Review of Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley (Tor Teen, June 14, 2016)
Steeplejack is set in the ethnically diverse industrial capital of a land resembling Victorian South Africa. The viewpoint character is Anglet Sutonga, a young woman who repairs steeples. The death of a fellow steeplejack soon sends her on an investigation to discover what happened to him. His death is just a small part of a much larger scheme threading through the city across class and racial barriers.
Bar-Selehm is a city of towers and spires which is shared by three distinct groups. The city’s finances, government, military, and gem trade are controlled by white people from far away who came to settle there when mineral wealth was found with the support of the indigenous blacks who have given up tribal life. Ang is from a tribe of people from another part of the continent who are brown and they fill the lower level jobs in the city. Most of Ang’s people live in a ghetto outside the city proper. Farther from the city are the local tribes of black people who generally have a lower tech level. All these groups and the city itself are greatly detailed as Ang runs through, by, and into them.
The wealth of the city was generated by trading luxorite, a glowing mineral found in the region. One of the towers in the center of the city has an enormous piece of luxorite which lights up the sky at night but shortly after the death of the young steeplejack, it is stolen. A politician from the party not currently in power hires Ang to find out who killed the steeplejack and how that death is related to the luxorite theft.
Ang, with the help of a couple of new female friends, must sort out the theft and murder without alerting the guilty parties. This involves some disguise work, going to shops and the Opera, talking to people from all the groups and making allies of some of them. She even accidentally meets a potential boyfriend when she is caring for her sister’s baby. The life of Ang’s family in the ghetto is quite clearly one of poverty with not even enough to feed another mouth when the baby arrives. Everything in the ghetto is covered with mud and dirt and food is always in short supply, so Ang spends her nights in the city. Workers from the ghetto usually belong to a work gang and Ang is no exception, but her investigation and unwillingness to be raped by her boss soon lead to her finding new quarters while she is working for the politician.
Your Humble Reviewers loved Ang; she is feisty, smart, agile, and willing to help others even when it is inconvenient. She fights for herself and will suffer no foolishness from the males she encounters, even to the point of using weapons. She can also be a good friend to those who don’t betray her. She seems a bit nonplussed by the whole class and ethnic group issue in regards to individuals, basically taking her opinion of everyone from how they treat her, not the color of their skin, a very practical approach on her part since most of the idiots and villains in her world appear to be men of any ethnicity. The women tend to have some bonds across ethnic and class boundaries because they have common male enemies.
The mystery of the murder and theft is very complex and twisty with new connections between characters constantly surprising the reader. The political and ethnic tensions add to the pressure to find the missing luxorite before war, strikes, or riots break out. Who did it and how Ang solves the mystery are definitely not things the reader could guess from the first chapters!
Review of Return of Souls by Andy Remic (Tor.com, June 14, 2016)
This new novella has us following Welshman Robert Jones as he gets chased through World War One by supernatural monsters wearing German overcoats. Some parts of it are done as diary entries inserted into the narrative.
Jones experiences the death of comrades, being wounded, being hit with mustard gas, and then during one battle when he is sure he is going to die, he hears the voice of his dead best friend and then wakes up in a strange place. The monsters in overcoats follow him there and he must run from them while he is wounded, but he makes it into a castle courtyard. Both World War One France and the new place are detailed with things which make the settings seem, damp, wet, cold, and dirty. While the trees and buildings are different, the feel of the places is similar so the reader realizes they are sort of reflections of the same place but in different realities.
From the courtyard arrival things take a turn further into the fantastic. Jones manages to survive with the junk and old vegetables left behind in the stables and castle. Then a woman arrives and things get even more interesting. She refers to English as “the old tongue” and she seems to know what is going on in this strange place which is also at war. Her name is Orana, and she arrived there because her dream ghost told her that Jones could help her people win the war.
With some commentary and help from his dead friends’ ghosts, Jones follows Orana into a battle against their common enemy and on a journey to meet up with her people to help them. How this goes and how things take some strange turns Your Humble Reviewers must decline to reveal. We will say that the blood, monsters, and death in this story give it a horror feel, even more so than Remic’s previous stories, and that there are no happy endings.
This is an excellent creepy tale for horror lovers, and readers of war fiction who don’t mind some supernatural elements added would also find it a good read. Remic’s novellas are all filled with war, wounds, death, dying, and supernatural horror but all main characters are intense soldiers with an immense desire to survive, who are good men dealing with things far beyond the understanding of people from a British village. The supernatural characters are more than just monsters; they have motivations, desires, family, and a history which makes each of them different from the others. Any of Remic’s Tor.com stories are worth a read!
Review of Spells of Blood and Kin: A Dark Fantasy by Claire Humphrey (St. Martin’s Press, June 14, 2016)
This is a debut urban fantasy by a Canadian author whom Your Humble Reviewers had the pleasure of meeting at Wiscon 40. The story is set in Toronto amid the Russian community and the main character is a young witch whose Russian-born grandmother who trained her has just passed away. This leaves Lissa to fill the large spot her Baba occupied in the Russian community.
She has to help the Russian community with her spells, which she prepares on eggs during the full moon. Included in the community are the normal folks of Russian descent as well as some supernatural characters called “Kin” who act like werewolf berserkers; they pass on the taint via blood but do not change form. The city of Toronto and its neighborhoods are vibrant and alive almost as a character in the book. The characters move around the different neighborhoods and the flavor of the neighborhood changes depending on which character it is. This makes the city feel like a vibrant, changing place dependent on the inhabitants for its character, which is exactly how it feels to explore a strange city in the real world.
None of the characters are what one would expect in an urban fantasy, and there are not really any villains; just many gray characters having a tangled adventure and trying to survive. Uncontrolled kin can be a danger to everyone in the city, so this prompts some interesting alliances and truces. When the oldest kin, Maksim, accidently makes a new underling because he goes out of his head due to Baba’s spell ending suddenly upon her death, everything in his life goes crazy. Maksim’s oldest underling, Gus, really doesn’t like witches but ends up tolerating Lissa and her stepsister Stella because they are the only solution Maksim can see. Gus doesn’t agree with Maksim at first, but the witches’ attitude about the whole situation and Stella’s willingness to stand up to the new underling make Gus be more tolerant of the other women.
The historical flashbacks of Maksim, Gus, and Baba in Europe really give a feeling of how old these characters are. Gus was born at a time when she definitely did not conform to the norm for females, either in her choice of clothes, activities, or sex partners, so it is interesting to see how the changing times have allowed her to more visibly show her inner self to the world. We see Baba rescued from a bad situation where she is on her way to the Gulag before Maksim appears. This forms the basis for their long term relationship. We see Maksim as a soldier in several eras but as the Russian military modernizes, he no longer feels comfortable there and, because Baba had agreed to help him, runs to Toronto where the witch has started a family.
Poor Lissa knows nothing of Baba and her relationship with Maksim and Gus and so has to deal with these really old-world elderly people who look and act like modern adults only slightly older than her. This causes some interesting scenes which were handled very deftly by the author. It feels like Lissa is trying to deal with creepy characters from a Russian fairytale overlaid on modern Toronto. Even her Baba feels like a friendly version of Baba Yaga, and she even left Lissa her mortar and pestle for mixing spell ingredients.
It is a dark fantasy, but the characters have interesting lives and have not lost hope even though their histories may not be the happiest. We would love to see more stories set in this world. It is a wonderful debut novel. If you like gritty urban fantasy, especially stories not focused on romance (the characters have romance in their lives, but it isn’t the focus of the story, just part of the normality of being an urban adult) then you should run out and buy this book!
Review of Pride’s Spell: A Sin Du Jour Affair by Matt Wallace (Tor.com, June 21, 2016)
We return to the adventures of Sin du Jour’s staff for a third time. Darren and Lena are recovering after the last adventure but Dorsky’s presence in their apartment triggers some roomie issues. Meanwhile Bronko is having adventures in hell, since he was killed at the end of the last adventure. Eventually he is sent back by his sponsor and the company gets back to work.
Lena and Darren are sent to Hollywood to work on a movie premier party. Their part is rather mundane and boring after the previous things they have prepared. While they are partying, the crew back in New York gets attacked by the Easter Bunny, the Great Pumpkin, Zombie Pilgrims, Cupid and Santa Claus, all sent by the devil who is apparently angry at Bronko and his crew.
The LA crew goes about the party doing the serving, cleaning up, and thinking how boring it all is. Their electronics have not worked at the venue all day so they have no idea that the devil is on the warpath! They go to the after-party done by Jett and Nikki and have a great time. Meanwhile in New York an epic rooftop battle against Santa from Hell is going on. The battle moves to LA when the producer who hired the company turns out to be a bad guy. Jett and some awesome moves start off the battle but Darren and a little belief save the day in the end.
The bad guys’ setup to get rid of Bronko and his crew is completely over the top and awesome. And the fight at the end features some great moves by Lena and other female characters. The surprise ending featured some returning characters and was definitely not predictable. It takes some traditional tropes and turns them around and mangles them up.
We get some interesting personal facts about the main characters in this volume. Lena is a Kameron Hurley fan and Darren shares Matt’s love of professional wrestling. The scenes with Bronko in hell result in learning more about his life in Hollywood and his relationship to Allensworth.
As one can expect, the story has a many laughs, but also some sad bits. This is humorous urban fantasy at its best, with characters that take their own situation seriously but can laugh at themselves because they realize the stuff they deal with is off-the-wall crazy.