Adult Fiction · Book Review · Mystery/Thriller

The Chalk Man

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The Chalk Man alternates between two time periods: 1986 in which the characters are young teens to 2016 when they are adults bordering on middle age. After Eddie’s friend received a large bucket of chalk for his birthday, the friends began to use the chalk to write secret messages and make rude drawings around town. It was innocent enough, but the fun ended quickly when the chalk drawings were connected to a string of murders. The quaint English town was quickly upended by salacious and bloody scandals. Now, in 2016, the past comes back to haunt Eddie and his friends when they become the targets of a new murder spree.

Since I’m still battling a reading slump, I wanted something fast paced and gripping. The Chalk Man definitely made me turn the pages, but by the end, I was slightly dissatisfied. The plot was the main draw for me, and I felt it was executed pretty well. There are a lot of twists, turns, and red herrings. I was hoping that the “bad guy” wasn’t the person that the book seemed to be pointing the reader toward in the beginning. Luckily, it wasn’t that predictable. Although, a couple “hints” toward the real bad guy were pretty heavy handed. As always, there are some overly convenient plot devices to move the story in the intended direction, and some parts of the plot could be more clearly explained to tie up lose ends. However, it was not bad. It was entertaining. The book is fairly short and the pace is quick, which could be a pro or con depending on what you’re looking for.

Eddie and his friends did not do much for me as characters. The story was told from Eddie’s perspective, so it is a little limited in what we know and see. Add to that, Eddie as a narrator was slightly unreliable, which made the book a bit more interesting. Still, if you’ve read a lot of the domestic thrillers with unreliable narrators, this is not something new. (This time at least it wasn’t a woman with a drinking problem…) Somehow, despite seeing everything from his point of view, I did not feel very connected to Eddie or any of his friends. Maybe I am spoiled from the mountains of character development in Stephen King’s novels, but I felt like The Chalk Man could have spent a little more time on the main characters and their relationships.

All in all, it was an OK read. For a debut novel, it was good. The writing has some personality, and it pulled me into the story well enough. The plot was unique to me, but the book as a whole could have used a little more polish and depth. I would still recommend The Chalk Man as a quick, entertaining thriller. If you consider some thrillers as “beach reads,” this one might qualify. I gave The Chalk Man a middle-of-the-road three out of five stars.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Borne

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Do you ever find a new author, read and like a book or two they wrote, then all of the sudden realize that you found a new favorite author? Well, that’s what is going on with me. I’ve read and reviewed two other books from Jeff VanderMeer, Wonderbook and Annihilation. I really liked them both, and he might be the author to finally get me into the sci-fi genre. But enough about me. Onward to the review!

Rachel survives by scavenging in her ruined, half-abandoned city. The whys and hows of the city’s destruction is a bit of a mystery, but the city’s fate is closely tied to The Company’s. The Company’s experiments and disregard for humanity as well as the natural world are at least partially to blame for the city’s downfall. In fact, The Company’s biggest and most terrible experiment now lords of the city in the shape of a giant, violent, flying bear named Mord. On one of Rachel’s scavenging trips she finds a strange plant-like creature. She takes it home, not knowing exactly what it is. Rachel’s partner, Wick, disapproves of the strange creature, but Rachel cannot bring herself to give it up. Things become even more complicated when what she thought was a plant becomes a sentient being.

Is this one of those Bizarro fiction things? I mean there’s a giant, flying bear terrorizing a city, after all. No, skeptical reader! Don’t let the flying bear distract you! This book has a lot of heart and serious themes, actually. If you read Annihilation, or the entire Southern Reach Trilogy, you might be skeptical of that statement too, as I have seen many readers complain about Annihilation and its sequels lacking in character depth clarity of plot. Yes, Annihilation is a bit odd, and it does not fully explain everything. Borne’s plot is much more focused, and I was more attached to the main characters. Was everything perfectly explained? No. For example, if you want to know why the bear flies, well, he’s been experimented on, and that’s really all the book tells you. If details like that bother you, you might not like it. The science isn’t super scientific. This isn’t The Martian.

As I mentioned, the characters in Borne are more refined and easier to connect to than those in Annihilation. However, like Annihilation, Borne is written in first person from the perspective of a female character. VanderMeer writes from a female perspective well. Rachel is intelligent, strong-willed, caring, and resourceful, but she also has flaws and makes mistakes. Wick, her partner, is also a good character, but he was more difficult to connect to because of his murky past and because we are reading from Rachel’s perspective. And of course, I have to mention Borne himself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it is hard not to love this non-human character because he is so human.

As for the plot, I liked it, but it felt a little less experimental than VanderMeer’s trilogy, which might be better for some readers. As I said, the plot is much more clear-cut in Borne. The plot takes some predictable turns, but it was still a very unique and engrossing read. The ending wraps things up very well, but I found myself wishing that a few more events, characters, and creatures were explained in depth. This isn’t to say that there are huge plot holes. I just wanted to know more about the world and what happened to the city. The world building feels very vast. The city feels both desolate and feral, but the wider world is mentioned here and there, giving a sense that maybe there’s many other stories to tell.

One last thing I want to mention is why I, specifically, liked this novel. Your mileage may vary. As someone who has always enjoyed fiction and non-fiction that deals with the environment and nature, VanderMeer’s work just clicks with me. His descriptions of plants and animals and how humans connect with and exploit the natural world is just great. He examines so many themes of environmentalism, society, and humanity in a sci-fi novel with a flying bear in it. That impresses me! There’s a lot of emotional and intellectual depth in Rachel’s musings too. This is the first sci-fi novel that I have read that felt literary.

I debated on rating Borne 4 or 5 stars, but ultimately went with 4. It was a great read, but I expected the main story arch to be slightly less predictable, and well, I just wanted more from the book. I’m a harsh judge though, and even as I write this I am considering raising my rating…

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Historical

The Immortalists

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A few months ago, I picked this up, liked the first chapter, and then put it down because I became too busy. Earlier this month I picked The Immortalists up again, and I regretted it. Not because it was horrible. I simply did not get along with it at all. Why? Well, it’s definitely a “me” thing. If you are not in good place mentally, you may want to avoid this one for now. It could be triggering to anyone who is sensitive to reading about grief, trauma, suicide, self harm, or abortion.

It’s New York City in 1969, and the Gold children, Varya, Daniel, Klara, and Simon, escape their parents’ apartment long enough to visit a woman who is rumored to have the ability to predict the day you will die. The children receive their predictions with mixed reactions, but such a simple and supposedly “fun” outing ends up complicating all of their lives for many years to come. The Immortalists follows the Gold children into adulthood as they experience the unique challenges that the 80’s, 90’s, and the new millennium brought to the United States. The novel is broken into four parts, with each part following one of the Gold children.

Fortune telling, death days, family, and historical fiction, it all sounds great! The reality is that this is really just a historical fiction family saga with a little magical spice thrown in. That’s still an interesting premise, but if you are excited about this being a magical realism novel, you might be disappointed. After the fortune teller gives them their death dates, the rest of the novel focuses on the characters’ adult lives. Though the day of their deaths obviously play a large role, it is more of an underlying driving force than being in the forefront of the plot.

I really enjoyed seeing different parts of the country at different points in time. We get to see New York in the late 60’s and early 70’s and San Francisco and Las Vegas in the 80’s and 90’s. Although the book was not very descriptive or atmospheric, it was nice to see such an interesting historical backdrop to the family drama. The family isn’t overtly dysfunctional, but as time goes on, it is easy to see the cracks in the family’s foundation, which is what the novel is mostly about. The family as a whole have some issues with communication and openness, but more and more issues crop up as their death dates approach.

I couldn’t help thinking that a lot of what was predicted became a self-fulfilling prophecy. In particular, a couple of the children made some (in my view) very odd, out-of-character, and just plain bad choices that led to very bad things happening. A few of the family members likely had some mental illnesses and issues with trauma, but I had a hard time believing some of the characters’ reactions and actions. I know I’m speaking in extremely general terms here, but hey, that’s the trade off when I try not to spoil anyone!

The family is Jewish, and I liked that their faith actually played a role in how they processed their problems and viewed the world. Each child of the family even had a different way of viewing and utilizing their faith, and some were more optimistic than others, of course. There were also some very beautiful lines and some interesting connections between main and side characters. The characters were all pretty “gray” in that no one was always perfect or good. They made mistakes and did morally questionable things, but no one was painted as a true bad guy either. There are touches of levity and humor, but the novel as a whole I would describe as melancholy.

The book is about life, and life isn’t always great. The choices you make can be far-reaching, and the impact certain people make can change the course of another’s life. The book is often sad, but if you have recently lost someone, I could see how it may also be comforting. For me, it was not, but everyone copes differently. I hesitate to rate this one. For pure reading enjoyment, 3/5 stars. However, the book was not bad, but as far as family sagas go, it was solid but not standout.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

The Vine That Ate the South

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Have you ever had the most awful week? There must be a big, black rain cloud over my and my family member’s heads right now. So, when in doubt, read something really wacky. I have talked about my local indie publisher, Two Dollar Radio, on here before. They publish some really off-the-wall sci-fi/fantasy as well as some hard hitting family dramas and political novels. Basically, they publish a mixed bag of really unique authors and their work. Nobody is paying me to sing their praises; I just genuinely like the company and what they put out. Enter The Vine That Ate the South, one of those off-the-wall sci-fi novels I mentioned.

As the title suggests, there is a vine that is eating the southern United States (there really is too– look up the kudzu vine). Specifically, the novel takes place somewhere in western Kentucky. Our unnamed protagonist sets out to find the rumored heart of the vine, also known as “The Deadening.” Since the protagonist is a bit unsure of how to proceed by himself, he enlists the help of Carver Canute, a rather strange local with a thick southern accent and a pig-greased pompadour who has been to The Deadening before. Together, the narrator/protagonist and Carver venture through the Kentucky wilderness, finding everything from vampires to albino panthers to some just plain crazy hillbillies.

I have read some bizarre books before, but in my opinion, all of the craziness must have a point or else it will not be as enjoyable to me. Is there a point then? Kind of. There’s an adventure with a destination, but along the way Wilkes throws many Southern U.S. folktales and philosophical passages our way. If you aren’t familiar with the folktales, you might be confused. Even if you are familiar with them (or are happy to go along for the ride if you don’t), you might wonder what the point of encountering some of them are because the encounters do not always directly or obviously connect to the overall plot/journey. I enjoyed the nods to references I knew, but I also questioned the point of some encounters in the whole scope of the novel. Maybe there wasn’t a point sometimes, at least compared to a more traditional adventure story plot, but it could have been the author simply wanting to have fun and push some of the folklore of the south into the hands of readers unfamiliar with it. As someone from a state that is also considered very rural, agricultural, backward, and a bit hillbilly, I can appreciate wanting to share the things unique to my area with a wider audience.

Writing-wise, I enjoyed the book. The author is good at describing the weird and wild scenes. There are also some really beautiful lines that talk about nature and more philosophical topics. The novel is in first-person perspective, and the narrator has a very casual, conversational tone. I have to commend the writer’s ability to translate the local dialect into the text. As someone who has lived in Kentucky, I can say that I know a few people who sound just like Carver Canute. The characters are also well written. Carver is weird but entertaining, has great lines, and is very memorable. The narrator never shares his name, but he references his past here and there throughout the novel. You can get a good sense of the kind of person he is without needing a name. I could relate to him a bit because of these references, so I found that even as a female reader, it was easy to insert myself into the book.

The final verdict is four out five stars from me. It was a wild, fun ride that gave me equal amounts escapism and stuff to think about it. I would recommend this to anyone who has a taste for bizarre science fiction, folklore, or fans of Jeff Vandermeer’s work. Vandermeer actually has praise for this novel on its cover, so I think it will hit the mark for his fans who are in the mood for something more indie in style.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Annihilation

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These past two weeks I have been in Hong Kong. I actually read a lot during the flight there and back (14-16 hrs per flight), but I had no time to review anything because I was still working and adhering to deadlines with a 12 hour time difference to take into consideration. Excuses, excuses, but this has been one tough spring for me. But this is a book blog, so let’s move onto the books!

After reading Jeff Vandermeer’s creative writing guide for sci-fi and fantasy, Wonderbook, I was feeling guilty for not reading his actual novels. How can you take someone’s writing advice when you don’t even know if you like their own work? I don’t know, and admittedly that was not the right order to do things… but I can say I have read his work now, and yes, I liked it.

Annihilation is the first book in Vandermeer’s Southern Reach trilogy. This first volume is very short at just shy of 200 pages, but it packs quite a punch. In the novel we follow “the biologist” as she and her colleagues explore a place called Area X. The Southern Reach is the entity that puts these expeditions together with volunteers from various fields. Previous groups have died or experienced changes in themselves. The biologist is on expedition number twelve with three other women: the anthropologist, the psychologist, and the surveyor. Together the four women enter Area X, knowing that they may never return– or at least not as who they once were.

I would call this novel a sci-fi thriller. The happenings of the novel have some basis in science, but it gets a little weird at times. There are some good suspenseful parts, and there are some survival/mystery elements that can easily hook readers. This is a novel that you have to be OK with being confused or lost. For much of the novel we see strange animals, plants, and places with few concrete explanations. The characters become unreliable at times because they are never quite sure if they can trust their senses. Despite the characters lacking actual names, I did not feel emotionally disconnected from them. The biologist is the narrator, and we get many scenes of her remembering her past. Plus, you’re in her head the whole time. However, I can see how any or all of these factors might leave the reader feeling lost, and the ending gives few answers. It is something to aware of, but if you like open-ended novels, this is such a quick and engrossing read that it does not hurt to try!

I gave Annihilation four out of five stars. It was quick, fun, suspenseful, and wonderfully weird. I wish that there had been a bit more direction and clarification in the ending especially, but I enjoyed what I read here and am looking forward to seeing what books two and three have to offer.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction

Binti

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Apparently this is the year of sci-fi for me. It isn’t a genre I often reach for because I simply like other genres more. I’ve never been that interested in books about space travel and advanced technology. Give me swords and sorcery any day, but at least I am aware of the fact I should branch out!

Binti has been accepted into the most prestigious school in the galaxy, Oomza University. But Binti is Himba, and her people simply do not leave Earth. Binti sneaks away in the night to leave for her new school because she knows her family will disapprove. As she travels through the stars to her new life, her ship is attacked by the Meduse, an alien race with a long history of war with some humans on Earth.

Binti tells her story in first-person perspective, so it is very easy to get to know her. She is a headstrong, brave, intelligent, and resourceful girl who takes her fate into her own hands. She clearly loves her family and has pride in her people’s traditions. As Binti travels to her new school, she sees humans from different cultures. Her ways are strange to the majority, so she faces some “curiosity” from other people which is really just discrimination. The themes of ignorance breeding hate and listening/learning leading to understanding of differences are touched on a few times even in this short (~100 page) first novella of the series. The other major theme is fitting in and finding yourself in a very different world from what you know, which is actually very easy to relate to for any young person going off to college– across the galaxy or across the country.

It is hard to not recommend such a quick and compelling read. I enjoyed this first novella in the series, but I am unsure if I will continue it soon. I listened to this as an audiobook instead of reading a hard copy, and I would say that the audiobook was a good experience. I prefer reading the hard copy of fantasy/sci-fi books that contain author-created words so that I can see how the words are spelled instead of only hearing them, but I had no trouble with that issue in this audiobook because there were so few unfamiliar words. I gave Binti three or three and a half stars out of five. I am intrigued by the novella and the author’s writing and creativity, so I may continue the series or read more from the author in the future.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

Black Leopard, Red Wolf

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One of my goals for my blog this year is to review more new releases. This book got a lot of buzz from the start because the author, Marlon James, won the Man Booker Prize in 2015 for A Brief History of Seven Killings. I haven’t read that book, or any of his other work yet, but I could not resist the fact that Black Leopard, Red Wolf is an African myth-filled epic journey of a sort of anti-hero. I’ve seen marketing calling it “an African Game of Thrones.” Um… well, no. When I think of A Song of Ice and Fire, I think about complex political maneuvering, multiple characters’ point of view, Euro-centric myth and creatures, etc. Black Leopard, Red Wolf does not quite fit that description, which– I think– is a very important distinction to make. In fact, I would not even recommend this book for your general fantasy lover. It is also very dark and perhaps controversial. If gore, violence, homosexual relationships, descriptions of genitalia or sex acts, or rape (of basically everyone and everything) bothers you, beware of this book.

Black Leopard, Red Wolf focuses on one main character, Tracker. There are many, many characters throughout the novel, but the book is written in first person with Tracker as our main character and narrator. All we know about Tracker is that he has a nose that smell out anyone, and one of his eye’s is a wolf’s. The novel begins with Tracker speaking directly to you, with “you” being an inquisitor. We are given small hints about Tracker’s current situation and about this inquisitor throughout the tale, but Tracker tends to skip around in his storytelling. We learn about Tracker’s childhood a bit, his life in the African bush and with other tribes, how he met some of his companions, and a few tales of his past feats. However, the majority of the novel deals with Tracker being hired to find a mysteriously missing boy in the company of witches, shapeshifters, demons, spirits, and gods.

Trying to give a synopsis of this one is challenging, but I would highly advise reading a few pages before you buy it. Again, this isn’t your average fantasy novel. It is very, very lyrical and descriptive. The language and scenes are often surreal, and some reading between the lines may be needed to discern what is actually happening. I had a hard time at the beginning of the novel because I honestly had no idea what was going on. However, once I became accustomed to the writing style, characters, and plot, it became overall very enjoyable to read, if still challenging. I would not say that this is a novel that you can lose yourself in the world. The setting is amazing and unique, but the book is a little lax about explaining the hows and whys of the world. There’s no tidy Brandon Sanderson magic system here. Having some knowledge of African folklore might help you though. There is also a list of important characters/creatures that can be helpful to refer back to as you read.

The plot and characters are both very interesting. As I said, there are quite a few characters that come and go throughout the novel. It might be hard to remember everyone, but the main cast stays somewhat constant once you get to the main journey. Tracker and a few of the characters close to him are well written, but secondary characters often make an impression too. They all have distinct personalities with their own motives to drive them. One thing I like about Tracker being the narrator is that there are a lot of “holes” in the story. Tracker sometimes becomes separated from his comrades or knocked out, he may choose to leave something out of his narrative, or characters leave and return from their own journeys. In these moments we simply don’t know what happened to the other characters unless they tell Tracker and he tells us. This not only adds character depth but it also adds a lot of “off the page” plot, which sometimes pops back up later in the story and other times remains unexplained.

The plot could be confusing, especially early on. Tracker skips around a bit at the beginning of the novel. Once he begins talking about his quest for the missing child things start to make more sense and become more linear. This is going to be a trilogy, so it should be no surprise that this first books spends a lot of time setting up the plot, the world, and the characters. Much of the book is a mystery in that we do not know who this missing boy is or why everyone wants him. Each character Tracker encounters seems to have their own story about the boy. Who is lying? Who can Tracker trust? Most of the book is spent chasing the boy’s scent, which means a lot of traveling. If you don’t like travel adventures, you may dislike this first book, but in my opinion, enough happens in each location that it does not become boring.

Yes, this book has political maneuvering, but it is not quite to the scale of A Song of Ice and Fire (yet?)Yes, it has multiple characters, but they don’t have their perspectives. Yes, there is a lot of myth and magic, but it all feels very different than European-based fantasy. There is a raw, feral, and unforgiving feel to this novel. If you already like fantasy or magical realism and you also like surreal descriptions, lyrical writing, dialogue with dialects, don’t mind a little work to get into a book, and you don’t mind some dark themes, this might be a book for you. I would not go into expecting Game of Thrones or any other more mainstream fantasy. As someone who really likes unique fantasy and loves slightly overwritten novels, this is a pro for me, but I hesitate to say it is a book that a general fantasy lover would be interested in reading. Black Leopard, Red Wolf gets four solid stars out of five from me. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy in the future. It was certainly a memorable experience like nothing else I have ever read.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

The Kingdom of Copper

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I don’t usually review sequels here because to care about the sequel, you probably need to have read the first book. It’s also hard to talk about a second book in the series without spoiling anything, but my reading time has taken a big hit this year because of work, so we can’t be too choosy about what we review! But, I have to say, The Kingdom of Copper helped me get out of a bad reading slump because it’s just a fun, creative series that I genuinely enjoy.

Nahri thought she was just a regular orphan girl from Cairo with some… odd powers. But one day she accidentally summoned a djinn who whisked her away to a whole new, mythical world. In The City of Brass we followed Nahri and her friends as she became accustomed to her magical home of Daevabad and her new life as part of its royalty. In The Kingdom of Copper there is trouble brewing in Daevabad. The various tribes of djinn have always had their grievances about each other, but now the city has become a tinderbox looking for a spark. When everyone has their own motives for power and peace, Nahri must confront both her friends and enemies for a happy future in Daevabad for her and her people.

I would say that author S. A. Chakraborty stepped up her writing in this sequel. I mentioned in my review of The City of Brass that the book read a little on the Young Adult side and would be a good series for readers who are looking for something to bridge the gap between YA fantasy and adult fantasy. The Kingdom of Copper still has a slightly younger leaning to its writing and characters, but overall, both the writing and characters have matured a lot. Since there appears to be a gradual maturing of the writing and characters, I maintain my judgment about this series being great for readers who are just getting into adult fantasy from YA fantasy. There’s still a bit of a love triangle in this book, but it does not get in the way of the plot. In fact, I would even say that slightly awkward romantic asides in book one were practically absent in book two. In my opinion, this is a good thing, but if you like a good bit of  romance in your fantasy, this series might not be the best choice.

I really like the characters in this series. Nahri has a lot of spunk, but she isn’t stupid or reckless. She is a smart, resourceful girl who knows when to bide her time for sweeter revenge later. She was a little too headstrong and emotional in book one, but Nahri was the character that I felt grew the most in this sequel. Ali, a prince of Daevabad, has also matured as both a warrior and diplomat. He is still very rigid in his beliefs, but he has learned to use his brain and brawn much more carefully. I would say that all of the main cast (and there are quite a few) are well written with a good amount of depth. The secondary characters (again, quite a few of them) have less purpose and depth and seemed to be there mostly to have a sad death scene. Maybe some of them could have been utilized more, but it would have been difficult to give them all a good amount of “page time” without derailing the story or making it overly complex.

Probably my favorite thing about this novel and this series is that it is so politically intricate. I would not say it is as complex as something like A Song of Ice and Fire, but I loved how every single character had their own independent agendas in addition to their tribe’s or group’s plans. Even if Character A is on one side of a fight, Character A may still sympathize with another group’s plight in some specific ways. In short, it felt realistic. War is never completely black and white because of all of the different lives that get tangled up in it. The Kingdom of Copper just does gray areas well. I rooted for specific characters instead of taking just one side, which made my feelings about certain events mixed– both happy and yet sad. And although I do not want main characters I love to die, I hope the author considers the possibility in book three so that this does not become a series in which everything and everyone has a happy ending. It would not feel as realistic as I have come to expect from the first two books.

I really look forward to the last book in this series. I feel like it will come to another happy/sad conclusion, but it will be a realistic and fulfilling conclusion. A lot of bad things happen in this series, but there has yet to be a big event where justice is served. I am hoping that book three will give me the closing I am craving. When the time comes, I will be on the lookout for an ARC of the last book, and you’ll probably see a review. But, here’s to at least a year of waiting.

 

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Science Fiction · Short Story Collections

Invisible Planets

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I know the subtitle of this blog is “spoiler free reviews (almost) every Saturday,” but just know that every time I have to skip a week… I feel guilty about it. Despite the delayed post, I actually read this book quickly when I had time to read it. Invisible Planets is exactly as the subtitle says: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. I am still new to science fiction, so maybe my opinion doesn’t mean much, but if you’re also a “newbie” to the genre, I hope my perspective helps. Settle in though. This will be a long one.

I chose this collection because I have enjoyed Ken Liu’s past work, and I believed that he would translate and put together an interesting collection of work from various authors. I was not wrong. There are a variety of writing styles, settings, and themes between the stories. Seven authors (most are also newer voices in the genre) are featured in the collection, and each author has 1-3 short stories. I found myself easily gravitating toward some authors and confused by others, but there should be a little something in here for anyone.

If you’re unfamiliar with fiction in translation or have some reservations about understanding any cultural/political nuances in Chinese sci-fi, this is actually a great collection to start with. In the introduction of the collection, Ken Liu explains that he has selected short fiction that he thinks Anglophone readers will appreciate. Still, he urges Anglophone readers to try not to view the stories through a “lens of Western dreams and hopes and fairy tales about Chinese politics […] Chinese writers are saying something about the globe, about all humanity, not just China, and trying to understand their work through this perspective is, I think, the far more rewarding approach.” And, if you want a little extra information about Chinese science fiction, the anthology includes three essays at the back of the book on the subject. As I said, this is a great place to start for Chinese sci-fi. It just feels “dummy proof” for an English reader.

I find it difficult to review any anthology collection in a broad way because there are so many different authors and stories, so I will briefly discuss the authors, my impression of their styles, and a little bit about their stories that appear in the collection.

Chen Qiufan: “The Year of the Rat,” “The Fish of Lijiang,” and “The Flower of Shazui”

Chen Qiufan’s stories may not have been my favorites, but they certainly made me think. Ken Liu described his work as “melding a global, post-cyberpunk sensibility with China’s traditions  and complex historical legacy.” I found some of his stories disturbingly real. For example, in “The Year of the Rat,” the protagonist is at war with genetically engineered rats with human-like characteristics. The near-humanness of the rats was contrasted against humanity’s and society’s often barbaric side, so it made me uncomfortable in a thoughtful way. Chen Qiufan’s stories feel smart; there’s a lot to unpack and examine in each one, but you can still enjoy them without doing much deep reading.

Xia Jia: “A Hundred Ghosts Parade Tonight,” “Tongtong’s Summer,” and “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse”

Xia Jia’s work was what drew me into this anthology. According to Liu, she describes her own style as “porridge SF,” apparently meaning that she considers herself a mixture of “hard” and “soft” sci-fi. I was drawn to Xia Jia’s work because of her lyrical and descriptive writing style. “Tongtong’s Summer” was a heartfelt tale about an injured grandfather and the summer that he had to stay with his granddaughter and her parents. Grandfather and granddaughter initially have a hard time getting along, but their relationship blossoms into something very sweet. “Night Journey of the Dragon-Horse” was another of my overall favorites in the collection. It felt like a fairy tale about the passage of time and the how memories can transcend time. I found her stories to be hauntingly beautiful, and I would very happily read more from her if I could.

Ma Boyong: “The City of Silence”

“The City of Silence” was the only story by Ma Boyong in the collection, but it felt like a full length novel. (Or, because of the ending, it could also be a prologue to a great sci-fi novel…) The story focuses on a protagonist who lives in a society with very strict censorship. It is so strict that there is a list of “Healthy Words” everyone must use in their writing and speech, but every day the list of acceptable words grows smaller and smaller. The story discusses the relationship between humans, language, and freedom of expression, but it also goes deeper than that. The characters and how they live in the cracks of this increasingly silent society are extremely interesting. It showcases humanity’s adaptability as well as our limits of what we can endure.

Hao Jingfang: “Invisible Planets” and “Folding Beijing”

Both of Hao Jingfang’s stories were a bit surreal. “Invisible Planets” is structured as if the narrator is talking to another person and telling them about different planets and their inhabitants. The “meaning” of the story is hidden between the planet descriptions and the conversation between the narrator and listener. “Folding Beijing” takes place in a Beijing that can fold itself away at certain times of the day, flip completely over, and unfold itself for another set of residents on the other side. A man in a low class part of the city attempts to illegally travel between the Beijings to deliver a message for pay. Both stories were beautifully written and very creative in both their themes and world building.

Tang Fei: “Call Girl”

“Call Girl” is about a young call girl, but she isn’t really that kind of call girl. I think. She does something with dreams… maybe? I was a little confused by this one, but it was pleasant to read. The point likely flew over my head.

Cheng Jingbo: “Grave of the Fireflies”

“Grave of the Fireflies” felt like a fairy tale. Despite the first person narration, I felt distanced from the characters because of the history-book tone. It was a love story on a planetary, thousand-year scale. The writing was very descriptive with often surreal metaphors. The story felt familiar because it read like an Arthurian tale but with an Eastern flair and some technological/scientific influences making it wholly unique.

Liu Cixin: “The Circle” and “Taking Care of God”

Liu Cixin’s stories were some of my favorites. They have interesting plots with deeper underlying themes. “The Circle” takes place during the reign of the first emperor and involves mathematics, betrayal, and history. It was a very entertaining and smart story. “Taking Care of God” is also very intelligently crafted. Many elderly human looking beings visit Earth, all claiming to be God and requesting food and shelter from humans. Is it a critique on how society treats the elderly? Is there some religious debate in there? There’s certainly some analysis of humanity in it. No matter what meaning you draw from the story, it is humorous, introspective, and sad.

Adult Fiction · Book Review · Fantasy/Magical Realism

The City of Brass

tcobbysac

I looked at my shelves the other day and realized that there was nothing on my there that I was truly interested in reading at the moment. This has been a big problem for me in the past year, so I took a couple of bags of books and sold them to a secondhand bookstore. While I was there and because of my reading slump, I decided to buy one book that I was interested in reading right that second, take it home, and read it immediately. So, I did.

Nahri scrapes by in 18th century Cairo by being a little shady in her business dealings. She steals, lies, and cheats her way to a meager living every day. It helps that she has some magical abilities like healing small wounds and instantly understanding most languages she hears. When she attempts a ritual to remove the supposed spiritual possession from a child, she accidentally summons a real djinn. Dara the djinn introduces Nahri to a hidden, magical word populated by the djinn, their descendants, and a whole host of strange mythological beings. Nahri quickly learns that she has a stake in this magical world that she never asked for.

I haven’t had this much fun reading a book in a while. In many ways, this book is nothing too ground breaking or special, but there’s actually quite a bit going on under the surface. To begin with, this is a novel based on Middle Eastern mythology and Islamic beliefs. The author herself is a Muslim convert. The novel is told in third person perspective with a focus on the perspectives of Nahri and Ali, a prince in the djinn’s world. The world is expansive and the characters are interesting, but the novel suffers from a few issues and tropes common to recent fantasy releases. However, it has a lot more complexity and heart than many overly hyped reads in the same vein.

Although this book is classified as adult fantasy, it reads a little younger. The writing itself, some of the plot devices (read: tropes), and some of the characters come off a bit “less adult” than I usually read. There’s actually quite a bit of violence and some adult themes though, so don’t be too turned off by the slight YA feel. If anything, it just reads more quickly because of this, but it does not feel overly childish. If you usually read adult fantasy, you may have some issues with the writing, but if you usually read YA and are looking to dip your toe into adult fantasy, this would be an excellent starting point.

A few common complaints I see from other reviewers are that the world is too confusing (there’s a glossary in the back of the book!), there is a lot of information dumping, and that the plot becomes too slow in the middle of the novel. I would say that I partially agree with all of those comments, but I feel like the book deserves a little defense in those respects. The world building of the novel is actually quite good in my opinion. The world feels “off the page,” meaning that it feels like it has a long, rich history intertwined with some of familiar real-world history. Does the mythology and history of the world get “dumped” on the reader all at once? Maybe.

The book is packed with action and adventure, but near the midpoint there is a definite dip in action. There is a long travel sequence in the early to middle part of the book. During the traveling, the characters discuss the history of the world at length. Because this information about the world is sandwiched between so much action and because of the complexity of the world, I can see why many readers complain about the slowness of the middle of the novel. While I do wish that the travel scenes were shorter and that the world building was woven more smoothly throughout the novel, it isn’t a major issue in my opinion. However, I do feel like too much of the history/mythology of the world was packed into the first book in the series. The end in particular felt as if the author was throwing a lot of mythological curve balls at the reader to add twists and complications to what you thought were the rules of the created world. This was a bit confusing, but it also intensified my desire to read the sequel so that I could hopefully get some answers.

Remember when I mentioned tropes earlier? As with many fantasy novels, we have the “normal girl finds out she is special and has to save the world” plot. Although the first book is not yet focused on saving the whole world, it hints at larger evils and problems to come in the subsequent books. To me, the more egregious trope is the dreaded love triangle. I hope that the sequel dispels the implications that a love triangle is developing, but it is a possibility that it may become more integral to the plot as it moves forward. There’s also (unless I am reading it completely wrong) some hope of a bi/gay relationship between a couple of the characters. Despite all of the romantic speculation, I would not say that this book is a romance masquerading as a fantasy, as some YA and adult fantasy seem to be guilty of doing. Although the romantic pairings have some importance to the plot, it does not distract from the major plot devices so far.

This review actually turned out to be pretty long, so I think I will wrap it up. The final verdict: The City of Brass is an imperfect but extremely entertaining and interesting fantasy novel. It gets tangled up in a few tired tropes, but it is overall worthy of some recognition for its representation, creativity, world building, and endearing but flawed characters. I thoroughly enjoyed reading The City of Brass, and I plan to pick up the sequel, The Kingdom of Copper, released on the 22nd of January in the U.S. I gave The City of Brass a rating of 4 out of 5 stars.