Roses and Rot – Kat Howard
Saga Press, 2016
As a child, Imogen escaped from the misery of her home through writing, while her sister Marin did the same through dance. Even as adults, they are not free. When they are both accepted into a prestigious artists’ retreat, it seems the perfect opportunity to reconnect while they chase their dreams. But Melete is not quite the paradise it appears. There is a price for the greatness it offers – the question is which sister is going to pay.
This is a loose retelling of Tam Lin, one with a very original premise that is centred around a complicated sister relationship, all of which appealed to me very much. I also enjoyed the many references to fairy tales, and the intensely personal way Imogen interacted with them. I thought some of the secondary characters were not fleshed out as well as they could have been and at times the plot skimmed over moments I’d have liked to read in more detail. Overall, though, Howard drew the different threads of the story together very well, and I was thoroughly engaged throughout. Roses and Rot is Howard’s first novel. Her second, An Unkindness of Magicians, is slated for release in September.
The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet – Becky Chambers
Hodder & Stoughton, 2015
It’s a big universe, but when you don’t want to be found, it can feel very small. Rosemary has given up a lot for her new start aboard the Wayfarer, a ship in the business of building hyperspace tunnels. The eccentric crew, from the chaotic techs to the affectionate AI who keeps everything running, seem only too happy to welcome her aboard. When the Wayfarer is offered an extraordinary opportunity to build a tunnel longer than any they’ve ever built before, to a planet only recently accepted into the Galactic Commons, how could they possibly say no? But a long journey means a long time for secrets to come out, and that’s without really knowing what is waiting for them at the end…
This is Becky Chambers’ first novel and it is a delight. The worldbuilding is fascinating, detailed and original, with an interesting take on the role humans play in a wider galaxy. This is really an ensemble story, alternating between the perspectives of the whole Wayfarer crew, who are a charming motley of personalities and cultures. The plot is a little disjointed, with the chapters feeling more episodic than sequential, and there was one aspect of the ending that I found very frustrating, as the solution felt disrespectful to the characters involved, but this is the first book in a series and therefore I suppose it hasn’t really ended yet. The story continues in A Close and Common Orbit, which I shall definitely be reading.
Big Mushy Happy Lump – Sarah Andersen
Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2017
In her second book, artist Sarah Andersen explores social anxiety, female friendships, sweater theft, the borrowing of cats and how to avoid responsibility by hiding under a blanket. Including illustrated personal essays and comic snapshots of incredibly relatable problems, this collection is as brutally honest as it is hilarious.
I’d seen Andersen’s comics online before and enjoyed them, and this collection was just as good as I expected. Andersen tackles subjects from a distinctly female perspective, which is very refreshing, and her art style is charmingly bouncy. Her first book was Adulthood is a Myth.
The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin
Dutton Children’s Books, 2003
Originally published in 1978
The Westing house has stood empty for years. It can be seen from the new apartment complex of Sunset Towers, where the residents of each flat are unaware that they were handpicked to be exactly where they are – unaware that in fact, their new homes are the chosen setting for the eccentric Sam Westing’s last game, which begins at his funeral. His chosen heirs are all in line for a life-changing prize of millions. First, though, they have to solve his clues. With neighbours set at odds and families now rival competitors, the game is about much more than money…and Westing is not a man who ever loses.
The Westing Game is an intricate knot of a mystery, with a strong cast of complex characters. Though the book contains some unfortunate racist and ableist language typical to the time period (and generally within character of those using it), there a deliberate and thoughtful exploration of how people are much more complicated than they may initially come across – in good ways and bad. My one complaint would be that I found the ending just a little bit too glib, but despite that, it was satisfying and a very clever piece of writing.
Kingfisher – Patricia A. McKillip
Ace Books, 2016
Once upon a time, a heartbroken sorceress vanished and took an entire cape on the coast of Wyvernhold with her. Only when a trio of lost knights stumble into her sleepy haven does Heloise Oliver’s son start asking inconvenient questions and discover the truth: the father he has never met is still living, a knight himself in the royal court at Severluna. Pierce Oliver takes off for the heart of the kingdom, unaware of greater and darker mysteries rising to the surface around him. In a crumbling inn, a strange ritual cannot ever be questioned; a chef spins beautiful, irresistible nothings in a restaurant that cannot be found by those who want it most; and in Severluna, the king announces a quest without the least idea of what is really at stake.
I always adore Patricia A. McKillip’s writing, which is at its elegantly enigmatic, exquisitely wry best in Kingfisher, but the infusion of Arthuriana into a world of modern day alternate world fantasy is so brilliantly done I think this may be one of my favourites of her books, as well as one of my favourite books in general. The richness of the worldbuilding is entrancing, the familiar bones of legends and fairy tales woven into a setting that includes mobile phones, river gods and knights riding motorcycles. I would be thrilled if she wrote more in this world.
Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman
From the emergence of Ymir, ancestor of the giants, from the first waters of the worlds, to the end of all things at Ragnarok – from the tricks and treachery of Loki to the wisdom and wickedness of Odin, the adventures of Thor and the betrayal of Balder, these are the legends of the Norse gods as you have never known them before.
I have a long-standing love of Norse mythology and while I knew many of these stories, some I didn’t. It was a delight to read Gaiman’s vivid retellings, all infused with his recognisable wry wit. I particularly loved a twist on the story of Balder that gave a more prominent role to – avoiding spoilers! – a shadowy female character I’ve always been fascinated by. Gaiman has a wonderful turn of phrase and by making all references to Ragnarok in future tense, the stories have a fresh shock of immediacy. This is a book I’m certain I’ll re-read.
Every Heart a Doorway (Wayward Children No.1) – Seanan McGuire
Everyone knows that sometimes, children get lost. And the ones who come back with strange stories about other lands, where they wore crowns and fought their enemies and fell in love…well, if they’re lucky, they find their way to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, where everyone is re-learning how to live in this world and hoping against hope they’ll find their way out again, back to the worlds that they now call home. Nancy knows that she belongs in the silence and shadows of the Halls of the Dead, not in this quick and waking place. But someone else is even more desperate for escape – and willing to bring death into the school to get it.
If you ever finished Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe with an immense sense of frustration, this is the book for you. It takes on the genre of portal fantasy with the simple question: what happens when the children come home? With an asexual protagonist and a cast of diverse, unpredictable characters, Every Heart a Doorway is both a murder mystery and a sharp, intelligent overturning of some very familiar tropes. The next book in the series is Down Among the Sticks and Bones, which is slated for release in June of this year.
Crown Duel – Sherwood Smith
Originally published as Crown Duel (1997) and Court Duel (1998)
When the nobility of Remalna won’t act against the growing greed and corruption of their king, the penniless young Countess Meliara Astior of Tlanth and her peaceable older brother Branaric decide they must take action themselves – but the king is quick to bring the war to their door. With the mysterious Marquis of Shevraeth leading the royal forces, Meliara’s beloved mountains become a battleground and she is soon embroiled in a perilous game of cat-and-mouse, where the rules are always changing and nothing is as clear-cut as she thought it was.
Though Crown Duel was originally published as two separate novels, it works much better as one divided into two distinct parts. Meliara is an enjoyably spiky, defiant protagonist, but the narrative works against her – she’s sidelined from some of the big events in the story and there’s a constant irritating emphasis on her getting into trouble by misunderstanding situations, even when her reasoning is logical and the fault really lies with others. The world-building is strong, with a distinct sense of a different culture and lovely little references to the history and literature of Remalna. It’s also very refreshing to see a fantasy world where sexism barely exists.
The Rebirth of Rapunzel – Kate Forsyth
FableCroft Publishing, 2016
In this mythic biography, Australian author Kate Forsyth traces the famous fairy tale of ‘Rapunzel’ from its earliest recorded origins down through centuries of retellings into the inventive, irreverent and exciting incarnations of the modern day. How well do you really know the maiden in the tower?
I was given a hardback of this book, with its gorgeous cover by Kathleen Jennings, as a Christmas gift from my sister, because she knows me well and fairy tale biography. It is a brilliant concept that Forsyth has researched meticulously and presented in a way that is immensely readable. Though I disagreed with some of her interpretations, the history and context of this fairy tale’s growth and change is so well presented that it allows the reader to form their own opinions based on those facts. Included in this book are some of Forsyth’s other essays about fantasy, science fiction and writing. There are spoilers for her ‘Rapunzel’ retelling Bitter Greens, so I would advise reading that first. I love fairy tales and have strong feelings about ‘Rapunzel’ in particular because I wrote a retelling of it myself; The Rebirth of Rapunzel is a book I am delighted to have on my shelf, and I would be thrilled to see more ‘mythic biographies’ like it.
Dreams of Distant Shores – Patricia A. McKillip
What is impossible, really, when stories come floating out of strange magic? A witch misplaces her name and her face, and gives a wooden mermaid an unexpected lease of life. Besieged lovers share a dangerous secret, Medusa reveals her true face, and the sea washes up truths so bitter and beautiful they might wash your heart away.
I am always bewitched by Patricia A. McKillip’s writing. It reads with a glorious poetic elegance, but she has a finely tuned sense of the absurd as well that gives it vibrant life. All except one of the seven stories in this collection were new to me, ranging from the light-hearted Mer and urban fantastical Which Witch to the darkly enigmatic Weird and the eloquently passionate novella Something Rich and Strange. It takes a lot to live up to a title as good as this one, but McKillip does so with style.