Book review: Down Among the Sticks and Bones, by Seanan McGuire

3 06 2018

Seanan McGuire is an American speculative fiction writer who would be prolific enough under her own name, but who also writes under the pen name of Mira Grant. She’s best known for her long-running ‘October Daye’, ‘InCriptid’ and ‘Newsflesh’ series, but has written much else besides. She’s received numerous award nominations, has won Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy and Locus Awards (and many others besides), and is also a noted filker.


Down Among the Sticks and Bones is McGuire’s second title in the ‘Wayward Children’ novella / short novel series; I’ve reviewed the first, Every Heart a Doorway, here. Down Among is a prequel of sorts to Every Heart, since it explores the backstory of troubled twins Jack and Jill who feature prominently in the first book. Twin daughters Jacqueline and Jillian are raised by their status-obsessed parents, Serena and Chester Wolcott, to be, respectively, the daughter and son they had always (sort of) wanted, as long as they don’t have to do any of that messy parenting—a task which, for the most part, falls to Chester’s mother Gemma Lou, until such time as she is bundled out of the family home for fear of exerting too substantial an influence on the growing girls. Trapped in their respective roles as pampered princess (Jacqueline) and loner tomboy (Jillian), it’s not too surprising that when an opportunity for escape arises, the girls take it. And so it is that a bored rainy-day exploration of their grandmother’s former bedroom results in their finding a Narnia-style magic door at the base of a chest of clothes. They descend a long flight of stairs to arrive, mysteriously, on a bleak moorland with a sky dominated by a super-large blood-red moon: it’s not, perhaps, the most salubrious of escapes, but they have no way back. The door has closed behind them.

Jack and Jill find themselves in the fabulously magical castle of a man known only as the Master who, it transpires, has a fear of sunlight and a near-insatiable taste for human blood. He would be happy to adopt both girls as his ‘daughters’, but a pact with Dr Bleak, who lives in a rickety hilltop windmill, requires that one of the girls must go to the windmill. Jack, tired of a childhood of pretty dresses, chooses the windmill; Jill, who has never been allowed to explore glamour, opts for the castle. They grow into their roles, as mad scientist’s apprentice and vampire’s understudy, and do not see each other for years. It seems as though this situation could endure indefinitely … except, of course, it cannot.

McGuire’s writing seems effortless, declarative, steeped in hidden or slow-unfolding meaning. Her play with the stereotypical tropes of B-grade horror, and with the deftly-drawn polar-opposite personalities of tomboy-to-princess Jill and princess-to-tomboy Jack, is both surprisingly effective and unexpectedly heartening: there’s a sense (illusory, as it transpires) that the scenario is so classic, so timeless, that nothing truly grim can happen. It’s an intriguing book, and one that expands in useful respects on the events in Every Heart a Doorway. (The connection between the two books is sufficiently tenuous that it would be entirely possible to read Down Among the Sticks and Bones first, but I think I’d still recommend beginning with Every Heart.) If you have any kind of affinity for portal fantasy, this is very definitely worth checking out.


Book review: Echoes of Understorey, by Thoraiya Dyer

28 05 2018

Thoraiya Dyer is an Australian speculative fiction writer whose work has won several Aurealis and Ditmar awards. I’ve previously reviewed her debut novel, last year’s Crossroads of Canopy, here.

In the interests of full disclosure, I should state that I’ve edited (or co-edited) two of Thoraiya’s stories: her novella ‘The Bird, the Bees, and the Thylacine’ in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine issue 51 and her short story ‘Faet’s Fire’ in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, co-edited with Edwina Harvey. I also consider her a friend. I’ll endeavour, as always, to offer an unbiased assessment of the work reviewed here.


Echoes of Understorey is the second volume in ‘Titan’s Forest’, Dyer’s unfolding arboreal quest fantasy trilogy, following on from Crossroads of Canopy and set in the same height-stratified society within the outsize, magic-infused, gods-controlled forest of the earlier book. Though several of the characters from the first volume—Unar, Ylly, Bernreb, Aoun and others—recur here, the protagonist and viewpoint character in Echoes is different.

Imeris (or Imerissiremi, or Issi) is a young Understoreyan of (literally) Canopian descent, rescued as a child from a chimera and raised in the same extended, blended family that took in Unar in the preceding book. Imeris, trained as an Understoreyan commando to wreak summary justice on the lower reaches’ treetop overlords, and able with the divine intervention of her sister Ylly (now the goddess Audblayin) to enter and exit Canopian territory with comparative ease, is beset by problems both of identity—does she owe allegiance to Understorey, within which she was raised, or to Canopy, the realm of her birth—and of survival: how can she keep clear of the soul-stealing, body-swapping witch Kirrik who now wears the form of Issi’s childhood friend Nirrin? How can she slay a woman whose consciousness and motivations are capable of effortlessly hopping across to the nearest available warm body (which might, after all, be that of Imeris herself)?

Imeris hatches a plan, with her Oldest-Father (Esse) and her Youngest-Father (Marram), which they believe capable of destroying the witch Kirrik and providing her no opportunity to transfer to another. It’s a solid plan, but it requires everything to go right. Not everything does go right. Imeris, devastated and bereaved, has achieved nothing more than to ensure she has secured the enmity of an immensely powerful creature. For the safety of her loved ones, and to buy herself time while she skills up as the witchslayer she is apparently destined to become, she must leave home, and obtain whatever assistance, training, and experience she can from within both Understorey and Canopy. Which, as a fallback plan, would be a good one, if it weren’t that others within those realms appear also to have reason to want Imeris dead …

Echoes of Understorey, like its predecessor, is a busy, crowded novel with very impressive worldbuilding (Dyer, a trained veterinarian and keen conservationist, is excellent on the pithy description of both flora and fauna, with a strongly antipodean flavour to her novels’ supersized forest; there’s also a lot of imaginative and societally-appropriate engineering in her forests’ varied human settlements) and strong and intriguing characterisation. Though it adheres broadly to the form of the quest fantasy, it repeatedly and constructively subverts the expectations of that form in both structure and story arc. In doing so, it augments rather than merely mimeographs the world explored in its predecessor, and yields a story that resonates, surprises, and satisfies. I am looking forward to volume three.

Empanelled again

24 05 2018

In advance warning of something that’s likely to consume much of December and January in particular: I’m one of five judges on the Aurealis Award judging panel for the SF Novel category.

This is my fifth stint on a judging panel in ten years, and my second on SF Novel, which was my introduction to Aurealis judging a decade ago. Back then, we had—if my recollection’s correct—around twenty entries. This year, judging by recent trends, it’s likely to be substantially more. I’m looking forward to it, but under no delusions that about the amount of reading ahead …

Sundry news of word and book

20 05 2018

It’s been a more protracted process than I would have wished, but it appears that the severance of my books from Peggy Bright Books, their former publisher, is now complete — or as complete as I am able to arrange. The final step has been the transfer of the PBB editions of Matters Arising from the Identification of the Body and Wide Brown Land: stories of Titan to my own imprint: this was effected overnight, courtesy of the distributor, and those editions have now been cancelled since they effectively duplicated the new self-published editions of those titles. The PBB ebook of Wide Brown Land should disappear fairly quickly, I think, from the online retailers; the print PBB editions are likely to linger for some time at the retailers, until the physical stock is exhausted. But at least I have now ensured that no new PBB stock of those titles can be generated in competition with my own editions. It … has taken a while, and it has been an odd sort of journey.

The ‘unpublication’ has also meant the disappearance of my earlier works: the collections Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album, the novella Flight 404, and the stories which were collected in The Gordon Mamon Casebook. I remain uncertain as to whether to re-release Flight 404, but I do have firm plans for two new collections to make available again much of the other material, later in the year. There will be a new, ‘officially complete’ collection of my Gordon Mamon stories, to be titled Murder on the Zenith Express. This will include a newly-completed novella, ‘This Guy’s The Limit’, which like the others is a space-elevator murder mystery with puns. And an unthemed collection, for which I have a title (that is, nonetheless, to be kept under wraps until the wordcount is finalised), will include the strongest stories (both lighter and darker) from Rare Unsigned Copy and Difficult Second Album as well as a significant serving of newer stories. The release date for these new collections is still around four months away, but I’m looking forward to pushing them out into the world.

Book review: Binti: Home, by Nnedi Okorafor

13 05 2018

Nnedi Okorafor is an American speculative fiction writer, of Nigerian heritage, who has become one of the most well-known proponents of what is now termed ‘Afrofuturism’, a subgenre of speculative fiction which draws largely on African lore and culture. Okorafor has won numerous awards for her work, including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the World Fantasy Award. I’ve previously reviewed the first ‘Binti’ novella, Binti, here.


In Binti: Home, master harmoniser Binti, whose studies at Oomza Uni are (for the most part) progressing well, is drawn to return to her homeland, so she can partake in the pilgrimage which is a rite-of-passage for her people, the Himba. But going home is not straightforward, for Binti has grown in ways that are highly atypical for her people: she has escaped off-planet, she has been exposed to a plethora of alien cultures on Oomza, she has become innately connected with Okwu, a member of the warfaring alien race, the Meduse, with which Binti has been pivotal in securing a truce. To the Khoush people, especially, who live alongside the Himba, the Meduse are murderous monsters: how will they perceive Binti’s decision to have Okwu accompany her to Earth? And for that matter, how will Binti herself cope with the flight back aboard Third Fish, the living ship aboard whom Binti had earlier been the only human survivor of a vicious assault by the Meduse on the flight to Oomza?

Binti: Home is a busy, fizzy, deeply-felt novella that explores the uneasy interaction between tradition, change, and personal growth. It frequently seems to be pulling in several directions at once, ensuring that the narrative is at times disorienting, but the end result is to convey a complicated world—indeed, a complicated universe—that is distinctly larger than the novella it contains. The worldbuilding is expansive and impressive, and Binti is a complex and sympathetic character, wearing her strengths alongside her vulnerabilities (and on occasion mistaking which is which). And Okorafor ensures that readers will want to find out what happens next, in the series’ concluding novella.

Book review: The Darkest Day, by Håkan Nesser

8 05 2018

Håkan Nesser is a Swedish writer, mostly of crime fiction, best known for his series of ten ‘Van Veeteren’ novels set in the fictional city of Maardam, the nationality of which is never specified though it combines predominantly Dutch nomenclature with a somewhat Scandinavian sensibility. He’s a three-time winner of the Best Swedish Crime Novel Award, a winner of the Gold Key Award, and is currently on the shortlist for this year’s Petrona Award. I’ve previously reviewed three of his books here, including two of the Van Veeteren series.


The Darkest Day (Människa utan hund, 2006, translated by Sarah Death) is the first of Nesser’s ‘Inspector Barbarossi’ series, although the Inspector himself does not feature at all until page 185, over a third of the way into the novel. The focus is on a family celebration gone disastrously wrong, as what should be a momentous and happy occasion turns into a slow-rolling train wreck of a reunion. Newly retired patriarch Karl-Erik Hermansson is celebrating his sixty-fifth birthday on the same day that his robustly businesslike elder daughter Ebba is turning forty; his outwardly-devoted wife Rosemarie Wunderlich Hermansson, a fellow newly-retired teacher, nurses a secret ambition to kill either herself or her husband over his ambition that they sell up their home of thirty-eight years in the (fictional) Swedish town of Kymlinge to relocate to Spain’s ‘Costa Geriatrica’; only son Robert has disgraced himself, some months previously, through an inebriated act of spectacularly public masturbation during filming of a lowest-common-denominator TV show in which he had been appearing. It’s the kind of setup which, in a lengthy and slow-moving novel, could well turn turgid, and yet Nesser’s characterisation and portrayal is a delight. There’s ample time given, in an introductory sequence that busies itself with the kind of skeweringly precise social observation that somehow the Van Veeteren novels (perhaps due to their deliberately muddled location) have not seemed to accommodate, to get to know the several principal members of the Hermansson clan, and therefore to feel genuinely invested in their welfare when first one and then another of those family members goes inexplicably missing within a 24-hour interval.

The novel is well-imbued with black humour, arising more from the character interaction than from the situations unfolding within the tale, and yet the tension of the last hundred pages or so is almost excruciating, as forces converge towards a chillingly disastrous finale. It is, I have to say, very well done.

Book review: I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land, by Connie Willis

4 05 2018

Connie Willis is an American SF / fantasy writer best known for a series of multiple-award-winning ‘time travel’ novels, but with a lengthy bibliography of other notable works. She’s won eleven Hugo and seven Nebula Awards.


I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land is a novella in which the protagonist, Jim, an author seeking refuge among the rain-swept streets of Manhattan following a deeply antagonistic radio interview, stumbles into the doorway of a hole-in-the-wall second-hand bookstore, Ozymandias Books. The bookstore’s shelving can best be described as ‘chaotic’, with obscure works by Herman Melville and Shakespeare placed cheek by jowl with various ephemera such as The Vagabond Boys Go To Carlsbad and a Tiger Beat picture bio of Leonardo DiCaprio, and the pricing on the books can safely be called nonexistent. As can the store’s customers: there’s just Jim and a sales clerk (he supposes) seated at a desk near the storefront. In short, it’s difficult to see how such an ostensibly anticommercial enterprise can endure in such a competitive and high-rent urban environment. And when Jim takes it upon himself to follow an employee back through the ‘Staff Only’ door, then down an improbably long sequence of staircases into a vast storage space, the mystery deepens … just what kind of operation is this Ozymandias Books?

There’s a strong subcurrent of portal fantasy to Willis’s novella, grounded though it is in the ostentisbly-recognisable world of the real. It’s a tale which, when assessed against some of Willis’s work over the years—I’m thinking here, especially, of such classic and groundbreaking stories as ‘All My Darling Daughters’ and ‘Even the Queen’—might seem slight, but it’s closely imagined (and full of the titles of unreachable books which sound, in various ways, as though they’d be fascinating) and leads to its conclusion with both inevitability and sadness, as seems appropriate for a story which is, at heart, both a paean and an elegy to the printed book.