Books Read in 2018: Four-Star Fantasy

Four-Star Time Travel

All Our Wrong Todays by Elan MastaiYou know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we'd have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren's 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn't necessary.
Except Tom just can't seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that's before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.
But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

Didn't write a review - thanks a LOT, Past Allison. I just scanned a couple of negative reviews for this, and while some points are valid (the protagonist is pretty self-centered, a lot of female characters don't get the best treatment), one complaint that struck me as unfair is that the author uses time travel as a "shiny toy" instead of a proper sci-fi concept - why introduce it and then not use it, is the reviewer's question? This is ridiculous, in my opinion - I think a lot of science-fiction concepts are used to focus on and illuminate aspects of human behaviour and relationships, and this is a perfectly good and useful way to employ them. I really like stories about alternate possible timelines and worlds, and the pivotal accident here has a gravitas and residue that I found really fascinating. I also had a fair amount of sympathy for the main character trying to figure out how to fit in the world and how far to wield an incredible power to change it. 

Version Control by Dexter Palmer Rebecca Wright has reclaimed her life, finding her way out of her grief and depression following a personal tragedy years ago. She spends her days working in customer support for the internet dating site where she first met her husband. But she has a strange, persistent sense that everything around her is somewhat off-kilter: she constantly feels as if she has walked into a room and forgotten what she intended to do there; on TV, the President seems to be the wrong person in the wrong place; her dreams are full of disquiet. Meanwhile, her husband's decade-long dedication to his invention, the causality violation device (which he would greatly prefer you not call a “time machine”) has effectively stalled his career and made him a laughingstock in the physics community. But he may be closer to success than either of them knows or can possibly imagine.

Version Control is about a possible near future, but it’s also about the way we live now. It’s about smart phones and self-driving cars and what we believe about the people we meet on the Internet. It’s about a couple, Rebecca and Philip, who have experienced a tragedy, and about how they help — and fail to help — each other through it.

I'm tempted to go back and five-star this, honestly, but I guess I'll let my initial rating ride. There was just so much here - really, it was a marriage of a really great time-travel story and a really great contemporary novel, and either would have been good, but together they're great. I had a moment's qualm that it was going to be the kind of time travel book I like less, where time travel is more a Grand Idea that leads to Philosophical Musings but no concrete actions (lookin' at you, Lost Time Accidents, thbffft), but it wasn't. There's also a lot of great writing about coming of age, and relationships, and family stuff, and it's quite long and involved and takes its time, which if done badly leads to boredom and tiresomeness, but it's done really well. I stumbled across this while looking up another book and my friend Maggie (HI MAGGIE) recommended it, and I'm very glad. 

Four-Star Fantasy

The Marrow Thieves by Cherie Dimaline - In a futuristic world ravaged by global warming, people have lost the ability to dream, and the dreamlessness has led to widespread madness. The only people still able to dream are North America's Indigenous people, and it is their marrow that holds the cure for the rest of the world. But getting the marrow, and dreams, means death for the unwilling donors. Driven to flight, a fifteen-year-old and his companions struggle for survival, attempt to reunite with loved ones and take refuge from the "recruiters" who seek them out to bring them to the marrow-stealing "factories.

Lovely, chilling, heartwrenching and visceral. I think it's technically YA but I would recommend it for anyone. It's a good metaphor for colonialism and a great story in its own right.

The Demon's Lexicon by Sarah Rees BrennanSixteen-year-old Nick and his brother, Alan, are always ready to run. Their father is dead, and their mother is crazy—she screams if Nick gets near her. She’s no help in protecting any of them from the deadly magicians who use demons to work their magic. The magicians want a charm that Nick’s mother stole—and they want it badly enough to kill. Alan is Nick’s partner in demon slaying and the only person he trusts in the world. So things get very scary and very complicated when Nick begins to suspect that everything Alan has told him about their father, their mother, their past, and what they are doing is a complete lie. .

This was a comfort reread - I seem to recall that Goodreads screwed up and I didn't actually review it in the proper year's post. I adore Sarah Rees Brennan - her writing voice is utterly distinctive, beautifully snarky and wry, and yet strangely kind and warmhearted. I was completely engrossed in the story, agreeably unsure about where it was going, and the ending didn't feel forced or too neat (please to ignore the exceptionally cheesy covers). Upon my reread I discovered that I had the first and third books, so I ordered the second and am going to reread the rest of the series. Rees Brennan also has a blog that I always forget to look at because I usually don't read writer's blogs, for reasons I just realized I don't even know, I guess that's for another post.

The Necromancer's House by Christopher BuehlmanChristopher Buehlman’s new novel—one of uncommon horrors hiding behind the walls of the house next door…
“You think you got away with something, don’t you? But your time has run out. We know where you are. And we are coming.”
The man on the screen says this in Russian.
“Who are you?”
The man smiles, but it’s not a pleasant smile.
The image freezes.
The celluloid burns exactly where his mouth is, burns in the nearly flat U of his smile. His eyes burn, too.
The man fades, leaving the burning smiley face smoldering on the screen.
“Oh Christ,” Andrew says.
The television catches fire.
Andrew Ranulf Blankenship is a handsome, stylish nonconformist with wry wit, a classic Mustang, and a massive library. He is also a recovering alcoholic and a practicing warlock, able to speak with the dead through film. His house is a maze of sorcerous booby traps and escape tunnels, as yours might be if you were sitting on a treasury of Russian magic stolen from the Soviet Union thirty years ago. Andrew has long known that magic was a brutal game requiring blood sacrifice and a willingness to confront death, but his many years of peace and comfort have left him soft, more concerned with maintaining false youth than with seeing to his own defense. Now a monster straight from the pages of Russian folklore is coming for him, and frost and death are coming with her.

This was really cool - it had a contemporary dark fantasy feel with some archetypal myths woven in. There were fully fleshed characters that I really cared about, a range of vividly rendered settings and the magical system was inventive and internally consistent. I'm looking forward to reading more by this author. 

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California Bones (Daniel Blackland #1) by Greg van EekhoutWhen Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian.
When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch's storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian's sword, an object of untold power.
For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There's Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel's ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.
Extravagant and yet moving, Greg van Eekhout's California Bonesis an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality--different from the world we know, yet familiar and true.

This pairs well with the previous book. I hadn't read anything about osteomancy before - this was a great first exposure. Again, solid characters, especially the protagonist. The alternate California is enchanting, the heist angle is exciting, and the corrupt regime thing adds an element of plucky-little-guy Star Wars heroism. Will continue reading the series. 

Lightspeed Magazine, February 2015 edited by John Joseph AdamsLIGHTSPEED is an online science fiction and fantasy magazine. In its pages, you will find science fiction: from near-future, sociological soft SF, to far-future, star-spanning hard SF--and fantasy: from epic fantasy, sword-and-sorcery, and contemporary urban tales, to magical realism, science-fantasy, and folktales. 
This month, we have original science fiction by Brooke Bolander ("And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead") and Caroline M. Yoachim ("Red Planet"), along with SF reprints by John Kessel ("Buffalo") and David Barr Kirtley ("Veil of Ignorance"). 
Plus, we have original fantasy by Maria Dahvana Headley ("And the Winners Will Be Swept Out to Sea") and Will Kaufman ("Things You Can Buy for a Penny"), and fantasy reprints by Mary Rickert ("The Girl Who Ate Butterflies") and Adam-Troy Castro ("Cerile and the Journeyer"). 
All that, and of course we also have our usual assortment of author and artist spotlights, a feature interview with Ann Leckie, and our review column, this month written by Sunil Patel.

I bought the Kindle version of this because I read something by Brooke Bolander (in a Year's Best Fantasy and Science Fiction anthology, I think) and wanted to read more. Her story in this was fantastic, and the ones by Maria Dahvana Headley and Will Kaufman ("Things You Can Buy For a Penny" - omg, so good) were amazing as well. I'm very rarely disappointed by Lightspeed - if I was marooned on an island and had only the entirety of Lightspeed Magazine to read, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the

Elevation by Stephen King - The latest from legendary master storyteller Stephen King, a riveting, extraordinarily eerie, and moving story about a man whose mysterious affliction brings a small town together—a timely, upbeat tale about finding common ground despite deep-rooted differences.
Although Scott Carey doesn’t look any different, he’s been steadily losing weight. There are a couple of other odd things, too. He weighs the same in his clothes and out of them, no matter how heavy they are. Scott doesn’t want to be poked and prodded. He mostly just wants someone else to know, and he trusts Doctor Bob Ellis.
In the small town of Castle Rock, the setting of many of King’s most iconic stories, Scott is engaged in a low grade—but escalating—battle with the lesbians next door whose dog regularly drops his business on Scott’s lawn. One of the women is friendly; the other, cold as ice. Both are trying to launch a new restaurant, but the people of Castle Rock want no part of a gay married couple, and the place is in trouble. When Scott finally understands the prejudices they face–including his own—he tries to help. Unlikely alliances, the annual foot race, and the mystery of Scott’s affliction bring out the best in people who have indulged the worst in themselves and others.

This is short, and definitely fantasy over horror, which was rather welcome in bleak November. This did convey to me the sense of lightness and hope that I think King was going for. The social issues aspect did veer ever so slightly into the heavy-handed and schmaltzy, which I've found before with King, but not so much that it ruined the story. All in all, a pleasant way to spend an afternoon. 

Starlings by Jo Walton - An intimate first flight of short fiction from award-winning novelist Jo Walton (Among Others, The King’s Peace).
A strange Eritrean coin travels from lovers to thieves, gathering stories before meeting its match. Google becomes sentient and proceeds toward an existential crisis. An idealistic dancer on a generation ship makes an impassioned plea for creativity and survival. Three Irish siblings embark on an unlikely quest, stealing enchanted items via bad poetry, trickery, and an assist from the Queen of Cats. 
With these captivating initial glimpses into her storytelling psyche, Jo Walton shines through subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. Through eclectic stories, subtle vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and magic—rising from the everyday into the universe itself.

I have gone on at rapturous length about how much I love Jo Walton's Among Others and My Real Children, and I enjoyed her writing about reading in What Makes this Book So Great as well, so I was thrilled to get a copy of her first volume of short fiction through NetGalley. She freely admits that she doesn't find short fiction easy, that there's a range in quality here and that some work is experimental. I just found that it was still suffused with her prodigious imaginative vision and beautiful writing. 

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle - One man’s thrilling journey through an enchanted world to find his wife, who has disappeared after seemingly committing an unforgiveable act of violence, from the award-winning author of the The Devil in Silver and Big Machine.
Apollo Kagwa has had strange dreams that have haunted him since childhood. An antiquarian book dealer with a business called Improbabilia, he is just beginning to settle into his new life as a committed and involved father, unlike his own father who abandoned him, when his wife Emma begins acting strange. Disconnected and uninterested in their new baby boy, Emma at first seems to be exhibiting all the signs of post-partum depression, but it quickly becomes clear that her troubles go far beyond that. Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. 
Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined. His quest begins when he meets a mysterious stranger who claims to have information about Emma’s whereabouts. Apollo then begins a journey that takes him to a forgotten island in the East River of New York City, a graveyard full of secrets, a forest in Queens where immigrant legends still live, and finally back to a place he thought he had lost forever. This dizzying tale is ultimately a story about family and the unfathomable secrets of the people we love.

This was an accomplished and engrossing update of the changeling legend. Putting fully human faces on the story really brings home the horror of the trope, and thorny family dynamics add layers to a simple folktale. Great characters and an unputdownable story. 
Here is a valuable resource if you want to check whether your child might be a changeling. 

Air Water and the Grove by Kaaron Warren - I discovered that I had never read the last story in a Kaaron Warren collection I had on my Kindle. After I saw the  movie Shaun of the Dead, the friend I saw it with said "Really liked it. Not sure who I would recommend it to". While I disagree about Shaun of the Dead (everyone, would be my answer. Recommend it to everyone because it is awesome) I sort of feel that way about Kaaron Warren. She is deadass brilliant. Her work is masterful, assured, passionate and absolutely devastating. Her story State of Oblivion was a work of desolate perfection, or maybe perfect desolation. This story was no different. I'm reminded of a review I once read of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre which advised "don't go. Bring a date".


StephLove said…
I love that you have a category just for time travel.
DaniGirl said…
Dammit, now I want to read ALL of these, and we haven't even gotten to the five stars yet. I need more time, dammit, MORE TIME!

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