The Hunger Games trilogy sold over 100 million copies worldwide. Its lead antagonist, the fascist sociopathic President Snow was a formidable opponent for the beloved hero Katniss, and a great personification of everything the Capitol represented. But sixty-odd years before Katniss enters the Games, Snow was an ambitious eighteen year old with a lot to hide, a lot to prove and a whole lot more to win. Suzanne Collins’ latest book is awkwardly titled The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and while it was well known that this would be a prequel to The Hunger Games trilogy and that it would be about Snow, it was unclear as to whether it was really something that was needed to flesh out the world of the earlier three novels.
On Christmas Eve 1617, in the tiny fishing village of Vardo, Finnmark, a sudden storm wipes out almost the entire male population. Forty of the grown men who had set out in their boats, much as they often did, are killed by a freak storm that defies logic, and the women of Vardo are left to fend for themselves, even as they grieve for the loss of their loved ones.
In Kiran Millwood Hargrave’s first adult novel, The Mercies, the “storm comes like a finger snap […] then the sea rises up and the sky swings down and greenish lightning slings itself across everything, flashing the black into an instantaneous, terrible brightness,” as the women are perhaps “screaming but here is no sound save the sea and the sky and all the boat lights swallowed and the boats flashing and the boats spinning, the boats flying, turning, gone.”
Inara and Zuhra have been raised by their cold, unfeeling mother, trapped inside the Citadel of the Paladin’s, surrounded by a sentient hedge that won’t let them out—or anyone in. They don’t know much about who they are or why they’re there, though Zuhra has figured out that their father was a magical Paladin who abandoned his family the night Inara—with her obviously Paladin power filled bright blue glowing eyes—was born. The history of the Paladins, or why the local villagers fear and hate them, is not fully understood by the girls, though they live in what was once an active Paladin fortress, filled with remnants of a reign that has mysteriously vanished into what was once a connected world. Things plod along with the sisters, but when a stranger comes to town and the hedge lets him in, Zuhra can’t help but wonder if this young man is there to save them—with information and knowledge, if nothing else.
Sara B Larson’s new novel Sisters of Shadow and Light wants to be so much more than it ultimately—unfortunately—manages to be. It wants to be a story about the bond between sisters, about their loyalty and fierce defence of each other, about their shared traumas and anxieties, and about how they help each other heal and move forward. But the story itself is fairly formulaic, as is the setting, which seems quite standard for a medieval Eurocentric fantasy—there are inns, a village with a midwife, very Aryan magical beings of various powers, that citadel surrounded by a wall-like hedge (keeping people out or keeping residents of the citadel in?); the female characters dress in skirts and blouses or lace edged dresses, and everyone appears to be fair skinned and blue or green eyed, if not blonde. It’s all just rather…familiar.
Teenage Zachary Ezra Rawlins finds a door painted in a wall that looks like it may be a portal into another land. He doesn’t open it. Many years later, he finds a book in his university library that tells a strange story about a boy who doesn’t open a door, a secret world of stories protected by guardians and acolytes, and of star crossed lovers. The book was clearly written much before Zachary’s birth, so how does it know what it does? How is it telling his story, the story of the path he didn’t take, the call he refused? He wonders ‘how, exactly, he is supposed to continue a story he didn’t know he was in’, when he finds the book, but later realises ‘he was never at the beginning of this story. This story is much, much older than he is, and so begins his quest.
In Erin Morgenstern’s much awaited second novel, The Starless Sea, we are inundated with mystery and magic.
There are two starting points in the new Booker longlisted novel from Jeanette Winterson, Frankissstein—one, the day in 1816 when Mary Shelley went for a walk along the wet shores of Lake Geneva and saw something that lead her to write the seminal novel Frankenstein, and two, a robotics expo in present day Memphis, where a trans doctor named Ry Shelley is interviewing the king of a potential sexbot empire, Ron Lord. Winterson jumps back and forth between the two times, in a staccato parallel narrative that explores duality and creation, and is as jarring as it is entertaining—jarring because we never know where the next chapter will take us, and entertaining because the voices of both sets of characters are just very alive, as varied as they are.
Almost 35 years after Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale was published and nominated for a slew of awards including the Booker Prize and the Arthur C Clarke award (which it won in 1987), its follow up novel The Testaments has made it to the Booker shortlist even before its actual release day. Heavily anticipated, heavily embargoed, even more heavily promoted, The Testaments takes us back to Gilead not to tell us what has happened to just Offred, but to Gilead itself.
Selkie stories are usually about an entrapped wife—the grey seal who can take off her skin and shift into human form, caught by a human male and kept subservient and loyal by force because her skin, her true nature, is locked away. She forgets who she is, and a spends a lifetime as wife and mother and caregiver to humans, generally living a life of mundane domesticity that is nothing like her previous wild, adventurous joyous sea life, and is always wondering why she feels like she’s missing a vital part of her, why the sea calls out to her, but unless she finds her sealskin, she is never able to go back to who she was, or where she belongs.
But in The Blue Salt Road, Joanne Harris’ latest retelling of Scottish folk tales (with illustrations by Bonnie Hawkins), it is a young woman who is the captor, an island girl who wants more than the boys she has grown up around, and so decides only a selkie prince will do for her.
In the lead-up to the 2019 Hugo Awards, we’re taking time to appreciate this year’s novel and short fiction Finalists, and what makes each of them great.
Miryem is the daughter of small town Jewish moneylender who isn’t very good at his job. Her father, while “terrible with money,” is “endlessly warm and gentle, and tried to make up for his failings: he spent nearly all of every day out in the cold woods hunting for food and firewood, and when he was indoors where was nothing he wouldn’t do to help.” But living as they do in a tiny town, “unwalled and half nameless,” where “the cold kept creeping out of the woods earlier and earlier,” where the townspeople look down upon them as pariahs, Miryem’s family is pushed to the edge of poverty, as her father eventually lends out all his wife’s dowry and is incapable of bringing any back. While Miryem’s family are on the verge of starvation, and her mother increasingly unwell, the rest of the town fares well on their borrowed coin.
But in Naomi Novik’s standalone novel Spinning Silver, “a moneylender’s daughter, even a bad moneylender’s daughter, learns her numbers,” and on seeing her mother take ill and weaken, Miryem steps up to lay claim to what is owed to her family.
Climate change is no longer something that can be denied by anyone at all. In Naomi Booth’s sharp, savvy second novel Sealed, the world has become hotter, and there’s a strange new disease that seems to be making people grow new skin over different orifices, eventually killing them by sealing them up inside their own epidermis.
Cutis, it’s called, and while the authorities claim it’s just one more thing to add to the nonchalant list of worries that people already have, from polluted fruit to smog to wildfires, pregnant Alice fears the worst. She’s obsessed with Cutis, and starts collection information not just about it, but also about what she thinks may be it, or what may have started the outbreak. She’s certain her mother died of it, she’s certain numerous people have died of it, far more than the authorities are admitting to, particularly those housed in relocation camps set up by the government for those who have been chased out of their homes by the effects of climate change—massive heatwaves, forest fires and the like. Climate change refugees, if you will.
Though New Suns is simply presented as an anthology of short fiction by people of colour, without any over arching theme, a great many of the stories in the collection focus on what it means to be the other—or become the other. But of course they do. This comes as no surprise, though some readers may be slightly disappointed when many of the stories don’t quite push at this enough, holding back just that little bit that stops from deeper exploration of their narrative.
For some, it is that the short story format isn’t quite long enough to explore what they’re thinking (and so some of the stories come across as excerpts, which isn’t necessarily a negative aspect). For some it’s just a matter of undeveloped skill at addressing heavier, more complicated themes in equally complicated settings. Regardless, New Suns is an earnest compilation of voices from many ethnicities and backgrounds, making it a nice little package for those looking to read the narratives of writers exploring their experiences as people of colour, and as marginalised people .
Until recently, Jamaican born writer Marlon James was known best for wining the Man Booker prize for A Brief History of Seven Killings, but his latest novel, the sprawling epic fantasy Black Leopard, Red Wolf, is going to very much take place of what the writer is most associated with—there is no doubt.
“I wanted to reclaim all the stuff I like—court intrigue, monsters, magic,” James told The New Yorker last month, “I wanted black pageantry.” And that’s exactly what he’s achieved with this story of Tracker, an angry young protagonist who is known for his nose, and uses this power (alongside his ability to not be harmed by anything ‘born of metal’), to find what no one else can. Tracker, similar to the protagonist of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, has a most powerful sense of smell—he can smell below the surface to detect emotion; he can smell into distance and even time, and so has developed quite a reputation as the man who can find anything or anyone at all, and one who is willing to go anywhere it takes to search.
We leap in to The Kingdom of Copper right where we left off with The City of Brass (if we can recall just where we left off), and then quickly jump to five years later, when Nahri and Muntadhir are married and living under his father King Ghassan’s rule: Muntadhir keeping up with his harems, following in his father’s methods, and Nahri working as the only Nahid, the healer for the djinn. Alizayd is in a village far away, helping irrigate the dessert with his new abilities of ‘finding’ springs, and Dara is with the original Nahid, training an army to take back Daevabad. Each character is caught up in their own plot, each plot is built up and interwoven with the others as the narrative progresses.
Picking up soon after the events of The Graces, The Curses follows the Grace siblings and their two closest “friends” as they try to recover from the strange events that have occurred (events that will remain vague for the purposes of avoiding spoilers for those who have not read the earlier novel). Laure Eve now changes perspective to that of Summer, the youngest of the Graces and the first to have befriended River, the unreliable narrator of the first novel. Summer’s understanding of previous events and her recollection of them sets her up right away as an honest, straightforward narrator—more so, as one who is determined to get to the truth of many matters, especially that behind the curse that plagues the magical family.
The Outcast Hours is only our second anthology, but it is fair to say we already have a bit of a shtick: we like diverse thinking on universal themes.
With The Djinn Falls in Love, it was, well—djinn. One of the few truly global ‘creatures’ of lore. With The Outcast Hours, we wanted something that was equally relevant: something that every culture experiences. Rather than raid the bestiary again, we went higher concept—not to a particular myth, but to the source of myths. Something that everyone, everywhere, shares: the night. We all experience it; it affects everyone, everywhere, in every culture.
So that’s half the shtick: the universal theme.
The other half is where the real work comes in. To us, there’s no point in reading the same story two dozen times. The joy of something universal is that everyone approaches it from a different angle. To capture the breadth, the depth, the vastness that is the ‘night’, we needed wildly different perspectives. The Table of Contents represents our best efforts to capture this range.
In M.R. Carey’s latest thriller, Someone Like Me, we first meet sweet, docile single mother Liz, as she tries to assert herself yet again to her aggressive ex-husband. After years of enduring an abusive marriage, Liz was finally able to divorce her husband and keep her children safe from what she feared would be potential danger to them, too. But the shared custody of the two children still causes much friction, with Liz’s ex Marc often pushing boundaries.
(Warning: the novel [and review] include scenes of domestic violence.)
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