The Beautiful Ones, by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The most interesting thing about the fantasy of manners sub-genre is how the world delineates those who belong, and those who don’t, and this is often the center of conflict for the love-interest couple.  Now, of course, not all fantasy of manners stories have a major love interest, but there is an important relationship that is the focus of the story, otherwise we wouldn’t have the sub-genre itself.  In The Beautiful Ones, the haves–in the country of Levrene, and particularly the fashionable city of Loisail–are the Beautiful Ones themselves, those with money and social standing, who decide what is fashionable, what is proper, and what is interesting.

Social customs and societal expectations in this novel are drawn from many European analogs in the 17th through 19th centuries and have at their center both the restrictions of patriarchy and the lure of curiosity that often crop up in Victorian literature.  Hector Auvray, the love interest, is a performer, one who uses his talent with telekinesis to improve his social standing.  He is able to do this in part because he is a man, and his efforts fall under the guise of ambition and vigorous effort prized in the culture of Loisail.

The Beautiful Ones finds its way out from under its own reliance on well-known fantasy romance tropes in its vigorous interrogation of the patriarchal leanings of its society and, in turn, our own.  The growth of its characters, particularly Nina and Valerie, is satisfying, and though much of the plot could be intuited from the set up, the way in which Moreno-Garcia follows through with her characters and doesn’t allow them to sink under their own weight is what makes this novel not just readable, but highly enjoyable, from beginning to end.

The juxtaposition of two main characters who share the same telekinetic talent, but belong to different genders, creates a lens through which to understand just how much the artificiality of society pushes people in one direction or the other for purely arbitrary reasons.  While Nina may be born with admittance to the class of the Beautiful Ones because of her family’s money and position it is, in the end, her willingness to condition herself to the behaviors expected of a woman of that class that arbitrates her belonging to that group.  While Hector is able to use its standard sets of behaviors as a guidebook to entry, where getting a certain number of rules correct gives him a way in, Nina can much more quickly be tossed out for breaking even one rule.  The human desire to belong, as well as to be free, motivates The Beautiful Ones on a deep level, leaving the reader with a lot to think about at the end.

This novel explores the depths of emotion and motivation to which people can sink, while holding onto a foundational joy and love of life that comes across as genuine, rather than sentimental.  Moreno-Garcia’s writing is colorful and evocative of a world in which appearance and display are paramount.  There are some lovely scenes in which old or abandoned places not only contrast beautifully with this magpie culture she’s created, but also create a tension between antiquity and modernity that, rather than being resolved by the end, linger on the palate for a long while after finishing this novel.

 

 

Crossroads of Canopy, by Thoraiya Dyer

When you live life in the sun, in the canopy of the great trees, your biggest fear is falling. Or so Unar thought, when she left her home to become a servant in the garden of Audblayin, one of the twelve deities of Canopy. She ran from a life of poverty, only to learn that even in the lap of birth and fertility, rot can fester.

Unar believes she has a destiny, and that despite her mistakes she can earn a place of power and authority in Audblayin’s Garden, and perhaps change things for the better. Unar is one of those rare unlikeable heroes that the reader can’t quite bring herself to root for, but nevertheless follows after curiously, just to see what the young woman will make of herself. She has real internal conflicts and occasionally does stupid things, for all the world just like the teenager she would otherwise be if not for her gift with growing things and ability to manipulate plants to her will. She’s selfish and often infuriatingly mercurial, but she also has a hard-learned sense of justice that will speak strongly to a lot of readers.

Beneath the unique setting of this novel, Daiyer has laced her story with layers of allegory and metaphor, which are its real driving force. What is the nature of godhood and why are the deities of the great forest so complicated? What is the long history that led to some people living in the canopy while others suffer and toil lower down, or even in the swamps at the feet of the great trees?   Slavery is a key point in the novel, and Daiyer’s treatment of it has its thought provoking moments, but even when it seems just a plot device her characters never waiver from being fully personified with agency and motivations of their own.

Readers who enjoy idea-driven speculative fiction will be pulled in by social and cultural world building of this novel. Those looking for a vivid and intriguing new fantasy series will like the unique physical world building. Daiyer has written a series debut that is by turns gripping and thought-provoking, and that bodes well for the next installment.

The Poison Eater, by Shanna Germain

In an isolated city in the middle of a vast desert, Talia waits, scraping together the vestiges of a normal life, friends, loved ones, knowing every day that it could be her last. When the moon comes, Talia must take the poison, and hope she survives.  But survival, sometimes, is the worst thing a person could experience. Especially when no one else does.

Having escaped the mire of the Blackweave, Talia has come to Enthait seeking a new life, or simply to die in another place, one not so full of memories.  What she didn’t expect was to find life, not simply a place to live, and people about whom she cared more than her own life.  It is a familiar story with a new ring to it, thanks to the steady hand of Germain, who imagines a fantastic city full of half-forgotten lore and amazing techanical creations, created by humans and creatures alike who have made Enthait their home.

Germain’s realization of Enthait is vivid, to the point that the reader can taste the dust in the air and murmurs of a living city like bees buzzing around the hive, and her ability to twist a story round history and half-dreamed memories builds the kind of novel that is tantalizingly missing just the right pieces to pull the reader in until the end.  The Poison Eater is written in third person limited, clinging close to Talia’s thoughts and feelings in a way that compliments the bleak and beautiful aspects of Enthait and Talia’s new life.

Readers who enjoy their fantasy and science fiction together need look no further than the mech-enhanced cast of characters in this alt-world fantasy story.  Like the work of Kameron Hurley, this novel is bleak, full of tough-as-nails women willing to do what they must to survive, yet tells a universal story that many fantasy fans will relate to.  Anyone who likes fantasy that hides far more than it tells will be intrigued by the mythology of Enthait and the mysterious and terrible Vordcha from which Talia is running.

Neither Here Nor There, by Cat Rambo

Dip into the many worlds of Cat Rambo in this collection of short stories, many originally published in themed anthologies, all glimpses into fantastic worlds of myth, legend, and memory.  Will you find yourself in the world of a hyper-intelligent mechanical man who runs on the energy of highly valuable phlogiston?  Or in the city of Serendib where anything is possible, trailing along in the wake of the Dark, once the most skilled assassin in all the world?  Or in another place entirely?

Whimsy connects these stories, no matter where they take the reader, even in the darkest haunts and most disturbing recesses of the human mind.  Rambo writes as though storytelling truly were a joy and a gift, reveling in the possibilities of fantasy and folklore.  Many of her stories are connected by the worlds in which they take place, such as the steampunk environment of Elspeth and Artemus, Pinkerton detectives seeking criminals in a world of werewolves, vampires, and other supernatural creatures.  In stories such as these, the everyday turns to horror; in other stories what is accepted is subverted—common points of view are turned inside out and power lies with those not usually given such luxury.

In Neither Here Nor There, Rambo shows skill in writing more mythic fantasy, distanced from the real world by both time and the pervasiveness of the fantastic, but also with more contemporary urban fantasy; such stories as “The Coffeemaker’s Passion,” “Elections at Villa Encantada,” and “So Glad We Had This Time Together” share a fascination with the mundane and prove that any story can become a fantasy story, with the right measure of imagination and skill. Rambo’s writing is reminiscent of such writers as Katherine Addison, Elizabeth Bear, Mary Robinette Kowal, and Catherynne M. Valente.

Readers looking for short bursts of high-concentration fantasy need look no further than Rambo’s newest short story collection.  Those who enjoy a wide variety of fantasy genres are sure to find their next favorite story in Neither Here Nor There.  This collection is a gift that keeps on giving, and would make a great addition to anyone’s fantasy shelf.

A Daughter of No Nation, by A. M. Dellamonica

It’s
tough being a Millenial—figuring out what to do with your life, reassuring your
parents that you’re eventually going to settle down to a ‘real’ job, trying to
date someone, anyone.  Not to
mention finding out your parents adopted you and your birth parents live on
another planet, a planet of 90% ocean, where people spend much of their lives
on ships and court cases are settled by duels.  With real swords.

A Daughter of No Nation is the
continuation of 25-year-old Sophie’s journey across Stormwrack, trying to
navigate the strange customs and cultures of this strangely earth-like world she
was brought from as an infant. 
Sophie doesn’t entirely understand how her younger sister Verena
transports herself and others between the two worlds, but she’s determined to
find out the nature of this water-bound planet, and to help her mother Beatrice
out of prison for bigamy—Sophie’s existence means the marriage between Beatrice
and Sophie’s father Cly was never really annulled. 

A Daughter of No Nation is a cross
between U.S. pop culture television shows like CSI and Nature, with a splash of
Full House and a dash of Pirates of the Caribbean thrown in for
spice.  Dellamonica whisks the
reader across the planet on ships that never seem to hit a patch of calm
seas.  Sophie and her brother Bram
are your typical whiz-kid siblings, each with their own breed of genius and
drive, solving problems and re-inventing sciences like forensics and biology
among people who rely on astrology and text-based magic to accomplish
anything.  A Daughter of No Nation is a non-stop thrill-ride with a splash of
romance thrown in for emphasis.

Readers who enjoy fantasy
in a more contemporary setting will love the way Dellamonica translates the
culture of Stormwrack through the parlance of Sophie’s 21st-century
vocabulary.  A Daughter of No Nation is a lighthearted romp that combines the
mystery of Waterworld with the magic
of Harry Potter and the widely
varying cultures of classic worldbuilding like Lois McMaster Bujold, Kate
Elliott, and Terry Pratchett.