and twists confused me because they seemed to have some deeper meaning that was not evident to me. After I finished the book, it was explained to me that many of the references come from Native American folklore, with which I have little familiarity; those with more knowledge of it will surely appreciate this book more.

This is a brief novella – very short chapters, section breaks and a few illustrations make it even shorter than the page count would have you believe – and so I would hardly discourage you from reading it. If nothing else, it’s certainly a well-written book. But although on its face this might appear to be among Valente’s most accessible works, it isn’t the first I’d recommend to a new reader. Three and a half stars.

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review 2015-08-23 06:08
Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone
Three Parts Dead - Max Gladstone

This book will make many readers happy, particularly those who enjoy plot-driven, worldbuilding-heavy fantasy. Three Parts Dead has an alternate-world, urban steampunk setting, and features a murder mystery surrounding a dead god, seemingly limitless magic, some paranormal elements (including vampires, but no romance) and a megalomaniacal villain. If this sounds like your dreams come true, don’t let me discourage you from reading this book. But those, like me, who enjoy character-driven fiction may be left dissatisfied.


The plot is simple enough: Tara, a recent magic school graduate, is hired by a necromantic firm to help unravel the mystery of the death of Kos, a fire god who powered the metropolis of Alt Coulumb. Gods in this world owe their existence to an intricate system of faith and contract law, and by all rights Kos should not be dead. Also involved are a small number of other people, including Abelard, a novice priest; Elayne Kevarian, Tara’s boss; Cat, an addict who moonlights as an avatar of Justice; Alexander Denovo, a creepy professor; and a bunch of angry gargoyles.


It’s hard to find fault with the writing or pacing of the novel; its failure to truly engage me lies with the characters. They are people of action, drawn with a broad brush: Tara loves working magic; Abelard is devoted to his god; there’s little more to say. What are their flaws, who are the important people in their lives, what do they do when they aren’t working? The reader doesn’t know. Compounding this problem is the fact that the success or failure of Tara’s mission means little to most of the characters. She’s just doing her job; the author tries to raise the stakes by suggesting she must succeed to be permanently hired, but it’s an opportunity that simply fell into her lap and she’s clearly resourceful enough to find another one. Abelard is the only major character deeply invested in Kos’s death and revival, and his devotion seems largely due to the fact that he hasn’t gotten out much. Elayne Kevarian revives gods all the time, apparently. How can I invest in a story of minimal importance to its own protagonists, who themselves aren’t even fully fleshed out?


That’s the crux of the problem, though there are other plotting issues. The author tries to write the characters as renegades when it makes no sense (in an especially odd scene, Tara and Cat blackmail a librarian into handing over documents, although they are the official investigation). A key segment of the plot rests on a gambit of the “I knew that if I did X, Person A would do Y, and I did Z so that Person B wouldn't blurt out the truth until C showed up…” variety, which sounds clever on paper and is thus beloved of fantasy authors, but would never survive contact with real people in chaotic situations. And the “court” scenes are actually cage matches with magic and/or standard villain confrontations, in which case, why call it court?


All that said, the book does get points for originality in its worldbuilding. It feels fresh, with its own take on gods, vampires, and the like. Also interestingly, it is a world where neither race nor gender seems to have any cultural significance whatsoever. Information about the world is generally not spelled out for the reader; you jump in and figure it out as you go. I’m taking this up to 3 stars because it was reasonably entertaining, but I don’t plan to read the sequel.

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