I won’t mince words; I wasn’t a fan of Everfair. I wanted to be, but wasn’t.
I got my copy in the mail and was so excited. I was ready to drop everything and start reading. I often have this feeling, but was spurred on by the promise of something truly spectacular and very rarely seen in western publishing. The idea of a well executed literary fantasy set in a steampunk version of Congo was like a big piece of cake staring me down. I may have actually squealed a bit.
I want to be very clear when talking about this, because for as much as I have my criticisms, Shawl is very clearly good at her craft. She’s eloquent and considered. Even having disliked the book, I came away with a positive impression of hers. I would chalk my struggles up to some of the construction elements rather than saying that her writing isn’t worth the read. You should pick it up and give her a try, at the very least, read some of her short work.
The story itself follows a group of missionaries and refugees living in a section of the Congo set aside to become a land called Everfair. One part safe have, one part socialist republic, the book follows a family from Britain that is trying to lead Everfair in their vision, occasionally with the help of the black population, and, more often, without the input or significant leadership of the black population. The family deals with death, abandonment, interracial marriage, and sexual orientation all the while.
My problems with the story were compounding.
The story format jumps between characters and timelines. So, you can go from following one character in 1810 to another totally different character in 1823 all in a matter of four or five pages. For me, this was confusing and left the story without a cohesive feel.
The plot was meandering and unfocused. Rather than having a clear end-point, it paused every few pages to talk about tangents or give unnecessary context. This was all without really adding to an overarching arc that would have given that cohesion the story desperately needed.
The characters were tough for me. They could have been very interesting, but not enough time ever seemed to be spent on them. We’d stop in on them every once in a while. But in the mean time, there were so many other characters to visit and so many other shifts in timelines and ages that keeping track was a challenge.
The story is clearly well researched and Shawl clearly spent a good deal of time thinking it through. Her writing is very atmospheric, but I didn’t find the style to be cohesive enough to compensate for the meandering plot. It was a promising story, but didn’t deliver for me. I’ll have to check in with Shawl’s next work instead.
Where to start?
First off, I’m about to get spoilery. So, if you don’t like to be spoiled. I suggest you watch my video about Split Worlds #1-3 and then go read them. They’re that lovely kind of bubble gum fun you only really get in certain sub-genres of SFF. I liked them. I suspect you will as well.
In the fourth book of the series, we pick up with Cathy and Will as Duke and Duchess. They’ve started their rise to power, and Cathy has decided to use it to liberate the women of the Nether, like you do. But, it’s not that easy and, of course, she’s upsetting a lot of people and making many many enemies. She still doesn’t know what Will’s been doing behind her back or that their Patron is threatening to kill her if Will doesn’t get a bun in that oven.
I have two major problems with this book. (1) The plot is suffering some middle-book syndrome and doesn’t seem to be coming together, and (2) it’s been so long since the first three were out that getting back into the world and writing feels disjointed. Since there were rights, publishing, and reprint issues, I can’t really blame anyone for (2), so I’ll busy myself with the more substantial issue.
We’ll talk about the storylines one at a time, shall we?
Max and the Gargoyle
So, Max is slowly putting together an Arbiter’s office from scratch and trying to figure out what’s going on in the Nether. Since dead wizards keep showing up and he can’t go to the existing Arbiters, he’s left leading a hodgepodge crew of mortals and trying to keep the sorcerers’ disappearances under wraps.
It’s one of those situations where I know that this plot is going to wind up going somewhere, but for now, it feels stalled. There are a few things that Max uncovers regarding the Nether that are used to save the day, but that point is tangential to Max himself and, frankly, is feels like a convenient way to solve a problem.
That being said, we get to find out about some of Max’s past, which I find really exciting. The mystery is starting to come together, if only through magic internet use and the Gargoyle’s persistence, but it feels like one step closer to Max and his Gargoyle becoming one entity again.
Sam’s now Lord Iron and set on trying to do some good. He’s up against a possibly losing battle (Max helps him figure out the underlying problems here), and of course, he’s sad about Cathy seeming to be happy with Will.
Let’s all say it: BUT I’M A NICE GUY!
Lord Iron is all set up to get serious, but that won’t be until next book, so we’re waiting.
Cathy and Will
Oh, Will and Cathy. That’s a hot mess, intentionally so.
Cathy is starting to try and influence the court. Will is trying to knock her up. Neither is a good communicator.
Let’s not forget Will’s creepy tendencies. Those are still around.
It’s coming to a head, though. Only so long you can drug your wife into loving you before that backfires.
It’s a middle book and it feels like one. The action is a little laggy, and what action there is takes up time that we’re using because of the needed set up. I’m ready for book 5. This one, while enjoyable, was a bit lackluster for me. Too much organizing pieces of the puzzle, not enough putting them together.
There’s a lot to love about Allen Steele’s Arkwright. I’m a little in love with it myself.
The story follows Nathan Arkwright and his family. Arkwright is a fictional contemporary of Heinlein, Clarke, and the golden age authors in SF. He’s best known for his Galaxy Patrol stories, a pulpy SF series that would, in his universe, help inspire young readers to go into the sciences, become astronauts, and generally love fiction and reading. When Arkwright dies, estranged from his family, he leaves his estate to the newly established Arkwright Foundation. The Arkwright Foundation, led by his granddaughter, is committed to taking humanity into space and interstellar travel.
The book is broken up into three parts: Nathan Arkwright’s history, the development of the Arkwright Foundation and its mission execution, and the results of the interstellar travel.
As a result, I want to talk about the book in parts.
Nathan Arkwright’s history is easily my favorite part of the book. It composes the first third and is an homage to the golden age of SF. It’s beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. If all you read is the first third of this book, it will have been well worth your time.
Nathan Arkwright’s history recounts the Futurian movement in SF, a push to use SF as a means of talking about social and scientific change as opposed to simply a means of entertainment. The Futurian movement in SF caused an actual break in the SF world at a New York convention in 1937. Arkwright is caught up in the split, but doesn’t feel at home with either side of the movement. As a result, he observes the dynamic and interacts with the likes of Arthur C. Clarke, John W. Campbell, and Robert Heinlein. It’s basically the coolest alt history/fanfic ever.
Note: If you want to read more about the actual Futurian split in SF, you can read The Futurians by Damon Knight and it’s mentioned in Arthur C. Clarke’s autobiography.
Nat Arkwright and his friends are fun and likeable. They’re energetic and representative of the enthusiasm for SF and the industry that makes being a part of SF great. The tone matches the time and the characters undergo changes in their lives (WWII, family dynamics, friendships and relationships) and eventually go through the cycle of enthusiast, jaded, and renewed. There’s so much to love here.
The Arkwright Foundation comes about after Nat’s death and is led by his granddaughter Kate. A significant part of this section is about the generations that it takes to make interstellar travel actually possible. It’s not overly technical, but is probably a fair description of the time and efforts it would take to make a starship actually work. One of Nat’s descendants describes the family commitment as cult-like.
While I could appreciate this part, and many folks have compared it to a generation ship in so far as it takes multiple generations to make the mission happen. There’s definitely a point here.
While each of the characters are likeable and I can understand and appreciate the role this section plays, the story feels a bit like the kind of story you write as a kid. You know the one. There’s a mommy and a daddy who fall in love and have a baby. That baby grows up to fall in love and becomes a mommy/daddy and has a baby, so on and so forth into eternity. Each character has a role to play in the mission’s success, but it wasn’t as engaging as I’d like and felt a bit formulaic.
Once the ship lands, the story picks up again. The interstellar ship, the Galactique, successfully lands and begins to disseminate new plant and animal life to make their new home habitable. Because of the expense of sending actual adults, the mission collected zygotes to send into space and fertilize upon arrival. Those become the descendants of Nat Arkwright and his allies in space.
This section of the book really interested me. It poses the question: if we do send children into space to be born and grow and develop on their own, who do they become? And equally as interesting, are we still human if we change ourselves to adapt to a new world. Evolution and a nature v. nurture are all wrapped up in one here and I thought the results are fascinating. The characters and new social norms are captivating. The development of government and religion– or rather the exploration of what may come to pass– is so interesting. It’s the kind of question I actually spend a lot of time thinking about.
To make it better, the new humans have distinct features physically and linguistically. They walk on both all fours and bipedally. Their language is all computer abbreviations, min for minutes and secs for seconds without knowing the full word. It’s really an interesting line of thinking.
I really liked this novel, though I would say it’s U-shaped. Exciting and the beginning and end with a bit of a dull middle. Regardless, you can tell Steele spent a lot of time thinking about the way he uses SF and what there really is to love about it: the future and the changes the future brings.
I received a copy of this book from the publisher for free in exchange for an honest review
The Girl with All the Gifts was M. R. Carey’s most recent novel and the first to cross my path, though he’d been writing comics for years beforehand and has a hearty backlist. The hype was pretty high when I read it, but after enjoying it, I kept my eye out for Carey’s works. Fellside, Carey’s new book, was released April 5th by Orbit books.
I wasn’t entirely sure what I was getting myself into with this one. The cover features The Girl with All the Gifts and the set up sounded fairly similar– woman stuck in an institution with surprising supernatural occurrences. I couldn’t tell if it would be too similar to TGWATG or if it would be connected somehow.
Fellside features a woman named Jess who has been sent to prison for the murder of a young boy in her apartment building. Jess was high at the time, was horribly burned in the resulting fire, and, most importantly, doesn’t remember anything that happened after shooting up. Now, in Fellside prison for a life sentence, the ghost of the young boy she killed is haunting her.
The take away from this book was by and large that Carey can write a solid story.
The book does what many stories about prison do: a dash of crime plot, mix in some character background, add in a touch of prison violence, sprinkle some drugs on top and voila!
The story plot and character constructions, though again solidly done, left something to be desired. In a lot of ways, it was very predictable, despite multiple attempts at twists. The characters were rarely fleshed out beyond the typical, particularly for the inmates, and their internal life outside of Jess doesn’t get too much consideration. Again, the construction itself is done solidly, it just lacked much in the way of pushing the limits.
The draw for this is the paranormal aspect. The ghost that haunts Jess in prison adds an element of fantasy and Carey draws on that for the book’s distinction. The paranormal aspect is twined together with Jess’ childhood fantasies and some fairly terrifying events. Carey uses these elements in a way that’s fairly well integrated with the plot and its creation and descriptions were satisfying. Jess’ supernatural history could have been expanded upon and people who knew about it could have questioned more, but overall it was pretty well done.
Fellside won’t make my best of list, but it’s an entertaining read and worth picking up if you are looking for something reliable for the time and money you’ll spend.
A thanks to Orbit books which sent me a copy of Fellside for free in exchange for an honest review.
I was excited to hear Sofia Samatar was writing a new novel set in the same world as A Stranger in Olondria. I had listened to the book on audio a few months before and was interested to see what else she would do for the world.
The Winged Histories expands upon the world in A Stranger in Olondria, providing a background into the political/religious setting of the world. It’s set contemporaneously to A Stranger in Olondria and follows four women caught up in the upheaval.
The thought Samatar puts into the world and the religious development is fantastic. She features a number of well thought-out political and religious overlaps and how those interact.
One of the things I noticed right away was the consistency in Samatar’s writing style. The similarity in the first character’s voice and the narrator’s in Olondria was striking. Samatar’s sentence construction and description styles for the two felt very similar. In a way, I both liked and disliked this. I liked the consistency and the distinctiveness of Samatar’s writing, but worried that the book would be atonal, especially considering that there were three other characters whose points of view were about to be presented.
The stories’ characters were definitely distinct. They ran the gambit from funny and loving to dark and brooding. I would argue that the story is family based. The initial character is a young woman in line for the throne. Her family has worked hard to position themselves to take control. After a semi-scandal involving her sister and cousin, she is the last hope to marry well and secure the family’s position, but she runs away to join the army, to become a shieldmaiden.
From that point forward, she becomes the catalyst for revolution, eventually involving her lover, sister, and political rival’s daughter.
The story is fantastical and brings back some interesting characters like Tailon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone. The overall connections between the characters shows the depth of the story’s construction. Each character influences the others, eventually contributing to the political upheaval that takes place.
I really enjoyed the addition to the world Samatar built in A Stranger in Olondria. That being said, I wasn’t always sure that the story would have stood well on its own without my previously having read Samatar’s work.
The story feels very much like a series of intertwined novellas. Each new perspective pushes the story forward without always answering the questions left behind by the other stories. Some of the lore of Avalei is pretty important to the story overall, but doesn’t receive the same in-depth treatment that was needed in Olondria. In a way this makes sense, the distinction between the theology of the stone and Avalei is less important, but I imagine that reading The Winged Histories first may leave you a little lost.
At the same time, I can see the potential for the story to be a great introduction and context to its predecessor.
Overall, the story is very enjoyable. It’s beautifully written with some varied character voices, but I’d definitely suggest reading Samatar’s earlier works beforehand.
If you’ve read The Winged Histories, and especially if you read The Winged Histories before reading A Stranger in Olondria, I’d be very interested in your thoughts. Please comment below!
Thanks to Small Beer Press who provided me with a copy of The Winged Histories for review.
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When I found out the premise and model of storytelling that Serial Box is doing, I knew I wanted it; when I found out who was participating and the quality of the work, I knew I needed it. Read the rest of this entry »