Shelf Control #320: Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: Foundryside
Author: Robert Jackson Bennett
Published: 2018
Length: 512 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Sancia Grado is a thief, and a damn good one. And her latest target, a heavily guarded warehouse on Tevanne’s docks, is nothing her unique abilities can’t handle.

But unbeknownst to her, Sancia’s been sent to steal an artifact of unimaginable power, an object that could revolutionize the magical technology known as scriving. The Merchant Houses who control this magic–the art of using coded commands to imbue everyday objects with sentience–have already used it to transform Tevanne into a vast, remorseless capitalist machine. But if they can unlock the artifact’s secrets, they will rewrite the world itself to suit their aims.

Now someone in those Houses wants Sancia dead, and the artifact for themselves. And in the city of Tevanne, there’s nobody with the power to stop them.

To have a chance at surviving–and at stopping the deadly transformation that’s under way–Sancia will have to marshal unlikely allies, learn to harness the artifact’s power for herself, and undergo her own transformation, one that will turn her into something she could never have imagined.

In a city that runs on industrialized magic, a secret war will be fought to overwrite reality itself–the first in a dazzling new series from City of Stairs author Robert Jackson Bennett. 

How and when I got it:

I picked up the paperback edition 2 – 3 years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing very positive reviews when this book first came out, and since some of these positive reviews were by bloggers whose tastes tend to align with mine, I made a note to check it out. So, of course, when I stumbled into a used book store and found a copy, I couldn’t resist!

The synopsis sounds complicated but intriguing. Industrialized magic? Deadly transformations? Powerful artifacts? Check, check, and check — definitely up my alley.

My hesitation about starting Foundryside are (a) lately, anything over 500 pages feels pretty daunting, and (b) it’s the first in a trilogy, and I already have too many series and trilogies to keep up or catch up with. On the plus side, it’s a (soon-to-be) finished trilogy, since the 3rd book will be released next month — so no getting invested in an ongoing story and then having the conclusion not yet published or not expected for years and years.

This sounds like a book with complex world-building, which means I shouldn’t start it until I know I have the patience and uninterrupted time to really concentrate. I have a strong suspicion I’ll enjoy it once I start — the problem will be psyching myself up to actually dive in.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: Seasonal Fears by Seanan McGuire

Title: Seasonal Fears
Series: Alchemical Journeys, #2
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: May 3, 2022
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Melanie has a destiny, though it isn’t the one everyone assumes it to be. She’s delicate; she’s fragile; she’s dying. Now, truly, is the winter of her soul.

Harry doesn’t want to believe in destiny, because that means accepting the loss of the one person who gives his life meaning, who brings summer to his world.

So, when a new road is laid out in front of them—a road that will lead through untold dangers toward a possible lifetime together—walking down it seems to be the only option.

But others are following behind, with violence in their hearts.

It looks like Destiny has a plan for them, after all….

Seasonal Fears returns to the complicated world of alchemy made real first explored in the author’s 2019 novel Middlegame. In Middlegame, the story centered on Roger and Dodger, two people with an inexplicable connection who come to embody the living personifications of Math and Language.

In Seasonal Fears, alchemists are once again at work, and the impact on the main characters is huge. Melanie has been frail since birth, with a severely damaged heart, a lifetime of illness and medical treatments, and slim chances of living past her teens. But her best friend since kindergarten (and later, her boyfriend) Harry will never give up on Melanie. He loves her; she loves him. Her death may be inevitable, but he’ll never leave her for as long as she remains alive.

Meanwhile, we learn early on that the seasons themselves have living personifications — humans who come to embody Winter and Summer through a complicated and usually bloody coronation process. Alchemists have been aware of Winter and Summer kings and queens for centuries, but it’s only in modern times that they’ve tried to steer the process by creating the perfect vessels for the seasons in their labs.

As Melanie and Harry prepare to attend their high school Valentine’s Day dance, they both undergo a shocking process and learn that their destinies lie beyond tragic high school romance tropes. Accompanied by their Attendants, they start a journey toward the coronation of the seasons, each a candidate for becoming a season Incarnate.

Sound complicated? It is.

Seanan McGuire is an absolute favorite author, and I love her writing style, her characters, and her snark. But here in Seasonal Fears, these factors often become overshadowed by the incredibly confusing plot elements. The seasons, the embodiment of alchemical doctrines, the impact on the natural world, the coronation process… it’s a lot, and I often simply could not wrap my brain around the overarching concepts.

That said, the plot does zip along, with moments of horrific violence as well as quieter moments of emotional connection and elements of wonder and magic. Still, this is a big, dense book, and I’m not sure that the whole ends up being greater than its parts. Also, the end felt strangely anti-climactic.

Apparently, if the series continues, there’s an intention for there to be five books in total. Right now, having finished Seasonal Fears, the idea of continuing seems exhausting. Ask me again, though, when the next books comes out! Since I do tend to read everything this author writes, there’s a good chance I’ll have recovered enough by then to keep making the effort with these alchemical stories.

Book Review: Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher

Title: Nettle & Bone
Author: T. Kingfisher
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: April 26, 2022
Length: 256 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

After years of seeing her sisters suffer at the hands of an abusive prince, Marra—the shy, convent-raised, third-born daughter—has finally realized that no one is coming to their rescue. No one, except for Marra herself.

Seeking help from a powerful gravewitch, Marra is offered the tools to kill a prince—if she can complete three impossible tasks. But, as is the way in tales of princes, witches, and daughters, the impossible is only the beginning.

On her quest, Marra is joined by the gravewitch, a reluctant fairy godmother, a strapping former knight, and a chicken possessed by a demon. Together, the five of them intend to be the hand that closes around the throat of the prince and frees Marra’s family and their kingdom from its tyrannous ruler at last.

This is my 4th book by T. Kingfisher, and I’ve never once been disappointed! Nettle & Bone is another terrific tale from this gifted author.

I’m not sure why I expected horror (well, it was probably a misinterpretation of the cover), but this isn’t that! Nettle & Bone is a fairy tale about curses and kingdoms and doomed princesses — but forget all the traditional stories about dashing princes riding to the rescue. Here, the rescuer is none other than one of the princesses, the overlooked third daughter of a king and queen whose tiny kingdom is constantly threatened by the larger kingdoms along its borders.

To save their kingdom, the royal couple marry off their oldest daughter Damia to Prince Vorling of the Northern Kingdom, but soon after their marriage, the princess dies. The Northern Kingdom still has its eyes on the smaller kingdom’s ideally located ports, and to keep their land safe, the king and queen send their second daughter Kania to be the prince’s new bride. The prince longs for the day when he and his heirs are the sole rulers of both kingdoms, and to that end, he insists that the third daughter, Marra, remain unmarried, so that there will be no competing heirs to the thrown.

Marra is perfectly content with this arrangement, and spends the next years of her life as an “almost” nun at a convent that’s much more about female empowerment than strict rules or deprivations. Over time, however, Marra becomes aware that something is seriously wrong with Kania’s marriage. Fearing for her sister’s life, Marra sets out to save her, enlisting the aid of a dustwife (a woman with the ability to speak to the dead), a godmother, and a disgraced knight whom she frees from enslavement to the fae.

With her strange band of allies, Marra sets off to the Northern Kingdom, determined to rescue her sister, break an ancient curse, and protect her own kingdom… and hopefully, not get killed along the way.

Nettle & Bone is often funny, and the author has a light touch with humor and clever dialogue. At the same time, Kania’s situation is disturbing and serious, and the book manages to balance the adventurous tone with the heavier themes related to Marra’s quest and its dire nature.

The situations the band of allies encounter are often absurd, but quite entertaining, and I loved how the fairy tale tropes used here receive fresh, new twists.

T. Kingfisher excels at depicting creepy scenes too, as is evident from the book’s opening lines:

The trees were full of crows and the woods were full of madmen. The pit was full of bones and her hands were full of wires.

From this opening, I expected a much more sinister feel overall to the book, and was happily surprised to find many lighter-spirited moments and even downright silliness amidst the high stakes perils and quests.

All in all, Nettle & Bone is a terrific read. The author has another new book coming out this summer, and meanwhile, I have a few of her backlist books yet to read on my Kindle!

Audiobook Review: The Midnight Bargain by C. L. Polk

Title: The Midnight Bargain
Author: C. L. Polk
Narrator: Moira Quirk
Publisher: Erewhon
Publication date: October 13, 2020
Print length: 384 pages
Audio length: 11 hours, 49 minute
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken

I was not prepared to get as swept away by this book as I was!

In The Midnight Bargain, we’re transported to a world in which magical powers are the key to financial success… and belong squarely to the male population. Women with powers are seen as desirable in marriage because they’re most likely to provide magically gifted children. The catch is that women are not actually allowed to practice magic or study it seriously. Upon marriage, women are locked into silver collars that cut off their access to magic for as long as they wear it — supposedly to ensure the safety of future children, but (conveniently for their husbands) also ensuring that they’re kept under tight control.

For Beatrice, the idea of never developing her magical gift is horrifying. Her father, having speculated unwisely in business ventures, is on the verge of financial (and thus, social) ruin. Only a good marriage to the son of a wealthy family can save her own family. But Beatrice dreams of studying magic and strengthening her own powers, and her secret dream is to bind a powerful spirit to herself, making her ineligible to marry and giving her the opportunity to work behind the scenes to help her father build back his fortune.

Sadly, Beatrice’s father is a rigid conformist who is only focused on money and getting ahead. Bargaining season — the time each year when “ingenues” are placed on the marriage market and wealthy families compete to secure a good match — is the Clayborn family’s last chance to dig themselves out of debt, and there’s simply no way that her father will allow her to evade her duties. Beatrice knows that it’s a race against time to find the right grimoire that will unlock the mysteries of binding a spirit.

Her plans are confounded by Ysbeta Lavan, the powerful daughter of an incredibly wealthy family, who has her own reasons for wanting to escape bargaining season unmarried. A further complication is Ianthe Lavan, Ysbeta’s (super hot) brother, who falls for Beatrice just as hard as she falls for him. Beatrice’s feelings for Ianthe stand in contradiction to her personal goals. Can she give up her dreams of developing her magical gifts for the sake of true love, even if it means locking herself in a collar for the duration of her child-bearing years?

I hesitated a bit when starting this book, having read the author’s earlier Kingston Cycle trilogy and coming away from it with mixed feelings. While I admired the author’s inventiveness, I felt that the world-building in the trilogy wasn’t strong enough to satisfy me or provide sufficient groundwork for understanding the intricacies of the society the books portrayed. I worried that I might have a similar experince with The Midnight Bargain.

Fortunately, my worries were soon set to rest. While I do feel that more explanation would have been helpful at the start of the book, I easily became immersed in the plot anyway. I wished for more explanation of the countries named and their different customs, as well as some basics on geography. The world itself felt a little shakily defined.

However, I still was able to fully engage with the characters and enjoy the story. Beatrice’s quest is fueled not by a desire for personal power, but by her need to make her own decisions and be truly free. At one point, Ianthe swears that if they marry, he’ll leave her free of the collar whenever possible and support her pursuit of magic… but even that may not be enough. As Beatrice struggles with her choices, it’s clear that being allowed freedom isn’t the same thing as actually having freedom. It’s fascinating to see the characters’ journeys and conflicts, and I appreciated that decisions for the main characters are never clear choices between a right and wrong path.

The nature of the society is, of course, horrifying. There are some truly terrible scenes later in the book when it appears that Beatrice’s independence and agency will be stripped from her against her will, and I literally found myself short of breath during these moments! This is a fantasy world, but the stakes are women’s rights and the freedom to determine one’s own path and make one’s own choices. It feels real, despite the trappings of magic and spirits.

I listened to the audiobook, which was a truly captivating experience. The narrator, Moira Quirk, is a delight. Having listened to her narration of many of Gail Carriger’s books, I knew I’d be in for a treat with the audio version of The Midnight Bargain, and I definitely was not disappointed!

I’m so happy to have experienced The Midnight Bargain. The plot zips along, but packs quite an emotional punch too. With terrific characters, a compelling fantasy set-up, and high stakes, it’s hard to stop once you get started. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Scorpica by G. R. Macallister

Title: Scorpica
Series: The Five Queendoms, #1
Author: G. R. Macallister
Publisher: Saga Press
Publication date: February 22, 2022
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A centuries-long peace is shattered in a matriarchal society when a decade passes without a single girl being born in this sweeping epic fantasy that’s perfect for fans of Robin Hobb and Circe.

Five hundred years of peace between queendoms shatters when girls inexplicably stop being born. As the Drought of Girls stretches across a generation, it sets off a cascade of political and personal consequences across all five queendoms of the known world, throwing long-standing alliances into disarray as each queendom begins to turn on each other—and new threats to each nation rise from within.

Uniting the stories of women from across the queendoms, this propulsive, gripping epic fantasy follows a warrior queen who must rise from childbirth bed to fight for her life and her throne, a healer in hiding desperate to protect the secret of her daughter’s explosive power, a queen whose desperation to retain control leads her to risk using the darkest magic, a near-immortal sorcerer demigod powerful enough to remake the world for her own ends—and the generation of lastborn girls, the ones born just before the Drought, who must bear the hopes and traditions of their nations if the queendoms are to survive.

In this ambitious novel, historical fiction author Greer Macallister turns her talents to the world of fantasy, writing as G. R. Macallister. Because I’ve enjoyed her historical novels, and since I generally enjoy fantasy fiction, I thought I’d give Scorpica a try.

In Scorpica, the known world is divided into five queendoms, each with its own strengths and gifts. The land of Scorpica raises and trains warriors; Arca is known for magic; The Bastion is a stronghold for scholars and archives; Paxim is a crossroads and a center of trade and negotiation; and Sestia is a fertile land with thriving agriculture. The different lands worship different gods and goddesses and have different cultures and societal structures, but one thing they all have in common is that women rule.

The queendoms are matriarchal societies, where power belongs to women alone. From queens to warriors to any and all positions of power, all roles of importance are held by women. Men are subservient, there to support women and offer pleasure and participate in making babies, but they do not wield authority or take any role in combat.

The coexistence of the five queendoms and their continued survival are thrown into turmoil when baby girls stop being born. Known as the Drought of Girls, this lack of girl babies means there can be no future queens and no future warriors. As each of the queendoms struggles to figure out what to do if the drought doesn’t end, there’s another force at work in the shadows seeking to overthrow the queendoms entirely.

As the story progresses, we see events unfold from multiple perspectives, mainly through the Queens of Scorpica and Arca and various women of their queendoms. We get to learn the customs of the different lands, their superstitions and fears and politics, and for some of the characters, get insight into their more personal emotions and challenges.

There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and that’s not always easy. Fortunately, there’s a map of the Five Queendoms included at the front of the book, which helps a lot in terms of visualizing the basic geography and how that influences the plot. This is one of the rare occasions where a glossary of characters would have been helpful, although usually I shy away from those.

The premise of the book is quite interesting, and I liked a lot about the development of this world, how the queendoms interact, and the internal functioning of Scorpica and Arca. Where I think there’s some weakness is in the individual character development and, perhaps consequentially, in the emotional impact.

While there are some characters we spend more time with than others, this is a big book with a lot of ground and time to cover, and the individuals often get lost in the shuffle. There weren’t many that I felt I really knew well, and so I wasn’t able to develop an emotional connection with more than two or three of the characters — and even with these few, they only appear from time or time or in limited capacities.

The fantasy-world-speak is a little over the top at times:

She’d returned to Scorpica with a belly set to swell, as did so many warrior sisters, their seed watered with a man’s rain.

Okay, I’ve never heard it called rain before… Still, awkward phrasing like this (which makes me laugh despite — I’m sure — not being intended to be funny) doesn’t really detract from the generally well written world-building, descriptions, and forward motion of the major plot points.

I did enjoy the overall concepts of the book. It’s quite large in scope, and is supposedly the first in a series. I’d guess that there will be a book titled for each of the five queendoms, and that should help fill out and broaden the world quite a bit. In Scorpica, we mainly spend time with characters from Scorpica and Arca, and I imagine that there’s future action planned that will bring the other three lands into greater focus and importance.

Assuming the next book in the series comes out soon enough that I’ll still remember the details, I’d like to keep reading. Scorpica ends with a lot of loose-ends — major conflicts and problems are resolved, but there’s a sort-of cliff-hanger about what comes next, and plenty more to explore in this fantasy world.

Book Review: Spelunking Through Hell (InCryptid, #11) by Seanan McGuire

Title: Spelunking Through Hell
Series: Incryptid, #11
Author: Seanan McGuire
Publisher: DAW
Publication date: March 1, 2022
Length: 352 pages
Genre: Urban fantasy
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Now in trade paperback, the eleventh book in the fast-paced InCryptid urban fantasy series returns to the mishaps of the Price family, eccentric cryptozoologists who safeguard the world of magical creatures living in secret among humans.

Love, noun:

1. An intense feeling of deep affection; may be romantic, filial or platonic.

Passion, noun:

1. A strong or barely controllable emotion.

2. Enthusiasm, interest, desire.

3. See also “obsession.”

It’s been fifty years since the crossroads caused the disappearance of Thomas Price, and his wife, Alice, has been trying to find him and bring him home ever since, despite the increasing probability that he’s no longer alive for her to find. Now that the crossroads have been destroyed, she’s redoubling her efforts. It’s time to bring him home, dead or alive.

Preferably alive, of course, but she’s tired, and at this point, she’s not that picky. It’s a pan-dimensional crash course in chaos, as Alice tries to find the rabbit hole she’s been missing for all these decades—the one that will take her to the man she loves.

Who are her allies? Who are her enemies? And if she manages to find him, will he even remember her at this point?

It’s a lot for one cryptozoologist to handle. 

It’s almost spring, and that means it’s time for another installment in the ongoing adventures of the Price-Healy family… yes, another InCryptid book is here! (Annoying some fans by switching to trade paperback size rather than sticking with mass market… so now my paperback editions won’t match??? But that’s beside the point when it comes to a review, so onward we go.)

The InCryptid series follows the adventures of the sprawling Price and Healy clan, a large extended family dedicated to studying and preserving the lives of cryptids — non-human beings who (usually) live peacefully among the humans, but who are hunted by the merciless and powerful Covenant simply for existing. Yes, there are also cryptids who do unpleasant things like eating humans, and in those cases, the Prices are a force to be feared… hence their very murdery reputation.

Up to now in the series, the books have focused on members of the current young adult family members — siblings Verity, Alexander, and Antimony (Annie), as well as their cousin Sarah. There are plenty of references to other relatives, and their parents and other cousins and family-by-extension pop in and play different roles as well. One of the more mythological members of the family, whom we’ve seen in action really just once so far, is grandmother Alice.

Now look at the book cover image again. That’s Alice! Does she look like a grandma to you?

Alice was a young woman in the 1950s, which is when she lost her beloved husband Thomas to a bad bargain with the crossroads. Granted, he made the bargain to save Alice’s life, so he deserves a little slack for having made it. From the time of Thomas’s disappearance, Alice has been obsessed with finding him — so much so that she’s spent over fifty years as an interdimensional traveler, tracking down every clue and random hint that could possibly lead her to her husband.

Of course, to do so, she’s had to leave her family behind, so her two children resent the hell out of her and her grandchildren know her more from the family legends than from actual relationships… but she can’t give up. Along the way, she has used whatever means necessary to preserve her youth and health so that she could keep going, which is why she looks and feels more or less like a 19-year-old.

All that is backstory. Here, in Spelunking Through Hell, Alice is the main character, and we join her on her desperate journey to find Thomas. It’s been 50 years, and her hope is starting to wear thin. At this point, she’d even accept proof of his death — she’s just about ready to stop. But then a new clue from an unexpected source gives her one more angle to try, and so she sets out one last time to travel to a dying dimension that’s supposedly inaccessible… but Alice is nothing but persistent.

And so what if she doesn’t have an exit strategy? So long as she finds Thomas — even if he is about 80 years old by now — they can figure out what comes next together.

Spelunking Through Hell is yet another fun romp with the Price clan, although we really don’t see many members of the family other than Alice. This makes the tale fresh, but also feels somewhat less engaging, since Alice has never been a main character before and there isn’t a ton to build on in terms of what we know about her or what it’s like to see the world through her eyes.

Like the rest of the Prices, Alice is always fully armed, ready for a fight, and full of quips. She’s funny, fierce, and reckless, and also has no problem pushing herself past injury and excruciating pain, so long as it’s in service of her obsession with finding Thomas.

The plot occasionally feels a little draggy — it does take quite a while to get to the target world — and while I enjoyed the book, I have to say that my lack of familiarity with Alice as an individual made this book slightly less wonderful as a reading experience as compared to earlier books in the series.

Side note on InCryptids: This is a huge expanded world, and it’s supported by many, many short stories available through the author’s website and via Patreon. That’s nice… but also frustrating. Apparently, if I’d been keeping up with all the Price short stories, I would be very invested in Alice and Thomas and would know pretty much everything about their courtship, romance, and early years together. But I haven’t! And that feels problematic for me. Yes, I can make an effort to go get caught up (and I probably will, once I figure out the order the stories should be read in) — but I do think the books alone should tell a complete story, and in this case, I felt like I was always missing key pieces of information.

That said, I did enjoy the book overall, and Seanan McGuire’s writing keeps it fun even while the blood is flowing:

And I, an asshole, had done enough woolgathering for one… day? Evening? Afternoon? There were no windows, and massive blood loss always throws off my sense of time.

I’d rather be married to a man fifty years older than I am than see him go through what I’ve willingly done to myself for his sake, what he never would have asked or expected me to do. It’s always easier to set yourself on fire than to allow someone else to burn for you.

I wanted to avoid being caught at any cost, since one solid snap of those claws could have me down a limb, or possibly down an entire torso. I like my torso. It’s where I keep my lungs.

The Haspers not currently engaged began to run in my direction, forming a nicely unified pack. I like a unified pack. I like the way is splashes when you lob a grenade into the middle of it, and I like it even better when none of its component parts knows what a grenade is, so they react like you’ve just thrown a rock or something. To be nonspecific.

Spelunking Through Hell includes the bonus novella And Sweep Up the Wood, which tells the story of a key turning point in the early years of Alice and Thomas’s relationship. It’s very good and very emotional (plus, you know, plenty of guns and explosives — after all, Alice in involved), and it’s a great way to wrap up this installment of the series.

The InCryptid series itself is going strong, and overall, I love it! I do wish this one had drawn me in a bit more, but I can’t really complain. The Price-Healy clan is amazing (and there are religious mice, who make every scene they’re in 1000% better), and I can’t wait for more of the story. The big question is — who will #12 be about?

As I’ve said in pretty much every review of this series, definitely start at the beginning with with Discount Armageddon. This series is full of great characters and terrific world-building. It’s easy to get hooked!

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Shelf Control #305: Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

Title: Gideon the Ninth
Author: Tamsyn Muir
Published: 2019
Length: 448 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

The Emperor needs necromancers.

The Ninth Necromancer needs a swordswoman.

Gideon has a sword, some dirty magazines, and no more time for undead bullshit.

Brought up by unfriendly, ossifying nuns, ancient retainers, and countless skeletons, Gideon is ready to abandon a life of servitude and an afterlife as a reanimated corpse. She packs up her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and prepares to launch her daring escape. But her childhood nemesis won’t set her free without a service.

Harrowhark Nonagesimus, Reverend Daughter of the Ninth House and bone witch extraordinaire, has been summoned into action. The Emperor has invited the heirs to each of his loyal Houses to a deadly trial of wits and skill. If Harrowhark succeeds she will become an immortal, all-powerful servant of the Resurrection, but no necromancer can ascend without their cavalier. Without Gideon’s sword, Harrow will fail, and the Ninth House will die.

Of course, some things are better left dead.

How and when I got it:

I bought a paperback at some point in the last two years (and picked up book #2, Harrow the Ninth, too).

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing tons of reviews for this book when it came out, most using the tagline lesbian necromancers in space — and yes, that definitely grabbed my attention! I have reader friends who became obsessed with this book (and its sequel), although I’ve definitely seen my share of negative reviews as well.

This does seem like something I’d love, and I’m excited to read it. I think the only reason I haven’t so far is that when I first planned to get started, I got a little intimidated by what seemed like a lot of world-building to absorb up front, and I just wasn’t in the right state of mind to focus at that moment. But now I’m ready!

The third book, Nona the Ninth, comes out later this year, so this seems like a good time to finally dive in.

What do you think? Have you read this book, and if so, do you recommend it? Or if you haven’t read it, does this sound like something you’d want to read?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: Soulstar (The Kingston Cycle, #3) by C. L. Polk

Title: Soulstar
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #3
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 16, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3 out of 5.

With Soulstar, C. L. Polk concludes her riveting Kingston Cycle, a whirlwind of magic, politics, romance, and intrigue that began with the World Fantasy Award-winning Witchmark. Assassinations, deadly storms, and long-lost love haunt the pages of this thrilling final volume.

For years, Robin Thorpe has kept her head down, staying among her people in the Riverside neighborhood and hiding the magic that would have her imprisoned by the state. But when Grace Hensley comes knocking on Clan Thorpe’s door, Robin’s days of hiding are at an end. As freed witches flood the streets of Kingston, scrambling to reintegrate with a kingdom that destroyed their lives, Robin begins to plot a course that will ensure a freer, juster Aeland. At the same time, she has to face her long-bottled feelings for the childhood love that vanished into an asylum twenty years ago.

Can Robin find happiness among the rising tides of revolution? Can Kingston survive the blizzards that threaten, the desperate monarchy, and the birth throes of democracy? Find out as the Kingston Cycle comes to an end.

In the third and final book in the Kingston Cycle trilogy, we pick up within weeks of the end of book #2 (Stormsong), this time with the character Robin Thorpe serving as our narrator.

Robin was introduced in the previous books, but here takes center stage. She’s a nurse at the veteran’s hospital, but also comes from a witch clan and has strong ties to the activist movement within Kingston. As the book opens, Robin is very involved in the mission to free imprisoned witches from the horrific asylums where they were kept for the past twenty years and bring them home to their families. Among the freed witches is Zelind, Robin’s spouse, whom she hasn’t seen in all these years.

Society within Kingston is in turmoil, as the aether powering the city has been cut off, the lower classes are suffering, and demands for social justice are on the rise. Meanwhile, the new King has promised change, but seems especially focused on slow, incremental change that doesn’t challenge the status quo in a significant way. Robin’s people want dramatic action, and she becomes in political activism that threatens to overturn the entire government structure of Aeland.

The book very much focuses on activism, political change, and reparations — but the thematic elements don’t seem to mesh well with the fantasy elements. The witches are present as an oppressed class demanding justice, but the politics take precedence. As in the previous books, I was frustrated by the lack of clarity over some basic questions around the fantasy world, such as the presence of ghosts and who can see them, the significance of soulstars, and even the question of who knows what about magic and witches. Additionally, the various political and social and community-based factions introduced all become one big blur over the course of the novels. At times when there was a big reveal, rather than feeling the impact, I first had to go back and check to see who these people were and what role they played.

Wrapping up the trilogy:

I’ve had my eye on these books ever since Witchmark (book 1) was released, and picked up paperback editions over the years. With all three books on my shelf, I was determined to make 2022 the year I finally read them.

Sad to say, I was for the most part underwhelmed. While I liked key characters, I was disappointed to see the main characters from the first two books shunted aside in the narrative from book to book, relegated to supporting roles and with no further exploration of their inner lives.

For a fantasy world, I expected much more in terms of the fantastical elements and the world-building. Instead, I’d describe these books as a story of political change and social justice that happens to be set in a fantasy world.

I had hoped to love these books. I didn’t. I was interested enough in the characters to see the trilogy through to the end, but I can’t say that this trilogy will ever make a list of my favorites.

Book Review: Stormsong (The Kingston Cycle, #2) by C. L. Polk

Title: Stormsong
Series: The Kingston Cycle, #2
Author: C. L. Polk
Publisher: Tor
Publication date: February 11, 2020
Length: 346 pages
Genre: Fantasy
Source: Purchased
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

After spinning an enthralling world in Witchmark, praised as a “can’t-miss debut” by Booklist, and as “thoroughly charming and deftly paced” by the New York Times, C. L. Polk continues the story in Stormsong. Magical cabals, otherworldly avengers, and impossible love affairs conspire to create a book that refuses to be put down.

Dame Grace Hensley helped her brother Miles undo the atrocity that stained her nation, but now she has to deal with the consequences. With the power out in the dead of winter and an uncontrollable sequence of winter storms on the horizon, Aeland faces disaster. Grace has the vision to guide her people to safety, but a hostile queen and a ring of rogue mages stand in the way of her plans. There’s revolution in the air, and any spark could light the powder. What’s worse, upstart photojournalist Avia Jessup draws ever closer to secrets that could topple the nation, and closer to Grace’s heart.

Can Aeland be saved without bloodshed? Or will Kingston die in flames, and Grace along with it?

Book two of the Kingston Cycle by C. L. Polk continues and builds upon the story begun in Witchmark. In Witchmark, we’re introduced to the world of Aeland, an early industrial-age country coming out of a brutal war with neighboring Laneer. Our point of view character is Dr. Miles Singer, a traumatized war veteran who himself treats suffering war veterans, all the while keeping his true identity — son of one of the most powerful families in Aeland — a tightly held secret.

In Aeland, the ruling families control the climate through magical rituals, maintaining the even, pleasant seasons year-round and enabling good harvests and a strong economy. By the end of Witchmark, certain truths have come to light, among them the fact that the aether powering Aeland (basically, electricity) is generated via a truly heinous conspiracy. Through the intervention of Miles, his lover, and his sister, the conspiracy is broken apart, but that’s resulted in the shutdown of aether power.

As we pick up in Stormsong, the country is facing a harsh winter without heat or power, and the food supply is threatened as well. Aeland is a country of haves and have-nots, and outside of the royalty and the inner circle of ruling families, almost eveyone is in the latter category.

In Stormsong, Miles’s sister Grace takes over as the point of view character. Dame Grace Hensley is a powerful mage and political leader, but she faces a growing circle of enemies and obstacles. The conspirators behind the aether atrocities are all imprisoned, but their influence is still widely felt. The remaining power players are jockeying for key positions, and Grace’s leadership may come apart at any moment if she can’t solidify her political alliances.

Stormsong is very much about enacting social change. Grace knows that certain horrible laws need to be overturned, but at the outset, she thinks the country needs to ease into it. Yes, the persecution of witches (as revealed in Witchmark) is a travesty, but she fears that the outrage that will erupt when this becomes widely known will have a devastating effect on the country. Slow and steady seems to be her initial approach — maybe stop the badness, but still keep it a secret?

Over time, though, a courageous journalist and other activists push the agenda forward and force Grace’s hand. It’s a complex set of considerations and actions — social justice issues, political power, and the stability of the reigning monarchy are all at play.

The author finds a way to blend the personal and the political here in Stormsong, showing us the stakes for the society as a whole as well as the personal risks to Grace and those she cares about. Grace as an individual is fascinating — a young professional woman who seeks to stay in power because she knows she can do good, but who’s also very much aware that her family’s privilege, built over many years of corruption, are what gave her access to power in the first place.

I would have liked to have seen Miles more in this book (I became very attached to him in book #1), but he does participate with Grace in key scenes, and it’s nice to see that he’s doing well and that his love life is thriving!

One of my complaints about Witchmark was about insufficiently clear world-building. I felt that there were too many concepts that were introduced but not well explained. Some aspects are clearer to me now after reading Stormsong, but I’d still like certain things spelled out even more — especially the Amaranthines, a race (?) or species (?) of people (?) who are feared by all, seem to have unfathomable magical powers, and who intervene in the conflicts between people when they seem fit. I’ve seen other bloggers and commenters interpret them as being this world’s equivalent of the Fae, which helps me make better sense of them, although I think they’re maybe also supposed to be some sort of celestial (?) beings, and their world is called Solace (?) but also has something to do with where souls of the dead go, so maybe some sort of heaven (?).

As you can see, I’m still somewhat confused!

I like the overarching story and the characters enough that I want to know what happens next, so I’ll be continuing onward to book #3, Soulstar. Here’s hoping it all comes together and that everything is crystal clear by the time I finish the trilogy!

Book Review: Elder Race by Adrian Tchaikovsky

Title: Elder Race
Author: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Publisher: Tordotcom
Publication date: November 16, 2021
Length: 201 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Purchased

Rating: 5 out of 5.

In Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, a junior anthropologist on a distant planet must help the locals he has sworn to study to save a planet from an unbeatable foe.

Lynesse is the lowly Fourth Daughter of the queen, and always getting in the way.

But a demon is terrorizing the land, and now she’s an adult (albeit barely) and although she still gets in the way, she understands that the only way to save her people is to invoke the pact between her family and the Elder sorcerer who has inhabited the local tower for as long as her people have lived here (though none in living memory has approached it).

But Elder Nyr isn’t a sorcerer, and he is forbidden to help, for his knowledge of science tells him the threat cannot possibly be a demon… 

This stunning, inventive, beautifully crafted novella is a living, breathing embodiment of Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

In Elder Race, Lynesse Fourth Daughter, daughter of the queen of Lannesite, takes the forbidden trail up the mountain to the Tower of Nyrgoth Elder, the revered sorcerer who has not been seen for generations. Lynesse is not taken seriously by her mother or older sisters, all of whom prefer to focus on trade and diplomacy rather than indulge Lynesse’s flights of fancy. But Lynesse has heard refugees from outlying lands plea for help after their towns and forests were overrun by a demon, and she’s determined to take action, even if her mother won’t.

That’s the opening set-up of Elder Race. It feels like the start of an epic quest, and hurray for girl power too!

Stop reading here if you want to avoid spoilers completely, because there’s a doozy coming…

Ready?

The next chapter is told from the perspective of Nyrgoth Elder… and it turns everything upside down. It turns out that his name is really Nyr Illim Tevitch, and he’s not a sorcerer. Nyr is an anthropologist with Earth’s Explorer Corps, and he’s there in his remote outpost to study and observe the local populations.

Thousands of years earlier, Earth sent out generation ships to colonize planets throughout the universe. And some thousands of years after that, groups of scientists followed to check on how the colonies turned out. Nyr was a part of one of these expeditions, and after his fellow scientists were recalled to Earth, he was left behind, the sole member of the expedition remaining to continue their studies.

The problem is, he hasn’t heard back from Earth in centuries. Nyr stays alive through advanced science, including long periods of sleeping in suspended animation. He last awoke a century earlier, and broke one of the cardinal rules of anthropologists by getting involved with the local people. His mission is to study and report; by mingling with the people, he’s potentially contaminating the study.

When Lynesse and her companion Esha show up at his tower, there begins a remarkable story of cultural differences and miscommunications. The early colonies on the planet were rudimentary, starting life over without technology. Their culture is agrarian and feudal and deeply superstitious. Anything unexplainable is attributed to magic and demons and sorcerers. And so even when Nyr tries to explain himself, the language gap between the cultures makes it literally impossible for him to translate the term scientist — every word he tries to use comes out as some form of magician or sorcerer or wizard.

“It’s not magic,” he insisted, against all reason. “I am just made this way. I am just of a people who understand how the world works.”

“Nyrgoth Elder,” Esha said slowly. “Is that not what magic is? Every wise man, every scholar I have met who pretended to the title of magician, that was their study. They sought to learn how the world worked, so that they could control and master it. That is magic.”

As their quest proceeds, Nyr goes against every principle of his training, as he realizes that he can actually serve a different purpose:

I am only now, at the wrong end of three centuries after loss of contact, beginning to realise just how broken my own superior culture actually was. They set us here to make exhaustive anthropological notes on the fall of every sparrow. But not to catch a single one of them. To know, but very emphatically not to care.

I can’t even begin to explain how gorgeously crafted this slim book is. Particularly mind-blowing is a chapter in which Nyr tells Lynesse and Esha the story of how his people came to the planet millennia ago. On the same page, in parallel columns, we read Nyr’s science-based story and right next to it, the same story as it’s heard by Lynesse in the context of her own culture and language. It’s a remarkable writing achievement, and just so fascinating to read.

Also fascinating is Elder Race‘s treatment of depression and mental health, which for Nyr is managed through the use of advanced technology that allows him to separate from his feelings — but not permanently. He can shut off feeling his feelings, but is still aware that they’re there, and can only go so long before he has to let down the wall and experience the emotions that have been walled away. The descriptions of dealing with depression are powerful, as is the way he explains knowing the depression is waiting for him, even in moments when he’s not living it.

I absolutely loved the depiction of a tech-free culture’s interpretation of advanced scientific materials and equipment, and the way the books chapters, alternating between Lynesse and Nyr’s perspectives, bring the cultural divide to life.

Elder Race is beautifully written and expertly constructed. The balancing act between science fiction and fantasy is just superb. This book should not be missed!