The Tangled Lands – Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell – 8/10

When I first picked up “The Tangled Lands” (co-written by Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell), I assumed from the blurb that it was a novel, and exactly the kind I’d been hankering after. I quickly realised after the first section that it was more a loose collection of novellas – and a good one at that.

In thhttps _kazoobooks.com_wp-content_uploads_2018_03_The-Tangled-Lands-678x1024.jpge four stories that the collection tells, Paolo Bacigalupi and Tobias S. Buckell plunge the reader into the dark fairytale-esque world of Khaim. Though fantastical, Khaim holds up an unsettling mirror to our modern world. In a reality where magic is achievable, but chokes the world in the sleep-inducing brambles that feed off magic and threaten to engulf civilization, humanity cannot help itself. The common long-term good is consistently overlooked in favour of personal conveniences – and when a solution is found, those with power would rather misuse it for their own ends rather than for the betterment of the world around and beneath them. Parallels with modern society and its attitude to climate change are obvious, but not overwrought. It is a hard world, but not without wonder; it is a cruel world, where the smallest action can have unintended consequences that resonate throughout society, but it is not without kindnesses. That said, if the words “the road to Hell is paved with good intentions” could describe any collection, it is this one.

Of all the stories here, this is truest of “The Alchemist” (by Paolo Bacigalupi). Here Bacigalupi does an excellent job of establishing the world, the magic, and the tone that will carry through the rest of the book. Even in a short space of time, the characters become real and known to the reader, and the folkloric vibes are at their strongest here as the events that will change the world – for better or worse – unfold.

The other three stories explore how the land of Khaim is affected by the events of the first story. Most specifically, the ways that families are affected by the new regime that emerges. “The Executioness” (Tobias S. Buckell) ranges the furthest from the walls of Khaim, in a folkloric tale of motherhood, desperation, religious fervour and war. The journey of Tana from a distraught mother to a hardened warleader is compelling and moving, and explores the attitudes to women in war, to the power of fundamentalist religion and ultimately how far violence is the answer to any problem, especially one as global as the bramble. Both “The Children of Khaim” (Paolo Bacigalupi) and “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” (Tobias S. Buckwell) focus more on the children, and how they are affected when called upon to deal with the horrors that society has inflicted on them. Especially uncomfortable are the depictions of the abuses that those in power visit on those beneath them, simply because they can get away with it. Once again, Buckwell and Bacigalupi weave social commentary with a grimdark fairytale world with skill.

“Children” is perhaps the darkest story (and I should add a content warning about rape and child abuse), but manages to tackle unsettling subject-matter with sensitivity.

Although “The Tangled Lands” was not what I expected, I highly recommend it and would love to read more from that world.

Broken Metropolis – ed. Dave Ring – 7.5/10

I was excited about reviewing Broken Metropolis, a collection of queer urban fantasy edited by Dave Ring, and happily I was not disappointed. By running with the idea that urban environments allow LGBQTA+ people to create their own communities and find themselves, the various works in this collection create a moving and powerful testament to visibility, validation, and love –  all things deserved and needed by the queer community in this day and age.

Broken+Metropolis-Cover4-1(1)There is a lot on offer here, in many styles and flavours. M. Raolee opens with a sweet romance and tale of acceptance, “Neon”, in a fantastical alternate future. D. M. Rice provides evocative free verse in “Dissonance, Part I”; Meghan Cunningham and kx carys dish up intriguing vignettes of queer and magical life in the city in the eerie and dreamlike “The Strange Places In The City” and “Familiar”, respectively. H. Pueyo’s “Perseus on Two Wheels” is also a good deal of fun, riffing on Greek mythology, transposed to the adventures of a trans-man in a South American favela. There is very much something for fans of all manner of fantasy, and literature in general.

As ever, some stories in the collection deserve special mentions, and Broken Metropolis has a high proportion of these.

“The City of Cats” – Victoria Zelvin

A very touching story about a couple’s morning ritual turning out to have more power than at least one of them might have expected. The premise is simple, but its charm and warmth really bring this story to life.

“Venus Conjunct Saturn” – Claire Rudy Foster

In this astrology-laced story, a trans lesbian faces up to her fears of being rejected by her partner should she reveal her transness. This is built on with a real sense of liminality – her working to cure HIV, long associated with being pushed to the edges of society; her being a Greenpeace supporter but engaging in labwork involving animals. The protagonist finds her place in who she is, in a powerful story that (rightly) challenges trans-exclusionary feminism.

“The Plague-Eater” – Caspian Gray

An interesting example of what I can only describe as queer folk horror. When one of them is dying of cancer, some of their closest friends explore how far they are willing to go – and with what powers they are willing to engage with – to save them. The overarching theme of their friendship group being a “family of choice”, of those who accept one another for who they are, makes this especially moving.

“Your Heart In My Teeth” – V. Medina

Medina displays excellent command of the second person in this viscerally emotional tale of loss and grief. The protagonist’s loss of their partner leads them to a place of utter, well-articulated depression and despair, but nonetheless they find their way forward. The ending is very uplifting, yet with more than a little of the darkness of folk-tale about it.

“Under Her White Stars” – Jacob Budenz

On the face of it, this is an entertaining sting caper, a witch taking it on themself to defeat the Bad Guy that no one else can. But it becomes more than that – an exploration of hubris, love and trust – and, most importantly, how one prioritises oneself within a relationship

Broken Metropolis is a very enjoyable read, but it’s more than that. It’s one of those collections that feels very necessary, in its celebration of queerness and its refusal to allow LGBTQA+ characters to be figures of tragedy or powerlessness. Here, they live, and love, and have power. And that is as it should be. Recommended to all fans of short form fantasy, especially urban fantasy.

(This review was given in exchange for a free PDF of the ebook)

(Edit note – the pronouns of the protagonist of “Under Her White Stars” have been changed to reflect their being gender-neutral)

Sword and Sonnet – A. Doyle et. al – 7.5/10

Sword and Sonnet, edited by Aidan Doyle, Rachael K. Jones and E. Catherine Tobler, is a short story collection, largely made up of fantasy but with a smattering of science fiction, centring around female and non-binary warrior-poets. This is exciting enough as a prospect by itself, but what makes the collection special is the unique perspectives that each author brings to what it is to be a poet, what it is to be a warrior, and what it is to be a warrior-poet. Most of the stories are also accompanied with authors’ notes, which provides a more personal touch and a fascinating insight into the creative processes at work.

500px-SwordSonnetThe stories span traditions and subgenres, from the folkloric tale of jealousy, “The Other Foot”, by Margo Lanagan, to the ecological parable, “Eight-Step Köan”, by Anya Ow, to Kira Lees’ vampiric political intrigue tale, “Her Poems Are Inked in Tears and Blood,” to the amusing and thought-provoking “This Lexicon of Bone and Feathers”, courtesy of Carlie St. George. They also tackle hard-hitting emotional topics; great examples of these are Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali’s “She Searches For God in the Storm Within”, which concerns an escape from an abusive relationship, Osahon Ize-Iyamu’s treatment of self-esteem and sexual predators in slam-poem form in “A Voice In Many Different Forms”, and the exploration of grief and the reconciliation of the darker aspects of loved ones in “Dulce et Decorum”, by S. L. Luang. Samantha Henderson’s “The Fiddler at the Heart of the World” likewise sensitively examines the lengths people can be willing to go to to save a life, even if it involves forces they don’t fully understand. It’s a well-crafted collection of stories that complement each other well, and there is definitely something for fans of fantasy and science-fiction of all stripes. A few highlights are:

Words in an Unfinished Poem – A. C. Wise

In this redemptive and bittersweet Weird Western, an immortal gunslinger who writes poems with bullets which have exactly the right to kill their target etched on them, takes on a contract that will change their life.

A Subtle Fire Beneath the Skin – Hayley Stone

Hayley Stone plays with the idea of what it is to be monstrous beautifully in this tale of a woman who kills with poetry coming to terms with who she is, and trying to rewrite themselves into something new.

As For Peace, Call It Murder – C. S. E. Cooney

In a rousing story of a near-future military coup, a poet’s power to change the world is displayed with its full majesty, even if she is unable to save herself. One of the best stories in the collection, and bonus points for the AI corvid drones.

She Calls Down the Future in the Footprints Left Behind – Setsu Uzumé

Setsu Uzumé’s exploration of the limitations of oral tradition and the needs for cultures to adapt even at the cost of tradition is thought-provoking and moving. It also brings a dash of variety to the collection in the form of shamanistic magic, and a focus on the cultic and religious power of poetry that was especially powerful in such societies.

Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring – Suzanne J. Willis

One of the other gems in Sword and Sonnet, this account of a rebellion against the outlawing of the written word in an attempt to control the population is at once rousing and disturbing. It has an inspirational vein without being saccharine – the losses are real, the risks are real, and the battle is not short or easily won. In many ways, it is a parable for our times, at once a warning and an encouragement.

The Bone Poet and God – Matt Dovey

Also one of the best stories in the anthology, this is a heart-warming tale of self-discovery. It also has anthropomorphic bear shamans, and if that isn’t a selling point, I don’t know what is.

Siren – Alex Acks

In this space opera, Alex Acks explores how anger can be used as a catalyst both for destruction and for positive change, and the ways in which the potential for both can reside within a single being. His handling of the protagonist’s two warring personalities is especially deft. Like “Heartwood, Sapwood, Spring”, this story feels very timely, and one to draw encouragement from in Interesting Times.

With twenty-three high-quality stories on offer, Sword and Sonnet is a fine addition to the collection of any reader who enjoys the fantastical, the wondrous, and the bittersweet.

Winterglass – Benjanun Sidruangkaew – 7.5/10

On the surface, Benjanun Sidruangkaew’s Winterglass is a neat new twist on the Snow Queen folktale, with prose that borders at times on the poetic. The take on a familiar tale truly is excellent, especially the transposition of a traditionally western European tale to a south Asian environment. For example, the representation of a civilisation used to warmer, more tropical climates adjusting to eternal winter brings a fresh perspective. Sidruangkaew is also sensitive to the atmosphere of the traditional fairytale – eschewing the Victorianised tweeness that Disney has popularised, Winterglass is gritty, grim and at times forbidding, with an ending that is entirely in the spirit of the traditional fairytale. But to see it only as a retelling would do both author and story a disservice. Sidruangkaew brings new elements to bear on the plot that elevate Winterglass beyond retreading old ground. The new take on the magic mirror is intriguing, while the macabre ghost kilns that use human spirits as an analogue for electricity are chilling in their cold pragmatism.

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While the plot is slightly uneven at times, the threads are tied together well with the underlying theme of loyalty, especially those which conflict. Both the protagonist Nuawa and the ambiguous Lussadh are fiercely loyal to their chosen paths, and in both cases it is their loyalty to their families which is tested. Nuawa and Lussadh provide mirror images of one another, both devoted, both hardened in their devotion. It is these dynamics which keep the reader invested in the story beyond the well-worked aesthetics.

Also worthy of note is Sidruangkaew’s command of characterisation. The Winter Queen is suitably cold, aloof and incomprehensible as her namesake. The protagonist, Nuawa, is likewise enigmatic; an insurgent who ought to be dead, forging herself into a weapon to defeat someone whom she must agree to serve if she is to get close to her. She is a practical woman, a gladiator who dislikes fighting, who deals in pragmatism and betrayal simply to survive. She is a character who could be unsympathetic, except that we are allowed to see just enough behind the walls she has raised that we do manage to get to know someone whose mission in life is to be unknowable. Similarly, Lussadh could very easily be a two-dimensional villain, in thrall to eldritch powers in the manner of a fairytale. But, despite her own ruthless pragmatism, she likewise becomes a sympathetic character, with her own motivations, fears and regrets. Also, as one of three characters in Winterglass who do not conform to traditional western models of sex and gender who are treated with skill and sensitivity, Lussadh is the kind of character I would love to see more of. Winterglass came to be as much about Lussadh as Nuawa, and this I was glad of.

Winterglass is highly recommenders for fans of folklore and literary fantasy alike, with intriguing characters and skillful world-building. That the ending sets up for more to come makes it all the more exciting.

This review was given in exchange for a copy of the e-book courtesy of Apex Publications.

Convent of the Pure – Sara M. Harvey – 5/10

Sara M. Harvey’s Convent of the Pure is an imaginative gothic romp that draws on less-explored aspects of Judeo-Christian mythology to create a new twist on a Van Helsing-esque secret society devoted to protecting the world from the forces of darkness. The use of the Nephilim (the progeny of the angels that mated with mankind in Genesis 6:4) as the basis for her story lends a flavour to the resulting conflict that is suitably Biblical. The imagery is engaging and the worldbuilding is such that the various sects of Nephilim seem perfectly believable.

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It’s clear what Harvey intends to do with Convent of the Pure. Portia, the protagonist, is a corset-wearing, crossbow-wielding warrior of light, but with enough human vulnerabilities to prevent her becoming a two-dimensional badass. Her relationship with Imogen (the spirit of her deceased lover who remains attached to her even in death) forms the crux of her character and of the story as a whole. While the emotional bond between the two is well-written and genuine, it does lead to some frustrating aspects; Portia, for example, remains unquestioningly trusting and loyal, even when betrayed. At times it feels that, Portia, like the readers, is simply along for the ride; though she is the protagonist, she doesn’t feel as if she has a great deal of control over her actions. There’s also a clumsily-written scene involving a succubus where the emphatically lesbian Portia is seduced by an attractive young man to the verge of giving in to her desires, she before loudly declares that the succubus’ one mistake was not knowing her sexual preferences run solely to women. Given what we know of Portia’s sexuality, this scene doesn’t make initial sense, and then the only explanations for her attraction to the male succubus, (that she might be bisexual or that succubi might override sexual preferences) are immediately rejected. Though clearly unintentional, these oversights make for uncomfortable reading. The villain is also suitably pantomime (by no means a criticism – every gothic romp needs a larger-than-life antagonist), although the big reveal can be seen from some distance, while, given the limited time spent with secondary characters, it can be hard to feel a real sense of loss at their deaths as we don’t have time to get attached to them.

Certain quibbles aside, Convent of the Pure is an entertaining read. While it isn’t ground-breaking, it is far from by-the-numbers, and for readers who like their gothic, punky goodness with a Judeo-Christian veneer it is well worth picking up. Harvey has laid the foundations for a fun trilogy in a world that is definitely worth exploring further.

 

This review was given in exchange for a free copy of the ebook.

The Quantum Soul: A Sci Fi Roundtable Anthology ed. Eric M. Craig and Ducky Smith – 7.5/10

From the pens, keyboards and various writing implements of the Knights of the Sci Fi Roundtable comes this immersive and exciting anthology which asks the one of the oldest questions in science fiction – what makes something alive? Two centuries since Mary Shelley first explored this theme in Frankenstein, sixteen authors take the question across time, space and the very dimensions, and come up with many different answers.

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With a wide range of authors from across the globe, The Quantum Soul really does provide something for everyone – from the quantum-mechanical “Wondrous Strange” (E. M. Swift-Hook) to the near-future whodunnit “The Endymion Device” (Lyra Shanti), to the enjoyably satirical “When Words Are Not Enough” (Cindy Tomamichel), in which writers are forced to produce stories for the passengers of an interstellar voyage, being fed according to their reviews under the all-seeing eye of “the Zon”. Really, I have no idea where these ideas come from…

With so many authors to cover, it is difficult to go into much detail (and to go into too much would be to ruin some fine surprises), but needless to say this is a fun, exciting and thought-provoking read that showcases some of the best indie talent out there. Highly recommended to science-fiction fans of all stripes.

Some highlights:

The Trees of Trappist – Brent Harris

A fun and evocative adventure of colonists coming to terms with the beings they share the planet with. Plenty of excitement and imagination.

Second Contact – Leo McBride

A neat Star-Trek-inspired tale with a grounding in linguistics that tickled the cockles of my academic heart. Finally, recognition for the humanities!

Project Chameleon – Jeanetter O’Hagan

A highly enjoyable cyborg sci-fi which skilfully blends alternate timelines, class warfare and political intrigue. I live in hope of a sequel.

Patient Data – Claire Buss

This time, a near-future what-if story about the introduction of medical drones into the health service, with a healthy dose of wry cynicism.

Aether Technician – Jim Webster

This meditation on humanity and the lengths a civilisation will go to for the sake of “progress” manages to blend the excitement of the pioneer spirit with the sombre reality of the consequences for humanity and those it uses to forge its path through the stars.

What Measure is a Homunculus? – Ricardo Victoria

Here Ricardo brings his distinctive imagination to bear on the themes of slavery and sentience. His take on debate-by-combat is fresh and believable, while the wider consequences of decisions made provide satisfying depth to the story. Also credit for a twist ending that made me stare at the wall and declare him a clever bugger.

Shepherd of Memory – Rob Edwards

Another exploration story with shades of Star Trek and Doctor Who, and which brought out the same sense of childlike wonder in me. An excellent way to round off the anthology.

The Quantum Soul is a fantastic showcase of the talent in the SFF indie scene, and is well worth the time of any fan of speculative fiction.

Sins of Empire – Brian McClellan – 9/10

This review is technically for one book, but in actuality it covers an entire preceding trilogy. Brian McClellan’s latest effort, Sins of Empire, is a real treat, and one of the best fantasies I have read this year. Moving on from the revolutions of the Powder Mage trilogy with its country-spanning conflicts involving revolutionaries, imperialists and gods, Sins of Empire expands its scope to an entirely new continent, hinted at in the previous trilogy, with a few old friends to guide us on our way.

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Perfect reading for a day-long train journey

McClellan’s world is a traditional fantasy setting of cunning mages and vying gods, but one that is undergoing its industrial revolution, as well as the political upheaval of the rise of republicanism and colonialization – think the French Revolution and the colonisation of North America but with magic as well as muskets. The Powder Mage trilogy (which I highly recommend) focuses more on the former, where Sins of Empire moves its attention to the latter.

Attendant to this “flintlock fantasy” setting is the most unique and, in my opinion, exciting aspect of McClellan’s world-building – the powder mages. While his general magic system of Privileged mages having extensive elemental powers and Knacked having minor skills (such as not having to sleep or having a perfect memory), the powder mages are unique – individuals who can manipulate the explosive power of gunpowder to shot across several miles, round corners or without a gun, as well as detonating powder from a distance, which is especially effective against a mass infantry charge. It would work well on the big screen, and McClellan manages to get the cinematic nature of the power across without losing any literary merit, as some authors can. His battle scenes are excellent, and carry the right amount of pathos and dry humour. His style is reminiscent of Steven Erikson, if Erikson was given the chance to write a Sharpe script.

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While Jonathan Strange losing his temper at Waterloo is impressive, it’s just a taster of the fun Powder Mages provide (Credit: BBC)

In Sins of Empire, all the elements that fans of McClellan will expect are there. World-weary military leaders? Check. A spy or investigator out of his depth? Check. War heroes caught up in networks of loyalty? Check. Mysterious antagonist? Check. Yet McClellan takes the elements of his former work and spins them out in a way that leaves the reader who thinks they know what to expect very much on their toes. The characters McClellan writes are all engaging and relatable, and Mikel in particular is a favourite of mine. The necessity of an informer to have multiple personalities to hand makes for a wonderful character study, especially one where his position forces amorality on a man who is ultimately so sympathetic.

Sins of Empire builds on earlier events, but in a different way. Where revolution was bloody, organised and guillotine-based in his first trilogy, now it is subtler, underground and involving information and propaganda. Class divides become ethnic, and here is the strength of McClellan’s work – the themes are strong and clear but not heavy-handed. The treatment of the native Palo under those settling Fatrastra has clear parallels in our own history and our contemporary world. The analogues with European colonialism are clear, but also focus on the give and take – there are things to be gained from the cultural contact as well as inevitable and regrettable strife. This is especially true when characters from both sides end up embroiled in their own connections and sympathies that aren’t always compatible with those of their putative friends and allies.

Loyalty is certainly the main theme of Sins of Empire. While many of these are religious, ethnic and political, there are many personal conflicts. Does General Vlora follow coin or principle? Can she overcome old wounds to form alliances with those who have hurt her? Can Ben Styke put his country before his thirst for revenge against those who incarcerated him in a prison camp? And who can he trust when he becomes free – and who will he risk putting in danger by coming back into their lives? Which of Mikel’s many personas is really him, and which is he most loyal to?

Sins of Empire is a rip-roaring page turner brimming with political intrigue and pseudo-Napoleonic magical warfare, but its true strength is the intricacies and realism of the world and its characters. While you probably need to read the Powder Mage trilogy before embarking on this new trilogy, “Gods of Blood and Powder”, this is no bad thing – it means I am recommending four books to you instead of one!

Tales of Wonder – 7/10

As one would expect from an upcoming anthology named “Tales of Wonder”, Inklings Press here treat us with an eclectic grab-bag of science-fantasy stories, channelling a multitude of influences and styles that ensures that there is something for everyone here.

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Rob Edwards’ The Lair of the Thunderlord has possibly one of the most unique models of hyper-space travel I have ever come across – what essentially amounts to voodoo. While in some places Lair feels like two story ideas battling for supremacy, the premise and the deft twist at the climax make this an enjoyable read.

Also niftily-constructed is Changeling Child, a pleasantly eerie piece of spec-fic, where science decays and blends seamlessly into folklore. E. M. Swift-Hook should equally be commended for her excellent command of the child-like perspective of her protagonist.

From the daft and the eerie the anthology turns towards Ricardo Victoria’s Kaana, which channels instead Japanese-inspired Saturday-morning cartoons. However, dialogue that might make sense on screen ends up slightly jarring on the page, and a preponderance of “telling not showing” makes the overall decent plot feel like a slightly wasted opportunity to homage and transform the source material into a truly compelling story.

Jessica Holmes’ An Honest Trader was a surprise to me. What began as a fun take on air-ship piracy (which for me evoked Treasure Planet and Final Fantasy XII, among other things), quickly developed into a tight moral thriller with a curveball twist that genuinely took me aback and one of the highlights of Tales of Wonder.

Equally imaginative is Sedna’s Hair, an offering by Jeff Provine that infuses the monotony and danger of interstellar freighting with a healthy and refreshing dose of Inuit mythology. Having read a fair deal of mythology in my time, I was impressed by Provine’s ability to weave a story in a futuristic setting while maintaining the rarefied spirit of myth intact.

Another highlight of the anthology is Brent Harris’ A Twist in Time; a loving and knowing blend of steampunk, H. G. Wells and several nods to the works of Dickens. The theft of a pocket-watch that is more than it seems leads a Victorian pickpocket on a journey into our own dystopian, ecologically-ruined future in a tale that is both a warning of what may come to pass and an affectionate nod to writers gone by.

Matthew Harvey’s A Very Improper Adventure also takes heavy influence from Victorian-set steampunk, and draws much of its humour from the dichotomy of Victorian values concerning women – prudish and assumed to be inferior intellectually to men – and the reality of our mother-and-daughter protagonists who must ward off an assassin on a Titanic airship. The romp is fun and infused with a knockabout action-film quality, although the opening where the situation is laid out in a flashback during a scolding is particularly memorable.

Grace, by Terri Pray, provides a marked change in direction. The examination of the relationship between a reclusive genius programmer and his bodyguard-cum-butler who is more than she seems provides the bedrock of this narrative; where many stories in this anthology are built on a bedrock of action, the foundations of Grace are firmly emotional. It gives the reader space to breath before the final plunge into the last story of the anthology, and it is this that gives the story its strength.

The final piece in Tales of Wonder is Leo McBride’s The Last Sorceror. This gritty dystopian future in which the last practitioners of magic are being hunted down by the government is both thought-provoking and thrilling, while the characters are well-realised and often surprise (including the author – see his blog on how one character in particular took on a life of their own). The truly climactic ending is a perfect way to round off the anthology – as with all things, even wonderment must come to an end.

Tales of Wonder is definitely worth picking up if you like any kind of science-fiction or fantasy and a willingness not to take either too seriously. Inklings once again showcase a good away of established and emerging talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised if a number of them were people to keep an eye on in the realms of fantasy literature in the future.

In Need of a Yuletide Stocking-Filler?

It’s that time of year again! As the dust settles from the hurly-burly of Christmas and the inevitable gift-exchange (much of which, I hope, will involve books!), for many an inevitable question always remains:

What do I spend that gift voucher on?

If, as I inevitably do from relatives who have given up trying to buy for me, you have some spare cash or Amazon vouchers kicking around this Christmas, I would like to suggest a few stocking fillers that you may consider spending them on.

 

Surface Tension

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First up, a collection that I have reviewed before. Sarah Grey’s collection is truly excellent both moving and unsettling – perfect for traditional Yuletide chills. And what better way to celebrate the release of her new book Half Life than revisiting her other fantastic work?

 

Steampunk Fairy Tales

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If you want a bit of Christmas magic of fairy tales, but with a steam-pumping, oil-spewing take that is both gritty and magical, then this is for you. I won’t dwell in detail on the fairy tales covered as part of the collection’s challenge to the reader is to guess – but needless to say that this is well worth picking up (and indeed, at the time of writing it is free, with a second volume retailing for only £0.99).

 

Inklings Press

 

Set up by a group of writer friends with the intention of helping others get a foot in the door of the publishing world, Inklings Press produce regular themed collections of a consistently good standard. To focus on only two: Tales from the Tavern, a classic fantasy anthology, is worth picking up for the first and final stories alone, while their Tales from Alternate Earths is one of the best collections of alternate-history short stories that I have ever come across. These are also very reasonably priced, and do a great deal to help undiscovered authors much-needed publicity and appreciation.

 

Besides this sample of recent delights I have stumbled across, there are a plethora of independent presses and magazines that deserve your attention, and give a start to the up-and-coming authors yet to be recognised by the major presses.  Apex publishes novels, novellas and a regular magazine, and is a treat for fans of the speculative (as my previous reviews of their publications can attest). Lightspeed and Clarkesworld magazines are famed for their fantasy and science fiction, while Beneath Ceaseless Skies is making waves in the epic fantasy market. These all contain stories written with love and dedication, and isn’t that what we bibliophiles yearn for?

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from Exploring Otherwheres

 

 

Learn more about the authors and presses covered here by following them on Twitter:

Sarah Gray: @saraygray

Claret Press: @Claret_Press

Inklings Press: @InklingsPress

Apex: @ApexBookCompany and @apexmag

Beneath Ceaseless Skies: @BCSmagazine

Clarkesworld: @clarkesworld

Lightspeed: @LightspeedMag

The Kraken Sea – E. Catherine Tobler – 7/10

In The Kraken Sea, Tobler has crafted a unique take on a coming-of-age-story. Set in San Francisco in the early 1890s, the tale follows Jackson, a young orphan sent to a new city from his orphanage to be adopted; and who is not what he seems. Indeed, Jackson himself seems uncertain of what he is – all he knows is that at times scales appear under his skin, and when he loses self-control other children are known to disappear without a trace.

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It is a story of self-discovery, then, that is told, and one tinged with exploitation, crime and mythology. Jackson is adopted into a “family” of people – or half-people – like him, who take advantage of their shape-shifting capabilities to further their interests against the other fey-tinged gangs of San Fransisco. Jackson proves a believable and sympathetic protagonist, who sometimes walks the line of the anti-hero – he is a youth with powers that are perhaps beyond his control, in a new city, with all the temptations open to an adolescent indulged by his peers. He sometimes does bad things, and wrong things, but there is no sense of evil, but rather a sense of moral complexity, of naïvety and of redemption. It is Jackson’s discovery of his own nature and the direction of his moral compass that drives The Kraken Sea.

Tobler has also successfully imbued an alternate-history America with artfully-used Classical (and some Norse) mythology and has managed to make the world believable, where it could so easily have been self-aware and self-indulgent in its own references. The atmosphere is dark and gritty, but not oppressively so, with enough wonder to lift the The Kraken Sea into a pleasantly speculative vein beyond a simple alternate-history thriller. While the descriptions are sometimes vague and confusing, bordering on the psychedelic, but this rather reflects the confusion of Jackson, thrown into a new and confusing world of which he is, by blood, a part, and faced with countless wonders (and horrors).

If you enjoy mythologically-tinged speculative fiction, alternate histories, or gang-land thrillers, then The Kraken Sea is well worth a read.

For more on Tobler’s work, follow her on Twitter: @ECthetwit