An Unkindness of Magicians, by Kat Howard

Recently, I listened to the podcast version of Kat Howard’s story “The Green Knight’s Wife,” based on the early English tale Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  Reading An Unkindness of Magicians made put me in mind of that story.  I’m not sure what it means for a novel to be self-referential, but I think, through her short fiction, Howard has matured as a writer in a significant way since her debut novel Roses and Rot.

An Unkindness of Magicians  is the story of greed, betrayal, and the price of the impossible.  Played out through a magic-controlled contest called The Turning, it encompasses the events before and during a series of duels between magical Houses, the winner of which contest will reign as head of the Unseen World of magic based in contemporary New York City.  The Houses–Merlin, Dee, Prospero–evoke all those fantasy stories on which we as readers have grown up, but magic, in this world, is not the whimsical force of good or mischief one finds in Harry Potter, or even the esoteric alchemy of Dee and Flamel and Shakespeare’s most famous sorcerer.  Magic, in this world, cuts like a knife, and only those most willing to cut will survive.

Miranda Prospero has only recently begun putting her house in order since the death of her husband at the last turning; Laurent Beauchamps hopes to do well enough in the Turning to establish his own house; Ian Merlin switches sides for reasons only he knows.  Into the fray steps a woman of unknown power, an unknown herself to the Unseen World, and yet she is obviously very familiar with it.  Petty grievances will be exorcised, powerful magics unleashed, and beneath it all, trouble brews.  Magicians may hide themselves from the non-magical, but someone is watching, someone knows too much.  The question is, who will crack first.

Though  the novel takes place over a relatively short span of time, the narrative jumps around a lot, through multiple points of view, stopping only for important events.  There is no filler in this novel, which makes the plot feel even more razor sharp, colder, and unfeeling.  That’s not to say there aren’t plenty of feeling, only that they are left to the reader to find, rather than strung along metaphors of sentiment.  Howard’s prose is sparse but, like her short fiction, precise; it evokes exactly the image it means to and is, in that way, satisfying to read.  One knows, while reading this novel, that they are in the presence of an artist.

The denouement, though, leaves this reader somewhat bewildered.  This is a novel of pain, of what selfishness and self-regard reap, and yet at the end of it all one wonders if there should not, in the end, be at least some healing.  That the fate of the Unseen World is left in the hands of one who has suffered most at its beck is fitting, and yet does that person not deserve some amount of happiness?  I suppose it is in the hands of each reader to decide.

Crosstalk, by Connie Willis

if you could get simple outpatient surgery and be able to know just how
committed your partner was, to feel their feelings and experience the intensity
of their devotion to you?  And what
if every person in your life, besides your partner, had a stake in your choice,
and felt no compunction about telling you just what you ought to be doing? 

Flanigan just wants to do her job and enjoy her relationship with Trent Worth,
whose focus on advancing at Commspan is rivaled only by his commitment to send
Briddey flowers for every romantic occasion, including getting an EED—an
implant that is supposed to allow bonded couples the ability to feel each
other’s emotions.  But everyone at
work, and in her incredibly Irish family, has an opinion on whether she ought
to get it, and the grapevine at Commspan seems to know what she’s doing before
she even thinks about it.  Almost
like they can read her mind.

brand of cozy speculative fiction is in top form in Crosstalk.  The
constant bombardment of communication, relationships, and work ramps up the
frantic pace of the novel right from the beginning, creating suspense and
obfuscating the secondary plot to allow a slow build-up that the reader can
savor.  Willis’ talent for
description and scene building shine in Crosstalk,
bringing Briddey, her friends, and family to life in a way that the reader
won’t want to leave.

who enjoy speculative fiction not tethered to hard science fiction or dystopia
settings will enjoy the questions Willis asks in Crosstalk while staying anchored in the human story of the novel.  Chance and chaos are prominent
motivators in this novel and it will appeal to those looking for a story that
feels real.  Anyone who has enjoyed
Willis’ work in the past should definitely check out this novel, as well as
those looking to dip their toes in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

crosses all borders, but so does beauty. 
Americanah spans the Atlantic
Ocean, crossing Nigeria, to the United Kingdom, to the United States, and back,
and across the miles, the bond between Ifemelu and Obinze, somehow,
remains.  In a novel that is
remarked upon for its lethal skewering of race in the United States and the way
American foreign policy affects nations the world over, a love story is created
that becomes a metaphor for so much more. 

Obinze and Ifemelu leave their native Nigeria in search of something else—they
don’t really even know what, other than stories—in the west.  And both, eventually, return to Nigeria
and find a way to make a life for themselves there.  Along the way, the reader is introduced to a palette of
friends, relatives, and barest acquaintances who color every experience that
the pair have.  Adichie revels in
the good and the bad, every scene a delight of sight and sound, grounding the
novel as something lived-in and worn with all the experience of real life.

style of the novel is matter-of-fact, confident in its lines, accepting no
nonsense.  Adichie’s narrative
carries the reader along, as if in a trance, floating in that corner of
Ifemelu’s brain as if part of her. 
Adichie layers narrative through the use of Ifemelu’s blog, allowing her
characters to say what needs to be said, have experiences that go beyond the
reach of a story and out into the real world.  It’s a subtle and affecting novel, one that every reader in
the U.S. should pick up.

attuned to deeply personal narrative journeys will be spellbound by Ifemelu’s
journey and the experience of her inner consciousness.  Those looking for something deeper than
your average Sparks or Picoult will enjoy the depths Adichie is able to reach
with such a simple-seeming plot. 
Anyone interested in peeking outside the traditional realm of white
publishing should definitely get hold of this one.

Lagoon, by Nnedi Okorafor

question is simple: What would happen, what stories would come out of it, if an
alien presence landed in Lagos, Nigeria? 
The answer is anything but simple. 
Life, it turns out, doesn’t stop when something unbelievable
happens.  You may become the center
of an unbelievable story, but you are still part of something larger, and
everything becomes much more complicated before it ever dreams of being simple
again.  So Adaora, Agu, and Anthony
discover when they are contacted by a being who calls herself Ayodele, who can
change her shape, and wants to be the ambassador between her people and the
people of Nigeria.

Lagoon reads almost more like a series
of stories than as a novel, full as it is of short chapters and small moments
between secondary characters. 
Though the main story follows Adaora and her companions, readers see how
even when they become the heroes of this story they are still pulled in many
directions by forces and connections they have built up over their entire
lives.  In this way, Okorafor
imbues Lagos with both an agelessness and an immediacy that allow myths to live
and old gods to rule.  Who is
pulling the strings, the reader wonders.  The aliens? Adaora, somehow taking the reins of her life and
the lives of those around her? 
Some other presence that has been in Nigeria all along? 

began Lagoon in response to the film District 9, and in it one can see the
response also to a culture in love with superheroes who become larger than life
and, eventually, above the lives of those they are meant to protect,
approaching even godhood.  The
underlying questions of who is really controlling this story interrogate
superhero culture—interrogate many aspects of modern technological culture and
media including traditional militarized narratives of alien visitation—until,
again, all we are left with are people who might possess something special that
pushes them into this story, but who still have a connection to where they came
from and essentially never forget who they are amidst the chaos of the alien’s

writing in Lagoon is sparse and very
close to the characters she’s writing—getting in their heads in a way that,
again, hints to the reader that this is not a novel, as advertised, but someone
else’s story entirely—and motivation is key in this novel in a way that really
highlights how motivation is sublimated in stories like District 9 or Independence
in favor of valorizing the heroes of their respective stories.  Okorafor’s style in this novel also
really localizes the story in a way that is intentionally alienating to readers
not connected to Nigeria or its history, a method that both has a significant
pay-off at the end, and gives the novel its extended metaphor of a person or
group of people finding their true home, coming to terms with their past, or
otherwise righting some existing wrong.

interested in the intersection of science fiction and environmental change will
enjoy the ways Lagoon looks at
humanity’s effect on the environment and how it can be interpreted by
outsiders.  Fans of contemporary
science fiction will enjoy the immediacy of Okorafor’s story, as will those
looking for a story that decenters traditional United States-centric science
fiction narratives.  Readers of
“new weird” science fiction and fantasy will enjoy the ways that Okorafor
blends myth, science, and horror elements to create a story that challenges
readers on many levels.

The Night Parade, by Kathryn Tanquary

thirteen-year-old Saki Tamamoto arrives at her grandmother’s mountain village,
far from the hustle of Tokyo, for the Obon festival welcoming spirits of those
who have passed on back for three days of celebrating, all she can think about
is getting back home to her friends and cell reception.  All her parents have planned for her is
cleaning and attending boring community events with people she doesn’t know, so
when Saki has the opportunity to have a little fun in the graveyard after dark
with some local kids, she jumps on it.

does Saki know that the spirits of the night world are all-too-real, and what
she does in the real world will have grave consequences after dark.  She’s pulled into a quest that will
test her confidence and resolve, and teach her important lessons about family
and friendship.  Though some of the
character interactions may seem a bit stiff and scripted at first, Tanquary
soon settles into her narrative and the story takes on a life of its own.

in-the-moment writing style put young readers right in the middle of the
action, allowing readers to both identify with Saki, and with the spirits she
encounters, and go on Saki’s spiritual journey with her.  Combining an easy-to-follow plot with
traditional Japanese elements allows readers not familiar with some of the
concepts to keep up and even learn something new.  This is a story that will ring true with readers of many
different backgrounds, with themes ranging from the importance of family, true
friends, and remembering the past.

who like to read modern takes on fairy tales and folk tales will enjoy the way
that Tanquary adapts traditional Japanese traditions in a modern setting.  This is a good adventure story with a
strong positive message that will appeal to many young readers looking for a
new quest.  The publisher’s website
provides teacher and librarian resources for building on the lessons and facts
learned within the story.

Fool’s Assassin, by Robin Hobb

turning the page to the next chapter in a book, Fool’s Assassin gives readers the story of the next chapter in the
life of Fitzchivalry Farseer.  Dressed
in his finery and acting the lord of an estate, Fitz—or should we say Holder
Tom Badgerlock—is a fish out of water, practically gasping and flapping his way
through this new novel in Hobb’s Farseer world.  Having come back from the dead he’s finally been allowed to
settle down with his beloved Molly and try to live out his days in peace.  But the world soon catches up with him,
plunging him—and readers—into yet another epic series of intrigue and magic.

primarily from Fitz’s point of view, the novel delves into the history and lore
of the Six Duchies, while the main plot of the novel is character-driven—Fitz
settling into a life, dealing with aging, fulfilling his role as master of the
estate he maintains for his daughter, Nettle, who is serving at court.  Though the novel reprises many of the
characters from Hobb’s previous novels set in this world, new readers won’t be
put off by starting with Fool’s Assassin,
as there is plenty of self-contained story and suspense even for those who
don’t know entire history already.

choice of first-person narrative was a deft one, as much of the tension in the
novel is created by Fitz’s ability—or lack thereof—to run the estate and manage
his day-to-day relationships, contrasted with the obvious doubts of nearly
everyone around him about his abilities. 
The little things creep in around the edges of the story, giving the
reader clues to what will happen, and it is this juxtaposition between what the
reader can see and what Fitz can’t because he is so overwhelmed by his new life
and duties that creates the dramatic pull of the story.  Reconciliation is a major theme to this
novel, while family is what holds it together.  Hobb has set up great suspense and expectation for the next
installment in this new series.

already in love with Hobb’s series from this world have probably already read
this by now, but if they haven’t can count on loving it.  Hobb’s ability to create tension and
great characters is alive and well and will pull in readers of epic
fantasy.  Readers looking for a
novel with teeth that exists within a thriving world will love Hobb’s writing
and world building.

The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

able to trace one’s family history is a pastime that thousands of people
participate in, but for Simon it may be the one thing keeping his sister and
himself alive.  Simon is a
librarian in a small town on Long Island, forever in danger of losing his job
to budget cuts and his house to the implacable ocean upon whose edge it hangs.  He has no memories of his mother beyond
the morning when he was seven years old and she walked into the ocean and
drowned, but the day a mysterious old book is delivered he realizes he must
find out everything he can about her.

makes use of a two-fold narrative to tell the story of Simon, in the present,
and the events of the nearly 250 years leading up to his life through his
ancestor’s lives among a traveling show, predecessor to the modern circus,
which made its way through the northeast and mid-Atlantic United States.  It’s a well researched and captivating
tale, which both explains the creation of the mysterious book and its
relationship to Simon, though omniscience of the second-person narrator in the
historic chapters of the book is somewhat hard to explain, given that Simon
only knows what he read in the book and the names and dates he could find via
internet research.

the relationships Swyler builds—between Simon and his sister Enola, between
Enola and her boyfriend Doyle, the twisty connections between Simon’s family
the family next door—are compelling and make the novel worth reading.  Swyler imbues her characters with
humanity and the flawed grace that makes you want to care. 

those who enjoy stories that explore tarot and the supernatural, this novel is
highly recommended.  Anyone
interested in explorations of family history and the history of a new nation
will enjoy how Swyler has wrapped a novel around a family history.  And of course the lover of rare books
and libraries will appreciate the juxtaposition of the historical and modern in
The Book of Speculation.

The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood

there’s anything Margaret Atwood has shown with her MaddAddam series, it is
that nothing is off-limits to her satire. 
Now, with The Heart Goes Last,
she explores the limits—and opportunities—of subtext.  Where MaddAddam took capitalism to its logical limit and
beyond, The Heart Goes Last takes a
step back and imagines a world that looks a lot—too much—like today, with a
cast of characters who are not loner geniuses or particularly special at all,
but fallible, imperfect people.

of writing a story asking, “What would you do?”… if you lost your house, your
job, your community, she gives us a novel in which Stan and Charmaine do the only things they could logically
be expected to, in those situations, leading to their inevitable participation
in the Positron/Consilience project. 
Their lives are predictably mundane, even unto the familiar straying
husband.  And, predictably, this is
where the story starts going off the rails.  But not for the reasons you might expect.

novel is much more meditative than at first meets the eye.  While a character’s choices might be
predictable and not really choices at all, every character has a complicated
and often dark back story that has led up to these choices, that informs the
ways they go about life every day. 
The microcosm of Stan and Charmaine’s relationship and life as a married
couple plays out in the ways that the world around them bends and stretches,
reaching depths of despair and ugliness that at once seem outrageous and yet
perfectly natural and predictable. 
Living half your life in prison for the good of society?  Reasonable.  Living in a retro 1950’s gated community while at the same
time helping to build lifelike robots for commercial consumption?  Explainable. 

of Atwood will perhaps find a little more room for thought in this offbeat
novel than in her previous work. 
Readers of near-future dystopian fiction will enjoy contemplating just
how accurate Atwood’s vision is. 
Those who crave character-driven stories will enjoy the ways that Atwood
opens up her characters to the careful reader.  And those not afraid of a good helping of the
ridiculous—because this is Margaret Atwood, after all—should definitely pick up
this novel.

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

is the sum of a life?  In a
companion piece to Atkinson’s earlier Life
After Life,
A God in Ruins asks
the question, how do you take all the disparate parts of a life, the ones
everyone knows about, the ones nobody knows about, the ones people have wrong,
and add them up to some final measure of quality, of richness; how do you
declare a life well-lived?  In her
previous novel, in which Ursula Todd lived life over and over through the
incalculable permutations any life can take given different decisions we might
all make, trying to get it right, Atkinson showed herself to be an astute
observer of the small details that make a story worth reading, and she doesn’t
disappoint in A God in Ruins.

novel is, on the surface, about Teddy, Ursula’s little brother, however it
spiderwebs out to tell the stories of Teddy’s daughter, Viola, her two children
Sunny and Berty, as well as Nancy Shorecross, who Teddy eventually marries.
Teddy, like everyone, does not live his life in a vacuum.  He is shaped by and shapes the lives of
his family and friends.  Teddy’s is
also the story of a nation’s, enduring the nightmare of World War II.  Ursula’s story, in Life After Life, told it from the point of view of London during
the Blitz.  Teddy’s is the story of
the bombers and pilots tasked with trying to win the war by ruining Germany’s
infrastructure and morale.  Anyone interested
in World War II narratives will find this an extremely compelling narrative;
non-WWII aficionados, be prepared become one.

style is not that of the cliffhanger or great quest to be achieved, but rather
the slow winding out of a skein of wool as the story is knitted together ever
so meticulously, not revealing the full meaning until the very last.  Her narrator is like an old friend, who
has told this story countless times and is reciting it, not to tell some great
truth, but that it might not be forgotten. 

of contemporary fiction will enjoy the breadth of this narrative, which spans
from the opening salvos of World War I, through the first decade of the new
millennium.  The characters in this
novel tell the story of a rapidly changing world, and those attracted to
character-driven narrative will find much to love in it.  Readers who enjoy non-linear
narratives, especially including digressive narrative style, will enjoy the
puzzle-piece aspect of the novel. 
And of course, those interested in English fiction, and World War II,
will be captivated by the research and stark reality Atkinson presents.  This is far from a romanticized version
of war.

In Midnight’s Silence, by T. Frohock

awful has happened.  Diago Alvarez
had thought all he had to worry about were the amorous advances of his sullen
piano pupil’s mother, but something has come back from his past, not just to
haunt him but to destroy him.  In a
fast-paced start to her three-part series Los Nefilim, Frohock takes her readers
to the mouth of hell and back in In
Midnight’s Silence.

is no stranger to the strange, and In
Midnight’s Silence
is delightfully eerie while also being poignant and
soulful.  It’s no wonder, really,
as her characters are the children of angels and masters of music and
song.  This is Diago’s story,
hinted at in her short Hisses and Wings,
brought to life in vivid color and motion.  The characters practically step off the page, and Frohock’s
narrative style will have readers gasping and delighting right along with them
at every turn. 

world of Los Nefilim is ours… with a twist.  Throughout history, humanity has thought it was in control
of events, while in fact everything has been carefully shaped by the angels and
daimons who have been alive, reborn again and again, since time
immemorial.  Encompassing many
aspects of ancient religion and culture, In
Midnight’s Silence
hints that perhaps the first rebellion of the angels is
not over—that perhaps our human conceptions of gods and angels is but a
fragment of the whole picture. 

interested in Spanish history particularly the early 20th century,
will appreciate the authenticity of the narrative, while those who enjoy an
alternate take on ideas of Judeo-Christian divinity and history will likewise
like the hints of a deeper past that crop up throughout the novella.  Concepts of family, of hidden pasts,
and the notion of redemption drive this story; while the action is
well-narrated, it is the connections between characters that will pull the
reader in and keep them there.