Five Reasons Why You Need to Read Desdemona and the Deep

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Title: Desdemona and the Deep
Author: C.S.E. Cooney
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 23rd, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Fae, LGBTQIAP+ (lesbian mc, trans side character)
Page Count: 224 (ebook)

Rating: 9.5/10

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In Desdemona and the Deep, the spoiled daughter of a rich mining family must retrieve the tithe of men her father promised to the world below. On the surface, her world is rife with industrial pollution that ruins the health of poor factory workers while the idle rich indulge themselves in unheard-of luxury. Below are goblins, mysterious kingdoms, and an entirely different hierarchy.

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My god, what an absolute treasure trove this book is.

I’m a little review-weary at the moment and don’t feel like doing elaborate paragraph transitions, so I’ve made this into a “X Reasons Why” post!

 

1. The Prose

The prose, guys. The prose. If you want to see blushing described as “double roses of reverence and rapacious cupidity,” then you’re in for a treat because that’s the whole book. Rich, charismatic, whimsical, and the very definition of purple, the words melt hot in your brain and on your tongue. It’s been a while since I had this much fun with language.

 

2. A Larger-than-Life Protagonist

Desdemona is one of my favourite characters I’ve encountered this year, and hands-down my favourite female protagonist of 2019.

The thing is, she starts out as a pretty shitty person–rich and spoiled, with a dismissive let-them-eat-cake attitude. My definitive “Oh, I really don’t like you” moment was when she mentioned how she enjoys collecting art and artists, not because she cares for them, but because they make her feel prestigious and wanted.

But she grows over the course of the story, as did my opinion of her. Because despite being a prissy heiress, she’s also fun, and stubborn as heck, and her relationship with her best friend Chaz is endearing from the start (they are a magnificent duo). And she’s not some hapless heroine who inadvertently stumbles into another world. Oh no no, Desdemona will march up to the threshold of worlds and obnoxiously demand that they let her in.

There’s really no box you can shove her into, and I love that so much.

 

3. The Worldbuilding

Three worlds exist in this story. Athe for mortals; Valwode for the gentry (a mishmash of fae-adjacent creatures); and Bana, the kingdom of goblins.

If I were to sit here and write out everything I love about the worldbuilding, I’d be siting here typing out the entire book for you. So trust me when I say that it’s incredible. There are details that left me grinning and wanting to roll around in its richness. Like the notion that the fae are as affected by human art as humans are by fae magic. So things like poetry become a weapon and a shield in Valwode.

But my favourite part? How, despite all the beauty, the story doesn’t let you forget that magic has fangs. That these worlds aren’t just about glitter and gold, and their brutality goes hand in hand with beauty. There’s an almost alien quality to it that you don’t fully understand, but one you’re drawn to regardless. And those are the fae stories I want.

 

4. Themes of Justice and Art Prevailing in Darkness

This is a story about a mortal who ventures into another realm for a rescue mission. And usually, with those types of stories, the object of said rescue is a loved one–a spouse, a sibling, a child. Here, it’s not a rescue mission for the heart, but a mission to right a wrong. Because Desdemona was party to an injustice she initially ignored, and she wants to fix that. That to me is incredibly refreshing.

And from there we see the class struggles of the mortal realm (a kind of an alternate early 19th century Europe) being echoed in the magical realms, the idea that compromises exist, and Desdemona giving life back to the women who had it taken from them.

 

5. Just the Utter Joy of It All

Everything about this story, from the language to the characters to the worldbuilding is gaudy in the best way. It’s ostentatious, it’s heartfelt, it’s beautiful, and most importantly, it’s entertaining. You turn your head and you find something new and even more wondrous and strange than the last.

This book made me incredibly happy during a time when I desperately needed to feel happy, and for that I’m eternally grateful.

So, please, PLEASE. Give your brain a treat it sorely deserves. Go pick this up.

 

Reviews: The Border Keeper & The Phantom Forest – Two Underworld Stories, One Good, One Ehh

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Title: The Border Keeper
Author: Kerstin Hall
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): Fantasy
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Gods, Demons
Page Count: 240 (ebook)

Rating: 7.0/10

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Vasethe, a man with a troubled past, comes to seek a favor from a woman who is not what she seems, and must enter the nine hundred and ninety-nine realms of Mkalis, the world of spirits, where gods and demons wage endless war.

The Border Keeper spins wonders both epic―the Byzantine bureaucracy of hundreds of demon realms, impossible oceans, hidden fortresses―and devastatingly personal―a spear flung straight, the profound terror and power of motherhood. What Vasethe discovers in Mkalis threatens to bring his own secrets into light and throw both worlds into chaos.

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She had been called the destroyer of empires. Mistress of the dead, the whispers went. But those few who knew better gave her the title of ya Wenzta, the border keeper.

This isn’t quite the romp through a fantastical underworld I had in mind (as in, not as fast-paced or rich in detail as I’d imagined), but you know when you read or watch or play something that gives you this inexplicable yet pleasant vibe and it just kind of sticks with you for the rest of the day? Yeah, that’s this book.

The worldbuilding is really where the story shines–a mix of weird horror and your typical fantasy fare. You get demon-god politics, crab children, and horrific and imaginative consequences for breaking Mkalis rules (the most important one being “always tell the truth”) and there’s an incredible quietness to it all that I loved and found to be strangely addictive. It’s reminiscent of the Souls games, the way everything feels forlorn without being grisly, and expansive without being crammed to the walls with details and metaphors. And the wistful tone meshes really well with the story’s theme of death and rebirth. It’s one of those worlds that feels subdued but still creative, and I think that’s a quality that’s underappreciated in fantasy.

I wasn’t as enamoured with the characters, unfortunately. While the history of the Eris’s role as the border keeper and her relationship with the gods and demons of Mkalis is fascinating, I wasn’t interested in Eris as a person. Same with Vasethe, who was weirdly bland and non-present throughout the whole story, except for maybe near the end.

Overall, though, this is a lovely debut and I’d love to see more stories set in the same world.

 


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Title: The Phantom Forest
Author: Liz Kerin
Publisher: Inkshares
Release Date: July 16th, 2019
Genre(s): YA Fantasy, Dystopian
Subjects and Themes: Underworld, Demons
Page Count: 336 (paperback)

Rating: 5.0/10

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Every tree in the sacred Forest of Laida houses a soul. And each of those souls will return to the mortal world for many future lives. But not all of them deserve to.

Seycia’s father told her this story as a child―a story of the most holy place in the Underworld, the Forest of Laida, where all souls go to rest before embarking on a new life. But Seycia’s father is dead now, and his killer has put a target on her back.

After she is chosen for her village’s human sacrifice ritual, Seycia is transported to the Underworld and must join forces with Haben, the demon to whom she was sacrificed. Together, they journey to the forest in the Underworld where all souls grow in a quest to destroy the tree of the man who killed her.

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This mashup of a post-apocalyptic world with an underworld was really intriguing at first, and I was invested in maybe…the first 1/4 of it, but sadly the main characters ended up falling flat and I couldn’t find myself being invested in any of their journey. Haben, the human-turned-demon boy, was probably the most interesting of the three protagonists and even then it still felt like his personality only went skin-deep.

The worldbuilding is definitely its biggest asset; the various details of the underworld are vivid and often genuinely creepy, and I wished that the entirety of the story was set there (the idea of underworld soul trees is fantastic).

And the two villains–one human, the other a demon–overshadow Sychia, Miko, and Haben as the stars of the story. They’re magnetic in a way that the protagonists aren’t, and while I’ll always love despicable baddies that I can sink my teeth into, if I’m rooting for them over the heroes for no reason other than that they actually feel more three dimensional than the latter, that’s kind of a big problem.

Overall, the story didn’t do much for me, but the good news is that I’m 1000% in the minority and many other readers did love it, so if you’re into underworld stories then it wouldn’t hurt to try this one out.

Novella Review: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach – Smart Eco Scifi

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Title: Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach
Author: Kelly Robson
Publisher: Tor.com
Release Date: March 13th, 2018
Genre: Sci-Fi, Post-Apocalypse
Subjects and Themes: Time Travel, Ecology
Page Count: 240 (paperback)

Rating: 7.5/10

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First of all, can we just take a moment to appreciate how fantastic that cover is?

Secondly, to all you scifi-loving field biologists and ecologists out there, this book is for you.

Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach takes place on future Earth where everything has collapsed; due to rising sea levels, natural disasters, and a plague outbreak, many of our modern cities decided to dig underground and create a new home in the Earth’s crust. But time travel has become a viable thing in the last decade or so and it’s a very, very attractive option to a lot of people–a nudge here and there in the past might, after all, bring about a restoration of the economy, population, and of course, the ecosystem.

Our protagonist Minh wants to form a small team of scientists to travel back to ancient Mesopotamia (2024 BCE) to study the old ecosystems that helped birth so many early civilizations. Minh also just happens to be a woman with fully-functioning octopus arms in place of human legs. Prosthetics in this world have developed to the point where people can choose to attach various animal appendages to their bodies instead of the boring old human ones. It’s details like this that make the world fascinating and complex.

The first half of the story is a lot of logistics and your enjoyment of it will vary depending on how much you like reading about the behind-the-scenes of research projects–the proposal writing, the begging for greenlighting and funding (which readers in research fields should sympathize with. Or have horrible flashbacks to). It is a bit dry in places, but I liked it for the most part.

“This is a seduction…If you want to time travel, we need to get the client in bed with us.”

The second half sees our characters in Mesopotamia and that’s where the real fun begins. I loved this part and was positively green with envy at the characters. I mean, how cool would it be to have your field project take place in an ancient era? (Ignoring the problem of “virus strains were far more potent in the past, so you’d probably die before you can say “Eureka!”). Pretty cool.

My biggest complaint is that it ends rather abruptly and just as when things were getting really interesting, which is a problem I have with many one-shot novellas (assuming this is one-shot).

All in all, if you have any interest in environmental science, time travel, and eclectic characters, you might want to give this a shot.

[Review] The Only Harmless Great Thing – Of Sentient Elephants and Radium Girls

The Only Harmless Great Thing
Title: The Only Harmless Great Thing
Author: Brooke Bolander
Publisher: Tor
Release Date: January 23rd, 2018
Genre(s): Fantasy, Sci-Fi, Alternate History
Page Count: 96 pages
Goodreads

Rating: 8.5/10

 

 

 

Books like this remind me just why I love Sci-fi/Fantasy. Not that I need reminders. Not really. I grew up teething on SFF stories, after all. But occasionally a story comes along that fills me with so much fierce pride and wonder and envy, it leaves me breathless, and they become testaments to the (limitless) heights one can reach in the genre.

In The Only Harmless Great Thing, Brooke Bolander takes two true, but disparate, stories–that of the women who worked in U.S. radium factories and an elephant named Topsy–and weaves them together into something wholly original and no less heartbreaking.

This is a story of sentient elephants and radium girls and injustice heaped upon humans and animals alike.

From the late 1910’s to the 1920’s, radium factories began appearing in the United States. Women were hired by these factories to paint watch dials with a special radium paint that would make the numbers glow in the dark. Except, it turns out, radium is highly poisonous and the factories have doomed these women to severe illnesses and painful deaths.

In Bolander’s version, the girls who work at the factories are soon to be replaced by captured elephants. The logic is that the girls are dying (and have stirred up legal disputes) and the elephants are larger and hardier than humans so they’ll last longer. The girls’ job is to teach the elephants to paint the dials. Or, more appropriately: “I’m supposed to teach you how to die.”

One such girl is Regan, and one such elephant is Topsy.

The beginning is a little confusing, but stick through it and you begin to get a clearer picture of the cast, the timelines, and the different narrations. The story jumps all across history, from the ice age to the present day to the 1920’s. It alternates from fable-like narrations riddled with abstraction and strange, gorgeous metaphors, to more modern, conventional ones.

And the prose? The prose is glorious. Glorious and clever and brutal.

No matter what you did, forty or fifty or a hundred years passed and everything became a narrative to be toyed with, masters of media alchemy splitting the truth’s nucleus into a ricocheting cascade reaction of diverging realities.

The Only Harmless Great Thing is a very short read, but it packs a punch with the force of a thousand stampeding elephants. I am in awe of how the author managed to combine such different elements into something fantastical yet so very real. My only complaint is that it ended a little sooner than I thought it would and I wish there was more of it. Which really isn’t much of a complaint.

Brooke Bolander has become one of my authors to watch and I look forward to reading more of her work in the future.