Review: THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

I don’t have the patience to write much of an intro for this post because I just want to straight up say this book is incredible! I don’t give five star ratings lightly (in fact the only other books I’ve given five stars to recently are Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga books – that’s it) but THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is undoubtedly worthy of that accolade. A book that combines mystery, folklore and tradition with unionised djinn, the Egyptian suffragette movement and national liberation struggles to produce a fantastically engaging personal story of colourful characters and wonderfully intelligent world building.

THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is set in the same universe as the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and follows Senior Agent Hamed al-Nasr and his rookie partner Agent Onsi as they investigate the haunting of a magically-powered tram car in an alternative turn-of-the-20th-century steampunk Cairo. What makes it an ‘alternative’ Cairo you might ask? Well, in Clark’s world the barriers between worlds have been broken down by a now infamous scientist/sorceror (the distinction is hard to make anymore), allowing djinn to cross over and populate our dimension. The power of the djinn has not only enabled Egypt to kick the British colonial authorities out of the country, but also catapulted Egypt into the position of a global power. That, and allowed them to construct a city-wide transportation system of magically-powered trams, one of which has become inconveniently haunted.

P. Djèlí Clark has this remarkable novella-writing talent where he’s able to tell such engaging stories of individuals and their personal micro-level tales that are set against incredibly rich and vibrant social and political backdrops. And these two things aren’t just separate segments that he’s clumsily mashed together to form an awkward and misshapen whole; they’re very skilfully interconnected so that the one is beautifully woven into the other, until they become entirely intertwined and impossible to untangle, because each reinforces the other. These are the kinds of things that most writers take several books and thousands of pages to achieve, yet Clark manages to inject his stories with this same level of complexity through razor-sharp language and dialogue, often having single phrases and sentences do the work of entire chapters. One of my favourite parts of the book is one very quick bit of dialogue; when our sleuthing protagonists meet a gender-fluid djinn who unexpectedly changes gender in their presence. Agent Onsi simply says “I’ve heard of this class of djinn. I wonder how they prefer to be addressed? Still remarkably beautiful!” This one piece of dialogue does so much to highlight how gender is a social construct that some djinn have a very different concept of. Just one example of the sheer amount of work Clark’s incisive writing does.

What we see in THE HAUNTING OF TRAM CAR 015 is the birth of the Egyptian suffragette movement, taking place in an Egypt which is one of the world’s foremost modernising powers. And yet, even though the yoke of colonial oppression has been thrown off, Clark doesn’t idealise the Egyptian society that emerges; there are still social struggles to be waged which are, in themselves, complex and contradictory. Among the Egyptian suffragettes are urban women, housewives and labourers alongside rural peasants and a burgeoning middle class. It’s clear in how Clark writes about his fictional social movements that he has a deep understanding of how social contradictions drive political and economic change and he applies this to his fiction so that his world is complex and deep-rooted, despite this story being so short. This applies just as much to his individual characters as well. For example, Agent Hamed al-Nasr sees himself as a thoroughly modern man who supports women’s right to vote, and yet there are moments of unconscious and ingrained sexism that remain embedded in how he thinks about the world. It doesn’t make him a bad person, but it does give him a level of complexity to his character that feels very real. Also none of that is ever explicitly pointed out. Clark absolutely trusts his readers to grasp the implications of his characters thoughts and actions. One of my pet peeves in fiction is when writers make fantastic allusions to a character’s personality or beliefs by showing us how they behave or think in particular situations and then ruin it all by feeling the need to directly explain the implications. It betrays a lack of trust in the intelligence of their readers and Clark clearly trusts his readers to understand his characters and the world they live in.

I’ve talked a lot about just how intelligent the writing is, but the story itself is also just incredibly engaging. It’s captivating, it’s entertaining, it’s also funny and, as the mystery reaches its peak, things get a bit scary and disturbing. Honestly, this is just one of the best books I’ve ever read and I’ve said this a lot recently, but P. Djèlí Clark has cemented himself as one of the smartest and most talented writers out there right now and is certainly a new favourite of mine.

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Review: KINGS OF THE WYLD by Nicholas Eames

Book Reviews

There’s been a lot of trying moments in 2020 and so, when I was eyeing up KINGS OF THE WYLD, it was with the intention of losing myself in some pure escapism for a while. You know, just a really fun fantasy romp with an adventuring band fighting monsters and a bunch of humour. Basically a Dungeons & Dragons session in book form. It delivered all of that in droves and was exactly what I needed. What I didn’t expect though, was just how much this book would also pull on my heart strings; it easily holds the record for quickest book to make me cry and then probably another record for the sheer amount of times it made me cry after that.

If you’re not familiar with KINGS OF THE WYLD it takes a very familiar premise and puts a really enjoyable twist on it. We’re all familiar with the ‘adventuring party’ in fantasy. The Fighter, The Wizard, The Thief etc, and that’s where the book has its roots. Clay Cooper was once a member of the best band this side of the Heartwyld, but he’s since settled down, got a bit older and is ready to leave that life behind. That is until his old band mate and ‘front man’ Golden Gabe turns up at his doorstep with news that his daughter is trapped in Castia, a city besieged by a horde of monsters, and asks for Clay’s help to get the band back together to set out and rescue her.

It’s a very simple premise and Eames brings it to life with such joy. In his world adventuring bands are treated like rockstars, and I mean literally. They have legions of adoring fans who follow their exploits, youngsters who want to emulate them and managers who book them gigs to slay monsters. Each member of Clay’s band even plays a role similar to a band lineup. Gabe is the good-looking front man; Clay the dependable and rock steady bassist, the backbone of the group, drummer Matrick with his two knives; Ganelon the axe-wielding guitarist; and Moog the wizard, who I’m gonna put on keyboard. Think washed-up dad rock band getting together for one last tour. It’s such a blast!

So there’s a bit of to and fro about whether Clay will actually come out of retirement to help Gabe, but it’s hardly a spoiler to say he eventually agrees (in a very teary-eyed moment), and so the first part of the book is centred around getting the band back together. I’m a sucker for any story where ‘getting the band together’ is a thing, but it was a particular delight in KINGS OF THE WYLD, because that’s very literally what they do, before heading across the Heartwyld to break the siege of Castia and rescue Gabe’s daughter. And in the process they get into all kinds of trouble, adventures are had, plans are made and go awry, they meet friends old and new (as well as some enemies old and and new), including making friends with a wonderful two-headed ettin called Gregor and Dane, who are perhaps the most beautifully wonderful and sad fantasy characters I’ve read in a long while. Of course I’m tearing up again thinking about them, didn’t I say this book pulled on the heartstrings?

It’s so funny as well. It’s a book that doesn’t take itself too seriously (and it’s honestly quite impressive how well Eames gets the balance right between the humour and the emotional moments); there are dick jokes and scatterbrained wizards and hilarious robberies and the villains have rabbit ears that they get pretty tetchy about sometimes. At times I found some of the humour a little bit crude for my tastes but there are so many genuine laugh-out-loud moments that made this book such fun to read.

One thing I will say is that I think the overall representation of women leaves a bit to be desired. There are women in the story, but a lot of them are pretty worn out stereotypes. Clay’s wife Ginny doesn’t have much to her personality beyond being a housewife, Gabes ex-wife is the gold-digger, Matrick’s wife is the unfaithful conniving, power-hungry harpy and Ganelon’s entire backstory revolves around the fact that his lover was sexually assaulted and so he brought his wrath down on those responsible. And ya know, rape as a plot device for men to be called to action never sits well with me.

So there is that, but the overall story was super fun and emotional and well worth the read. I can’t wait to dive into the sequel, Bloody Rose, and once you’ve read this first book you’ll probably have some inclination about whose story that tells 😉

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Review: THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

Damn, P. Djèlí Clark is quickly becoming one of my favourite writers. I was introduced to his fiction through the short story A Dead Djinn in Cairo and knew that if his other stuff was that good then I had a new auto-buy author. THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS was even better than Dead Djinn. Possibly because, while still a short book (a novella clocking in at 112 pages) there was more room for character to blossom and the world of his late 19th century alt-New Orleans to come alive. And what a world it is. Haitian sky pirates! A street urchin harnessing the power of a storm god! Nuns with gas grenades! All that stuff is packed into this short, punchy book with so much skill and crisp succinctness I was left gasping for breath by the end.

But hold up, hold up, I’m getting ahead of myself. What’s the story even about? Well there’s no messing about and not a word wasted; we’re thrown straight into the story when Creeper, our streetwise pickpocket protagonist overhears a conversation about a kidnapped Haitian scientist and a powerful weapon he calls ‘The Black God’s Drums’. Sick of her grounded life on the streets of New Orleans, Creeper plans to sell this information to the captain of the smuggler airship Midnight Robber in return for passage and a new life soaring the skies of the Eastern Seaboard and Caribbean Free Islands. She’s consequently thrown into a conflict she never saw coming, involving a bawdy multicultural brothel, aforementioned politically-astute nuns with gas grenades and a splinter group of Confederate terrorists. Not to mention the premonitions and ever-rumbling impulses of Oya, the Yoruba orisha god residing within Creeper, at times granting her divine powers to further her own aims.

Phew! That’s a whole lot of stuff happening in a 112 page novella! And yet it’s perfect, the exact length it needs to be to tell the story Clark wanted to tell. And the world he manages to bring to life in such a short book is nothing short of remarkable. I’ve never been to New Orleans or experienced Mardi Gras, but having read THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS I can claim the next best thing, cos this colourful festival and it carousing revellers danced across the stage of my mind like I was watching it in high definition. Clark has a way with language that makes the words just burst out of the page, and he doesn’t need pages and pages of description to do it. His prose is just incisive, cutting through the nonsense to let the book’s imagery take over your imagination.

But this is Mardi Gras in a New Orleans and a world we wouldn’t recognise. I mean for one, it’s steampunk, so there’s airships dominating the skies and giant steam-powered insectoid constructs parading through the streets, but it’s also a political landscape altogether different from the post-Civil War South of real world history. I’m not going to talk about the specifics in any detail, because I think it just deserves to be experienced in the telling, but suffice to say it takes the real life history of the Haitian Revolution and amps that shit up. And to really appreciate this story I think it’s necessary to talk about the historic dominance of Eurocentric stories in fantasy, stories that have often demonised and erased people of colour, because P. Djèlí Clark has said it’s his goal as a writer to write stories that specifically centre people of colour in all their nuance, not just as Orientalist caricatures viewed through a white lens. He’s actually written a fantastic three-part series of articles about this that I honestly can’t recommend highly enough. They’re very insightful and practically useful for people who want to break out of the cycle of Eurocentrism that has dominated genre fiction for so long and is now, thankfully, starting to change. I’ll link the articles at the bottom and if you have a spare half hour I do encourage you check them out.

THE BLACK GOD’S DRUMS is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I’m intending on moving straight on to another P. Djèlí Clark novella, The Haunting of Tramcar 015, almost immediately. It takes place in the same setting as A Dead Djinn in Cairo and I’m so excited to get more of that setting. I also have an ARC of his newest book Ring Shout that I’m beyond excited about too. Damn, I just want to read everything P. Djèlí Clark has ever written! Simply put, he is fucking awesome.

Fantasy’s Othering Fetish, a series of articles examining the Eurocentric dominance and Orientalist lens of western fantasy. They’re quite short and quick reads, while also being very engaging and insightful.

Part One.
Part Two.
Part Three

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Review: AMBERLOUGH by Lara Elena Donnelly

Book Reviews

AMBERLOUGH is a fantasy political spy thriller described as John Le Carré meets Cabaret. I was sold instantly. Put this book in my face, as I’m fond of saying. I came to it pretty soon after reading Jade City and Jade War by Fonda Lee and I’ve come to realise I’m so here for these more modern era, low-magic fantasy settings. Especially when they’re so richly populated with the kinds of complicated, true-to-life characters Lara Elena Donnelly has written in this book. Set in an alternative early 20th century secondary world with no magic, some people might quibble about whether this book is really ‘fantasy’ or not, but Amberlough represents everything I love about what speculative fiction can be in the 21st century.

Meet Cyril DePaul. A covert agent pulled off his desk job and put back in the field to collect intel on the major players of a rising nationalist political movement in the loose federation of states called Gedda. Meet his lover and sometimes assignment, Aristide Makricosta, the star performer at The Bumble Bee Cabaret, moonlighting as a smuggler of both illicit drugs and refugees hoping to escape the rising tide of political violence. And streetwise Cordelia Lehane, a burlesque dancer at The Bumble Bee just trying to get by when she’s caught up in the intrigue, espionage and politics of a city on the brink of civil upheaval.

Recently I’ve realised that, more often than not, what really makes me fall in love with a story is great characters. I love complex world building and an exciting plot as much as anyone, but without great characters to truly bring it to life, a book can easily fall flat. Given the backdrop of ascendant far right nationalism that forms the political backdrop of this book, it would have been all too simple for Donnelly to present us with caricatures of the virtuous, morally faultless ‘good guys’, fighting the good fight against the rising tide of fascism, but what she delivers is something much more nuanced, complex and altogether more human. As always, no spoilers, but some characters end up doing some pretty shitty things, and while we can sit and admonish them from the comfort of our reading chair, their motives are entirely understandable and compel you to ask yourself what you would give up for the people you love. They also do some pretty brave, selfless things and I really got the sense that these characters were real people making tough decisions in pretty trying circumstances. Do they make mistakes? Absolutely. Did I understand why they made those mistakes? Abso-frickin-lutely.

Cyril and Aristide’s relationship in this book is some of the finest writing I’ve ever seen to be honest. Cyril is stubborn and secretive, Aristide is egotistical and jealous. They’re like flint and steel striking against each other and shooting sparks onto a pile of dry hay. They’re both disasters in their own way and their relationship, while far from conventional, is a beautiful thing and my heart breaks for them both. Cordelia is my favourite character in this book though. She grew up on the wrong side of the tracks; she’s brash and a bit rough around the edges, but she’s street smart and unapologetic and I really admired her a lot for that. Her character development is incredibly well-done too. There are so many ways I can think of for a working class burlesque dancer to be badly-written, but Donnelly gives every aspect of Cordelia’s life, history and personality the true attention it deserves and she really thrives and stands out for me.

I can understand why some of you might not feel inclined to read a book about the ascendance of right wing nationalism right now, given the state of the world, but there’s also so much hope in this book. It highlights the bonds that hold people together in all their messiness and complexity and how the bravery of ordinary people to resist oppression will never go away so long as it exists.

This is a story about its characters and it wraps up their story well, if not necessarily happily for everyone involved, but I honestly don’t think you could read this book and not want to find out what happens next, both for the world and the characters we get so close to along the way. AMBERLOUGH is a fantastic book and I can’t wait to read the sequel.

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Book Reviews

One of my New Years Reading Resolutions was to read more small press fiction. The vast majority of the small press stuff I’ve read has been from Apex, a small press publisher of weird science fiction, fantasy and horror. This collection of short stories falls pretty firmly into the horror category, though there’s smatterings of science fiction thrown in there for good measure. THE GRAND TOUR tells the stories of the performers and hangers-on of a travelling circus seemingly not bound by the laws of time and space. Each story takes place in a different time and location, from silver rush Colorado, 1880 and the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, 2001, all the way to ‘your hometown’, 1946. While some of the participants come and go with the times, others don’t seem to age or change much at all, ever-present fixtures of Jackson’s Unreal Circus & Mobile Marmalade.

This is a pretty great book. I can’t say I’ve read a lot of short story collections, but my experience so far has been that some stories definitely shine more than others, and while that was definitely the case with THE GRAND TOUR, every story was, at a bare minimum, a good, enjoyable read and some were actually pretty incredible. I will say it took me a couple of stories to feel like I’d really settled in, possibly because the first story (Vanishing Act) set some expectations that weren’t consistent with the rest of the book. Vanishing Act is the story of Rabi, Vanisher and Vanquisher Extraordinaire, who can make coins and the past vanish before your very eyes. This story was good, though not one of the better stories and I think the collection should perhaps have opened with one of the stronger entries, especially as this is more of a supernatural science fiction story and the rest of the book is very much horror, or horror-adjacent.

The next few stories follow two conjoined twins, who are part of the carnival, tracing their story from life into something not quite life and beyond. These stories are really quite fascinating, as we get to follow them on this journey, feeling very differently about them at different points along the way. I ran the whole gamut from compassion, to pity, all the way to downright abhorrence and back again. These are the stories where I started to really settle in, and by the time I got to Blow The Moon Out I was fully invested, but still not quite ready for this incredible story, following the journey of four young friends braving the horrors of the forest at night in order to visit Jackson’s Unreal Circus.

This story was matched by Lady Marmalade. Beth’s famous marmalade is referenced in many of the stories preceding this one, and while hints are dropped about its strange, memory-inducing qualities, this is the part where the titular Mobile Marmalade element begins to make sense. And while there’s still an element of horror to this story, I honestly just found it very wistfully emotional and teared up a couple of times during this one. A beautiful story that highlights the literary range Tobler is clearly capable of. There was a large element of this to the story Every Season as well, which tells the tale of a man long drawn to the idea of the circus as somewhere he feels he can truly express who he is without judgement or reproach.

All in all, this collection definitely has that dark overtone that I’ve come to expect from a lot of the stuff Apex publishes but there really is a lot of heart to this collection as well. As my first foray into E. Catherine Tobler’s fiction, I was very impressed and will definitely read more from her. This is a strong recommend from me.

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Review: JADE WAR by Fonda Lee

Book Reviews

This book. Is a masterpiece. Hands down some of the best fiction I’ve ever read in my life. JADE WAR is the second book in Fonda Lee’s The Green Bone Saga, a family drama and gangland fantasy epic that began with Jade City. There’ll be no overt spoilers in this review, but if you haven’t read the first book yet it’s likely you’ll make some inferences that could spoil parts of it for you. If that’s the case, have a quick glance at my review of Jade City and go read it, cos these books are off-the-scale incredible.

JADE WAR picks up in the aftermath of the violent power struggle waged between No Peak and The Mountain Clan on the island of Kekon. But while the overt violence of the gang war might be on hold, the two clans exist in a state of fragile peace and continue attempts to outmanoeuvre each other, whether through geo-political alliances with foreign powers and powerful drug kingpins, or economically through the Kekon Jade Alliance and investment opportunities that could undermine their rivals. Where Jade City concentrated largely on the island of Kekon, and the city of Janloon in particular, the sequel expands the scope of the intricate world Fonda Lee has so expertly crafted. War is brewing abroad and foreign powers are once again setting their sights on Kekon as the only source of bioenergetic jade that could give them the edge in the inevitable conflict. And because the Kekonese Green Bone warriors are the only people capable of safely harnessing its power, a criminal empire has arisen to smuggle and distribute ‘shine’, a drug that enables foreigners to temporarily harness the power of jade without succumbing to The Itches. Lee takes this ammunition and uses it with devastating effect to build a living, breathing world with fully-functioning, integrated economies, politics and cultures that at once exist alongside and clash against each other in such dynamic ways I didn’t think possible in fiction.

But what truly makes JADE WAR shine is the characters. And this might sound counter-intuitive at first glance, but it’s honestly difficult to separate the world-building from the characterisation in these books. I listened to a great episode of The Fantasy Inn podcast recently, where authors K. S. Villoso (The Wolf of Oren-Yaro) and Tasha Suri (Empire of Sand) were talking about what makes great world-building. They made the wonderfully insightful point that the best world-building is entwined with characterisation and vice versa. In our own everyday lives, the people we become and the choices we make are affected in countless ways by the world we grow up and exist in. Culture; social relations; political beliefs. We make choices based on the interplay of all these things, and many more besides. What Fonda Lee has done is create a world where all this stuff is present and plays a visible part in moulding the characters, while at the same time, giving them more agency to affect the world around them through their choices and actions than I’ve seen in almost any book I’ve ever read.

Shae’s journey is particularly fascinating to me for this reason. She starts out in the first book as the black swan of the Kaul family, living abroad and denouncing her affiliation to the No Peak Clan. But the traditions and culture of her society force her to make a choice – to reject her rightful place in the clan and face being an outcast? Or take up the mantle and embrace the role her society expects her to fulfil? Both choices involve major consequences and in JADE WAR we see the logical trajectory of Shae’s choice play out and bear fruit with those consequences on full display.

And this is the truly wonderful thing about Fonda Lee’s writing. She gives her characters choices and agency and lets the consequences of those choices play out to their fullest conclusion. And not once does it feel like any of those choices are forced or exist merely to serve some plot point she wanted to arbitrarily hit. Lee knows her characters inside out and lets them play out their lives on her page. Every single character in this book is an individual, with their own unique relationships and expectations, wants and desires in life. They each come with their own strengths and insecurities that manifest in the most authentic ways imaginable and, as a result, make those gut-wrenching moments all the more heart-breaking for it.

Jade City was one of the best books I’d ever read, until I read JADE WAR. It goes beyond anything I could ever have expected from a sequel. I cried, I cheered and I stared, mouth wide open in amazement at the sheer genius of this book. And I mean all those things very literally. The brilliance of this book is beyond my ability to adequately put into words. Fonda Lee is one of the best writers alive and these books are ink and paper proof of that.

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Review: STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher (The Dresden Files #1)

Book Reviews

Can you believe I didn’t actually know what The Dresden Files books were even about until a few weeks ago? Like, I hear people talking about them all the time, but for whatever reason they never pierced my consciousness and I just didn’t make the effort to find out. Imagine my sheer surprise and delight when I found out they’re about a freelance wizard investigator who solves mysteries. I’m not kidding, as soon as I found out this was the premise, I bought the first book the same day and inhaled it in two more. I mean look at that mash up comparison on the cover: “Buffy the Vampire Slayer starring Philip Marlowe”. Just yes. All the yes.

So at the beginning of STORM FRONT we meet Harry Dresden, wizard investigator for hire. And then there’s no breathing room from that point out. He immediately receives a phone call from an evasive and somewhat distressed woman whose husband has gone missing, offering to pay Harry a big old chunk of money to find out what happened to him. And for Harry Dresden, who’s always one rent payment away from eviction, this isn’t something he’s gonna turn down. On the same day, he’s also summoned to the scene of a gruesome crime scene by the Chicago Police department, where a double murder has been committed using magical means. Wham! Two mysteries right off the bat. And things only get more complicated for our intrepid wizard private dick from here. In his tenacious endeavour to solve both the mystery of the missing husband and the arcane homicide, he has to contend with the attention of the mob, lascivious vampires and his suspicious warden intent on ratting him out to the White Council for breaking the laws of magic.

This book was such a page-turner. There’s so much going on plot-wise that I just never wanted to put it down. This, combined with such a fabulously entertaining and colourful cast of characters, meant it was just a blast to read. Harry himself is your typical grizzled, misanthropic, hard-drinking libertine P.I. in a duster. And far from being tired and played out, he’s actually such an endearing character. His deadpan, dry humour was a constant source of enjoyment for me, especially in the scenes he shares with Bob. Bob is the best. Bob is an air spirit trapped inside a skull in Harry’s basement laboratory, who Harry sometimes cajoles into casting spells he wouldn’t otherwise be able to perform. There were a bunch of laugh out loud moments in this book, but I reckon most of them happened in scenes where Bob was around. On top of that there’s Toot-Toot, the dewdrop faerie Harry tricks into assisting him; Johnny Marcone, the don of the local Chicago mob and of course, Mister, Harry’s rather large and long-suffering cat. You’ve got your femme fatale, your dogged newspaper journalist, your well-intentioned-but-bound-by-the-rules police officer; I enjoyed reading about them all and while they’re mostly tropey as tropey gets, it’s done so well that it’s actually part of the charm.

The one thing I wish had been worked out better was the resolution to the mystery. Obviously no spoilers because that would just be the worst but, suffice to say I didn’t think we got to see enough of the villain for the big reveal to have much of an impact. I don’t know about you, but in these types of murder investigation mysteries, I want to have built up a connection with the eventual perpetrator over the course of the story, so that when the reveal is made, I can have some kind of reaction to it. Whether that reaction is “Yep, totally knew it was them cos of x, y and z said they said and did”, or “What??? I’d never have guessed it was them, they covered their tracks so well” or something else, but at least something. Unfortunately I thought the resolution to this story didn’t have any of that, so when the murderer was finally revealed I just thought “Oh, that’s who did it. Cool, makes sense”, but other than that I didn’t really care. Ultimately though, this didn’t matter to me too much because the journey there was so enjoyable.

I really enjoyed STORM FRONT and, while it didn’t completely blow my mind, it’s proof that with a fresh twist on a much-beloved trope, books don’t have to be particularly original to be a whole lot of fun. And this is definitely a whole lot of fun.

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Review: THE TETHERED MAGE by Melissa Caruso

Book Reviews

Empire politics! Court drama! Intrigue! In a renaissance-era fantasy Venetian setting? All the ticks to so much stuff I love. I feel like I talk about this book too much without having a review up. In truth I’ve been planning on posting a review of THE TETHERED MAGE for a while, I just wanted to re-read it first so I could do it justice. Now I have! And I enjoyed it just as much the second time round 🙂

THE TETHERED MAGE follows Amalia, a young noble of House Cornaro and heir to a seat on the Council of Nine that rules the Serene Empire of Raverra. An intelligent and bookish young woman, Amalia finds herself unwittingly tethered to Zaira, a fire warlock who has so far managed to avoid being conscripted to the military, as all mages in the Empire are bound by law to do. To complicate matters, the city of Ardence is being roused to rebellion by shady forces unknown, though many suspect the hand of the Witch Lords of Vaskandar are pulling the strings. As the only known fire warlock under the Empire’s control, Zaira is used as a threat to subdue the rebellion before open warfare breaks out and Amalia and Zaira must navigate the complex web of nobles, mages and courtiers to try and bring an end to the diplomatic rift before Ardence is consumed by swords and fire.

And boy you’ll have a whole lot of fun watching them do it! Amalia and Zaira are such a great duo. Amalia is an intelligent, not all too confident young woman who begins the book somewhat unsure of her ability or desire to be the Cornaro heir. She’s a character whose friends mean the world to her, someone who’d go through hell and back to keep them safe, though she perhaps doesn’t realise it to begin with. As a young noble, she is obviously very well-to-do, familiar with the luxury afforded by her social status, even if it does mean living in a veritable viper’s nest of distrustful and snake-tongued nobility. Zaira is pretty much her polar opposite. Foul-mouthed and unrefined, Zaira grew up hard on the rough edges of the city and, due to her innate magical ability, suddenly finds herself unwillingly thrust into the world of high politics, nobility and power. What I loved about Zaira was her downright refusal to change who she was to better appeal to the sensibilities of the high-minded aristocrats she is forced to keep company with. Her blunt, no-nonsense, cut-through-the-shit manner of speaking quickly elevated her to becoming my favourite character and she stayed on that pedestal throughout the story.

What I really enjoyed about this book was Caruso’s ability to construct a complex world with no moral absolutes without making the tone too heavy. Our protagonists are fundamentally good people trying to do good in a world whose power structures and competing factions often muddy the waters. This is where the rules of Caruso’s world come in. Melissa herself has said that the basis of the story stemmed from a conversation she had with her partner about what a society that included magic wielders would actually look like. And there are many approaches the different societies of her world take. In pre-Empire Ardence, mages were burned at the stake. In Vaskandar, they are elevated to rulers and in the Serene Empire of Raverra, they are forcibly brought under government control, conscripted to the military and magically ‘tethered’ to their Falcon, who controls the use of their powers. It’s a wonderful basis for a fascinating story that compels us to confront a bunch of difficult questions about the nature of power and freedom and, from a storytelling perspective, actually creates a lot of the page-turning tension that makes this book such a great read.

The one thing that didn’t work for me personally is the romantic sub-plot in the book. Amalia’s relationship with Lieutenant Marcello Verdi was something I could have done without. This is something I’m really interested in exploring about myself because I’m not exactly sure why it didn’t work for me. It’s not that I’m against romance in books as a hard rule by any means. I can name a bunch of great books I’ve read recently where I thought the romance enhanced the story (Xiulan and Lee in Steel Crow Saga, Kaaro and Aminat in Rosewater, pretty much every relationship in Jade City), this particular romance just didn’t work for me. What interests me about it on a personal level is that Marcello isn’t your typical macho, hard-edged love interest and while, on a conscious level, I can gladly say I appreciate the portrayal of emotionally-available men who are open to showing vulnerability, I still found something grating about him as a character and wonder whether this is somehow related to his disavowal of ‘traditional masculinity’ that triggers some lingering sense of socially- entrenched macho bullshit in me. To be fair, Amalia herself actually finds some of Marcello’s more irritating flaws worthy of calling him on (“Lieutenant Verdi, you have many admirable qualities, but your over-protectiveness is not one of them”). All the same, perhaps some self-reflection is in order.

This book is truly fantastic though. It’s fun; it’s complex; Amalia and Zaira are a power duo; the intrigue, court drama and shady, plotting nobility element is exactly the kind of thing I love. Definite recommend, if you like any of this stuff then THE TETHERED MAGE is a must read.

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Review: A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO by P. Djèlí Clark

Book Reviews

Wow. I really need to read more P. Djèlí Clark! Picture the scene. It’s Cairo, 1912. The pungent aroma of the spice markets wafts through the evening air amid the hustle and bustle of the al-Gezira district. Aerial trams transport their passengers to and from the bazaars and coffee shops of the city. And an investigator from the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments and Supernatural Entities finds the body of a dead djinn.

A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO is a tantalisingly short book that follows Fatma, an investigator of this fascinatingly-titled ministry, as she follows the leads to solve the mystery of the deceased djinn. It’s a simple premise, a good old-fashioned mystery, except you may have noticed a few odd things about the alternate Cairo P. Djèlí Clark has dreamed up here. Other-worldly beings are a common fact of existence in a world where the fabric of reality between worlds has been haphazardly torn asunder and djinn, ghuls and even beings calling themselves ‘angels’ live and kill amidst the everyday people of early 20th century Egypt.

The setting is the real star of this short book and Djèlí Clark brings it to life with such wonderfully evocative prose that really highlights the richness of his imagination. I love love love it when writers are able to make a scene render itself in such vivid technicolour in your head without distracting from the story; the scenes in this book really pop and you can almost feel yourself standing in the room with Fatma as she investigates ancient leather-bound tomes, intricate sigils and ominous oil paintings. I swear I could hear the night vendors hawking their wares as she made her way through the bazaar, surrounded by the smell of peppery spices, baked bread and sweet oils. It was almost enough to overwhelm the senses. It reminded me of other writers like Aliette de Bodard and Nghi Vo, who have a similar talent for evocative storytelling that fully immerses you in the story in books like In The Vanishers Palace and The Empress of Salt and Fortune.

There’s glimpses of some great characters too. Fatma is witty, intelligent and determined not to let the remnants of the old, somewhat sexist attitudes of previous generations stifle her ambition and ability. And she rocks a very stylish suit. We get flashes of some other characters, such as the old-fashioned Inspector Aasim Sharif, who Fatma has a cordial working relationship with but butts heads on some cultural issues not in tune with the ‘modern’ Cairo. The Maker, an ‘angel’ in the process of constructing a strange and ground-breaking clock. And Siti, a street assassin linked to the underground House of the Lady of Stars. I know this is a work of short fiction, but I really would have loved this to be a longer book, one where we could get to know this cast of characters in more depth, find out where they come from and what makes them tick. It’s a great story but I felt it was over too quick and is done somewhat of an injustice by zooming through the plot so quickly. Though if the only bad thing I’ve got to say about a story is “there wasn’t enough of it” then I think that still qualifies as a compliment.

As a first foray into the writing of P. Djèlí Clark, you really can’t go wrong with A DEAD DJINN IN CAIRO. A delightful, short read that has me clamouring for more.

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Review: SHADOW STAINED by Rachel Hobbs

Book Reviews

This is a first for me – a paranormal romance review! Granted, I didn’t know SHADOW STAINED was a paranormal romance when I started reading – if I had known there’s an almost zero percent chance I would have picked it up – but actually, I’m kinda glad I did. And I know there’s some folks who read my reviews that do read a bunch in this genre and for you folks I think there’s a lot to like in this book.

Shadow-Stained is the very dark story of Ruby and Drayvex. Ruby is a city girl cooped up in the small town of Crichton, forced to move there after her mother suffers a debilitating injury in her former job as a police officer. She unwittingly attracts the attention of Drayvex, who recognises her necklace and family heirloom as a stone of power that protects the wearer from being harmed. Unfortunately for Ruby, Drayvex happens to be the king of the fucking underworld and wants nothing more than to obtain the stone to cement his rule over the rest of demonkind forevermore. This being a romance story, the two of them develop a connection that causes both of them some pretty drastic problems as the book progresses and a rival demon lord attempts to take control of the stone – and is willing to unleash all kinds of horrors to do it.

The first major disclaimer I’d start with is this is a dark book. It’s pretty twisted and fucked up in places, so if you’re looking for a fluffy, cutesy romance story this isn’t it. However, if you want to explore the darker side of relationships then this book is for you. I’ve described this story as a romance because that’s how it came across to me, but honestly this story subverts a lot of the conventions of the genre. I don’t read a lot of romance, but I think I’m right in thinking that generally you’re supposed to root for the folks to end up together after all their trials and tribulations. But I absolutely did not want Ruby and Drayvex to end up together. Drayvex is a fucking psychopath. Of course he is, he’s a demon. He doesn’t give a shit about Ruby at the start of the book, all he wants is her stone to grant him immortality in his megalomaniac thirst for power. He murders people. Frequently. In cold blood without a second thought, just for kicks. He treats her like shit for most of the book and actually exhibits the traits of an abuser quite a lot of the time. Honestly I thought he was detestable and I wanted Ruby to get as far away from him as possible.

I clearly got into the story and the characters much more than I expected to because I developed some quite strong feelings about them. I remember thinking to myself at one point that Ruby has a pretty severe case of Stockholm Syndrome and there were several instances where I literally shouted at Ruby for her (what seemed to an outsider looking in as) objectively terrible decisions. I don’t know if this was the author’s intention, but I frequently found myself thinking about people in abusive relationships who know their partner is hurting them but find themselves unable to leave regardless. Either because they love them despite the abuse, or think deep down there’s something redeemable that just needs to be brought to the surface, or any other number of reasons. Either way, this is the parallel I drew as Ruby and Drayvex’s relationship developed. It’s not healthy and I just wanted Ruby to walk away from it at every stage.

Despite not being the kind of thing I usually read, Shadow Stained is a very interesting book. It’s certainly not a standard paranormal romance story, and even though I’ve called it romance throughout this review I’m still a bit iffy on categorising it as such because it doesn’t conform to all those conventions. No spoilers, but the ending isn’t really a Happy Ever After and I spent the book actively rooting against the two main characters getting together. For me this is probably what made it interesting; if it was a bog standard Will They Won’t They But You Know In The End They Will type story I would have been bored out of my mind, but Rachel Hobbs offers up something different that, while definitely not for everyone (especially if you are looking for a nice HEA), upends the conventions and offers a lot to think about while telling an entertaining story.

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