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.

 

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.

Bronze Gods, by A. A. Aguirre

In
an action-filled mash-up of steampunk and high fantasy, Janus Mikani and
Celeste Ritsuko are detective inspectors at the Criminal Investigation Division
in the city of Dorstaad; they work the night shift, tracking down criminals and
generally cleaning up after their daytime counterparts in a city whose bad
elements never seem to sleep. 

 Apart
from the rarely-used blend of fantasy elements, this novel is firmly in the
realm of mystery/suspense character dramas, with the relationship between the
inspectors Mikani and Ritsuko being just as foregrounded as the greater mystery
they are trying to solve.  The
gruesome, magic-involved murder of the daughter of a powerful house leads to a
trail of deception and civil unrest that only roguish Mikani—with his strange,
possibly magical, ability to read people—and straitlaced Ritusko—whose
attention to detail and work ethic are second to none—are fit to solve.  Throw in an overworked department
chief, a few past relationships, and a phantom of the opera hiding beneath his
own theater, and this novel pushes all the required buttons for a fast-paced
fantasy thriller.

The
novel relies on typical mystery structure in order to further the
worldbuilding.  Without too much
exposition, the story reveals a world reminiscent of some popular fantasy
tropes, but leaves just enough unknown to be a tantalizing aspect of the novel
instead of forgettable. 

Readers
who like thrillers or fantasy that errs on the romantic side will enjoy the
multiple levels of romantic tension that operate within Bronze Gods.  Anyone
looking for a different take on second world fantasy will be intrigued by
Aguirre’s blending of multiple subgenres. 
Those looking for a fast-paced fantasy read should take a look at this
novel.

Books I’m Excited to Read in 2016

So last week I posted about books being published in 2016 that I’m excited about.

Now I’m going to talk about the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2016.  This is a slightly different list, since I don’t have the money or the time to buy everything I’m excited about right when it comes out, and actually read it.  My to-read stack isn’t as big as many, but it’s big enough.  So here are a few that I’ve been working towards, and plan to get to this year.  

Of course, more will be added to this stack, and I will, of course, post review of the ones that qualify for this blog.  You can also find all my review at goodreads here

Court of Fives, by Kate Elliott

It’s Kate Elliott!  It’s YA, which I don’t read a ton of, but it’s Kate Elliott!  Here’s a synopsis from her website, kateelliott.com

“In this imaginative escape into an enthralling new world, World Fantasy Award finalist Kate Elliott’s first young adult novel weaves an epic story of a girl struggling to do what she loves in a society suffocated by rules of class and privilege.

Jessamy’s life is a balance between acting like an upper class Patron and dreaming of the freedom of the Commoners. But at night she can be whoever she wants when she sneaks out to train for The Fives, an intricate, multi-level athletic competition that offers a chance for glory to the kingdom’s best competitors. Then Jes meets Kalliarkos, and an unlikely friendship between a girl of mixed race and a Patron boy causes heads to turn. When a scheming lord tears Jes’s family apart, she’ll have to test Kal’s loyalty and risk the vengeance of a powerful clan to save her mother and sisters from certain death.”


Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

Another YA, another author I’ve come to really enjoy, so of course I need to read more than just her adult novels.

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“Sunny lives in Nigeria, but she was born in New York City. She looks West African, but is so sensitive to the sun that she can’t play soccer during the day. She doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere.Then she learns why.Her classmate Orlu and his friend Chichi reveal that they have magical abilities- and so does she. Sunny is a “free agents,” overflowing with latent power. And she has a lot of catching up to do.Orlu and Chichi have been working with their teacher for years. Sunny needs a crash course in magical history, spells, juju, shape-shifting and dimensional travel. Her new world is a secret from her family, but it’s well worth all of the silence, exhaustion and sneaking around.Still, there is a dark side. After she’s found her footing, Sunny, Orlu, Chichi, and their American friend Sasha are asked by the magical authorities to help track down a criminal. Not just a run-of-the-mill bad guy. A real-life hardcore serial killer-with abilities far stronger than theirs.Ursula Le Guin and Diana Wynne Jones are Nnedi Okorafor fans. As soon as you start reading Akata Witch, you will be, too.”


Almanac of the Dead, by Leslie Marmon Silko

I picked this one up mostly by chance at my local indie books story, Burlingham Books, in Perry, New York.  They have a small-ish collection, but it’s always varied, always thought-provoking.  I’ve only read one or two novels by Native writers in the past, and decided to fix that, so this will be my starting point.

Here’s a synopsis from Wikipedia, since she doesn’t seem to have her own website

Almanac of the Dead takes place against the backdrop of the American Southwest and Central America. It follows the stories of dozens of major characters in a somewhat non-linear narrative format. Much of the story takes place in the present day, although lengthy flashbacks and occasional mythological storytelling are also woven into the plot.

The novel’s numerous characters are often separated by both time and space, and many seemingly have little to do with one another at first. A majority of these characters are involved in criminal or revolutionary organizations – the extended cast includes arms dealers, drug kingpins, an elite assassin, communist revolutionaries, corrupt politicians and a black market organ dealer.

Driving many of these individual storylines is a general theme of total reclamation of Native American lands.”


Parable of the Sower, by Octavia Butler

This one has been a long time coming.  I’m not sure what took me so long to get to Butler, but the lack will soon be remedied.  Here’s a synopsis from octaviabutler.org

“When unattended environmental and economic crises lead to social chaos, not even gated communities are safe. In a night of fire and death Lauren Olamina, a minister’s young daughter, loses her family and home and ventures out into the unprotected American landscape. But what begins as a flight for survival soon leads to something much more: a startling vision of human destiny… and the birth of a new faith.”

Bronze Gods, by A.A. Aguirre

I read a YA by Ann Aguirre a year or so ago, and enjoyed it, and now she’s working on a steampunk series with her husband, Andres.  I’ve found that steampunk is a subgenre I really enjoy, so I bought this book (quite) a while ago,  and it’s been sitting on my shelf ever since.  2016 is the year it gets moved to the permanent shelves!

Here’s a synopsis from Ann’s website

Janus Mikani and Celeste Ritsuko work all hours in the Criminal Investigation Division, keeping citizens safe. He’s a charming rogue with an uncanny sixth sense; she’s all logic—and the first female inspector. Between his instincts and her brains, they collar more criminals than any other partnership in the CID.
Then they’re assigned a potentially volatile case where one misstep could end their careers. At first, the search for a missing heiress seems straightforward, but when the girl is found murdered—her body charred to cinders—Mikani and Ritsuko’s modus operandi will be challenged as never before. Before long, it’s clear the bogeyman has stepped out of nightmares to stalk gaslit streets, and it’s up to them to hunt him down. There’s a madman on the loose, weaving blood and magic in an intricate, lethal ritual that could mean the end of everything…”

The New Moon’s Arms, by Nalo Hopkinson

Nalo Hopkinson!  Another author I discovered because of Burlingham Books.  I’m tempted to say her fiction is a little on the outside of my taste range, but that’s not really true.  I love her work; it’s mainstream SFF that says she should be on the outside of my tastes.  She says a lot that needs to be said, which is, I think, more important than conforming.

Here’s a synopsis, in her own words, from her website nalohopkinson.com

“my novel The New Moon’s Arms was a February 2007 release from Warner/Hachette Books. It’s my fourth novel. I was thinking about Nandor Fodor’s theory that poltergeist phenomena are “caused not by spirits but by human agents suffering from intense repressed anger, hostility, and sexual tension.” Some say that this may be why poltergeists so often manifest around young adults just going into puberty (primarily women, I think). The idea is that reaching sexual maturity in societies as sexually repressed as many of ours can be disturbing enough to some people that they begin to generate psychic phenomena.
I’m not in the business of theorizing whether that’s true or not. I was more interested in the idea. If the beginning of menstruation can be magic, I began to think about what it might be like if there were out-of-control psychic phenomena similarly associated with the ending of menstruation. Magical menopause! Enter my protagonist, who’s 53 years old and going through the Change of life, but with some changes peculiarly her own:

I was boiling. When the sun got so warm?

“…most primitive living pinnipeds,” said Hector.

God, the heat was getting worse.

“…derelict fishing nets…danger…”

Hector didn’t even seem to notice it. Me, my whole body was burning. I could feel the tips of my ears getting red, my cheeks flushing.

“…Brucella…Calamity? You all right?”

“I don’t know. Too much sun.” I wiped some perspiration from my brow. My hand came away wet.

“You sweating like you just run a marathon.”

“A lady doesn’t sweat.” But the dried salt from it was irritating my hand. I rubbed the hand against the fabric of my pants. “Jesus, it so hot!”

Hector looked worried. “That tree over there will give you some shade. Come.”

But before we could take a step, something soft and light grazed my head from above, then landed at Hector’s feet. “The hell is that?” he cried out. He bent to pick it up.

“It didn’t hurt me. I’m okay.” Much better, in fact. The heat was passing off rapidly. I was even chilly.

Hector straightened up. “Where this came from?” He looked up at the sky. I followed his gaze. Nothing but blue. Not even the cloud that must have just covered the sun and made me shiver.

Hector showed me the thing he was holding. I blinked the sun’s glare out of my eyes.

I grabbed her out of Hector’s hand. Bare Bear. Chastity’s Bare Bear. Held so tightly and loved so hard that her little stuffed rump was threadbare, her little gingham dress long gone. “Where this came from?”

“Look like it just fell out of the sky.”

“No, man; don’t joke. It must have washed up with the tide.”

“And landed on your head?”

“I don’t know; maybe this was on the sand already, and something else fell on my head.” Bare Bear winked her one glass eye at me. So long I hadn’t seen her. “A leaf from out a sea grape tree, something like that. Right, Bare Bear?” I hugged Lucky Bare Bear to my chest. I grinned at Hector. “She get small over the years, or I get big.” She still fit in her old place, up against my breastbone.

“You feeling sick?” He asked. “You didn’t look too good just now.”

“I feel wonderful,” I answered.

And because I sometimes like a little science with my fiction, I also resurrected the extinct Caribbean monk seal. Sort of.”


Lagoon, Nnedi Okorafor

Because it just looks so gorgeous.  No.  Well, yes, but also because I’m a completist and she’s a great writer.  

Here’s a synopsis from her website nnedi.com

“When a massive object crashes into the ocean off the coast of Lagos, Nigeria’s most populous and legendary city, three people wandering along Bar Beach (Adaora, the marine biologist- Anthony, the rapper famous throughout Africa- Agu, the troubled soldier) find themselves running a race against time to save the country they love and the world itself… from itself. Lagoon expertly juggles multiple points of view and crisscrossing narratives with prose that is at once propulsive and poetic, combining everything from superhero comics to Nigerian mythology to tie together a story about a city consuming itself.At its heart a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future, Lagoon touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction, and ultimately asks us to consider the things that bind us together – and the things that make us human.”

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.

Karen Memory, by Elizabeth Bear

In
a significant departure from her previous work, Bear has created a Western
Steampunk adventure that clips along but, like the horses Karen rides over the
slippery pavements of Rapid City after dark, seems somewhat tentative in
comparison to epics like the Eternal Sky or Edda of Burdens series.  Which is not to say that Karen Memory wasn’t enjoyable from
beginning to end.  It could just as
easily be symptomatic of the type of story being not quite as given to a
deeply-layered sweeping narrative feel. 

Bear
follows in the tradition of Western dime novels, allowing Karen, the main
character and narrator, to set the scene and give just enough foreshadowing to
hold the reader’s interest before jumping straight into the action that will
set the entire novel in motion, and doesn’t slow down until the end.  Karen is a “seamstress” at the Hotel
Mon Cherie, a bordello in the fast-paced port town of Rapid City, Oregon
Territory.  Bear has always been
known for representing people of many different backgrounds within her novels,
and Karen Memory does not
disappoint. 

Though
she gives a nod to historical accuracy in the broadest sense, Bear isn’t held
back by traditional notions of how things really were “back then” and allows her
characters to shine for who they are, not just what they look like or might
represent to some readers.  For
example, U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves is harassed for being black in a country that
only recently finished the Civil War, but his skin color doesn’t define him, as
throughout the novel he is characterized by his steadfastness, his loyalty, his
obvious intelligence and his sense of humor.  He isn’t just a box to check on a diversity list, he is a
real person, and Bear does this for all her characters.

As the
steampunk subgenre is known for it, Karen
Memory
pulls from a number of subgenres to build a story that is just
fantastical enough to make it seem realistic.  Ordinary bits of technology have become outsized machines
that help to carry the fate of the novel. 
Now-defunct practices like hypnotism and mesmerism take on a power that
can influence the fate of an entire city, perhaps even a nation.  Bear isn’t shy about taking on the
novel genres that influence her novel, and have influence science fiction and
fantasy throughout its history. 
Science fiction almost becomes a character by the end of the story, a
metafictional trick that many readers will delight at discovering.

Karen Memory, first
of all, is recommded to longtime readers of Elizabeth Bear’s, as it is
wonderful to watch her grow and stretch as an author.  Lovers of the steampunk subgenre will enjoy the ways in
which Bear has interpreted those concepts.  If readers are looking for a Western that subverts the
traditional lone ranger text, Karen
Memory
is it.