Review of An Accident of Stars: Book 1 of the Manifold Worlds by Foz Meadows (Angry Robot, August 2, 2016)
So an Australian teenage girl who feels like no adults care about her problems gets anti-bullying advice from a woman she doesn’t know outside her high school. Saffron feels a connection with the woman to the extent that she follows her, and when a portal to another world opens and the woman goes through it, Saffron steps through after her. Gwen is extremely surprised and annoyed to discover she was followed because she has no way to re-open the portal and send Saffron home.
Gwen is black and Saffron is white, although this difference seems to mean little to Saffron. It was more important to her that Gwen gave her advice that neither her parents nor any other white adult had given her. In Kena the races have vastly different cultures based on religion and geography. Luckily Gwen lives in an area with a mixed population but the differences do cause confusion to Saffron when she is trying to sort out the cultural nuances of Kena.
Going through the portal leads to a brief travelogue through Kena, an alternate world with more primitive technology than our world. Saffron gets separated from Gwen and this has great consequences for Saffron and the entire world. The world is matriarchal and the bisexuality that made Saffron feel so weird at home is more of an accepted norm there, so although things are strange, Gwen admits that she likes it better than home.
Portals to Earth are made by magic and the magician friend of Gwen’s named Trishka who opened that one is not in the best of health. Opening another one soon won’t be possible, particularly as events in Kena mean she has to use her strength for other things. Saffron spends time recovering from her journey to Gwen’s home and starting to learn the local languages with magician teachers. Due to her youth it is very easy for her brain to magically learn language, which turns out to be a very good thing when the whole family makes a trip to the matriarch’s homeland.
Saffron makes some friends and even meets someone she would like to know better romantically, but really she is just waiting until the right time to go home. Before that opportunity comes, though, she must risk her life in battle and in a test where she must stand up for a slightly younger friend.
In Kena Saffron finds herself, and in doing so becomes more confident and more mature in her decision-making, learns some fighting skills, and grows through extreme pain and suffering. She experiences what a direct impact her actions can have on the international politics of Kena in a way that she never could at home and it is not a pleasant realization. She will go home very changed both physically and mentally.
As a character Saffron goes through an immense amount of change for just one novel, but as she is a teen this is more acceptable than it would be with an adult character. Because Saffron wasn’t really happy at home, nor had she found her place in society there, it meant she was looking for herself and her place when she went through the portal. Also, she was more accepting of the hands she was dealt because she was use to not being able to change things. When she discovers she can change things for her friend, the adults in Kena are rather shocked at her change in behavior. Some adults had assumed she was a follower not a leader because of her appearance and her lack of cultural understanding, but once she understood things more completely the real Saffron appeared. She is a leader willing to sacrifice herself for her friends and willing to stand up to older adults who are not making wise decisions. By Kena standards she is an adult with adult responsibilities and rights, so it will be interesting to see in Book 2 how long her trip back home lasts since she will suddenly go back to being a high school student.
Saffron and Gwen are both strong women and they play off each other very well. It’s a buddy story with one older than the other. Kena is a vast place with many complex cultures and religions that could take Saffron a lifetime to explore. The city scenes in particular make you feel like you stepped through the pages into another place, sort of like a city of Earth in olden times but something feels off. Although many of the weapons, political scenarios and religions are like something familiar, they have new twists to them which make everything seem different.
As a fantasy setting, Kena is wonderfully different from the vast majority of epic fantasies. Your Humble Reviewers get tired of epic fantasy and don’t finish many of the ones we are offered for review because they kind of blur together and don’t keep us interested. This one, however, kept us engaged for the entire story with a complex twisty plot, fast-moving easy to read pacing, and a main character enough like teenage us that we got her immediately, although we identified with different aspects of her. Fantasy readers will all find something to like in the wonderful tale. Book 2 better arrive really soon!
Note on content: This technically is sold as an adult book but it is appropriate for high school and up. It would definitely make good family reading and discussion material.
Review of Blood of the Earth: A Soulwood Novel by Faith Hunter (ROC, August 2, 2016)
This is the first novel in a new series about Nell Ingram, who resides in the Knoxville area of the Jane Yellowrock universe. She was introduced in a Jane short story, “Off the Grid” (found most recently in the Blood in her Veins collection), where she is a supporting character whom Jane negotiates with for the right to cross her land to enter the territory of a cult. Jane had promised to send Rick to visit her, but that was some months before, and Nell has had to deal with attacks from the cult members periodically ever since Jane led the attack on the cult compound.
Rick and his team finally show up and of course it just isn’t to help her – they also want something. Nell likes the team members (even if she finds Rick rather annoying), so she does end up helping them and becoming a consultant for the case. Being involved with the team really helps Nell find herself as more than just an ex-cult woman who is still hiding from the world.
Over the course of her adventure with PsyLED, she tries new foods, stays in a hotel for the first time, gets a laptop, tries some new colors of clothing, travels farther from the cult compound than she ever has in her life, makes some new friends, and explores more of her magic. Her magic seems to be akin to faerie magic and can be very scary because she can get the earth to suck the life force out of people.
Nell is an extremely strong woman who has endured humiliation, physical and mental attacks by males, and neglect by both male and female members of her family. She is not putting up with any foolishness from males any more. Rick even gets a piece of her anger when he forgets himself and looms over her in a threatening way. She gets to battle some of her tormentors in the course of the novel and so is in a much more confident place at the end with most of the bad males either dead or imprisoned.
Jane and Nell share a universe and supporting characters but as main characters in a novel they are very different. Jane is a team leader and Nell is an ornery team member. Nell is part of Rick’s team and cooperates with the others but she is stubborn and independent so doesn’t always do things with the timing or method Rick wants. She is the reader’s way into PsyLED because she is new and everything has to be explained, so we get much more information about the dynamics of Rick’s team and how the teams work with different law enforcement groups. She is also a window into the mind of an abused woman and her attitudes and reflex defenses are accurately portrayed. Following the first stages of her recovery in this novel will give readers a small glimpse of what abused women go through to become functional in society. Nell’s physical isolation is just a reflection of the mental isolation she had to impose upon herself in order to spend many years recovering from a lifetime of abuse.
Nell and Jane both start their series as damaged women but Jane is primarily damaged by things she did to herself, whereas Nell is damaged by the treatment she has received by others for her entire life. In many ways it is Nell who is actually the most remarkable for having recovered from her damage enough to function in society, albeit as a loner with only one friend, a local librarian. Readers who like Jane tales will also like those of Nell. Nell should also find new readers to the Jane universe in those who prefer a softer female character type than Jane. Nell is flouncy skirts, flowered tops and sturdy boots with a pistol hid in her pocket to Jane’s leathers, boots and visible weapons.
Nell’s first tale is a wonderful story of a woman overcoming her abuse and finding friends, a purpose and a financial means to support herself properly instead of just scraping by. Although Nell lives in the Knoxville area, she is more woods and trees then Jane’s houses and streets of the city, so expect more tales of farms and the countryside than of downtown Knoxville. This is the best new urban fantasy series we have read in many months, so run out and buy Nell’s first adventure!
Review of Spiderlight by Adrian Tchaikovsky (Tor.com, August 2, 2016)
First of all, take note of the title; if you do not like your heroes dealing with giant spiders, their young, and their traps then avoid this book! It is very creepy with two major spider battles. The adventuring party for this quest tale is made up of common stereotypes, knight, paladin, ranger, rogue, and magician. However, none of them are really strictly to type. The magician is an amazing fellow with so much power he has to normally really rein his magic in so as not to kill everything in sight, plus he really likes to set fire to things. This works very well against spiders as long as the rest of the party stays out of the way.
The magician ends up changing a young spider into a man-like beast in order for him to guide and help them with information given to him by his mother. Nth turns out to be much more of a hero than the rest of the party believe at the beginning. By the religion of the region the humans are all good (of the Light) and non-human beings are evil (of the Dark) so they expect to have to keep Nth from helping their enemies. As things are in the real world, it is not so clear cut as that. Nth has things other than his dark origin to motivate him and even when he is freed to do as he wants, that doesn’t mean he will harm the party members.
Being a short novel is a great help for a quest tale because the party only has to make a couple of stops along the way to their destination. The reader does not feel like the story is prolonged by needless road trip details. Several novel-length quest tales Your Humble Reviewers have read could have used an edit to shrink them to this length.
The characters play off each other well with entertaining dialogue and as usual the paladin could use some lessons in emotions and dealing with others. Nth and the rogue are by far the most interesting characters, although towards the end the ranger comes to the forefront of the story. Everyone is concerned with survival, and all but the paladin are concerned with who their bed partner is. The rogue, the ranger and Nth, all share a love of a good time with some beer included. This gives the story several good pub scenes. The most surprising character is actually the “Dark Lord” whom they go to destroy. He is completely different from any bad guy we’ve ever seen in a story. The entire party is completely surprised by his nature and visage. His “why I am doing this” villain speech turns the party’s view of the world upside down and makes them face a reality they were not prepared for, so was epic! We would love to see how the party deals with life after his speech in a future story.
The story moves quickly and keeps the reader engaged. Note that there is adult content discussion of sex, bad treatment of women and descriptions of bedroom scenes, although not any that give details of anatomy, so it would be okay for over-16s.
Overall, this is a very fun, creepy quest tale with some quirky and engaging adventurers.