Book Review: The Invisible Library

Book Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

One good way to introduce a new fictional character or world is to start off with a short adventure where the character gets to show off their competency and special abilities.  Usually this is at most loosely connected to the main plot which will show up after the mission is complete, being there to establish a baseline for the character’s normal behavior.  Thus when we first meet Irene, she’s infiltrating a Harry Potterish school of magic as the cleaning lady to steal a book.

The Invisible Library

Irene (a codename) is an acquisitions agent for the Invisible Library, a mysterious organization that collects rare and unique books from parallel Earths.  Her title of “Junior Librarian” is somewhat misleading; she was born to two Librarians and made frequent visits there in her youth (and you do not age while in the Library) so she has years more of experience than she looks like.  Also, she suffered a career setback about a decade ago that made her look incompetent and gets her underestimated.

Irene’s primary advantage besides her vast knowledge base (particularly in the field of books) is the Language.  Only those bound to the Library can use this paranatural ability; if Irene knows the right words to use, she can cause objects to do her bidding.  There are some severe limitations on what she can do with the Language, and using it tends to blow her cover, so Irene hesitates to solve her problems this way.

Upon returning to the Library from the first chapter mission, Irene has no chance to rest before being sent out on another case, this time with trainee Kai in tow.  Kai is impossibly handsome and has several secrets, some more obvious than others.

They’re sent off to a world that has vampires, zeppelins, the Fair Folk and Great Detectives.  It’s normally off-limits due to high Chaos contamination, so the Grimm variant they’re after must be important.  The local Library agent explains that the book went missing after the previous owner’s murder, presumably at the hands of notorious cat burglar Belphegor.

Complications soon heap upon each other.  Irene must work out which of the people involved is the real threat.  Is it Kai, who really does have too many secrets?  The deadly thief Belphegor?  Silver, the Fae ambassador of Liechtenstein?  The mad science-oriented Iron Brotherhood?  Rival Librarian Bradamant?  Earl Peregrine Vale, noted detective?  The renegade codenamed Alberich?  Or is it the Library itself?  And just where is that book?

This is a fast-paced adventure story with some neat worldbuilding and mostly likable characters.  The Language, chaos-spawned magic, draconic powers and technology all have their own strengths and weaknesses.  There’s some “meta” stuff as well; a chaos-contaminated world tends to have things happen as they would in fiction rather than in “real life” with plenty of coincidences and narrative tropes.

There is one clanger of a scene in which Kai pressures Irene to have sex with him and has difficulty taking “no” for an answer.  It’s meant to show that 1) Kai isn’t quite as familiar with modern customs as he lets on and 2) Irene has had plenty of sex, thank you, but not with the person her colleagues think she did.  There could have been other ways of showing these things.

There’s also the thing where everyone including Irene has a mysterious backstory, but we never get more than hints for most of them.

Primarily for folks who like the mashup of steampunk and fantasy.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from Blogging for Books to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

 

Magazine Review: The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016 edited by C.C. Finlay

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction started publication in 1949.  According to Wikipedia, it was supposed to be a fantasy story version of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine as it was at the time, classic reprints mixed with new material of a higher literary quality than was common in the pulps of the time.  Science fiction was added to expand the possible pool of stories.  F&SF has managed to publish fairly regularly ever since, though in recent years it’s bimonthly.  It has a reputation for literate fiction.

The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction Nov/Dec 2016

The cover story is “The Cat Bell” by Esther M. Friesner.  Mr. Ferguson is a successful actor in the early Twentieth Century, even having a fine house with servants.  One of those servants, Cook, greatly admires Mr. Ferguson.  Mr. Ferguson greatly admires cats, and has nineteen of them that Cook must feed every day.  One day there are twenty cats, and Cook finds herself in a fairy tale.  Content note:  Cook suffers from several of the less pleasant “isms” and isn’t afraid to say so.

“The Farmboy” by Albert E. Cowdrey is set on a distant planet being surveyed by a scout ship.  The crew has discovered a massive deposit of gold, but even if they had room to take it with them, the government would simply confiscate the wealth, giving nothing to the survey crew.  Several of the crew members come up with a scheme to make themselves very rich at the expense of the rest of the crew.  But if you can’t spot the sucker at the poker game, it’s probably you…some unpleasant sexism.

“Between Going and Staying” by Lilliam Rivera takes place in a future Mexico even more dominated by the drug cartels.  Dolores is a professional mourner using the newest bodysuit technology.  She’s been making very good money performing for the wealthy, but this funeral is personal.

There are two book review columns, one by Charles de Lint, in which he admits not being fond of psychological horror.  The other is by Chris Moriarty and focuses on books about human survival.

“The Vindicator” by Matthew Hughes is the last story in his current cycle about Raffalon the thief.  Raffalon is a mediocre burglar in the sort of fantasy city that has a Thieves’ Guild.  For some reason a Vindicator (assassin) is after Raffalon, and the Vindicator’s Guild isn’t being helpful for calling it off.  Raffalon hires a Discriminator (private investigator) and the truth turns out to be explosive.

A relatively rare Gardner Dozois story follows, “The Place of Bones.”  A scholar and his companion discover the Dragonlands, where dragons go to die.  More of a mood piece than a proper story.

“Lord Elgin at the Acropolis” by Minsoo Kang involves a police officer and writer meeting to consider the problem of a museum director who believes that one of the paintings in the museum is fake, despite no other evidence.  Is he just crazy, or is there another explanation?

“Special Collections” by Kurt Fawver is a horror story about a library with a section you must never enter alone, which is the first rule.  And then there’s the second rule….

David J. Skal reviews High-Rise for the film section, and compares it to the J.G. Ballard novel.

There’s the results of a contest for updating older science fiction works to today’s world.  Including a “Dishonorable Mention” update of 1984.

“A Fine Balance” by Charlotte Ashley is set in a city where all disputes between the two major parties are settled by specially trained duelists.  Except that one side doesn’t want to play by those rules any more.  Very satisfying story.

“Passelande” by Robert Reed takes place in a depressing near future with electronic backups for people who can afford them.  Backups who have their own feelings and motivations.  This one grated on me, as I felt the characters had their motivations poorly explained/depicted.

“The Rhythm Man” by James Beamon is a variant on the legend about talented musicians selling their souls for skill or fame.  A lot of set-up for one great scene at the end.

And the stories wrap up with “Merry Christmas from All of Us to All of You” by Sandra McDonald.  It’s a dystopian tale of a gift-making community that ensures none of its children can truly escape.  But perhaps there is a ray of hope?

There’s an “Easter egg” in the classified ads, and then an index of stories and features that appeared in 2016’s issues.

I liked “The Vindicator” and “A Fine Balance” best, though “The Cat Bell” was also quite entertaining.  “Passendale” was the weakest story for me.

This magazine has consistently high quality stories and some nice cartoons; consider a print or Kindle subscription.

 

 

Book Review: Rayla 2212

Book Review: Rayla 2212 by Ytasha L. Womack

It is the year 2212, and the once utopian Planet Hope has fallen under the dictatorship of The Dirk.  Rayla Illmatic, aka Rayla Redfeather, daughter of a missing astronaut, has joined the resistance.  When rebel leader Carcine, who Rayla likes a lot, disappears on a mission to find mystic/scientist Moulan Shakur, she must take up the quest.  It is Rayla’s destiny to find the missing astronauts scattered in Earth’s past, and restore the balance of her world.  Or is it?

Rayla 2212

This is the first science fiction novel by Afrofuturist Ytasha Womack; it is set in a future where “race” as it is currently understood is no longer a relevant concept, but carrying forward the vitality of African-American culture and its African roots.  This is more revolutionary than it should be, due to inertia making straight white middle-class American men the default protagonists of most SF.  Notably, when the story goes back to 20th Century Earth, racism is mentioned but isn’t at all a focus in that section.

The primary “big idea” is that linear space-time is a social construct.  Properly-trained people of sufficient mental strength can teleport to where/when they choose.  However, Planet Hope’s society began to unravel when all the astronauts with this training failed to come back from a mission; Rayla’s father reappeared momentarily some time later, but just as quickly vanished again.  Moulan, who came up with the training, enlists Rayla’s help in relocating the lost.

However, we learn that Moulan is keeping secrets from Rayla, as is Rayla’s new partner Delta Blue.  Rayla’s memories have been tampered with more than once, and the people she meets warn her against each other while withholding information our heroine thinks might be important.  She also notes that her “destiny” never seems to be anything she actually wants to do with her life.

I’m reminded of the New Wave speculative fiction of the 1970s, both because of the multiple layers of deception and fluid nature of reality (is Rayla participating in the past or is she shaping it?), and in the “experimental” feel of the writing.  There are quotes, most relevant, interrupting the narrative from time to time, as well as soundtrack recommendations–this tapers off as the book progresses.  Despite the non-linear nature of space-time in the story, the narrative itself is mostly linear with some flashbacks.

This edition of the book was self-published, and there are multiple spellchecker typos and misplaced quotation marks.  I also found the ending rather muddled and arbitrary; perhaps this is to allow for the sequel, conveniently titled Rayla 2213.  There’s some on-page non-explicit sex.

This book would be of most interest to readers wanting to sample Afrofuturism, or looking for a protagonist who’s not the standard SF model.

Book Review: That Ain’t Right

Book Review: That Ain’t Right edited by Jeremy Zimmerman & Dawn Vogel

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

That Ain't Right

Howard Phillips “H.P.” Lovecraft (1890-1937) was a minor writer of horror fiction in the early 20th Century.  But thanks to a gift for purple prose, a strong philosophical unity in his stories’ viewpoints and (most importantly) a willingness to share his ideas, he’s been immensely influential in the development of the horror field.  He’s best known for the Cthulhu Mythos, a series of stories involving cosmic “gods” that are implacably hostile to humanity as we know it, not out of malice as such, but because humans are irrelevant to the universe at large.

A number of his stories were set in the Miskatonic Valley region of Massachusetts, a fictional backwater including such shadowed locations as Innsmouth, Dunwich and Arkham.  That last one will be familiar to Batman fans.

Which brings us to the book at hand, an anthology of first-person narratives set in the Miskatonic Valley.  They range in time period from about the 1890s to the far future, and one is set in an alternate history.  As is traditional in Lovecraft-inspired fiction, several of the narrators cannot be telling their stories to any living person, although none of them are quite to the level of that one Lovecraft protagonist who was still writing in his journal even as the monster was actually entering the room.  An especially nice touch is that the fictional narrators have their own author bios at the end of the stories.

Some standouts in the anthology include:

  • “Arkquarium” by Folly Blaine:  A high school student working part-time at the Arkham Aquarium tries to impress the girl he likes by sneaking into the locked laboratory section.  Turns out there’s a reason no one is supposed to go in there.  The protagonist shows some gumption, but isn’t unrealistically competent beyond the average teenager he is.
  • “The Reservoir” by Brian Hamilton:  A direct sequel to Lovecraft’s classic “The Colour Out of Space” which has a microbiologist investigating particles in the water of the title lake.  He finds an old well still calling–or is it a hallucination of the deep?
  • “The Pull of the Sea” by Sean Frost:  A ghost learns that not even death can protect you from the worse horrors that come from the ocean.  The story carefully sets up rules, then the creatures that break the rules come along.
  • “The Laughing Book” by Cliff Winnig:  A college student studies the title book in the restricted stacks of Miskatonic University.  This story is more influenced by Lovecraft’s “Lord Dunsany” period of dark fantasy than his straight-up horror.

The quality of writing is generally good, absent a couple of typos, and the annoying use of phonetic dialect in “Dr. Circe and the Shadow Over Swedish Innsmouth” by Erik Scott de Bie.  Horror tends to be subjective as to whether it works for you or not; I found most of the stories nicely creepy, with a couple going a bit too much for the gore for my tastes.

Recommended for fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the more literate horror fan in general.

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Book Review: The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair by Barbara & Robert Tinker with Pendred Noyce, illustrated by Yu-Yu Chin

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

The Cryptic Case of the Coded Fair

Once again the Galactic Academy of Science must reach out to kids from the 21st Century to preserve the timeline.  This time Dr. G is sabotaging the International Science Fair to crush the spirits of budding scientists and create a public impression that junk science is just as valid as real science.  Future teen  Quarkum reaches out to two new field agents, Ella and Shomari.

Shomari and Ella must travel through time to learn about cryptography and cryptoanalysis, codes and ciphers, so they can crack the coded messages Dr. G is sending his minions while protecting their own communications.  From Julius Caesar’s shift cipher to Whitfield Diffie and the public key, the experts of the past inform the children of the present to save the future.

This is the latest in a series of children’s books about science, with the framework of ethnically diverse youngsters traveling through time to learn about subjects firsthand.  The language is suitable for fourth graders on up, with more difficult words defined in the text.  It helps that Ella and Shomari are very literate for their age and bright enough to bring up examples when they’re appropriate.

Important or notable words are emphasized with colored text, and the illustrations are good.  There’s information on how to find more codes and ciphers on the publisher’s website if the reader wants to play along.

There is some mild peril–Dr. G’s minions aren’t very threatening.  And the story acknowledges that there are difficult topics that come up in the past, such as slavery, religious discrimination and sexism, which hinder or offend the children from time to time.    However, they are treated as problems of the past, with no mention of such topics in the present.

Like many kids, I went through a codes and ciphers phase, and this book would have been fascinating to me then.   Check out your school or public library.

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town

Book Review: Hunting Season: Immigration and Murder in an All-American Town by Mirta Ojito

Disclaimer:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Hunting Season

In 2008, an Ecuadorian immigrant, Marcelo Lucero, was murdered by a group of teenagers in Patchouge,  New York.  They had been looking for “Mexicans” to beat up in that suburb of New York City.  This shocking crime made headlines, and exposed a lot of raw nerves about immigration issues in America.

Mirta Ojito is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, and briefly talks about her own experience as a Cuban refugee.

Much of the book is taken up by short biographies of the people involved in the case one way or another, from the victim to the killers to the mayor of Patchouge.  (None of the people convicted of the murder consented to be interviewed for the book, and only two of their parents, so some biographies are very short.)

There’s a look at the various circumstances that combined to make the incident happen:  demographic shifts, a changed pattern of immigration that brought unassimilated migrants straight to suburbia instead of the inner city, racism, economic woes, portrayal in the media of immigrants as “invaders”, small town boredom, and a poisonous political atmosphere.

The mayor of Patchouge, Paul Pontieri, comes off pretty well.   He was late realizing that there was a problem with anti-immigrant violence in his town, but actually had plans for dealing with it just before the killing took place.  The tragedy accelerated those plans.

By comparison,  Steve Levy, county executive of Suffolk County, comes off pretty badly.   He campaigned on fairly heavy anti-immigration policies, even co-founding a group called Mayors and Executives for Immigration Reform that seeks local ordinances to restrict undocumented immigrants further than they already are.  But he never specifically called for violence.

As well as the effect on Patchouge of immigration issues and the murder, the book looks at the effect these have had on Lucero’s home town of  Gualaceo.  The money sent home by migrants has allowed the town to become prosperous again after years of economic depression, but at the cost of its hardest-working and most ambitious citizens

As the book points out, this was neither the first or last time an immigrant was killed by Americans for the sin of not being “one of us”, but perhaps we can learn lessons here to lessen future violence, and find new ways of incorporating immigrants into our society.

Recommended for true crime readers, and those interested in immigration issues.  Check it out at your library.

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