Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Books Received in June 2020

Many thanks to Ace and Saga Press for sending me the following debut novels for review.

The Kingdom of Liars by Nick Martell - Sounds like it uses an interesting form of magic and has a lot of political intrigue.

In this brilliant debut fantasy, a story of secrets, rebellion, and murder are shattering the Hollows, where magic costs memory to use, and only the son of the kingdom’s despised traitor holds the truth.
Michael is branded a traitor as a child because of the murder of the king’s nine-year-old son, by his father David Kingman. Ten years later on Michael lives a hardscrabble life, with his sister Gwen, performing crimes with his friends against minor royals in a weak attempt at striking back at the world that rejects him and his family.
In a world where memory is the coin that pays for magic, Michael knows something is there in the hot white emptiness of his mind. So when the opportunity arrives to get folded back into court, via the most politically dangerous member of the kingdom’s royal council, Michael takes it, desperate to find a way back to his past. He discovers a royal family that is spiraling into a self-serving dictatorship as gun-wielding rebels clash against magically trained militia.
What the truth holds is a set of shocking revelations that will completely change the Hollows, if Michael and his friends and family can survive long enough to see it.

The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson - Given 2020 this may be too dark for me at the moment, but it sure sounds awesome.

A young woman living in a rigid, puritanical society discovers dark powers within herself in this stunning, feminist fantasy debut.
In the lands of Bethel, where the Prophet's word is law, Immanuelle Moore's very existence is blasphemy. Her mother’s union with an outsider of a different race cast her once-proud family into disgrace, so Immanuelle does her best to worship the Father, follow Holy Protocol, and lead a life of submission, devotion, and absolute conformity, like all the other women in the settlement.
But a mishap lures her into the forbidden Darkwood surrounding Bethel, where the first prophet once chased and killed four powerful witches. Their spirits are still lurking there, and they bestow a gift on Immanuelle: the journal of her dead mother, who Immanuelle is shocked to learn once sought sanctuary in the wood.
Fascinated by the secrets in the diary, Immanuelle finds herself struggling to understand how her mother could have consorted with the witches. But when she begins to learn grim truths about the Church and its history, she realizes the true threat to Bethel is its own darkness. And she starts to understand that if Bethel is to change, it must begin with her.


The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones - When I heard about this book a few months ago I was told it was a psychological horror. Consider me intrigued.

Seamlessly blending classic horror and a dramatic narrative with sharp social commentary, The Only Good Indians follows four American Indian men after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives. Tracked by an entity bent on revenge, these childhood friends are helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

Thursday, 25 June 2020

Some Dark Fantasy Book Recommendations Without Sexual Assaults

Around the time grimdark emerged as its own genre I was getting tired of traditional fantasy tropes and wanted something new. It seemed perfect timing. I read Joe Abercrombie's First Law trilogy and it so expertly reverted the fantasy tropes I was familiar with that I loved them.

Something strange happened after that though. Other books I picked up seemed to be less a clever conversation with the past and more just a glorification of abuse and violence. Suddenly fantasy books didn't leave me feeling better about myself and the world, they made my escape from the real world into a hellscape of rape and gratuitous violence. So I stopped reading grimdark. I also started and stopped reading urban fantasy (for several reasons but the standard list of things that started happening to all the protagonist - lost memory, got raped - was a deciding factor) and started reading more science fiction.

I've hit a point in my life where I'm not willing to finish a book I'm not enjoying, and with a few exceptions I now stop reading if there's a rape scene or if there are no redeeming protagonists. If I don't want to main characters to succeed in their goals...

So here's a list of books that have darker themes but (as far as I can remember - PLEASE CORRECT ME IF I'M MISREMEMBERING) do NOT have rape scenes. They do have other violence and can be really intense at times (I often need to break up series so I don't get too depressed reading some of this stuff), but there are no sexual assaults.

I haven't been reading as much fiction lately, and dark fantasy isn't my favourite, so this will be a short list. If you've got others, please leave a comment as I'm always looking for good, rape free fantasy.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickenson - I just finished reading the first 3 of an incomplete 4 book series about a woman whose island was colonized by a major empire, destroying their way of life. Baru determines to join the Empire and destroy it from within. There is betrayal, rebellion, colonization, mutilation, and more.

Armed in Her Fashion by Kate Heartfield - Set in an alternate medieval Belgium, a woman must find her undead husband to secure her daughter's inheritance. There's war, a hellmouth, and women doing what they must to survive.

The Emperor's Blades by Brian Steveley - The first book in a completed trilogy (there's also a standalone, Skullsworn, set in the same world and focused on an assassin/priestess). The Emperor has died and his three unprepared children must deal with the fallout. Contains assassins, eagle mounts, subtle magic, armies, fanatical priests, etc.

City of Stairs* by Robert Jackson Bennett - I'm currently reading a different series of his, but I think City of Stairs is the grittier book. There are hints of assault (ie, it's known assault happens in this world) but there are no on page assaults. The plot centres around a female diplomat sent to uncover a murderer in a colonized city. (If you ever thought computer programming would make a cool magic system, I highly recommend Foundryside.)

Waking Fire by Anthony Ryan - An interesting completed trilogy about a society built on the use of dragon blood in a world where few dragons remain. There are navel battles, betrayals, wars, etc.

Lamentation by Ken Scholes - The first of a completed 5 book series that was so intense I needed a break between books. When an ancient device destroys the city of Windwir, war comes to the Named Lands. There is a lot of violence, sometimes graphic torture, assassination, political intrigue, plots within plots within plots.

This next book isn't technically grimdark (being older than that label) but the author really puts her characters through the ringer (which is true of all the books I've read by her).

Transformation by Carol Berg - The first of a trilogy but can easily be read as a standalone. A slave who used magic in the past must help his new master overcome his possession. This is one of my favourite novels because there's a surprising amount of humour to it. Black humour, to be sure. It also doesn't pull any punches. There is off page assault (it's clear the protagonist was assaulted in the past and he tries to warn another character who is assaulted off page).

Carol Berg's Song of the Beast is also a brilliant book, but so harsh I've only been able to read it once.

Another hesitant recommendation is The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter*. One side character is assaulted off page, which results in several things going bad for other characters (who try to avenge it). The book is about a man in a structured society who manages to go beyond his station. So much violence and fighting. I haven't read the second one so I'm not sure if the protagonist remains someone I can root for.

If you've had enough dark fantasy and want a palate cleanse, E. K. Johnston's The Afterward is excellent. It's about a group of female knights (one of whom is transgender and several of whom are gay) who go on a quest to defeat the bad guy. It will leave you feeling good about the world.

[*Sorry, I wrote this quickly and have edited out some typos like "City of Stars" and Evan Winters. My apologies.]

Some harassing authors to avoid

[Edited June 26th to add: New stories are still being told and some new harassers are being outed. I didn't (and don't) intend for this to be a list that gets updated, especially since I'm not one of the victims nor am I close enough to the people coming out to verify any of their accounts. Similarly, there are authors who've been outed in the past that maybe people no longer remember that I haven't named here. Maybe some of them have changed and no longer pose a threat. Maybe they haven't. Maybe some of these authors will take the time to better themselves and be worthy of friendship and conventions again. Maybe they won't (and it's not up to me to decide when that time is, not sure if anyone can since it's impossible to know who all their victims were, or to undo the damage these harassers have done to their victims).

Times like this I'm glad I'm Canadian and only briefly attended conventions. I wrote this post because it seems a lot of harassment stories get swept under the rug and promptly forgotten, or stay at a particular platform and never get divulged to the wider field, and I don't think that's right. There has always been a dangerous undercurrent of harassment at SFF conventions and people need to know that and start kicking harassers out and not inviting them again, regardless of how good their fiction is.

I kind of hope that someone more connected than me does start a list though. Because I hate the thought of promoting books by people who act horribly to others and I'm sure I'm not hearing even a portion of the horror stories out there.

I didn't include any of the stories about the people named in my post below, but a twitter search on their names should bring up the information you're looking for.]
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[ETA again: Julie Caught Reading has started a list of known harassers (and sexual abusers) with links. She's including the YA and kidslit authors who were mentioned back in 2018.] 

[And another edit: If you want a good rundown of the twitter conversations that named the people below as well as includes links to those stories, Jason Sanford has a free patreon article about it.]

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I've been reading all the new (and old) harassment stories on twitter and felt like I should say something.

I have been very lucky in that I've never experienced harassment myself at a conference, but I believe the stories and it sickens me the extent to which some people in the field have had to protect themselves and give up opportunities for their own careers because fandom shields men who act badly.

Every few years a new batch of perpetrators seems to come to light, people there's been a 'whisper network' warning women against. But those networks aren't heard by everyone, and there will be new victims every year until these abusers are removed.

With a lot of the stories I've not read the authors and can easily say I won't in future. One of the authors this time is someone I had professional dealings with. I interviewed Myke Cole back when he was first starting out and recently reviewed some of his books. I followed him on twitter because he tweeted a lot about Spartans and ancient Greece. So it feels more personal.

For anyone reading this who isn't on twitter, the names that have come out so far are: Paul Krueger, Sam Sykes, Myke Cole (all 3 for sexual assault and/or harassment over several years), and Mark Lawrence (for harassment). I will not be reading or reviewing their books here. [Edit: Some people on twitter have pointed out that a lot of conventions have whisper network warning people of harassers, but that not everyone gets those messages. The same goes for the internet at large. For example Myke Cole apologized for harassing women back in 2018 - and I'm only hearing about this now.]

I haven't decided what - if anything - I should do about my reviews of Myke Cole's books on my site. [Edit: I've added a comment at the beginning of these reviews with a link to this post so future readers are aware of what's happened.]

Admitting wrong doing is a good step, as is apologizing, which some of them have publicly done. But I was taught that actual repentance means making restitution and never making that mistake again. These men can't undo the harm they've done to the people they've hurt, but they can stay away from conventions in the future, making those spaces safer for other attendees.

It's always a shock, learning that people you admire are a$$holes. All I can do now is stand with the victims.

Tuesday, 23 June 2020

Movie Review: Us

Directed by Jordan Peele, 2019
IMDb listing

Pros: psychological horror, fantastic acting, great twists

Cons: some of the backstory doesn’t fit if you think about it too much

It’s the start of a family’s summer vacation and the mother reluctantly returns to the beach where she had a terrifying encounter as a child. That night a strange family of doppelgangers shows up at their house.

This is a very scary movie. While there’s some blood and gore, for the most part it’s psychological horror, the kind of horror that will have you jumping at shadows while you wonder what’s going to happen next.

There are a few inconsistencies with the backstory that makes up the deeper plot, but you’ll think of those after the film’s over not while you’re watching it, trying to figure out what’s going on.

The actors are brilliant in their roles. Each does their human and doppelganger’s parts. I was particularly impressed by Evan Alex who played the son, as his doppelganger seemed especially challenging to play.

I expected the film to play out on a small scale - with only their family affected - so I was surprised when things branched out. There were several twists I didn’t see coming.

If you haven’t seen it and like to freak out, this is a good film.

Monday, 22 June 2020

New posts coming

My apologies for the lack of content recently. I’ve been reading a lot of history books for a trip that was supposed to be this summer but will now (hopefully) be next summer. Some of those books I’m reviewing here, some I’m not (usually ones that I skim or don’t fully read or don’t think are worth it for others to read). I’ve also had to reread books I’ve already reviewed so I can properly review sequels, which is putting me behind on reviews I can post. Book 3 of the Masquerade series by Seth Dickinson, The Tyrant Baru Cormorant, was originally scheduled for a mid-June release. I tried to skim the previous books but there’s so much going on I just had to do a proper reread (and having done so I’d recommend it as there are so many nuances you’ll miss if you don’t). You’ll see my review of that on August 11th, it’s revised release date (it’s fantastic). I just finished rereading Foundryside by Robert Jackson Bennett so I can read Shorefall (already out!). With any luck I’ll be able to post a review of Shorefall next week, after which I’ll be splitting time between history and fiction again. There are some interesting sounding books coming this summer, so I’ll try to do some shout-out posts. For the sake of quick content, I’ve got a review of the movie ‘Us’ ready to go up tomorrow.

A lot has been happening in the world. I went to a black lives matter rally in my city. I've been seeing tweets about how some people in genre have been horrible, abusing others. I've been reading stories about the horrors of covid-19 - those dying of it, those living and suffering after effects. Politics is becoming a horror show of its own in some countries. Sometimes it feels like respect to stay silent, to let bigger news take the place of my blog about books and movies and science fiction/fantasy/horror. But we all need escapes, and if I can point the way to books that will let you escape the challenges of this world for a little while, then maybe what I do here has meaning. 

Be well.

Tuesday, 2 June 2020

Book Review: Germania by John Wilson

Pros: historical accuracy, shows both sides of the conflict

Cons: some graphic violence

During the eruption of mount Vesuvius, Lucius Quinctillius Claudianus rushes to record the events of his time as a Roman legionary serving in Germania.

The frame story of the old Lucius is told in the first person, present tense. But when the narrative switches to the past, it’s third person and occasionally alternates to the point of view of a female barbarian he befriends, Freya.

As far as I can tell the author did a remarkable job of maintaining historical accuracy. There’s more detail at times than I needed about the various Roman legions and where Lucius was marching in relation to other groups, but on the whole I loved the depth of detail in this novelization.

Bringing in Freya as a point of view character allowed the author to examine several issues from both the Roman and Germanic perspective. Lucius questions the Roman way a fair bit (largely due to Freya’s influence) but it’s still nice to see the various Germanic tribes humanized and shown off as being different from rather than lesser than the Romans. The author also does a great job of showing that neither side is inherently evil or good, and that when necessary, both are capable of horrific acts of brutality.

There are some graphic descriptions of brutal events. Some people are crucified, decapitated heads are staked to trees, there’s mention that one group of female prisoners will likely be raped before being sold into slavery. While mentioned once or twice, there’s no sexual content in the book.

If you’re interested in the Roman military and its interactions with different tribes, this is engaging and accurate.