Review: IN THE COMPANY OF THE DEAD by Ciara Ballintyne

InTheCompanyOfTheDeadIn the Company of the Dead by Ciara Ballintyne
(Fantasy, Epic; Evolved Publishing, 2016)

4/5 Stars

The convoluted politics of men and gods traps a lone-wolf priestess of death and an exiled nobleman in a remote castle during a siege. Alliances are forged and broken in this springboard to an intriguing series.

**WARNING: Some content below is more spoilery than I’d prefer, but I can’t do justice to the book’s strengths without it. I don’t reveal actual plot points, but if you want to be taken for the full ride, skip to “Editor-Brain”**

Writer-Brain: 4/5 Stars. I wasn’t the biggest fan of the pacing, and I had some struggle with getting a sense for structure that might have helped pull things along, but Ballintyne did two things that took this book up a whole star.

First, she pulls Ellaeva back from the Inevitable Ledge of Mary Suedom. Ellaeva is the goddess of death’s Battle Priestess, the Left-Hand of Death, and she’s reasonably young and attractive and effective; the ledge is not hard to miss with that kind of character. It’s not a full yank backwards, and I’m sure some readers might disagree, but I think it’s reasonable to say she’s at least in a gray area by the end of the book. What happens in the sequel(s) will certainly affect the final verdict. In any case, Ellaeva doesn’t come off as so perfect a specimen that you secretly hate her for her goodness and glory and agency. Lyram, too, escapes Marty Studom and isn’t just there to make us worship Ellaeva; he’s got his own hangups and faults and he faces a few consequences that keep him in the clear.

Second, Ballintyne lies–to the readers and her characters. It happens once, early, and big. It’s not easy to do in this kind of fantasy without it feeling totally like a cop-out, easy-answer. When the lie was revealed, though, I realized that I was more interested to see where things would go. My note in the ebook was “so this is where Book 2 starts.” So somewhere, amid the things that slowed me down and kept me thinking too hard to really fly effortlessly through the read, Bellintyne had me hooked. If she hadn’t, the big reveal might have sent me running.

Editor-Brain: 3/5 Stars. There were a few places where dialogue and/or exposition just wasn’t as tight as I’d have liked. This is the problem with  being an editor who reads (or a reader who edits): I get caught up in details that affect the telling of the story and not the story itself. This runs from saying the same thing two different ways in a few paragraphs to words or sentences that could be cut entirely without changing meaning. Will this disturb most readers? Likely no. But it caught me often enough that I couldn’t say nothing.

Reader-Brain: 4/5 Stars. So I’m just going to say that I requested this book knowing that I’m not the biggest fan of books set amid an ongoing war/battle with little to no plot relief. I chose it because I’ve never read a siege book before and wanted to see how I felt about it. And I think it was a good discovery. Not so much fighting or going on about troop positioning or maneuvers: the characters had to be resourceful, swift, and strategic. There were consequences to losing people, no matter how little they mattered to the plot, something I’d argue didn’t happen in some other war-centric epic fantasies I’ve read. And, as I said above, Ballintyne threw me for a loop I enjoyed; I’m putting book 2 on my reading list for 2017.

Disclaimer: I recieved a free digital ARC of this title from Evolved via NetGalley.

Review: SIGNAL TO NOISE by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

SignaltoNoiseSignal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
(Fantasy, Urban; Solaris 2015)

4/5 Stars.

In 1988, three teenagers from Mexico City discover that they can cast spells using magic. In 2009, one of them returns home after twenty years and confronts the messes they made. So much heart in this book, and as Meche’s grandmother says, “Magic will break your heart.”

Writer-Brain: 4.5/5 stars. I loved Moreno-Garcia’s worldbuilding tactics. There’s something very modern-day about looking at magic with a scientific eye as Meche does. She’s a programmer and she expects that magic, if it obeys laws, can be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method. The discovery process alone was an effective way to highlight how mature these kids are–not to mention the adapting they’ve done to the curveballs life has thrown at them in their less-than-lovely neighborhood in Mexico City. But the process also answers readers’ questions, even if they didn’t realize they had them. There’s quite a bit of mystery to the magic, but Moreno-Garcia offers just enough satisfying answers that readers can feel as confident in what can and can’t happen as Meche and her friends do.

One thing that troubled my Writer-Brain throughout was Daniela’s character. She felt so flat for such a long time, and I’m not sure she ever really rounded out. She feels like a necessary third wheel who is there do be shaped by the action and to react to the other characters. But then I started wondering if that was because Meche is rather self-involved and mostly dismisses Daniela in their teen years. Is it a function of the narrator or a function of the writer? A feature or a bug, if you will? I think I’d actually need to read this again to be sure of my personal answer. I think I may write a post on this sometime…

Editor-Brain: 4/5 stars. In several places throughout the book, a phrase or sentence felt very stilted. This was odd, to me, given the grace of the rest of the prose. And while I understood that everyone was speaking Spanish, I had a tough time feeling that. At one point, a character refers to the phrase “I love you” as being three words long–but in Spanish, the direct translation is two words long. It just made me stop and rethink things too much. I’m not sure if all of this is just Moren0-Garcia’s style, the consequences of writing about Spanish in English, or the effects of an editorial decision. I admit that I haven’t read enough novels set in Spanish-speaking locales nor am I proficient enough in the language to speak expertly, but it pulled me out of the flow of the story and I felt the questions needed to be raised.

Reader-Brain: 5/5 stars. The experience was engrossing. I found myself wanting to share bits with my husband often–a habit he tolerates because he loves me. As my summary hints, a great deal of this hurt my heart. Every character is so well-intentioned, but they’re so human and the consequences are disturbingly reasonable. If this could happen, I feel like it would happen. I definitely want to reread this after a while, peel back the layers again, and see what I find the next time. And that, alone, is a good recommendation from me.

Et cetera: I found it really interesting to compare the voice of this novel to that of Shadowshaper by Daniel José Older, which I also recently read. And I’m looking forward to Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s next novel, Certain Dark Things (complete with contest for a free copy!).

Review: MASKS AND SHADOWS by Stephanie Burgis

MasksandShadowsMasks and Shadows by Stephanie Burgis
(Historical Fantasy; Pyr 2016)

4/5 Stars

Several intriguing guest arrive at opulent Esterháza in 1779 and take their places in a court drama only heightened by a dark presence that threatens them all. This might be closer to “historical horror,” but it didn’t creep me out exactly. Keep a lookout for actual people and events.

Writer Brain: 4/5 Stars. Good solid writing, fun characters, with twists and turns both expected and unexpected. It’s tough to craft a story around a big reveal–in this case, people dying in grotesque ways with the actual nature of the killer being the unknown–without giving the reader a slight pang of disappointment when it happens. The reveal closes doors and, if you’ve got an inventive reader, nixes all sorts of possibilities they might have been gunning for. Not that it can’t be done really well, but I was slightly disappointed, not because Burgis’s killer isn’t a great idea, but because I’d grown a bit attached to the one I’d conjured up.

Huge props to Burgis for dealing with some gender identity issues here (a primary cast member is a musico/castrati) and doing so with a deft nod to both historical perspectives and more modern views.

Editor Brain: 5/5 Stars. I really enjoyed what seemed like reverse engineering when it came to the plot. The climactic event happened in real life, but Burgis gave it a fantastic/horroresque twist and even mechanisms for being recast as mundane in history books. It seems like a great way to launch into a historic fantasy title. It’s tough for several reasons. In this technique, you acquire a cast of characters that may be rather immutable depending on how well-documented your slice of history is and how well-known your characters are. You have a set timeline, a set framework of technology and beliefs, and a set setting. But all of these things can be broken, flouted, or tweaked if you buy yourself enough good-will with your readers. Maybe this means giving them something really awesome to cling to or reasoning logical enough to change their perspective. This is especially necessary, I find, when introducing the fantastic element(s), whatever they are. They may or may not unseat the rest of your historical constructs, but I’ve always found that the more care the writer takes with this building of trust, the better the result is. And I think Burgis manages this well.

Reader Brain: 4/5 Stars. I enjoyed this one. It was a good fun read. The multiple close-3rd-person POVs didn’t switch off so much that they were annoying and the cast was just big enough to give good perspective on what was going on. And there wasn’t a ton of overlap in the more active scenes, which I vastly prefer. I was disappointed, at first, that Charlotte’s main plot feels like so much of a romance, but I was delighted at the depth that Burgis brought to it in the end. But some of the side characters were rather flat; it made for a concise tale, but left me wanting a bit more nuance around the edges. And though the [spoiler] didn’t scare me outright or match my suspicions, it did some stuff I definitely didn’t expect. So, it’s a solid, enjoyable read.

Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC of this title from Pyr via Edelweiss.

Review: THE WATCHMAKER OF FILIGREE STREET by Natasha Pulley

WatchmakerofFiligreeStreetThe Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley
(Fantasy; Bloomsbury, 2015)

4/5 Stars.

A telegraph operator né pianist, a physicist fighting for her own future, and an enigmatic/genius Japanese watchmaker navigate 1884 London (and each other) amid nationalist terror attacks, arch looks from rank-and-file Londoners, and fanciful clockwork.

Writer Brain: 4/5. Read this if you’re writing historical fantasy. Pulley knew her settings inside and out–the politics, the science, the air, the weather–and the effect is wonderful. You don’t have to be deeply versed in Victorian culture or that of the contemporary Japanese classes represented here to quickly understand the careful choreography of each character and the potential impact of diverging from the exceptions of each of them. You’re able to focus more on the possibilities of the characters’ inevitable meetings and interactions while the setting plays referee in the background.

On the other hand, I felt a bit adrift at times. There was enough fuel for my Reader Brain to keep going, but I wonder if the most important clues to the biggest and most pressing question–regarding Mori’s big secret–are dropped too late. I have to say, I had a completely different theory of what was going on, and though I was delighted to be corrected, it took a while to get there.

Editor Brain: 5/5 Pulley’s main cast was greatly comprised of characters representing foreign, disempowered, or otherwise marginalized classes. While their individual isolation contributes to the characters finding each other amid London’s populous supporting cast, they rarely find themselves working toward the same ends simply because they share the experience of being “other.” This happens often enough in real life: intersectionality (or the lack thereof) is of great concern in several current social movements. In Pulley’s novel multidimensional nature of discrimination, mistrust, and polarization makes for good storytelling because it is sadly real; combined with the individual characters’ desires which depart from and align with cultural expectation in turn, this prism of reality also keeps them from fitting any one cliche too perfectly. The take-away here: you can write a story about a diverse cast in a setting that prizes homogeneity without relying on tokenism to do it.

Reader Brain: 5/5 Not too far into the book, I posted a status that summed up my initial excitement: “Bombs are exploding. Disguises are being worn. A clockwork octopus has stolen a sock.” The little details were so immensely important, and as someone who likes all the ends tied up nicely, I greatly appreciated Pulley’s precision. It was a carefully engineered novel about carefully engineered events involving carefully engineered machines. And some very scientific magic. And if you know anything about my novel in progress, you know that made me smile and squee.

Review: SHADOWSHAPER by Daniel José Older

ShadowshaperShadowshaper by Daniel José Older
(YA Fantasy; Arthur A. Levine Books 2015)

4.5/5 Stars

Brooklyn teen Sierra inherits the power to work with the spirit realm through her art. But it’s not a gift easily mastered: the adults in her life are unable or reluctant to help and her fellow shadowshapers are disappearing. No matter: she’s determined to protect her family and their legacy.

Writer Brain: 5/5. So many good things happened in this book from a craft perspective. But I’m going to focus on Sierra at the moment. I was relieved to find a teen-discovers-[cool thing]-and-[her/his]-life-changes story in which things didn’t just happen in quick, unrelenting succession to the main character, whether or not the character did something about it. Sierra wouldn’t have stood for it. She immediately went looking for answers, even when the world didn’t want her finding them for one reason or another. She fought hard for every ounce of agency she wielded. She continues down the path even though the deeper she goes the riskier it gets, and she takes those risks thoughtfully. It was refreshing and wonderful.

Editor Brain: 5/5. After hearing Older speak at a few cons and after seeking out several panels at which he talked about dialect, bilingual and POC characters, and diverse voices, it was so great to read this book and see everything he talked about embodied in the text and the characters he crafted. This novel is a perfect example for anyone trying to craft dialogue that sounds natural and real without hampering it with stilted, whitewashed affectations of the past. Sierra and her friends code-switch with ease, as all teens do, but you never doubt their intelligence. There are no egregious misspellings of deeply accented words; there is no profusion of apostrophes or italics. Language is just language. And if you’re at all familiar with the cadence of Puerto Rican+Brooklyn English, then you’ll hear it echoing in your head. Older’s treatment of language should be the standard to which all writers are held when crafting any dialogue. And if you’re seeking a good way to respectfully,

Reader Brain: 4/5. I really liked this book. I nodded big, empathetic nods at much of Sierra’s self-discovery, though our experiences are vastly different in many ways, too. I hurt for the moments when she’s dismissed for one reason or another, because it read so real and because I know it happens. I reveled in the coolness of so much of it: the magic, the lore, the connections. It was a joy to read aloud to ELF. And it taught me a few things because I am not a New Yorker, a Puerto Rican teenager, a street artist, a teenager of color. So why not 5/5? I have to say that it’s darn close. There were some plot things with which I wasn’t thrilled, a few loose threads that I wanted woven in. Maybe that’s because there’s a book 2 planned? I haven’t heard, but I hope so. I’m certainly going to read more by Older and I certainly recommend this book strongly.

Et Cetera: Seriously, that cover…

Review: EVERY HEART A DOORWAY by Seanan McGuire

EveryHeartaDoorwayEvery Heart a Doorway by  Seanan McGuire
(Fantasy; Tor, 2016)

5/5 Stars

Eleanor West’s boarding school helps adolescents returned from portal worlds, from Nonsense to Logic and from Wickedness to Virtue. The carefully constructed haven and its inhabitants face a trial more dark and disturbing than anything they’ve seen in this world or others.

Writer Brain: 5/5. It’s hard enough for some writers to build one world well. McGuire manages to build several. There spheres of rules within greater spheres of rules. Not everything is possible, and the limitations of individual portal-worlds are seamlessly introduced within the greater limitations of the book’s world. And since each character has lived in a different portal-world, each character abides by a different set of rules and is in a different state of acceptance/denial/rebellion. As a reader, you feel that there is so much more than you see on the page, than you need to know to follow the plot and empathize with the characters. You see the tip of the iceberg McGuire has crafted, but you’re not overwhelmed with information you don’t need. To do this in a book of this diminutive size is remarkable. There are authors who can’t manage worldbuilding this complete in a book five times this length. For this alone I’d return to the book as inspiration. But there were plenty of other reasons to love it.

Editor Brain: 4.5/5. I only had one issue. Early on in the book, there are a few paragraphs on narration that read, at first, as though Eleanor was the narrator. But this didn’t appear to be the case later on. Instead, the books spends most of the time in a close-third person POV behind Nancy’s story, and it’s compelling and engaging and everything it should be. The paragraphs in question, plus a brief change of POV later in the story, just pulled me out of the read. I’d never recommend a writer leave those types of switches in any genre except in cases of extreme need. And maybe that’s the case here: the rest of the book is so enjoyable and well crafted, that I’d believe it and am willing to excuse it as something with which I just didn’t connect. If I missed something super obvious, let me know in comments. I’d love to not be in the dark!

Reader Brain: 5/5. The experience of reading this book was simply delightful and deep. I found myself wondering which door I would have found, which door my husband would have found. I wanted to know more, but trusted McGuire to lead me where I needed to go. I laughed. I gaped. I held my breath with Nancy more than once. I wanted to share so many lines on Goodreads and didn’t for fear of giving away the best bits. I got really excited when I saw that there are two more books planned in this world. And then I went and ordered two print copies of this one: one for myself and one for my little sister (Tess, if you’re reading this, act surprised when you open it).

Et ceteraEvery Heart a Doorway releases today! Happy book birthday!

Disclaimer: I received a free digital ARC of Every Heart a Doorway from Tor via NetGalley.

Review: SIX-GUN SNOW WHITE by Catherynne M. Valente

(If you aren’t familiar with my template, I’m sharing my thoughts from my writer, editor, and reader brains, because sometimes they feel very differently about the same book. No spoilers, I promise!)

SixGunSnowWhiteSagaSix-Gun Snow White by Catherynne M. Valente
(Fantasy; Subterranean Press, 2013; Saga Press, 2015)

5/5 Stars

This retelling of the Grimm fairy tale set in the Wild West. Valente’s revolver-brandishing Snow White is half-white, half-Crow, and her heritage factors into the story in many layers. Written in a period vernacular, the narration is as gritty as the subject matter. Expect to be awe-struck and unsettled.

Writer Brain: 5/5. Diverse cast. Dark commentary on womanhood, personal power, and dominance of more than one kind. Layers upon layers of meaning and intention that I don’t feel qualified to dissect without careful research and deep reading. Valente pulls it all off with such ease. It’s the same careful handiwork that made my jaw drop when I read Deathless. I aspire to this level of craftsmanship.

Editor Brain: 5/5. Among her many other feats in this novella, Valente pulls off two things with which other writers often struggle: dialect and chapter headings. I know: two very different things, but both can make or break the reader’s experience. First, the narration is definitely crafted in the period/regional dialect of the Wild West. I wasn’t out of the first paragraph without hearing Snow White’s voice instead of my own. But as you’ll see recommended by so many writers, editors, and reviewers, Valente doesn’t rely on terrible spelling, dropped letters, and apostrophes to convey this: it’s done with sentence structure, word choice, and carefully affected grammar. I was also a fan of her part and chapter headings. I’ve edited many book projects where the authors are deeply tied to punny or highly specific chapter names that end up being entirely uninspiring for the reader. Valente’s system, on the other hand, had me engaging more deeply with the text. Headings like “Snow White Secures Fire” and “Snow White is Instructed by Heron and Lizard” gave context to actions and characters that weren’t explicitly written in that manner. I would love to know which of the characters named in these headings also play roles in Crow religion/lore/legend. The system left breadcrumbs to follow in my next read and that is an impressive feat. More straightforward and less meaningful headings wouldn’t have inspired the same interest and might have gone so far as detracting from an otherwise brilliant story. And knowing the difference between “interesting to you as a writer” and “interesting to your readers” is important to any book in any genre.

Reader Brain: 5/5. Good lord the reading experience was wonderful and unsettling. Valente’s Snow White is not the passive object of Grimm’s telling, and I was rooting for her from the start. She does not get to have an easy time of it, but the determined spirit that drives her kept me reading through the tough spots. Just like my Writer Brain,  my Reader Brain wanted an annotated edition to understand the connections I couldn’t draw simply because I wasn’t familiar with Crow stories that Valente was using as reference. But, again, it’s a meaning and depth I can uncover in my next read. And knowing I’m going to come back to a book may be my strongest recommendation to my fellow readers.

Et cetera: I only found one review written by an American Indian reader, and it was not flattering. As much as I loved the book, I’d be interested in hearing the perspectives from the American Indian community on Valente’s handling of Snow’s heritage, the violence that seemed typical of the era, and the underlying connections to Crow/American Indian lore. If you know of reviews, please share them in the comments. Or if you can speak to these aspects as a member of the American Indian community, I’d love to signal-boost your response somehow.