Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Laura – Aunt Lolly – lives steeped in the traditions and expectations of the Willowes family, but she’s always felt slightly at odds with what’s expected of her. Although her family have gradually adjusted to her failure to marry, it’s not until she moves on a whim to the Chilterns, and embraces witchcraft, that she really feels a sense of freedom. A slow-paced meditation on identity and independence.
Slaying Dragons by Sasha L. Miller
This is a short, cute lesbian romance featuring a dragon-slaying combatant and the mage who she’s assigned to work with. Devi wasn’t expecting another assignment, with a complaint still outstanding against her from her previous mage partner, but it’s one of the worst kind of dragons, so she buckles down to the task and tries to ignore Noeme’s overtures of friendship. But as they work together, something more than friendship is blossoming.
I Am Ebony Strike by K.S. Augustin
Ebony Strike is a mostly-retired martial artist who returns to the ring to compete in a high-stakes tournament to try and aid her homeworld. I loved Ebony: there aren’t enough older heroines, there aren’t enough black women with lead roles in SF, there aren’t enough women making their way as successful martial artists. All this, I loved. That said, this book has some serious consent issues, which undermines the romance aspect and made me deeply uncomfortable at times.
In July we wrapped up our Time Travel theme with Charlotte Sometimes and A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and our Space Travel theme with The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet and Twin-Bred. We also featured some incredible heroines: an anthology of girls saving the world(s) with science, a young woman learning to become a superhero, and a girl determined to follow a path of magical scholarship. Here’s the best of the rest:
The Beast of Callaire (Legend Magic #1) by Saruuh Kelsey
An enjoyable YA fantasy with an interesting premise, where Majick-wielding Legendaries are the descendants of gods and mythical beasts, trying to keep their powers hidden from the mainstream human world. Yasmin is one such, the daughter of Venus and a Manticore, who changes into her beast form once a month. Major credit for diversity: there’s a central lesbian romance, ethnic diversity, and a transgender secondary character. The only thing that lets it down is the abruptness of the ending: this feels more like half a book.
For our seasonal themes during May, Rachel has been focusing on interplanetary sci-fi, while Joanna has been reading about time travel. We’ve also featured reviews of a climate-focused near future thriller, the start of a charming new high fantasy series, and a smart, philosophical historical fantasy.
The Selection by Kiera Cass
The Selection is the process through which a prince of Illéa finds a wife: a lengthy, televised spectacle in which thirty-five young women are picked to live in the palace and get to know the prince. America Singer doesn’t want to be a princess, and is determined to marry for love. She only fills in the application form because her parents and her boyfriend both encourage her to take the chance, but predictably enough, when she actually meets Prince Maxon she finds he has a certain charm. This has all the makings of a rags-to-riches romance, and on the surface this is a gentle romantic comedy, but the setting is a dystopian future and there are hints of unrest in the form of rebel attacks and suppressed histories that look set to be expanded in the later books. I enjoyed America’s growth through the story, too, as she learns to cope with difficult, unfamiliar situations and to put her own needs first.
During May we kicked off two new seasonal themes: time travel, selected by Joanna, beginning with A Fisherman of the Inland Sea, and interplanetary sci-fi, selected by Rachel, beginning with Contract of Defiance. In new releases, we got excited about a high fantasy treasure hunt from Charlotte E. English and a stunningly beautiful fairytale by Naomi Novik.
Spirits Abroad by Zen Cho
A series of short fantasy stories with a Malaysian influence, each of which picks up a different aspect of culture or folklore or magic. The book is divided into sections based on setting: Malaysia, England, ‘Elsewhere’. There are vampires and ghosts and demons; there are many detailed character portrayals, mostly of women and their family and friendship relationships; there is humour and sadness and joy. I was impressed by the amount of variety contained within relatively few stories.
On a Red Station, Drifting by Aliette de Bodard
Linh is a magistrate, but she arrives at Prosper station a refugee, fleeing for her life. Quyen failed the examinations and was never supposed to rule, but war has taken the station’s finest minds, and she finds herself thrust into a position she never wanted. The two women are distant cousins — yet as each tries to do her duty, they find themselves at odds. I loved the juxtaposition of the space station setting with the Confucian philosophy of filial piety, and the classical concept of civil service examinations extended to this futuristic setting. Beautifully done.
In April we rounded off our themes of translated speculative fiction, and magical mysteries, as well as highlighting fantasy inspired by Russian folklore, a near future meditaton on dream and experience, and an innovative urban fantasy. We also had the pleasure of interviewing Rachel Bach. Here are a few more of my April reads.
Tikkipala by Sara Banerji
In an Indian mountain village, the Raja’s young son rides out from the palace and goes missing. Decades later, his great-niece Devi comes to the hills, drawn by the area’s unique geology… and drawn in by a strange kind of magic. I really loved the Indian setting, rich with historical detail, not only of the Raja’s palace but the thag villagers who are dedicated to the goddess Kali, and the inhabitants of the high forest whose goddess Tikki is slowly fading. However, I found the pacing difficult, to the extent that I almost put the book down: the first quarter or so is devoted to one set of characters, who then fade into the background as a new generation takes over. For me, I think it would have been a more engaging read had this earlier part been woven into the backstory. Once Devi’s story really takes off, though, it becomes quite compelling.
In March, we’ve featured reviews on topics as diverse as magical realisim in the Swedish hinterland, a story of the Trojan War translated from German, and a deep-frozen vision of a post-apocalyptic future, not to mention an interview with superstar fantasy romance author Maria V. Snyder. But as ever, there were more books keeping the pages of my Kindle turning, and a decent smattering of short stories, too.
Like Stolen Pearls by Talya Andor
In many ways, this novella is a typical knight’s tale: our knight must defeat the monster, and in so doing, win the hand of the lady. Complications arise as the lady in question is a demon witch who also takes the role of the monster, giving our knight an immediate conflict of interest. So far, so cliched. But perhaps the main point of this story is the knight is a woman, one of an order sworn to protect their fairytale land, and the love story is a lesbian romance: by keeping everything else the same, these differences are brought to the fore. I was a little unconvinced by the pacing (there’s a lengthy sex scene after what I would usually consider the ending), but it was a fun idea.
The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman
This is an action adventure with zeppelins and dragons and detectives and fae. Irene is a Librarian, bound to serve the Invisible Library which sits between alternate worlds. Her job usually entails entering an alternate under cover, picking up a particularly unusual book, and returning to base. This time she’s sent to an alternative London which has a high chaos infestation, making it a more dangerous assignment — and she’s asked to take a trainee along for the ride. This London has a steampunk feel, and it’s not long before she runs into Vale, a great detective in the Sherlock Holmes tradition (with a number of in-jokes for Holmes fans). Between them, they must find the missing book before anyone more dangerous gets their hands on it. Every bit as fun and silly as it sounds.
The Broken Forest by Megan Derr
This novella follows the Huntress Adamina as she’s summoned to a remote village, where she must venture into the eponymous forest to bring an end to the rot which is poisoning the region. With the help of Grete, a local witch whose magical talents match her own, Adamina must uncover long-buried history to set things right. As well as the lesbian romance between Huntress and witch, The Broken Forest also features a transgender main character, and of course independent women all the way, so there are definitely bonus points for representation. I was slightly disappointed by the end, in which Adamina’s parents play a role that’s a little too deus ex machina for my tastes, but since Adamina and Grete had already solved the major problems of the plot it wasn’t too much of an issue. A quick and enjoyable read that weaves together a number of recognisable fairytale elements.
January is always a good month for reading: curled up in front of the fire, probably (at least in my case) recovering from the tail end of a winter cold, there’s no better way to spend an evening than in the company of a good book.
Over the past month Joanna has brought you retellings of Sleeping Beauty and Bluebeard in conclusion of her season of fairytale retellings. Meanwhile, I’ve reviewed recent releases ranging from post-apocalyptic literary fiction to fast-paced Indiana Jones-style adventure.
Here’s a quick round-up of what I’ve been reading in between times.
Rite of Rejection by Sarah Negovetich
Rebecca is expecting her Acceptance ceremony to be followed by the most amazing night of her young life: nothing has prepared her for the idea that she might be rejected by the Machine’s algorithms. I should start by saying that I almost put this book down a couple of times. I’ve read quite a lot of YA dystopian books lately, I was starting to get bored of the standard tropes, and at the beginning this book feels very much like all the rest. But I’m really glad I persisted: Rite of Rejection picks up a lot of standard elements and twists them into interesting shapes, resulting in a book that’s unusually nuanced. The unfair oppression of gay and disabled characters is highlighted, and the plot hints at the importance of rhetoric in righting societal wrongs. (I strongly suspect a sequel is in the works.)
During December, Joanna continued her series of fairytale retellings with reviews of new novella Hunting Monsters and Robin McKinley’s classic Deerskin, while Rachel shared reviews of ancient Chinese steampunk, a geeky maths-based thriller, and shamanic urban fantasy. Here’s a brief run-through of the other books and stories we’ve been reading.
Half Life by S.L. Huang
Cas Russell returns in another intelligent, science-filled thriller (the sequel to Zero Sum Game). The story starts when Cas is hired to trace a man’s missing daughter — who turns out to actually be an incredibly realistic robot. Locked in a long-running battle of corporate espionage, the corporation who developed her will go to almost any lengths to protect their intellectual property, but Cas has a soft spot for kids, even if they’re not human. And in case that wasn’t high enough stakes, Checker has problems with the Mafia, and there’s a bona fide evil genius plotting from a high-tech lair. If you enjoyed Zero Sum Game, you’ll love this sequel.
November was our first month: Joanna kicked off her fairytale season with retellings of Rapunzel and Tam Lin, while Rachel reviewed sci-fi epic Ancillary Justice and young adult adventure The Walled City.
But sometimes there are just too many books, and too little time to review them all in-depth. And sometimes there are short stories, which are marvellous but too brief to merit a full review. Here’s a quick round-up of everything else we’ve been reading during the first month of Strange Charm.
Threats of Sky and Sea by Jennifer Ellision
This epic fantasy revolves around Bree, who has grown up with her father in a country inn, a life in which she’s always been perfectly happy. When a small group of elementals turn up in the village, hunting a fugitive, she doesn’t imagine it could have anything to do with her — so she’s shocked to discover her father is actually an Egrian noble who can summon the power of the wind. A promising series start, with plenty of action and politics, and a hint of romance.