Father Sandoz, the only person from the humanity’s first mission to Rakhat to return to Earth, has barely begun to recover from his ordeal when the Jesuits asks him to assist in preparing the second team. Reticent to assist anyone to go to Rakhat but enjoying the use of the languages again, he agrees.
Meanwhile, one survivor of the mission joins forces with the Runa and a rogue Jana’ata to bring about justice. What world will the second mission find when they return? It certainly won’t be the one previously held in a tenuous working balance between predator and prey.
The Sparrow really touched me, and I was eager to return to Rakhat, not to mention to see how Sandoz handled his recovery. What I found was a mixed bag. A creative expansion on the world of Rakhat but a message and character development that moved in directions that left me feeling very little.
The presence of humans upset the delicate balance between the Jana’ata and the Runa. The humans demonstrated to the Runa that they didn’t need the Jana’ata, and thus a revolution was born. The thing is though this culture is just so truly alien that it’s hard to root for the Runa or the Jana’ata.
The Jana’ata have a depraved world, yes, but they are also truly predators who evolved from predators. It’s hard to hate on them when they’re basically cats walking around in medieval clothes. Well, of course they’re acting barbaric. They’re cats! And the thing is, they’re not just cruel to the Runa, they’re cruel to each other as well.
The one real disjointed bit of the narrative is that this culture reads as a developing one, as if they are from the 1200s or 1300s on Earth. Yet they somehow have enough technology that they could broadcast music to Earth? It makes no sense that they would be so backwards and yet simultaneously so advanced in science.
Similarly, the Runa are a people with a culture but they also are a prey species. They reproduce like mad when they have enough food, and they act like herd animals. Yakking constantly and with no real art or science developing. It is easy to see how these two cultures came to co-exist, as well as the fact that they need each other. Put another way, everyone thinks deer are cute, and they are. But if they exist in a world with no natural predators, they soon over-run the place until they have too much population for the land to support, and they start to starve. Yes, the co-existence between the Jana’ata and the Runa could be handled better (certainly with more clarity and more maturity) but the Runa and Jana’ata need each other. They co-evolved.My perspective on the Runa and Jana’ata impacts how I feel about the rest of the book.
Russell presents the idea that it’s ok for the Runa to become the dominant culture so long as they “allow” the “good” Jana’ata (the ones who have sworn off eating Runa and struggle along eating the eggs of some other creature that can barely sustain them. Truly barely. One character has multiple problem pregnancies due to malnutrition). Positing the idea that the Jana’ata are bad because they are predators, and the Runa are good because they are herbivores (with some outliers in both groups of course) is just hard to swallow. Bad and good is much more nuanced than that. Is a shark bad because it eats a seal because it’s hungry? No. But if a shark kills a seal because it’s fun to kill a seal and then swims off without eating it? Then one could argue that’s a bad shark with a bad nature. This level of nuance is just something I felt was missing from the book and the world.
I also found Sandoz’s path back to god to be a bit irritating, as well as the repeatedly presented idea that we can all have different interpretations of the one god, but there is definitely one. A whole alien planet with two sentient species, and no one can even entertain the idea that there might be more than one god? People are allowed to think there’s not one at all, although the book does present this as a shortcoming of those people’s natures. Basically, if they were a bit more willing to open they could at least be agnostic about the idea. The ultimate “proof” of the existence of god in the book is something that made me laugh. I won’t reveal what is found but suffice to say that if you’ve heard the argument about a watch proving there’s a watchmaker, it’s very similar to that one. After the insight and the gray areas allowed in the first book with regards to faith, I was disappointed.
If my review seems a bit mixed and all over the place that’s because that’s how this book read to me. There were chapters of beauty and then others that made me sigh and still others that made me scratch my head. It’s a mixed bag of content set in a complicated world with an ending that some readers would definitely find satisfying but I do not. I still enjoyed the read overall simply because I love visiting the world of Rakhat. But would I want to visit it again? Given the direction it was going, probably not. Although I would gladly visit the future Earth that gets to meet a Jana’ata or a Runa on our own turf.
Overall, readers of the first book who enjoyed it for Rakhat will enjoy getting to know more about both the Runa and the Jana’ata culture will enjoy the sequel, whereas those who appreciated it for its nuance and exploration of gray areas and difficult topics will be less satisfied.
4 out of 5 stars
Illness(es) featured: Autism Spectrum Disorder
Picking up where Unwind left off, UnWholly finds Risa and Connor managing the Graveyard full of unwinds themselves with no adults in site, and Lev struggling to find a purpose now that he’s both free of clapper chemicals and under the watchful eye of the government. Into the mix comes Cam, the first ever “rewind.” He’s been assembled completely from the parts of unwinds of every race and religion. And his creator intends to meddle with the runaway unwinds too.
I picked this up right after finishing the first on audiobook, because finding a fast-paced story with a good narrator can be harder than it sounds. So once I found that with the first book in the series and I saw the rest of it had the same narrator, I figured I may as well continue along with it. While I found the first book engaging and thought-provoking, I found myself periodically bored with the plot in this one, and also found it more difficult to suspend my disbelief than before.
The basic premise is that Connor is all torn up over having the arm of his once-rival (who also just so happened to threaten to rape his girlfriend, Risa). He thus holds Risa at arm’s-length (pun intended) because he’s afraid of what his own arm will do. While I appreciate the fact that it must be truly atrocious for your boyfriend to now have your attempted rapist’s arm, I think the fact that Connor lends the arm so much agency is a symptom of one particular idea in this world-building that just doesn’t work for me. The idea that body parts have their own spark of soul or agency or thought. It’s rife in this entry in the series, and it’s just plain weird to me. I can understand a character not bonding with a transplant that was forced upon him. I can understand it being weird for loved ones. I don’t, however, find myself able to suspend my disbelief enough to believe that someone’s arm has their personality in it so much that the person who it was transplanted onto would be afraid of it. It’s an arm, not a piece of brain or even a heart. The author does provide links to sources about transplant recipients feeling connected to the person whose body part they received or having memories or what have you. I appreciate that. But for me personally this plot point just does not work. Other readers may be able to suspend their disbelief better than I was able to. I for once can’t imagine not going near my own girlfriend because I was afraid of my arm. I also just disliked how much agency Connor removes from himself for his own temper. If he hits the wall when he’s angry it’s not him hitting the wall, it’s the arm hitting the wall. The arm got mad. The arm got out of control. There’s just a ridiculous lack of agency there, and I’m not super comfortable with that level of lack of agency being in a book marketed toward teenagers, who are at the best point in life for learning agency and responsibility.
I similarly have a hard time believing, from a neurological perspective, that the rewind boy, Cam, could exist. His brain is dozens’ of peoples all wound together. I could believe replacing a brain piece here or there with transplant technology, I couldn’t believe mish-mashing many together and having them actually function. Let alone with the only issue being that Cam struggles to learn to speak in words instead of metaphors. While Cam did strike me as grotesque, he mostly just struck me as an impossibility that I was then supposed to have sympathy for because he’s a person with his own feelings…but are they really? The whole thing was just a bit too bizarre for me.
On a related note, I found the scenes where Cam wakes up and learns to talk and slowly realizes what he is to be very tedious to read. They move slowly, and there is an attempt at building of suspense, but it is clear nearly immediately that Cam is a Frankenstein’s creature like experiment, even without Cam himself knowing it right away.
The other big new character is Starkey, a boy who was storked who is brought into the Graveyard. He’s basically exactly the same as Connor (he’s even still a white boy), the only difference being that was a stork and that he has no Risa to ease down his temper. I found his characterization to be uncreative, even if the building up of strife between the storks and the rest of the unwinds was a good plot point. It would have been better if the leader of the storks was more creative. Similarly, Starkey’s two main assistants are a black girl and an Indian-American boy. Just as with the first book, non-white people exist, but only as seconds to the white people. Why couldn’t either of them have been the leader of the storks?
All of these things said, there was still a lot of plot to keep the interest. I’ve barely touched on a couple of them. The world is still engaging, even if it’s hard to suspend the disbelief for it. I doubt I’d keep reading if I was reading this in print, but the audiobook narration makes it feel like listening to a movie, and it’s the perfect match for my commutes and doing dishes and such. Plus, now I’m curious as to where else the plot will go. I’m betting it will end up going in a direction I find it even harder to suspend my disbelief for, but it’ll be a fun ride seeing where that is.
Overall, fans of the first book may be disappointed by the slightly more meandering plot in this one. The addition of two new characters to follow will be distracting to some readers while others will find it adds to the interest and suspense. Some readers may be turned off by the continued lack of diversity in such a large cast of protagonists. The plot is engaging and the world is unique, though, so fans of YA dystopian scifi will probably still enjoy it.
3 out of 5 stars
One of Toby’s oldest friends is in dire trouble. Lily of the Tea Gardens is slowly fading away, and no one knows what’s causing it. On top of that, one of Toby’s worst nemeses whose name is feared throughout Fae, Oleander, is back. Are the two related or is something else going on? And can Toby save the day without losing herself?
I picked this book up expecting it to be another mystery of the week entry in the series, but what I found was a surprising development in the overarching plot that kept my heart in my throat but also left me dubious about the possible directions the next book could take.
The plot starts out similarly to the previous entry in the series. Someone close to Toby is in danger. In this case, it’s Lily, and she’s sick, slowly fading out of existence. Over the course of the book, others close to Toby end up sick as well, as it soon becomes clear (this is really not a spoiler, it’s revealed early on) that someone is poisoning them. When Oleander showed up, I nearly groaned at how obvious it felt that she is the one to blame for all of this. But it’s not quite that straight-forward, and there’s also a sub-plot of Toby possibly going crazy….which changelings are known to do in this world. The book then isn’t just about Toby trying to solve the mystery, it’s also about her trying to determine if her blood has doomed her to sink into insanity. This gives the plot enough depth to keep it interesting.
Long-standing characters receive more depth of character development and new ones are added. Toby cotinues to have the wit that keeps the book upbeat even when things are grim. One quote in particular I think would work pretty well as a fitspo positive argument:
I promised myself that if I lived, I’d start working out. Better cranky and alive than cheerful and dead. (loc 1815)
As for the plot twist, I can’t talk about it much without spoilers. The spoiler free review would be that I am concerned the big overarching plot twist moves things a bit too far into one hero to save us land, which isn’t a fantasy plot I personally usually enjoy. For the spoiler version of this, see the next paragraph.
It is revealed that Toby is not the type of Fae she thought, she is rather a very rare type of Fae. This type of Fae is capable of changing the make-up of their own blood. She can thus morph into more Fae, changeling, or human as she desires. It also turns out her mother is from the first born, which makes her kind of Fae royalty. My issue with this is one of the things I like so much about the series is that Toby lacks the magical powers to the extent the Fae have. She also doesn’t fit into the human world. But she fights for her right to be in the world she chooses to live in, and her value in the Fae world is due to how hard she tries and her brains, not her blood. This plot development feels like it’s making it all about her blood. Her power is due to whose daughter she is, not who she herself is. That’s just not a message I’m as fond of.
Overall, this is an action-packed entry in the series that visits another mystery with enough different sub-plots and twists to keep it interesting. Fans of the series will be surprised by the big overarching plot development toward the end of the book and will be eager to pick up the next one to see where this plot development goes.
4 out of 5 stars
Book Review: Fables, Vol. 1: Legends in Exile by Bill Willingham et al. (Series, #1) (Graphic Novel)
All the characters from the fairy tales we know actually lived in that folklore world but were forced out into exile in modern-day New York thanks to an enemy known only as The Adversary. Snow White, right-hand to the ruler of Fabletown, seeks to keep everyone in line. But that gets more difficult when her own sister, Rose Red, is murdered. A reformed Big Bad Wolf, now their sheriff, promises to help her track down his killer.
Being a long-time fan of The 10th Kingdom, a story about the characters of folklore existing in a parallel universe to our own that some modern-day Americans accidentally visit, I was intrigued by this idea of a similar story in reverse. Instead of being engaging and a fun escape, though, my experience with it is best summed-up as meh. It’s a cool idea that is saddled to a ho-hum plot and flat characters, thereby rendering it a mediocre read.
The basic idea is some unseen Adversary has driven the fairy tale folk out of their land and into exile in our own. In our land, they’ve all agreed to give everyone a clean slate to start over. So far so good. From here though things go from interesting and semi-unique to basically a noir plot we’ve all read before wrapped up in 2-dimensional fairy tale characters. Big Bad Wolf is the hard-boiled detective. Snow White is his lady assistant. A noir version of a fairy tale could have been good, but instead the flattest elements of both genres are mashed together, rather than the best of each. What you end up with is a wolf without his fangs or a hard-boiled detective without his cigarettes and womanizing ways. The grit is just removed leaving an overly-sanitized world.
I do enjoy a mystery plot but I also expect them to keep me guessing. I knew the solution long before the end, and I’m guessing most other readers would too.
The art is mostly good, although the depiction of the talking pig gave me goosebumps in a bad way. He doesn’t really fit in to the feel of the rest of the art. However, the art is colorful and easy to follow, and made reading the story go quickly.
Overall, if a reader loves fairy tales and graphic novels and likes the idea of seeing fairy tale characters in modern-day New York, they will probably enjoy this book. Readers looking for an in-depth exploration of a fairy tale character or to see them more well-rounded in a non-fairy tale setting will be disappointed. Similarly, readers looking for a tough mystery to solve will want to look elsewhere.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: I remember I bought it at a comic book store, but I don’t remember which one.
“Lizzie Borden took an axe; gave her mother forty whacks….”
Any New Englander knows the nursery rhyme based on the true crime story of Mr. and Mrs. Borden who were murdered with an axe in 1892. In spite of being tried and acquitted for the murders, their daughter (in the case of Mrs. Borden, step-daughter), was widely believed to actually be responsible for the murders. In this book, she definitely was, but maybe not for the reasons you might think.
A darkness is trying to take over Fall River, Massachusetts, and Lizzie and her ailing sister Emma are all that might stand between the town and oblivion, with Lizzie’s parents being the first casualties in the battle.
I grew up chanting the nursery rhyme about Lizzie Borden the first half of which is quoted above (this perhaps says an awful lot about New Englanders, but I digress), and I also love tales from the Lovecraft universe, which also originated in New England. When I heard about this book that mashed up the two, I put it on my wishlist. Lo and behold, my future sister-in-law, who had never even seen my wishlist, bought it for me for Christmas last year. I thought this would be the perfect read for the fantasy challenge, and although it was a bit different than what I was expecting, I still enjoyed the mix of Lovecraft and women’s history that Priest has woven and am eagerly anticipating reading the sequel.
The story is told through a combination of first person accounts from Lizzie, Emma, and Nance, diary-style entries by their neighbor doctor, letters, police and fire reports, and first person ramblings of a professor from Miskatonic University (another Lovecraft element). Some readers may be put off by the combination of first person perspectives, but I’ve always enjoyed this style, particularly when it includes things like letters and police reports. I felt that it was one of the strengths of the book, and I also particularly enjoyed getting to see both Emma’s and Lizzie’s perspectives, as well as that of Lizzie’s lover, Nance.
The Lovecraft mash-up basically is that some sort of Dark One in the deep is out to turn everyone on the seacoast either into worshippers or victims or literally turn them into monstrous ones who live in the deep. Emma and Lizzie’s parents were among the first to begin succumbing to this infection and that is why Lizzie had to kill them. Lizzie and Emma now are conducting research, trying to figure out how to prevent the Dark One from actually rising up. This is all extremely Lovecraftian, including the fact that some of these developments don’t make a ton of sense, but things just don’t make sense in the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft, so I was ok with that. Readers new to the world of Lovecraft might be a bit more frustrated by how inexplicable most things to do with the Dark Ones and the deep are, however.
I particularly enjoyed how Priest explores how societal and cultural norms of 1890s New England affects women’s lives. Emma could be a scientist now that women are being accepted into colleges, but she chooses to instead write her scientific papers under a male pseudonym because she believes she would never garner respect otherwise. Lizzie and Nance are in love and must hide it, although Lizzie often feels why should she bother when she is already disgraced after the trial. The clashes between Lizzie and Emma regarding both her affair with Nance and the fact that Lizzie believes in trying out magical and fantastical defenses against the Dark One whereas Emma believes purely in science are interesting reading. They are two very different people who are thrust together both by virtue of being siblings and by the fact that as women in the 1890s their lives are limited.
On the other hand, in spite of liking the characters of the neighbor doctor and the Miskatonic professor and enjoying the exploration of Lizzie’s and Emma’s relationship and getting to see some of Emma’s character, I couldn’t help but feel that Lizzie didn’t get a chance to be enough in this book. Lizzie Borden is such a looming large figure in local history, even on the book cover she presents as a bad-ass in a period skirt holding a bloody axe. In contrast in the book she spends a lot of time dealing with her annoying sister. Similarly, I’m not a fan of the fact that Lizzie does very little of rescuing herself in this book, which is, I believe, if the historic Lizzie really did kill her parents, what she actually did in real life. To me Lizzie has always been a woman who said fucking enough and took an axe and dealt violently and finally with her problems. Whereas in the book, she starts off off-screen that way (we don’t actually see her kill her parents) and she sort of tapers off. Much as I enjoyed seeing her messed up relationship with Emma, I couldn’t help but feel it would have ended more powerfully if she’d said fucking enough and whacked Emma through the skull for being such an insufferable bitch and in the way all the time. This was my main issue with the book.
My second, more minor, issue is that I felt the plot takes too long to build up to actual horrifying events and/or murders. The first murders, as I mentioned before, happened off-screen. The beginning of the book then is a build-up of a lot of tension with not much actual gore or murder occurring. I should mention that I was watching “The Lizzie Borden Chronicles” on tv at the same time as I was reading this book. In that show, Lizzie kills at least one person an episode. Now, some of that gets over the top, but it does get the idea of the pacing one would expect from this type of story right. More mayhem. More murder. More danger. More often.
On a positive note, the scenes between Lizzie and Nance are beautifully done, and while I was frustrated to see Lizzie turn a bit into a lovesick fool, I was very glad it was happening with Nance. Their relationship and dynamic jumped off the page and really brightened up the book for me.
The set-up at the end of the book for the sequel is well-done, although I’m uncertain how the series can proceed forward so far removed from the actual historical event, I am excited to read it and see what happens.
Overall, this Lovecraft fantastical take on the Lizzie Borden of history and what led to the murders of her parents hits just the right note for Lovecraft fans. Readers who are new to the dark fantasy world of Lovecraft may be a bit surprised by the slow burn of the horror and how much of it winds up not making much sense, but those readers who can embrace this style of dark fantasy will enjoy it. Those looking for a bad-ass Lizzie should be aware that this Lizzie only acts when absolutely necessary and then with restraint, and they should perhaps tune into the made for tv movie Lizzie Borden Took An Ax instead. Recommended to fans of Lovecraft who are interested in getting some local history woven in to the New England settings they are familiar with from the Lovecraft universe.
4 out of 5 stars
This erotica short story collection was quite hit or miss for me. The stories that excelled were creative and unique, but the stories that did not featured some problematic elements that prevented me from enjoying the erotica.
When I read a short story collection, I always individually rate the stories. My rating of the collection as a whole is just the average of those ratings. The highest rating any story in this collection received from me was four stars. There were three stories I gave four stars, and two of them were the first two stories in the collection, so it definitely started out strong for me. One is a F/F story featuring a woman who is also a flower (or a flower who is also a woman). It is poetic and heart-quickening. The second story features a sentient house that has missed its owner and demands attention. This made me laugh, and I enjoyed the oddity. It read like a lighter-hearted, erotica version of dark fantasies where there is an evil house–this one is just horny. The third four star read was enjoyable for a different reason. It’s a scifi erotica where two lovers are in a spaceship that is running out of air. They decide to make love, even though they will die quicker. It was so heart-breaking and beautiful that I wished it was a whole book.
Four of the stories received three stars. In each case I felt the story either didn’t take an idea far enough or the story wasn’t long enough to tell the story. Take it farther, and these all could be just as good as the first three I discussed.
Unfortunately, there were two stories that were big clunkers for me, with each receiving only one star, and they both had almost the same problem. “Hunting Hound” has a woman mating with a werewolf. She meets him when she is out riding, and they start making out against a tree, with her a willing participant. Then this happens.
“Stop” she said, and his face darted in toward her own with a low growl. “Too late to stop.” (loc 1650)
He proceeds to penetrate her. There is nothing sexy about a woman asking a man to stop and him claiming it’s too late and proceeding to rape her. It is never too late to stop, and it’s never too late for a partner to change their mind. It really bothers me that this type of scene is still being presented as sexy. I know everyone gets off to their own thing, but this is such a clear scene of consent being removed and then ignored that I just cannot say to each their own in this case. I also want to mention that the book blurb claims that this story features “consensual sexual violence” but it definitely did not read that way to me.
“Summer Nights,” which also received one star, has a similar problem. This story features a woman who keeps seeing the same mysterious man at parties. She goes out to the woods behind the house at one of these parties, and he follows her. She finds out he’s a vampire. She stands in the woods talking to him, holding a wineglass, when this happens:
“he struck like a train, his swinging backhand sending the wineglass flying toward the treeline, and I faintly registered the tinkling shatter of it, perhaps hitting a rock, or a fallen log.” (loc 5654)
She finds the fact that he just hit a glass out of her hand to be massively sexy and proceeds to bang him. This is, again, something I feel like I shouldn’t need to say, but there is nothing sexy about a partner violently hitting something out of your hand. Nothing. Sexy. This is not a sign that oh man she should totally bang this vampire. It is a sign she should run because she is alone in the woods with a violent motherfucker. This could have so easily been foreplay if, instead of hitting a glass out of her hand, he said something like, “I want you now,” and he gently took the glass from her hand and tossed it away. Or if she said, “I want you so much,” and tossed the glass over her shoulder. It would be so easy to have the same erotica about a powerful vampire alone in the woods with a woman without it turning into problematic territory.
I truly wish these last two stories were not in the collection. The rest of the collection is creative, features some fun queer content (the F/F story and a gender-swapping story), and in the case of the best three stories, has some unique ideas. Where the collection flounders is, interestingly enough, with the two most mainstream stories that take the agency out of the hands of the women in them and instead retreats to the tired idea of violent men being sexy.
Overall, if a reader is looking for some quick fantasy erotica, most of the stories in this book will satisfy this need, although I would recommend skipping over “Hunting Hound” and “Summer Nights.” The reader who enjoys the other stories for their uniqueness will most likely be disappointed by the “sexy violence” in these two.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Kindle copy from author in exchange for my honest review