Crossroads of Canopy – Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer’s  debut novel, Crossroads of Canopy (review copy from Tor) is a fresh take on the fantasy genre.  Set in a lush rainforest, Unar runs away from her parents, who want to sell her into slavery, and becomes a junior priestess to Audblayin, goddess of growth and fertility.  After Audblayin’s death, the ambitious and rebellious Unar is passed over for promotion, and leaves the temple, vowing to be the person to find the reincarnated Audblayin and become the god’s Bodyguard.  Unar leaves Canopy, the part of the forest protected by the gods and goddesses and descends to Understorey, where she discovers a new way of living and uncovers a plot to destroy Canopy.

There’s a lot to like about Crossroads of Canopy.  Unar’s growing realisation of the unfairness of the society that she lives in shows us the dark underbelly of privilege.  It depends on the exploitation of others.  In this case, the slaves sold into servitude and the outcasts living outside Canopy who don’t benefit from the protection of the gods and goddesses above.  This is a society of strict hierarchy where the privileged live close to the sun and the rest scrape a living on the edges of society.  Unar’s compassion for the slaves is what ultimately leads to her being cast out of her temple and ostracised.  Socialism and class awareness are still rare enough things in contemporary fantasy writing, that to see them is always a delight.

The treatment of female friendship and family loyalty is also a particular strength of the book.  Unar is close to her fellow initiate Oos, though the two come from widely different backgrounds.  Oos is a noblewoman, all grace and elegance next to the tomboyish Unar.  Their friendship suffers trials and is repeatedly tested, but it endures and strengthens.  But the real joy of the book is Unar’s relationship with her younger sister.  Lost as a baby, Unar’s life is shaped by the desire to find her and make restitution.  That guilt and drive is shamelessly exploited to Unar’s downfall.

Unfortunately, though, I struggled with Unar herself.  She is an angry and rebellious teenager who repeatedly does exceptionally stupid things.  That makes her a difficult protagonist to identify with for the whole of the narrative.  She does have a lot of growing up to do – and matures significantly over the course of the novel – but it disrupted the flow for me and frequently threw me out of the novel.

Goodreads rating: 3*

The Bear and the Nightingale – Katherine Arden

I have a weakness for well-told fairy tale, particularly stories out of the Western European tradition.  And Katherine Arden gives us that in spades with The Bear and the Nightingale (Del Rey, review copy through NetGalley).

Vasilisa (Vasya) Petrovna is a child of the frozen, Russian countryside.  A child with an interesting heritage: her mother was the daughter of a mysterious woman who walked out of the Russian countryside and captured the heart of a Russian prince, becoming his second wife.  Vasya’s mother and grandmother were steeped in Russian magic, a heritage increasingly in conflict with the Orthodox church and its strict version of Christianity.  The Bear and the Nightingale is part an exploration of that tension between religion and the world of Russian myth, and part a coming of age story.

Vasya herself grows up learning her folk heritage.  In particular, she is fascinated by the stories of Frost, the winter-demon who takes the lives of the unwary, but occasionally  rewards with riches brave young women who are offered to him as tribute.  She feeds and nurtures the household and wild spirits of her village as she grows up, all unaware that she has already caught the attention of Frost himself.  Vasya is thrown into conflict with her father’s second wife, a devout Christian who also sees the local spirits but dismisses them as hallucinations sent to tempt her, and a new local priest obsessed with Vasya and determined to convert the local population with his hellfire preaching.

The Bear and the Nightingale is a glorious story of growth and personal self-discovery.  Vasya is an unconventional young woman, pushing against the boundaries of the community she lives in, for the sake of that community.  Even if it means she is forced into a position of conflict with that community.  Arden has a beautifully rich and evocative story-telling style.  This is a fantastic and very readable piece of fiction.

Goodreads rating: 4*

Foxlowe – Eleanor Wasserberg

Eleanor Wasserberg‘s debut, Foxlowe (Fourth Estate, review copy from NetGalley) is a chilling portrayal of physical and psychological abuse, and the legacy they can leave.  Set in a Utopian but poverty-stricken New Age commune of artists and bohemians, it follows the Family, and their shifting power dynamics and relationships, as people arrive and leave.

The story is told through the eyes of Green, a young girl growing up in the commune.  All she knows is Foxlowe, the Family, and its rules and customs.  She’s received no formal education, with her parents, Richard and Freya (two of the Founders of Foxlowe) firmly believing that it is better to raise Green and the other children off-grid and more closely in tune with nature.  Green’s existence is bounded by the seasons and rituals built around the local ley lines, standing stones and a strange phenomenon whereby at the solstice the sun appears to briefly rise again after setting behind the local hills.  Above all, Green has been raised to fear The Bad, an existential evil that contaminates and can only be driven out by the proper rituals.

As a child Green secretly puts Blue, the new baby, outside a supposedly protective salt circle, leading Green to believe she is responsible for infecting Blue with The Bad.  Green’s mother, Freya, is an abuser.  There is a truly horrifying description in Foxlowe of the time Freya makes Green take the ‘Spike Walk’: walking along a narrow passage lined with old, rusty picture nails that scratch and tear the flesh.  Freya is not satisfied until sufficient blood has been shed to punish, cause pain and supposedly hold The Bad at bay for a while.  Desperate for Freya’s love and approval, Green comes to believe she deserves the abuse she experiences, and becomes complicit in the abuse of others, with inevitable tragic consequences.

One of the strengths of the novel is the way Wasserberg conveys the horror of Foxlowe through the perspective of a limited first person narrator.  We see the horror, but Green does not comprehend it.  When Green eventually leaves Foxlowe she struggles to adjust to life in the outside world.  Her sheltered upbringing means she is ill equipped to navigate it, and, carrying extreme levels of guilt, she cannot see herself as victim, or her beloved Freya as abuser.  There are few things as taboo in our society as a mother who abuses her children, and we instinctively recoil from Freya, but Green forces us to see her creativity and compassion (albeit it manifests in a twisted way).  Rightly or wrongly, Green loves Freya.

Foxlowe is an accomplished and thought-provoking debut.

Goodreads rating: 4*

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin

N K Jemisin‘s Hugo winning novel The Fifth Season (the first in the Broken Earth series) is a tour de force about the marginalised, the exploited and the abused.

In Jemisin’s world, humanity lives on a continent riven by regular geological events.  An earthquake, a volcanic eruption or something similar can result in a ‘Fifth Season’, where the natural flow of the seasons is disrupted for a period of time.   Humanity survives these episodes through rigid adherence to survivalist doctrine ( “stonelore”), the protection of communities and the stockpiling of supplies.

A Fifth Season can be civilisation-ending, returning humanity back to primitive subsistence living, surrounded by the relics of predecessor civilisations.  But the Sanzed Empire has survived a number of these seasons.  It has done so through the ruthless exploitation of orogones: a group of people with the skill to control and manipulate geological events.  Because of the threat they pose, those with the talent live apart in the Fulcrum.  Treated as a near-slave class and widely despised, they live a strictly controlled existence, their talents used to maintain and preserve the Sanzed Empire.

The Fifth Season is a braided novel, following three interconnecting storylines that slowly converge.  Essun is an orogene who lives in hiding in a remote village, concealing her power.  She sees her son murdered and her daughter stolen by her husband.  In the wake of a major geological event that is bringing on a new Fifth Season she goes in search of her daughter.  Syenite is a young orogene, still in training and working for the Empire.  She is sent on a mission to clear coral from a harbour with Alabaster, an older, more powerful and much more experienced orogene.  She is expected to conceive a child with him during that mission, as part of the Fulcrum’s breeding programme.  And Damaya is a young child.  As a newly discovered feral orogene she is taken from her family to the Fulcrum to begin her training.

Told from the point of view of the orogenes, this is a story about the oppressed and what can happen when they are pushed beyond breaking point.  Normally in fantasy fiction the conflict is black and white, with a Great Evil being responsible for the world-threatening event our heroes are set to tackle.  But in Jemisin’s novel, the geological event Essun is fleeing was an act of terrorism triggered by one of their number to end the centuries of abuse the orogenes have suffered at the hands of the Sanzed Empire.  And for all that it is bringing armageddon to Sanzed we cannot but come to be sympathetic with that action.  The emotional and physical abuse that Damaya experiences as she leaves her fearful family is intensely chilling, as is the complicity of many orogenes in the self-governing structures of the Fulcrum that control and restrict orogenes.  Jemisin leaves the reader in no doubt about the risk and danger of the geological events threatening her world, but she is also clear that the threat does not justify the appalling treatment of those with the skill to neutralise it.

Jemisin builds a rich world and uses it to tell a genre-busting story that gives us a glimpse of how the world could be different if only we had the courage to stand against prejudice and value the talents and contribution of us all.

Goodreads rating: 5*

Fair Rebel – Steph Swainston

I’ve been a huge fan of Steph Swainston ever since her first Castle novel.  She’s one of the freshest and most interesting voices in contemporary fantasy fiction.  So I was hugely excited to receive a review copy of her newest novel, Fair Rebel from Gollancz.  And it exceeded all of my expectations, speaking to me in the way only a small and rare number of books do.  .

Fair Rebel is the fifth Castle novel, building on the stories told in the previous novels.  For all that it stands alone as a self-contained piece, I wouldn’t recommend reading it without having read the others.  For those of you not familiar with Swainston’s Castle novels, she’s created a multi-racial place called the Fourlands, peopled by diverse races.  The world faces a significant threat, from invading giant Insects.  For millenia they have been mindlessly eating and destroying, slowly expanding their territory.  But the Insects are just the backdrop  Swainston uses to explore what are normally much smaller stories , focused around a group of immortals: the Eszai.  Chosen by the Emperor San, they are each the best in their fifty fields, brought together to lead the battle against the Insects that has become the driving force and agenda for the Fourlands ever since the Insects first arrived.  An individual Eszai can be replaced if killed, or if beaten in a fair Challenge by another individual.  Swainston’s first person protagonist is Jant, who holds the title of Comet, the Emperor’s messenger.  He is not your traditional fantasy hero: he is a drug addict and an outsider.  The child of rape, his father was one of the privileged, winged (but flightless) Awians, his mother was one of the Rhydanne, a mountain people designed to live at high altitude.  That makes Jant the only person who can fly.

In Fair Rebel, terrorism comes to the Fourlands.  Swainston’s portrayal draws on a very British experience of terrorism (the terrorists use a cell structure and tactics familiar to anyone who has lived through the UK’s experience of Northern Ireland-related terrorism).  But the terrorism in this book is also startlingly contemporary, playing on the narrative of privilege, prejudice and inequality that Swainston has built into the Fourlands.  The bombers are drawn from a disenfranchised group who have suffered from social exclusion and poverty.  Fourlands society relies on the systematic exploitation of their labour, and there is significant prejudice against them.

Swainston’s depiction of terrorism feels real and authentic.  The violence is terrifying, horrific and arbitrary.  It is aimed at toppling the Castle and the structures that support it.  But it is a self-destructive backlash.  In its anger at the exploitative structures in society it risks destroying the only mechanisms in place to keep at bay the existential threat of the Insects, with their society-destroying potential.  In doing so, Fair Rebel asks whether those doing the right thing can ever do so with legitimacy if it is done without listening to or engaging with the concerns of the disenfranchised at the margins of society.

But Fair Rebel also asks us to reflect on the role of art and culture in society.  They can be used to inspire the best and the worst in people, showing the impact of the rejection of talented musician Swallow’s repeated requests to join the Eszai.  If we set aside the very things we are fighting to protect, is our struggle worthwhile at all?

Goodreads rating: 5*

 

Cold Forged Flame – Marie Brennan

Tor are doing some interesting things as a publisher at the moment. Chief among them, is their focus on shorter form fiction, particularly novellas. It’s a market that is at least in part driven by the popularity of Kindle Singles – shorter works that can be read in a single sitting. I tend to be a fan of longer works, particularly big multi-part series where each individual volume is so long that the author’s name and the title can be written on the spine horizontally rather than vertically. But there’s a real appeal to shorter works. Done well they can explore ideas in a crisp way, and like the best tapas be full of intense heat and flavour but without ever feeling like a heavy meal.  
Cold Forged Flame by Marie Brennan is one of those novellas, intended to be the first in a series. The story is a relatively simple one: a being is summoned and bound to carry out a task laid on her. She must travel to a particular item and return with some of the blood from the cauldron of the witch who lives there. This being has no memory of who she is, and does not even have a name, but she is bound to carry out the task. Along the way she faces the traditional perils of monsters and geography, before reaching the witch and bargaining for what she has been asked to collect.  
Brennan has spoken about the genesis of this work and character as lying with a D&D character she created and has played many times. But to me, Cold Forged Flame works more as a metaphor for creation and story-telling itself. Brennan’s protagonist and the world she is brought into are blank canvases that are slowly revealed as more detail becomes laid upon them, particularly once the main character gains a companion on her quest. It’s a relationship that lies outside the strictures of her quest, forcing her to engage in a different and more thoughtful way with the world around her. And the transaction at the end of the quest itself (the exchange of blood for inspiration and vice versa) is a stylised representation of the act of artistic creation.   
Goodreads rating: 3*

Everfair – Nisi Shawl

I’ve written before about the challenges and shortcomings of steampunk as a genre. It was why I was so excited to receive a review copy of Nisi Shawl’s Everfair from Tor. It’s the book about colonialism I have been waiting a long time to read.  
Firmly rooted in history, Shawl imagines an alternate history for the Congo Free State in the late 19th century. The real history is bloody and shameful. As Shawl acknowledges in the historical note that opens Everfair, under King Leopold II of Belgium, around half of the population disappeared between 1895 and 1908. Much of the motive for this was the production of cheap rubber under highly exploitative conditions. And as any industrial historian will tell you, rubber was essential for much of the Industrial Revolution, making colonialism and the exploitation of natural resources elsewhere in the world a central element of Western industrial progress. This is exemplified by Lisette’s love of her rubber-tyred bicycle and the freedom it represents in the opening of the novel. Shawl imagines an alternate path for the Congo Free State. A group of idealistic Europeans and freed American slaves work with the indigenous people to defeat King Leopold’s troops and found a progressive state. Ingenuity combined with local raw materials drive a steampunk society that quickly prospers. The novel follows the country’s history as it throws off the yoke of Belgian colonialism and navigates WWI. 
What’s so refreshing about Everfair is to see racism and the power dynamics of colonialism set out front and centre. At their best, the Western settlers are motivated by idealism and a genuine desire to create a better place. But they are also racist, entitled, privileged and crashingly tone deaf to how they come across. Many of the central conflicts in the novel stem from the interplay between those attitudes and those of the indigenous population. For some, it is the first time they’ve encountered racism: the mixed race Lisette Toutournier is white-passing in Europe, but on moving to Africa is forced to engage with her heritage, particularly the unthinking racism of her lover Daisy Albin.  
But the real joy of Everfair is its cast of characters. There’s the intelligent and elegant Queen Josina, the peace-maker and diplomat, wife to the canny King Mwenda. Tink, the visionary engineer from Macao who is at the heart of so much of the country’s development, but mourns his lost love Lily all his life. Fwendi: actress, spy and lover of an English playwright. Martha Hunter, the puritanical widowed missionary who seeks to bring Christianity to Africa, and takes such unalloyed joy in her unexpected second marriage.All of them bring a tremendous richness to a fantastic book.  
Goodreads rating: 4*