The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter, by Theodora Goss

In this metafictional Sherlock Holmes mystery, all the greatest villains of 19th century horror fiction finally give us what we’ve all been waiting for: amazing daughters who kick ass and do things their own way.  But what is the true mystery?  Is it the real reason Mary’s mother sank into illness verging on madness and died, years after the supposed death of Dr. Jekyll himself, or is it the secrets of the Societe des Alchemists, to whom Dr. Jekyll  may have belonged?  Or is it the story of what happened to Hyde, in the end?

The biggest mystery, of course, is why we didn’t get this story sooner.  It’s a madcap dash through Victorian London, from the slums of Whitechapel–home to Jack the Ripper himself–to the manicured gardens of Regent’s Park, all the way to the docks and beyond, chasing after murders and mysteries, with the reader holding on for dear life to follow the disjointed narrative and the zigzagging story at the same time.  The idea that all the classic science fiction and horror “geniuses” of their day might have left a trail of pissed off and capable women in their wake is all too realistic, and the found-family feeling of the novel holds it together long after the initial mystery is solved.

While some readers might be put off by the narrative style and what could be considered derivative use of existing stories, Goss brilliantly captures the feeling of a Holmes mystery, the immersive style of a Dickens drama, the melodrama of Dorian Gray and his ilk, adding a modern sensibility about character and agency that will make many readers feel right at home.  The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter fits in well with other transformational works like Cat Valente’s In the Night Garden and Kij Johnson’s The Dream -Quest of Velitt Boe, in which women are monstrous, or genius, or both, but most importantly they are present.

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter is a fast-paced read that keeps the story chugging along with significant narrative action sequences connecting stationary chunks of exposition, usually character backstory told by the characters themselves, lending both context and a deeper insight into each woman and the reason for her strong connection to the others.  It’s a satisfying story that at the same time begs a sequel or a series.  The more one learns about these extraordinary women, the more one wants to know.

 

 

 

 

Framed as the newest case for Holmes and Watson, brought to them by Mary Jekyllafter the death of her long-suffering mother, the story is set up as a multi-layered fictional novel being written by Catherine Moreau, long after the case has been solved, but with commentary from Mary and Catherine and all the other women whom they have befriended and are part of the story in their own ways.

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The Queen of Blood, by Sarah Beth Durst

The world of Renthia is a terrifying place.  Beautiful, but terrifying.  Daleina, who lived through an attack by spirits as a child, knows this better than nearly anyone, and has dedicated her life to making sure that what happened to her village never happens to anyone in Renthia again.  Spirits–air, water, ice, wood, fire, and earth–are what make the world live, but they are also the forces of death and destruction, and keeping the balance is the queen’s responsibility.

So what happens when the queen’s strength seems to be slipping?

Perhaps the most enjoyable parts of this novel are the ways in which it doesn’t bow to conventional narrative.  The main character, Daleina, is not the best at everything, does not succeed in every venture and go on to save the day because of it.  She’s a complicated character, to be sure, and it is the ways in which she responds to the actions of others that drives the plot and keeps the reader engaged with her quest to not only succeed at the academy, but to become an heir to the crown of Renthia and serve her people, in her own way.

The narrative is at times merely workmanlike, the consistent point of view of Daleina occasionally overly navel gazing, but more often than not the very imagination at the heart of the story is stunning and part of an overall feeling of simultaneous dread and wonder.  This is a novel that doesn’t skirt the dangerous aspects of its fantasy elements, or couch the narrative in heroic imagery to such a degree that the reader is removed from the immediacy of harm.  The fact that Daleina is part of a close-knit group, rather than the competent loner women protagonists often end up being, means that violence or tragedy cut doubly–the terror of an attack and the loss of a friend.

Ultimately, imagination and strong group dynamics carry the narrative, and make it an engrossing read.  It has aspects of found family and the draw of having a magical academy as the main setting for Daleina’s story, with fun additions of the loner-mentor and a more casual approach to romantic relationships than is often seen in stories utilizing the “pre-modern” society standard.  The novel does suffer a little from the “assumed white” manner of describing characters, where the skin color of a new character is given more attention if it is not white (though Durst includes not just the white-to-brown spectrum of Earth, but shades of green as well).

 

The Immortal Architects, by Paige Orwin

Let’s get the basics out of the way first, shall we?  The Immortal Architects is the second in a series by Paige Orwin, the first of which was called The Interminables, and is an alt-world fantasy about wizards who destroy the world in order to defeat an evil immortal from the Middle East who is trying to destroy the world.  The main characters are Edmund Templeton and Istvan Czernin who,with help from a few others attempt to keep Shokat Anoushak al-Khalid, ancient Scythian warrior and magician, from rising and once again trying to destroy the world and all in her path.

It’s a workmanlike bit of plot and characterization, all the bits and bobs in the right places to give the reader a good sense of who the characters are and what they want, and with few enough plot holes that everyone arrives in the right order in order to make the final climax happen.  Points for interesting concepts including Edmund’s attempt to attain immortality by stealing time from others and Istvan’s existence as a ghost who literally embodies World War I, and the unlikeliness of the two coming together as allies.

A few years ago I might have glowed about this novel, because it is pretty inventive and imaginative, and has just enough of the unexplained to be interesting without becoming bogged down in explanations, but these days, I can’t help but read it a little differently.

This is a novel about white guilt.

That might seem like an odd thing to say in a fantasy novel.  Let me explain.

This is a novel about a white man born at the beginning of the 20th century, and his best friend, another white man born at the end of the 19th century, and their struggles to come to terms with a world that has changed in ways they can’t keep up with, which is where much of the pathos of the novel comes from: these two, both immortal in their own way, are the wrecking ball and not the flying superhero come to save the day.  One is afraid to die, the other literally can’t because he’s a revenant, and they are the whom this story is about.

The novel contains what, on the surface, is a diverse cast of characters.  As Edmund himself states in one of his guilt-saturated internal tirades, the head of the Twelfth Hour–the wizard cabal that ostensibly runs what’s left of the Eastern seaboard of the U.S.–is a brown woman.  One of the other supporting characters is Grace Wu, a woman engineer with the ability to channel energy.  And, perhaps the most important, then there is Kyra, a young black woman able to create storms, who may be the secret to stopping Shokat Anoushak from coming back to ravage the world once again.

Shokat Anoushak is an ancient immortal, one who only wants to destroy, and also happens to come from the Middle East.  Kyra is a black woman from Rochester, NY, who is Shattered–someone damaged by the magical forces Shokat Anoushak unleashed and now, in the aftermath of the wizard war, dangerous to those around her because of the powers she wields–and also trans.  Barrio Libertad are the community at odds with the Twelfth Hour–coded white–who have a lot of power and are run by, you guessed it, a latino named Diego Espinoza.

All the characters mentioned are antagonistic to Edmund and Istvan in some way, and all of them are othered racially and ethnically.  It’s a white world, the story keeps screaming at the reader, and everyone else keeps taunting our two white male protagonists with their non-whiteness.

Edmund and Istvan are our point of view characters.  Edmund experiences a lot of feelings about things he does, things that happen, things he sees, things other people do.  He locks up Kyra with magical chains, all the while telling himself–in his head, in his feels–that he isn’t a racist and that everyone who will say he is is just being mean and not understanding his intentions.  At a point where Barrio Libertad obtain custody of Kyra, a random black man–never seen before or again after–is trotted out as a spokesperson and leader of Barrio Libertad, solely in order to point out to Edmund–and to the reader–that he is white and she is black, and to reference the history of racial inequality in the United States, which makes Edmund feel bad again.

Edmund repeatedly makes reference to his being “not a racist,” even when not confronted.  Remember, his is the reader’s point of view.   The author of this story made these narrative decisions, and decided to create the unnecessary and, frankly, unrealistic scene of a post-magical-war society living in the corpse of a previously animated city-sized monster who feels it necessary to call out Edmund for the racism of locking up a kid, instead of the hundred other dumb things he did in relation to that event.  That was black tokenism, and did nothing to move the narrative, other than to give Edmund something else to feel guilty about, which the reader then had to experience and is, presumably, expected to sympathize over.

Now let’s move to the other thorny subject.  Kyra is not just a teenaged girl, she’s a trans girl, for all intents and purposes.  When everyone meets her, in the middle of a killer storm she’s created, they all assume she’s a boy.  Both Edmund and Istvan misgender her repeatedly, and it takes a huge crisis in which Edmund and Istvan somehow get their priorities straight and decide that however misguided she is, it’s more convenient to just give her what she wants and use the pronouns she’s chosen.  From the first time Kyra asserts that she is a girl, the reader must slog through another 25% of the novel before Edmund and Istvan finally give in and reliably use her pronouns.  Istvan even goes on a tear, at Kyra, about how unrealistic it is of her to just expect people to get her and not treat her according to the natural order he’s used to.  He–a revenant of the great war capable of literally tearing people apart–screams at her about how she’ll get hurt if she insists on such irrational behavior.

It’s disturbing.  It’s even more disturbing that Edmund and Istvan are the only ones who call each other out for their behavior–unreliable as that is and usually only in relation to ways that they inconvenience each other–and no other part of the narrative really interrogates how they behave and shines a light on how problematic it is.  The narrative provides no other reliable mirror for their whiteness.

Kyra has memories of a happy time–all Shattered are given such memories in order to make them docile and useful to Shokat Anoushak–and Istvan’s referencing that time, in which she was free and happy to make decisions like what her pronouns were, also puts a date to when it ocurred–specifically the beginning of the 21st century, from about 2008 to when the war ended in 2020.  2012 was when the real destruction began, but Kyra has memories of a whole life, and in 2020 is about 15.  Read as a whole, the novel is implying that whatever happy reality Kyra remembers–our actual reality from 2008 on, which also coincides with things like Barack Obama being elected president and eventually passing the ACA–is not only not real, but not realistic, and that anyone who thinks they have a right to expect that kind of life or happiness deserves to get hurt.

I get it: the novel isn’t a manifesto.  And yet, writers bring all kinds of things to the table without realizing it.  Edmund’s arc isn’t really an arc at all.  It’s a straight line from the uncomfortable reality of the way he steals time from others to stay alive, to the way he attempts to lock away his mistakes so he won’t have to be confronted by them, to accepting banishment at the end of the story in order to escape the blame from another disaster he’s caused.

On the other side of the coin, Istvan can’t free himself of his bigotry, which is especially problematized by the fact that not only is he a gay man who was forced to live a lie at the turn of the 20th century, but that he repeatedly displays a hatred, a revulsion for that part of himself, and worries that Edmund will not want to be around him if he ever finds out Istvan loves him.  Sexuality and gender are difficult issues in this novel, to say the least.  For the first half of the story Kyra’s being trans is used as evidence that she is mentally  unstable, then she is punished for the rest of the story by being outcast, not fully trusted, and eventually physically attacked for not conforming to everyone else’s expectations of her.  The reader only ever gets glimpses into her real psyche through the lens of Edmund and Istvan’s gazes.

And through it all the reader is exposed to Edmund’s guilt, and his petty anger at being held accountable for the situation he’d created.  Even after 98% of the story, Edmund throws a tantrum over everything being taken away from him–after he tried to sell everyone out to Shokat Anoushak in exchange for the real secret to immortality–and includes being called racist in the list of wrongs perpetrated against him.  In a world where white accountability is sorely lacking, when being called racist is viewed as being worse than actually being racist, this story of a white man’s guilt is sadly accurate, and yet the way that it is presented is, again, not given the broader context against which to understand Edmund’s and Istvan’s actions as problematic.

For comparison, Mishell Baker’s novel Borderline, about a young woman with borderline personal disorder, has a white woman as its protagonist, and is told by her.  She repeatedly commits racist or ableist actions, sometimes in word, sometimes in deed, sometimes only in her head, and when in a good frame of mind to recognize it, feels guilty.  The difference is the ways in which Baker constructs the scenes.  Either the young woman is called out for behaviors that display overt racism or are racist microaggressions, or she makes a distinction in her own narration between the racism of her actions and the guilt she feels at perpetrating racist actions.  White people can and should feel guilty for being racist, but the story is not the guilty feelings, it’s the racism.  In The Immortal Architects, the reader is subject only to Edmunds experience of his guilt, not his realization of how he may be perpetrating racism and how his actions can be harmful to those around him.

That’s why this novel is a white guilt story and not a redemption narrative, or hero’s journey.  It’s a manifesto for the status quo that should be recommended with caution.

The Fifth Season, by N.K. Jemisin

What will you do, when the inevitable catastrophe hits?  Will you cower, will you go out to help people, will you take advantage?  The empire has procedure in place for all of these things, and more.  They are very prepared, you’ll find, for any eventuality.  Because this has happened before, and it will happen again.  The earth will move, the ground shatter, the volcanoes erupt, people will die.  But some will live.

The Fifth Season takes on a lot of heavy topics and, by and large, handles them well.  The enslavement of one group of people based on a particular trait they all share is the main focus of this novel, but the hidden history of a world controlled by a powerful bureaucracy is another.  The empire in which Syenite has grown up is one in which everyone knows their place.  It’s written in their names, which consist of designators for the community they live in and the kind of service they render to that community.  Unless they’re an orogene, in which case their black uniform gives all the information others need about them.  And then their are the guardians, highly respected, but possibly much more dangerous than an orogene could be.

Guardians are the slavemasters, the groomers, those given power to take innocent children and turn them into tools for the supposed good of the state.  Essun believes she has escaped all this, or would like to believe it.  But she has grown up in this empire and perhaps knew all along that it could not last.  Nothing lasts, in the Stillness.

That is, of course, a false statement, and yet it isn’t.  The empire is perpetual, but in the way that all empires are: through convincing its subjects that it is so.  Syenite thought she had come to terms with the Empire, until she was brought together with Alabaster for a very special mission, and learns that all is not as she has always believed.

And amidst it all is the end of the world.  Jemisin has achieved new depths to her narrative style with The Fifth Season, combining not only multiple viewpoints and an ability to tell a compelling story out of order, but also telling the story of the world itself in addition to that of the people in it.  The Fifth Season is a visceral reminder that we are only the sum of the stories we tell, and that that can change in an instant.  So, what would you do, at the end of the world?

Etiquette & Espionage, by Gail Carriger

Being the first of the Finishing School series, Etiquette & Espionage is an irreverent take on the concept of the finishing school of the 19th century at which, it was believed, a young woman could learn everything she needed to know about getting a husband and then being a proper lady and wife.  And then Carriger adds werewolves, vampires, steampunk, and assassination.

Told from the point of view of Sophronia Angelina Teminick, the tale begins with an unfortunate climb up a dumbwaiter, a characteristic antic of the young protagonist, who is a trial to her parents, a menace to the mechanics who serve in the household, and an annoyance to her siblings.  In a last-ditch effort to make her acceptable in society, Sophoronia’s mother begs Madame Geraldine to accept her into Madame Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality and, miraculously, Madame Geraldine accepts.  And it’s all downhill–or rather, up in the air–from there.

Other than the characters being younger than I expected–most about 14–I wouldn’t have classified this novel as anything other than fantasy–fantasy of manners, steampunk, etc–but after finishing it I found out that it was classified as YA.  Carriger’s worldbuilding, which relies on aspects of the ridiculous to establish a world both vastly different than our own, and yet hardly different at all, interrogates particular tropes in fiction as well as the ways in which patriarchal society affected women in the Victorian period and beyond, in a way that is anything other than immature.  I was particularly struck by the ways in which Carriger used fashionable dress itself as a weapon, and how feminine attire has devolved, even as it has become more superficially ‘useful’ to making women generally defenseless, not-dangerous, because there is nowhere to hide anything that might be used as a weapon.

On the whole I found Etiquette & Espionage to be a fine example of what Renay, over at Ladybusiness, describes as the main point of steampunk, which is to break up the cultural norms that rule society and allow for subversion of the assumptions upon which the real-world model is built.  It makes excellent use of the fantasy of manners subgenre, showing the reverse side of what politeness and proper behavior is all about.

The only complaint I might make is the novel’s treatment of gender from within.  It is all well and good to depict a society in which appearance is everything, but there were times when Sophronia as narrator expressed harmful stereotypes about gender presentation and body size, without those descriptions later being fully exposed as such.  Sophronia is later seen getting to know those people who had earlier described as deviating from the desired norm, but those characters do not always get full agency, or Sophronia is not always forced to reckon with how her assumptions about them might have been harmful.  Had Sophronia been shown to be a more fallible, less reliable narrator, her descriptions of people might be more easily subverted in a way that aligns with the otherwise feminist nature of the novel.

 

Starfang: Rise of the Clan, by Joyce Chng

As space opera goes, Starfang: Rise of the Clan felt like a prologue to something much bigger.  It had all the elements of a compelling space adventure: a mystery, aliens, warring families, future technology, just waiting to be fleshed out into a winding tale of intrigue and interesting characters.  It still might turn out that way, with future installments of the series that Chng has yet to write, but it was wrapped up too quickly to really sink one’s teeth into.

Francesca Ming Yue is captain of the Starfang, one of the warships her clan uses to enforce its supremacy in their area of space and to carry out its various wars against other clans.  Francesca is a werewolf, one of homo sapiens lupus, a species whose origins is shrouded in mystery, and yet not shy about taking what it wants in a universe that has left Earth behind, and yet not forgotten it.  Starfang: Rise of the Clan is also a refreshing twist on the typical werewolf plot one sees in the Anglo publishing world, in that not only is it a tale of werewolves in space, but the origins of these clans are Asian, their customs and foods drawing from Chinese and Southeast Asian culture.

Francesca’s characterization, as the narrator and center of the story, hints at a complex backstory and complicated motivations behind her dutiful assumption of duty when ordered to a sector of space known for black market drugs and shady dealings, but the reader sees so little of her and what people think about her, aside from what she tells, that it’s difficult to get a read on what really makes her tick.  As tantalizing as her story might be for readers of the urban fantasy genre who may come in more invested than the average fantasy reader, without a deeper look into her character, it’s difficult to suspend disbelief and buy into the plot.

So, in the end, Starfang: Rise of the Clan is packed with fascinating tidbits and hints at more to come, but a little flat in its current iteration.

Hammers On Bone, by Cassandra Khaw

A hardboiled detective.  A resourceful boy in dire straits.  A killer spreading like sickness through the poor side of London.  Forget good prevailing over evil.  Sometimes, the best you can hope for is the lesser of two monsters.

John Persons should know better than to take things at face value, and it’s not just because he’s a private investigator.  But when the snot nosed kid shows up at his office demanding–not requesting–help to protect his younger brother, Persons finds he can’t say no, and just as quickly finds himself caught up in a plot much larger than one body-snatching monster on the lose in the slums.

Like all good short fiction, this novella makes double use of language in a squishy kaleidoscope of color, motion, smells, sounds, and gut feelings.  It draws a beautiful metaphor for the idea of justice and protection of innocents, asking, through the existence of a man-shaped monster determined to solve crimes and vanquish demons, what we really give up when we relegate protecting the populace to a detached–and often dangerous–policing force, when community outsources its role to an arm of capitalism instead of taking responsibility for its own members.

It’s also just a really well-developed twisty horror noir on its own.

Khaw narrates through the voice of Persons himself, whose own personality is reflected and refracted through the mind of the man he’s inhabiting.  Creating a noir inflection without resorting solely to tropes and repetition is no small feat, and Khaw’s prose is delightfully anchored in the horrors Persons has seen and perpetrated in his long life.  This is the kind of writing one could spend a lifetime mastering, and is a pleasure to get one’s tentacles on.