The Infinite Now, by Mindy Tarquini

In Philadalphia of 1918, the Great War is winding down, but the flu epidemic is just getting started, ravaging the Italian quarter of the city that Fiora Vicente calls home.  Newly orphaned due to the new sickness which has swept in on the wings of war, the sheltered teen is brought to live with an older gentleman, a respected member of the community, for reasons that Fiora can’t fathom, but for which she is grateful, in her spoiled way, all the same.

One of the greatest successes of this novel is Tarquini’s creating an unlikeable and yet sympathetic young protagonist, whose horror at the world is visceral and real, and who yet lives in a sort of fantasy world, a bubble that could be pricked at any moment.  Like most sections of cities populated primarily by people of the same nationality–even the same small communities–the Italian quarter of Philadelphia is insular in its own way, with everyone knowing the business of everyone else.   But Fiora is the outsider, and it is her inability to become part of the wider community that Don Sebastiano oversees that leads to her drawing the bubble of time around herself and her small territory, afraid to let the outside world in lest more sickness arrive, more people die, or word of her brothers off fighting in Italy come through.

The Infinite Now is a poignant, and yet claustrophobic, story of emmigration, community, and bereavement; for every step forward that Fiora takes, life seems determined to push her backwards.  Tarquini does a good job of building palpable tension, symbolized by the brief, yet unchangeable glimpses into the future that Fiora gets through the fortuneteller’s curtain she inherits from her mother.  The warring feelings of isolation and smothering she feels, the ways in which she slips back and forth between forming meaningful relationships and being pushed away from people because of assumptions and prejudices, are both effective and well-constructed.

 

This is also a novel of a particular time, a window into a small portrait of European-American experience that can be hard to imagine, from this 100-year vantage, and The Infinite Now, apart from its pseudo-time travel elements, also live up to its name in terms of the ways it evokes an infinitely huge, and yet infinitely small world, where people who emigrate become irrevocably separated from their home communities through the vastness of oceans, and yet never seem to leave the tiny worlds they make for themselves in their new countries.

If there is any complaint to be made about the novel, it would be the ways in which it too neatly wraps up the story’s conclusion.  It takes an issue–non hetero sexual orientation, which was often a serious taboo in traditional and insular communities–and treats it, first of all, as no big deal, and then seems to forget it entirely in its attempts to bring the novel to a close as the story of an old woman looking back on her life long ago.  For those into period novels with a dash of fantasy, this novel will do nicely, but those for whom LGBT identity representation is important, this might be a small red flag.

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The Tuesday List: Parallelisms

What if you could step out of this world, the “real” world, and into another?  All the books on this list imagine just that, in their own way.

1. Roses and Rot, Kat Howard

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At a retreat for artists, where other worlds are explored through visual art, music, writing, Imogen discovers that there is another world waiting just beyond the borders of the property, and is confronted by the question of what she would do, when offered the chance at not only a glimpse of this world, but success beyond her dreams.

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

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This one is actually the second in a series, but somehow managed to slip past my orderly reading practices.  Sophie returns to the world of Stormwrack, made up of brief archipelagos of land among the wilds of the oceans.  Magic is involved, and a lot of nautical journeying.

3. A Darker Shade of Magic, V.E.Schwab

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Follow Kell and his magical coat as he moves between red, gray, and white London, smuggling magical items between worlds, until he meets with Lila in grey London and is confronted by true darkness.

4. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki

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This isn’t really a novel about slipping between parallel worlds, but about the parallelisms that happen when artifacts of one life bleed into another’s, when life in one’s personal world becomes more than they can bear and only slipping into someone else’s life offers and succor.

5. Sorcerer to the Crown, Zen Cho

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Cho moves the faery story into the 21st century with this novel of magic and sorcery in early empire Great Britain, in which a new Sorcerer Royal, former African slave Zacharias Wythe, is tasked with finding the reason for the decline of magic in Britain who runs head on into a young woman, Prunella Gentleman, determined to make her way in the world and learn the true story of her parentage and magical inheritance.

SFF Books of 2017 I’m Excited to Read

Bear with me, these may not all be from this year, but I’m still excited for them!  I’m really bad with deadlines/pub dates.

  1. The Ship Beyond Time, by Heidi Heilig

The characters of The Girl From Everywhere really stuck with me, and I loved the way she plotted this time travel fantasy (I’m kind of a sucker for time travel), so I will definitely be checking out this sequel.  Plus the cover art!

2. All Systems Red, by Martha Wells.

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This novel has gotten awesome reviews from SFF fans I trust.  Plus it’s got robots, in space, with snark.  What’s not to love?

3. Provenance, by Ann Leckie.

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I finally acquired Ancillary Sword, which I mean to read soonish, and I loved Ancillary Justice for more reasons I can express in this teeny space, so anything she writes is on my auto-TBR list.

4. Amberlough, by Lara Elena Donnelly.

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This novel makes me think fantasy noir roaring twenties.  It came out early in the year, but crops up on my Twitter feed from time to time, and every time I’m reminded I need to read this novel!

5. The Stone in the Skull, by Elizabeth Bear

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Bear is one of my favorite authors, in any genre, and this novel is set in the same world as the Eternal Sky trilogy, only taking place in a different kingdom.  Her superior skill with narrative and character make Bear both versatile and readable, as she’s published in multiple sub-genres, both in short and long fiction formats.

 

So that’s just a taste of what I’m looking forward to reading from this year.  I’m sure I’ll have plenty  more to add to this list before the year’s out!

The Girl From Everywhere, by Heidi Heilig

Where would you go if all you needed was a map to get there? Nix knows exactly where she would go, but has a hard time believing she’ll ever have the opportunity. Tied to her father’s consuming search for one specific map, Nix can only collect fantastical creatures and fairy tale wonders along with a prodigious knowledge of history, while always knowing that every person she’ll meet will eventually be left behind.

Everyone leaves eventually, Nix’s father says, which could be felt as a little on the nose, considering he’s been leading his crew on a wild goose chase for Nyx’s entire life, but Heilig’s measured drawing of Captain Slate’s character instead adds to the pathos of Nix’s constant emotional reserve. Nix may have worlds of possibility open before her, but what she lacks is an anchor, a deep connection to a place. She attempts to find this anchor in the people who have been a part of her life for many years, but nothing can take the place of a real home—time and place.

Tales of resourceful orphans abound, but what sets The Girl from Everywhere apart are the cunning ways Heilig approaches going home, with time travel paradoxes and the concept of the mapmaker’s intentions controlling the world’s realities, as well as Nix’s found family—think a more diverse and interesting version of Pan’s Lost Boys, people who have made their way aboard Slate’s ship from real and fairy tale worlds of the past—good people with haunting experiences of their own who look after Nix but whose characterization doesn’t push too far into the surrogate parent role that many orphan stories rely upon.

Readers who love a good time travel yarn will find the twists and turns of The Girl from Everywhere compelling and entertaining. Those who enjoy character-driven stories with a strong sense of self will love Nyx’s slow, delicious journey through fear and bitterness to confidence and a powerful ability to accept people for who they are. Anyone who ever wanted a fairy tale to come true will appreciate the many journeys Nyx has made and her vast store of treasures and lore.

Merry Christmas, Everyone Dies

(Note, I started this blog post last Christmas-ish when I was reading Doomsday Book, by Connie Willis. Don’t let that contain your enjoyment.)

This isn’t really a review, as I tend to stick to newer books for that.  It’s more an homage, a glorious spewing of words towards the best Christmas book I’ve ever read.

To be fair, I don’t read a lot of Christmas books.  This might not even be a Christmas book.  I don’t know.  It takes place during Christmas, but there might be something more going into that than just a date.  That seems to be what the romance and mystery genres would have you believe, anyway.

Back to the point.

A few (24-ish) years ago Connie Willis wrote a novel called Doomsday Book, a near-future science fiction historical that imagines a future Oxford University in which time travel is possible and historians are constantly going back to their favorite centuries just to see how things were.  Throw in a little snafu and the usual Willisian personalities, and you have a set up for a novel that somehow manages to be both farcical and deeply poignant, packed with meaning from end to end of the irony to super-serious scale.

No, that’s not what I mean.  What I mean is it rips your heart out, beginning to end.  And some in the middle.  While being funny.  And smart.

Meet James Dunworthy, head of 21st century history at Balliol (or was it Brasenose) College at Oxford, who somehow ends up tutoring a student at the other college that starts with a B that isn’t the one he’s at, a student who wants to study the Middle Ages.  From the Middle Ages.  Dunworthy has a ton of experience going to the recent modern past, and understands how time travel in 2054 works.  Gilchrist, his erstwhile rival at said other college, has no flipping idea how time travel works, has never done it, and is of course acting head of the History department at his College and gets to be the one making the decision about whether to send an undergraduate to the Middle Ages.

It’s all going smoothly, despite Dunworthy’s misgivings, until a rogue virus shows up, confusing the hell out of modern medicine and basically making retrieval of the undergraduate historian two weeks later, as planned, impossible.  As people begin dropping like flies in the modern world, Kivrin, the historian, learns that the Middle Ages are more different than historians could ever have imagined, especially when met close up in the form of a spoiled six-year-old girl named Agnus and her 12-year-old and soon-to-be-married older sister Rosemund.  When the past becomes the present, it’s a lot harder to just stand by and watch people die of mysterious maladies, or hunger, or frostbite.

The twist is not so much a twist as what you might expect reading a Connie Willis novel, ie, everything that can go wrong will, with a straw boater on top, but somehow everything comes right in the end.  I think the fact that everything comes right, as right as it can, given the gruesome ordeals that both Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy experience, is the most wrenching part.  Eventually, the past is safely put back in the past and whatever affect on the Middle Ages that Kivrin might have had is revealed to be as little as possible.

The idea of historians using time travel, vs. tourists or looters or other types, forces us to remember that there were real people living through those plagues and war and riots and other horrible times that we’ve cataloged and dissected with facts and statistics and artifacts.  For historians, who think they know so much about a time long past, who care enough to devote their lives to studying it, to be brought face to face with that past, is a powerful kind of, well, everything.

Connie Willis continues to amaze, even years on.

Time travel: Recent Trips, edited by Paula Guran

Time
Travel: Recent Trips
is a collection of eighteen short
stories which feature time travel as a major or minor element, in all its
various forms.  It’s a wide-ranging
collection of themes and modes, to be sure, with something that is guaranteed
to appeal to any time travel enthusiast. 
Guran has pulled stories from a number of sub-genres and to top it off
the book has great cover art by Julie Dillon herself.

All
stories were published within the past ten years, though some belong to newer
writers in the field, while others are from established authors, and range from
literary, to experimental, to pulp science fiction in style and subject.  Paul Cornell is perhaps best know for
his television and novel work with Doctor
Who
, and his comics work with DC and Marvel, but his story The Ghosts of Christmas is a visceral
trip into the life of one scientist working with schizophrenics who discovers a
way to move through time along her own timeline.  The story explores the notions of infinite possibility and
predetermination through the story of one character, letting the reader mull over
all that was going on in the background after the story is over.  Mating
Habits of the Late Cretaceous
, by Dale Bailey and Bespoke, by
Genevieve Valentine, both deal with the concept of tourism through time in
quite different ways.  The former
is a saw on the familiar unhappy married couple trope, while the latter
examines desire and need through the lens of a clothing maker specializing in
exact replicas of period clothing for time travelers.

Mary
Robinette Kowal makes an appearance with a meditation on the notion of aging
and being remembered, in a world where one can only travel backwards in time
within one’s own lifetime, and suddenly the forgotten elderly are important
again.  For those feeling the loss
of Kage Baker, “The Carpet Betds of Sutro Park” explore another aspect of time
travel tourism with an employee of a company that films historic places for
future use spending a lifetime observing the same place in San Francisco and
the people who visit it throughout its lifetime, seeing the degradations of
time in a way that humans can’t. 

Other
notable stories in this collection come from Ken Liu, Elizabeth Bear &
Sarah Monette, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Suzanne J. Willis, and Eileen Gunn.  Readers looking for a collection with a
variety of tastes, old and new, will find much to enjoy in this
collection.  Many of the stories
are tightly plotted and experimental in nature, making them natural expressions
of their time travel subjects and riveting reads.