The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden

Every fairy tale has a grain of truth in it.  In Vaselisa Petrovna’s case, everything true about the world has a hint of the magical about it.  Whether it is as she sits at the knee of her nurse Dunya as a small child, listening to tales of Father Frost and the foolish people who try to get the better of him, or as a teenager when she unwittingly meets the spirits of the great forest and learns to speak to them.  Though the world is a dangerous place, Vaselisa finds, it is a manageable danger.  Until something changes.

While there are many very self-conscious Cinderella reinterpretations, The Bear and the Nightingale‘s reliance–not on the Germanic lore many readers are familiar with–on Russian and Slavic tradition, its total immersion in a history, a place, a culture so entwined with the land that gave it rise, makes this more than just one tale, and very much an allegory for an entire world, which is how the folk tradition can really shine.

The competing forces of invasion from the east and south lend urgency to a tale that otherwise could have been much more leisurely, and thus have a lot less at stake.  The Khan’s horde is an everpresent threat for Peotr, who is considered a rich boyar,  but at the same time the push of Christianity and its influence on the southern city of Moscow, still little more than a jumped up trading post but striving for imperial greatness, draws a narrow line for him and his people to walk.  Add in the demands of nature, the shifting threats of seasons and snows, and it would take very little to tip this community over the edge.

In the sub-arctic climates of eastern Russia, it is little surprise that Frost would be personified, but it is Arden’s use of the small spirits–those who inhabit the house and stable, the spirits of wood and water–that really bring a feeling of place to the story, and establish the stakes.  It is the risk not to a great many people if the horde are not satisfied with the year’s tribute, but the risk to Vaselisa, her brothers, her nurse, her father, and those who have lived in the village for generations if the tenuous balance between human and nature spirit is not kept.  But in a time of uncertainty, alliances and beliefs begin to shift, and what used to be lore comes to be seen as harmful superstition.

Vaselisa’s strength will be tested, but also her ability to reconcile her desires and her duty, and her ability to work with her people, instead of isolating herself.  For lovers of folklore inspired fantasy with well-drawn characters, The Bear and the Nightingale is  sure bet.

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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.

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Once
again, Nalo Hopkinson breathes fresh life into a genre that too often centers
the stories of the young, the idealistic, the mainstream.  The
New Moon’s Arms
tells the story of the old, the ancient, those pushed to
the edges and forgotten by time.  After
a life spent running from her own past identity, then spending two years
nursing her father through his fatal battle with cancer, Calamity (AKA
Chastity) Lambkin hopes to be able to move on with her life.  An anonymous fling with a chance-met
funeral guest seems to be a good first step on that path.

But
before she realizes Calamity is at the edge of another significant life change:
menopause.  After a life lived
doing as she desires, chasing every pleasure, Calamity isn’t sure how to move
forward or where the path even is anymore.  One thing she is finding out though: what was once lost will
return, what is hidden will come to light, and getting old is no reason to stay
stuck in the same old ruts.

The New Moon’s Arms is based
in the West Indies on a fictional island that is part of a fictional island
nation.  Like all good fantasy
stories, it begs the reader to believe a little bit in magic, drawing on the
folklore and history of West Indian culture.  Like all of her stories, Hopkinson forces the reader to
confront the darker aspects of the world and human nature as Calamity is forced to remember the events surrounding her own mother’s disappearance, and come to
terms with the decisions that led her to her present in the novel.  Rather than being a one-dimensional
hero’s journey, however, The New Moon’s
Arms
draws together the lives and stories of people from Calamity’s family
and past life, lifting them up like a hurricane uproots entire islands,
throwing them together in a way that forces change and forces people to deal
with the aftermath.

This
novel is written on multiple levels, allowing readers to engage at a place that
is meaningful for them.  Anyone interested
in non-European folklore will enjoy the way Hopkinson blends local island lore
with a colonial history that spans oceans and has major ramifications for
hundreds of years and multiple groups of people, particularly those of Western
African descent during the Atlantic slave trade.  Readers who enjoy fantasy that treats people as the most
important part of the story are sure to be enraptured by the dynamics of
Calamity’s family and friendships. 
Fans of new weird fiction and magical realism should check out this
novel.

Only the Stones Survive, by Morgan Llewelyn

The
mystery of the standing stones in Ireland and the United Kingdom is one that
has fascinated people for as long as we can remember.  In Morgan Llewelyn’s newest novel, Only the Stones Survive, she has written a story that doesn’t try
to explain that mystery, but instead one that revels in that mystery, and the
way in which culture, history, and even legend can change over time.  As the history of a people is passed
down orally amidst war and cataclysmic change, only the stones survive to mark
the passing of a people.

The
novel is ostensibly about Joss, and his eventual rise to leadership of the
mysterious people called Tuatha De Danann, and their fight for survival on the
mysterious island called Ierne.  It
wavers in and out of his own first-person narration, and a that of a
third-person narrator who tells the tale of the coming of the Gaels, those of
the tribe of Milesios who ventured forth in pursuit of rumor and tales about
the strange island where the Tuatha De Danann had lived for generations.

Llewelyn’s
story captures the nostalgia that drives stories like Tolkiens, along with the
rue and regret that accompany a change to what is viewed as an idyllic or
utopian culture like the Danann’s. 
Narrative inconsistencies aside, Only
the Stones Survive
is a lovely homage to a place that has captured the
imagination of many and been the basis of numerous fantasy stories, and has the
feeling more of an epic than a novel. 
As such it is more successful as allegory than novel.

Readers
who love stories of elves and other mythic races will enjoy Llewelyn’s
interpretation of the myth.  Those
fascinated by the folklore of Ireland’s past and the mystery of the standing
stones should love this tale that blends history and hearsay.  This novel will make a cozy fireside
read this winter.

The SEA is Ours: Tales of Steampunk Southeast Asia, edited by Jaymee Goh and Joyce Chng

Steampunk
is about finding that fascinating intersection between fantasy and science
fiction, where futuristic technology not only meets, but becomes, magic—animals
fused with robotics, working airships, myths embodied in a mystical combination
of art and science.  The SEA is Ours is about bringing
together the already wide world of steampunk with the wonderfully diverse and
vivid Southeast Asian worlds imagined by authors from that region.  For anyone who is used to thinking of
steampunk a la Scott Westerfeld, Cherie Priest, or Elizabeth Bear, The SEA is Ours makes no bones about its
de-centering of Europe and the U.S., and its stories’ reliance on regional
history and myth with little introduction for the outside reader.  And it does all of this while collecting
well-written stories from a wide range of perspectives.

The
stories in this collection hail from the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia,
Vietnam, and more.  From Marilag
Angway’s “Chasing Volcanoes,” about an airship that refuels via active
volcanoes in the Philippines and takes on an unexpected cargo, to Alessa
Hinlo’s folklore-inspired tale of European encroachment into the Philippines in
“The Last Aswang,” to Olivia Ho’s noir gears and gadgets story that brings to
mind an urban Frankenstein in “Working Woman,” this collection has something
for everyone who loves steampunk or myth or both at the same time. 

In
The SEA is Ours writers take on
themes often applied to the region on their own terms, exploring fantasies of
flight, the clash of worlds, past lives, and ideas of progress.  Many of the stories use personal
relationships, particularly siblings, to explore the duality of nations
struggling to define themselves while being subject to decades, and even
centuries, of outside pressure.  In
“Between Severed Souls,” Paolo Chikiamco imagines one family’s struggle to
right the perceived wrongs of history projected onto the greater history of
Spanish imperialism in the Philippines, where technology and folklore come
together in the life of an artist who has lost his wife, and allow him to
confront the past in these many layers. 

All
stories in this collection, though, are as vibrant and varied as their sources
and the people they represent, and imagine a strong history and stronger future
for the region.  Any reader used to
United States or European-centered steampunk should definitely check out this
collection for a new take on an endlessly varied subgenre.  Readers interested in the intersection
of science fiction and folklore will definitely enjoy the stories in The SEA is Ours, while those who like to
see representation of many types of diversity will enjoy this collection’s
inclusion of not just cultural, but ability and gender diversity as well.

The Very Best of Kate Elliott

The Very Best of Kate Elliott is a
somewhat career-spanning collection of short fiction from an author who
generally writes multi-volume fantasy and science fiction with extensive world building
and character development.  It’s
career spanning in that the stories run the gamut of the worlds and characters
Elliott has created throughout her career, and then some.  The collection also features a very
moving introduction and four essays representative of Elliott’s views on
writing and the types of stories she creates. 

This
collection will be a joy to readers who love any of Elliott’s novels, as it is
true to the philosophy she espouses in every novel of developing whole
societies, cultures, and worlds that don’t rely on status quo settings or plots
that leave out pesky details like what happens to agrarian societies when
whole-scale war breaks out. 
Elliott finds the beautiful details in every person’s story and tells it
with a grace that lends depth and importance to characters whether they are
queens or peasants or something else entirely.  The very young and the very old alike have their own
stories, and are not relegated to supporting roles in someone else’s story arc. 

 Among
the stories in this collection are some from the Crown of Stars world, one from
the Spiritwalker world, one from the Crossroads world, and one from the Jaran
world.  Further stories are
generally modeled on a pre-industrial Earth period, whether it be a farming
village on the edge of a kingdom or a fishing village in an unnamed world.  The most powerful story, to me, was
titled “The Queen’s Garden” and is the tale—told almost as myth or folktale—of
two princesses whose matrilineal kingdom was stolen from them by their greedy
father.  Because it begins as a
folktale, one might expect the traditional plot: that one of the princes who
visits their kingdom would stand up to their father and win the kingdom back,
marry one or both princesses, etc. 
Elliott happily subverts this expectation, however, showing how women
can both be the hero of their own tales and not turn themselves into men in
order to maintain agency.  This is
an important theme that Elliott carries throughout her writing.

Elliott’s
short stories do not have quite the force that her novels and series have in
terms of prose and style, however the themes are strong and hint at worlds and
ideas yet unexplored and undiscovered. 
 As some of the stories are
a bit longer than average short story length, this collection is recommended to
fantasy lovers who usually read novels but are looking to get into short
stories.  The Very Best of Kate Elliott is of course recommended to all
lovers of her novels, and to readers interested in reading a wide range of
characters and voices.  Elliott’s
stories invoke a broad range of feelings without being sentimental, and deal
with violence without losing the humanity either of the violent or their
victims.  Lovers of Bujold, LeGuin,
K.J. Parker, and other realist fantasy will find much to love in Elliott’s
stories.