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review 2018-03-01 22:08
The Wind in His Heart by Charles de Lint
The Wind in His Heart - Charles de Lint

It’s interesting how authors who start their careers writing atmospheric, mystical books about the intersection between magic and reality seem to become increasingly paint-by-numbers as their careers progress. Juliet Marillier followed this pattern, going from my favorite author with her original Sevenwaters trilogy, to churning out trite and recycled stories fifteen years later. Of De Lint’s work, I’ve read only his first book, Dreams Underfoot – a short story collection I enjoyed – and this, his most recent. This one is kind of fun as an escapist, plot-driven novel, but the characters and setup are unconvincing, and the emotions it elicited in me ranged from mildly entertained to moderately bored.

This story is set in Arizona, on and around the reservation of a fictional Native American tribe which lives alongside an ancient tribe of shapeshifters. Steve, a retired rock star living in the desert nearby, finds a teenager, Sadie, abandoned in the desert, and brings her to the reservation to seek help, but Sadie is a traumatized and troubled kid who sows chaos in her wake. Meanwhile, when a customer at a local hunting lodge inadvertently kills a shapeshifter, the traditional and entrepreneurial factions on the reservation are thrown into conflict. Besides Steve and Sadie, the other major point-of-view characters are Thomas, a local boy who wants to see the world but is under pressure to become a shaman, and Leah, a music blogger who comes looking for Steve after Sadie tips her off to his location.

It is a fast-paced book, in the sense that there are many relatively short chapters with lots of dialogue and that the action moves quickly, with chapters often ending on cliffhangers. Unfortunately, the characters are simplistic and unconvincing from the get-go, all too ready to share their deeply-held secrets or revise their outlooks on life at the drop of a hat, and bizarrely uninformed about their own close-knit community. Somehow Thomas doesn’t know that his boss spent several years living elsewhere (though there’s no indication this is a secret) or that his sister also sees into the otherworld (which for a supposedly deeply held secret on both of their parts, comes out awfully easily in casual conversation as soon as the book begins). Steve is even worse, being somehow unaware that anything unusual is happening even though he’s lived there for 40 years – in a trailer that is invisible to outside eyes, and with a girlfriend who, in an attempt to hint that she might not be entirely human that somehow went right over Steve’s head, has antlers and sometimes (but not always) a tail.

Steve’s bizarre ignorance is representative of the world of the book generally. The accidental killing of the shapeshifter happens because the entrepreneurial Sammy, a tribal member who grew up on the reservation and owns the hunting lodge, also somehow doesn’t believe in the shapeshifters. It’s unclear how this can be when they are more than willing to reveal themselves to him and beat him up, and for that matter when others on the reservation are perfectly willing to tell strangers who showed up on their doorstep five minutes ago all about their not-quite-human neighbors. In TV Tropes terms, the world is presented as if shapeshifters conceal themselves through a Masquerade, but in what we see throughout the book there is zero actual attempt at concealment and plenty of volunteering information.

Meanwhile, none of the POVs are really the central characters in this story or the ones driving it forward, unless you count Sadie’s acting out. The story is actually about the tribe and the shapeshifters, but three of the four POVs are white people from elsewhere, and they feel a little shoehorned in. Even Thomas, who is a tribe member, is an almost entirely reactive character, never driving the action. Steve is appointed “the arbitrator” of the shapeshifter community, which does not feel particularly earned and edges close to white savior territory in a book that otherwise manages to avoid the worst racial tropes. Leah has little reason to be in the book at all, other than to provide a connection to Newford, the fictional city where much of De Lint’s work is set. She arrives obsessed with Steve’s band because she wants to know why their music didn’t save her best friend, also a fan, from suicide, at which I can only wonder why she would have expected some band’s music to save someone from crippling anxiety and a negative self-image. Then she easily replaces this preoccupation with blogging about the plight of migrants crossing the border, which is even weirder since she never meets a migrant, just some old guy who tells her this is a worthy cause.

At any rate, this made for good cotton candy reading, exemplifying my favorite quote about how readers sometimes get sucked in, even when we know better: “That’s the problem with fiction — or the charm, if you want. Even mediocre plots have a way of sinking their hooks into you, until you find yourself concerned for the fates of characters who aren’t even fully convincing.” Put another way, there’s plenty of craft here – cliffhangers and tense situations to keep the reader going – but precious little magic. It could make a fun beach read, but don’t expect more.

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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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