Books Read in 2021: Four-Star Fantasy

 It's been a bit of a miserable week-end within the bounds of my body and mind. On the plus side, I did get a brief respite from my January headache, and I thought the Gabapentin headache prophylaxis might be kicking in. Then an absolute destroying angel of a migraine came in like a wrecking ball on Friday (the temperature see-sawing between -6 and -26 sure the fuck isn't helping) and comes roaring back every time my migraine pill protection wanes. Add to that the danger of rage stroking out every time I read some new atrocity committed by the so-called Freedom Convoy - harassing teenaged fast-food workers! Defacing the Terry Fox statue! Dancing on the war memorial! Impeding the movement of ambulances! Honking all night outside the homes of people trying to sleep! Threatening the staff at the Sheperds of Good Hope HOMELESS SHELTER into giving them free food, even though they've raised 6 millions dollars through GoFundMe! They've mostly been gridlocking downtown, but they drove by on the main road just one house away from mine Friday night for over an hour, and it was not a good feeling. Neither is seeing how many Canadians support them. 

But I had to get on my computer to file a job application, and this post was almost ready to go, so, onward. 

Four-Star Fantasy

Light From Other Stars by Erika Swyler: Synopsis from Goodreads: Eleven-year-old Nedda Papas is obsessed with becoming an astronaut. In 1986 in Easter, a small Florida Space Coast town, her dreams seem almost within reach—if she can just grow up fast enough. Theo, the scientist father she idolizes, is consumed by his own obsessions. Laid off from his job at NASA and still reeling from the loss of Nedda’s newborn brother several years before, Theo turns to the dangerous dream of extending his living daughter's childhood just a little longer. The result is an invention that alters the fabric of time. Amidst the chaos that erupts, Nedda must confront her father and his secrets, the ramifications of which will irrevocably change her life, her community, and the entire world. But she finds an unexpected ally in Betheen, the mother she’s never quite understood, who surprises Nedda by seeing her more clearly than anyone else. Decades later, Nedda has achieved her long-held dream, and as she floats in antigravity, far from earth, she and her crewmates face a serious crisis. Nedda may hold the key to the solution, if she can come to terms with her past and the future that awaits her. Light from Other Stars is about fathers and daughters, women and the forces that hold them back, and the cost of meaningful work. It questions how our lives have changed, what progress looks like, and what it really means to sacrifice for the greater good.


"'Little Twitch, you’re going to be fine, and so will I. What did I say we all become? Gas and carbon. Heat and light. I’ll be in the air, I’ll be in the ground, I’ll always be with you.’ ‘That’s stupid,’ she shouted, then wished she hadn’t. Those might be the last words he’d hear her say. But it was stupid. ‘It’s not,’ he said. ‘You were with me even before you were born. Everything that would make you was already here, waiting to be you. It’ll be like that, I promise. It’ll be like I’m waiting for you.’”

I adored this book, but I think it requires time to read all the way through, so I wouldn't argue with anyone who thinks it was a great concept that lacked in execution. My usual method is to read several books at once, of difference genres and levels of attention requirement, and that didn't work for this book. When I put down everything else and paid full attention, it imprinted itself like an enormous, heartwrenching, bittersweet watermark on my soul. It's about a father whose misguided grief and love for his children externalized in a world-shattering act. It's about how we travel as far as we possibly can, sometimes in an effort to understand where we came from. It's about many different kinds of love and grief and yearning. On the one hand, I agree it's not fair to say that if a book didn't work for you you just didn't read it properly. On the other hand, some books do reward close, careful reading. This is a definite buy to own and reread for me. 

Come Tumbling Down (Wayward Children #5) by Seanan McGuire: Synopsis from Goodreads: Jack left Eleanor West's School for Wayward Children she was carrying the body of her deliciously deranged sister—whom she had recently murdered in a fit of righteous justice—back to their home on the Moors. But death in their adopted world isn't always as permanent as it is here, and when Jack is herself carried back into the school, it becomes clear that something has happened to her. Something terrible. Something of which only the maddest of scientists could conceive. Something only her friends are equipped to help her overcome. Eleanor West's "No Quests" rule is about to be broken.

This is a sequel within the series to my very favourite of the WayWard Children series, Down 
Among the Sticks and Bones. Nothing has topped that one yet, but this has the same robust worldbuilding, wonderful characters and dedication to this magical world where the rules aren't the same as for in the mundane realm, but they're just as unforgiving. 


She Has a Broken Thing Where Her Heart Should Be by J.D. Barker: Synopsis from Goodreads: A haunting tale of suspense, rendered with the masterful skill only Barker could muster. After the loss of his parents, young Jack Thatch first met Stella as a child—this cryptic little girl of eight with dark hair and darker eyes, sitting alone on a bench in the cemetery clutching her favorite book. Gone moments later, the brief encounter would spark an obsession. She'd creep into his thoughts, his every waking moment, until he finally finds her again exactly one year later, sitting upon the same bench, only to disappear again soon after. The body of a man found in an alley, every inch of his flesh horribly burned, yet his clothing completely untouched. For Detective Faustino Brier, this wasn't the first, and he knew it wouldn't be the last. It was no different from the others. He'd find another just like it one year from today. August 9, to be exact. Isolated and locked away from the world in a shadowy lab, a little boy known only as Subject "D" waits, grows, learns. He's permitted to speak to no one. He has never known the touch of another. Harboring a power so horrific, those in control will never allow him beyond their walls. All of them linked in ways unimaginable.

I read a mystery/serial killer novel by this author before this one, and based on that small sampling, I would really prefer he stick with this genre, whatever it is. The title is kind of awkward and wacky, but I kind of love it - beats the hell out of another book called "The Shadow of Darkness" or "Murder on the Whatever". There are multiple books titled "Shattered Reality", what's THAT all about? Anyway. I searched exhaustively (for, like, five whole minutes) to see if the title was an actual quote from Great Expectations, because that would be really cool, but I couldn't confirm it. The Great Expectations allusion doesn't really hold up that much beyond the names, honestly, but the story was still engaging and quite inventive. The early parts about young Jack have a strong flavour of Stephen King (I mean this in a good way), and there is a surprisingly affecting possibly-doomed love story that develops. The back story and Jack's web of relationships is rendered carefully and vividly enough that you really care by the time the what-the-hell stuff starts flying. Really fun ride.

Hench by Natalie Zina Walschots: Synopsis from Goodreads: Anna does boring things for terrible people because even criminals need office help and she needs a job. Working for a monster lurking beneath the surface of the world isn’t glamorous. But is it really worse than working for an oil conglomerate or an insurance company? In this economy?  As a temp, she’s just a cog in the machine. But when she finally gets a promising assignment, everything goes very wrong, and an encounter with the so-called “hero” leaves her badly injured.  And, to her horror, compared to the other bodies strewn about, she’s the lucky one. So, of course, then she gets laid off. 

With no money and no mobility, with only her anger and internet research acumen, she discovers her suffering at the hands of a hero is far from unique. When people start listening to the story that her data tells, she realizes she might not be as powerless as she thinks. Because the key to everything is data: knowing how to collate it, how to manipulate it, and how to weaponize it. By tallying up the human cost these caped forces of nature wreak upon the world, she discovers that the line between good and evil is mostly marketing.  And with social media and viral videos, she can control that appearance. It’s not too long before she’s employed once more, this time by one of the worst villains on earth. As she becomes an increasingly valuable lieutenant, she might just save the world. A sharp, witty, modern debut, Hench explores the individual cost of justice through a fascinating mix of Millennial office politics, heroism measured through data science, body horror, and a profound misunderstanding of quantum mechanics.

-”A few cabbies, though, decided that being able to double their rates was worth the threat of getting their car ripped in half by some costumed dirtbag.”

-”Eventually, Greg couldn’t ignore the constant muted buzzing in his pocket that meant someone’s weapon of mass destruction wasn’t booting up the way it was supposed to, and he fled the room to take the call.”

A Canada Read nominee for last year. Holy crap, this was a ride. Billed as "The Boys meets My Year of Rest and Relaxation" (I've watched some of the former and yes, that definitely tracks, hated the latter and don't get the comparison at all). It's about people who work as henchmen (henchpeople?) for villains in a world where actual superheros exist. I had a few qualms early on in the book, just because I'm - not a total goody two-shoes, exactly, but sort of a rule-follower and unwilling to throw my loyalty in with a 'villain'. But the book makes a pretty good case for the fact that in this kind of world, 'heroes' are as dangerous to the common person as villains. It's really interesting reading about the moral and strategic quandaries in this universe. Besides that it's just a fast-paced, really fascinating read where you basically just hold on tight and see where it takes you. I didn't love the ending - are super-abrupt endings a new thing? The thing of the moment? The flash in the pan? The new kid on the block? Why can't I stop? -but I loved everything else.


House of Hollow by Krystal Sutherland: Synopsis from Goodreads: Seventeen-year-old Iris Hollow has always been strange. Something happened to her and her two older sisters when they were children, something they can’t quite remember but that left each of them with an identical half-moon scar at the base of their throats. Iris has spent most of her teenage years trying to avoid the weirdness that sticks to her like tar. But when her eldest sister, Grey, goes missing under suspicious circumstances, Iris learns just how weird her life can get: horned men start shadowing her, a corpse falls out of her sister’s ceiling, and ugly, impossible memories start to twist their way to the forefront of her mind. As Iris retraces Grey’s last known footsteps and follows the increasingly bizarre trail of breadcrumbs she left behind, it becomes apparent that the only way to save her sister is to decipher the mystery of what happened to them as children. The closer Iris gets to the truth, the closer she comes to understanding that the answer is dark and dangerous – and that Grey has been keeping a terrible secret from her for years.

It became quite apparent where this was going fairly early on, but the journey was still enjoyable. Most of all I respected the author's willingness to be gross. This is a Grimm fairy tale, not a Disney version. Things rot and bleed and mold, which gives the whole thing a much more visceral and engaging air. The dynamic between the mother and the daughters, the sisters and the boyfriend of the oldest is devoid of easy sentiment. I liked it. 

The Bear and the Nightingale (The Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden: Synopsis from Goodreads: At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn't mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse's fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil. After Vasilisa's mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa's new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows. And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa's stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent. As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse's most frightening tales. The Bear and the Nightingale is a magical debut novel from a gifted and gorgeous voice. It spins an irresistible spell as it announces the arrival of a singular talent.

I read another book by this author and loved it, and then I struggled for a bit for the first third or so. I liked the worldbuilding and Vasya is a wonderful character, and I felt the sense of menace, but when I put the book down I didn't have a strong urge to pick it up again. I got caught up more as the book went on, and it was a wonderful story - a realistic portrayal of grueling day-to-day farming life during a bitter Russian winter with magical realism overtones. 

The Future is Yours by Dan Frey: Synopsis from Goodreads: Two best friends create a computer that can predict the future. But what they can’t predict is how it will tear their friendship—and society—apart. If you had the chance to look one year into the future, would you? For Ben Boyce and Adhi Chaudry, the answer is unequivocally yes. And they’re betting everything that you’ll say yes, too. Welcome to The Future: a computer that connects to the internet one year from now, so you can see who you’ll be dating, where you’ll be working, even whether or not you’ll be alive in the year to come. By forming a startup to deliver this revolutionary technology to the world, Ben and Adhi have made their wildest, most impossible dream a reality. Once Silicon Valley outsiders, they’re now its hottest commodity. The device can predict everything perfectly—from stock market spikes and sports scores to political scandals and corporate takeovers—allowing them to chase down success and fame while staying one step ahead of the competition. But the future their device foretells is not the bright one they imagined. Ambition. Greed. Jealousy. And, perhaps, an apocalypse. The question is . . . can they stop it? Told through emails, texts, transcripts, and blog posts, this bleeding-edge tech thriller chronicles the costs of innovation and asks how far you’d go to protect the ones you love—even from themselves.

-”So it is Arjuna’s burden to fight, and drown the battlefield in blood, Even when he knows better. Most scholars see his dilemma in terms of destiny, but I would call it the curse of enlightenment -- seeing the futility and meaninglessness of it all, but still gripped with the need to win. Still desperate to prove his mettle. Still attached, by the bonds of human connection, to his army.”

This was more of a rapid read than I expected. I liked the sort-of epistolary story-telling (emails and newspaper articles and texts) and the fact that the emphasis was on how this technology would affect the people who created it - irresistible temptation, possible self-fulfilling prophecies. All of the characters were pretty heavily flawed, which also made the story more believable - I don't think there are many angels involved in venture capital and groundbreaking tech. The slippery slope of rationalizing, self-justifying and rule-breaking is all-too-believable. It touched on it all with a deceptive lightness, creating a quickening spiral of destruction. 

Sleeping Giants (The Themis Files #1) by Sylvain Neuvel: Synopsis from Goodreads: A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square-shaped hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved - the object's origins, architects, and purpose unknown.  But some can never stop searching for answers. Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top-secret team to crack the hand's code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the relic they seek. What's clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unravelling history's most perplexing discovery-and finally figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

-”’But when you come right down to it the reason that we did this job is because it was an organic necessity. If you are a scientist you cannot stop such a thing. If you are a scientist you believe that it is good to find out how the world works; that it is good to find out what the realistis are; that it is good to turn over to mankind at large the greatest possible power to control the world and to deal with it according to its lights and its values.’”


I find this kind of style - not quite epistolary, but written as a series of interviews, brief journal entries and news articles - interesting, because it can go a number of ways. Sometimes it makes it harder to really get a read on the characters, sometimes it makes things feel a bit rushed. When it's done well, as it is here, it reveals how some writers can really admirably capture the essence of characters and demonstrate profound insights with this kind of brevity. It creates an atmosphere of slight menace and foreboding as well. This is a skillful exploration of the challenges of weighing scientific exploration against the limits of humanity - what are we willing to trade for immense knowledge and power? As individuals? As nations? As a species? It's also just a really great story, with touches of fairly bleak humour. I was bitter that I had to wait for the next book for a few weeks from the library, but really glad I didn't start reading before the trilogy was finished. Wait, is it a trilogy? Yes, looks like it is. Whew.

The Waking Gods (The Themis Files #2) by Sylvain Neuvel: Synopsis from Goodreads: As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force. Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth . . . and maybe even the stars.

"I may believe in God, but I’m at war with Him. I’m a scientist. I try to answer questions, one at a time, so there’s a little less room for Him as the answer.”

And then this one took a hell of a dark turn and kind of scared me off going straight to the third. It was still good, I was just in the wrong headspace to continue immediately. 


 Witchmark (The Kingston Cycle #1) by C.L. Polk: Synopsis from Goodreads: C. L. Polk arrives on the scene with Witchmark, a stunning, addictive fantasy that combines intrigue, magic, betrayal, and romance. In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own. Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family's interest or to be committed to a witches' asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans' hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is. When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

This isn't really usual vibe - more historical fiction with magic. But the worldbuilding was really impressive, particularly the use of magic as amplifying the problems of the class system. 

 The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry:Synopsis from Goodreads: From the critically acclaimed author of Jennifer Government and Lexicon comes mind-bending speculative psychological suspense about a serial killer pursuing his victim across time and space, and the woman who is determined to stop him, even if it upends her own reality. I love you. In every world.  Young real estate agent Madison May is shocked when a client at an open house says these words to her. The man, a stranger, seems to know far too much about her, and professes his love--shortly before he murders her. Felicity Staples hates reporting on murders. As a journalist for a midsize New York City paper, she knows she must take on the assignment to research Madison May's shocking murder, but the crime seems random and the suspect is in the wind. That is, until Felicity spots the killer on the subway, right before he vanishes. Soon, Felicity senses her entire universe has shifted. No one remembers Madison May, or Felicity's encounter with the mysterious man. And her cat is missing. Felicity realizes that in her pursuit of Madison's killer, she followed him into a different dimension--one where everything about her existence is slightly altered. At first, she is determined to return to the reality she knows, but when Madison May--in this world, a struggling actress--is murdered again, Felicity decides she must find the killer--and learns that she is not the only one hunting him. Traveling through different realities, Felicity uncovers the opportunity--and danger--of living more than one life.


I went lighter on time travel this year, but still fit in a couple of parallel-worlds frolics. Aside from the murders revolving around the exhausting, all-too-realistic trope of the man who can't have a woman so kills her instead, this was a frothier example - no hard sci-fi, no excessive lingering over what it all means. But it was engaging and had great narrative energy and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  

Comments

Keith’s cousins who travelled from BC to Ottawa with the convoy have been posting nonstop about how “happy” everyone is and how this is the “best thing they’ve ever done” and I am feeling a never ending sense of despair and rage over their idiocy and disgusting behaviour. It’s pretty upsetting to realize that people you thought were good and decent are actually trash.

I hope you feel better soon.
I'm sorry you've had such a shitty weekend :(
StephLove said…
I'm sorry about the headache. That sounds terrible.

A book you'd buy to reread is a high recommendation. I'm also intrigued by Witchmark.
Ernie said…
That whole convoy thing sounds messed up. Sorry that is happening and I hope by now your headache has subsided. I can't imagine functioning while coping with that.

I love that one of the book is not Disney and I also appreciate how one of the books was not something you were dying to pick back up. That says a lot about a book.

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