The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

I finally got around to reading The Bear and the Nightingale and I’m so glad that I did. Almost every little aspect comes together to create this wonderful, cosy book – the kind that makes you want to curl up in front of a fireplace and read.

The first thing that everyone notices is the writing style. Of course, it’s written in a fairy tale-like way to evoke the magical atmosphere, but the way it balances the fanciful and eerie natures is wonderful. The reader is always kept entranced by and wary of the mythical creatures in equal parts. On top of the fairy tale style, the prose is lyrical in its descriptions of the forest, Vasya’s house, and just the toil of everyday life in general. The book takes place over several years but it never feels rushed. The seasons flow into each other seamlessly and the characters’ growth is equally smooth.

The Bear and the Nightingale combines the real setting of Medieval Christian Russia with much Russian and Slavic mythology to great success. No knowledge of either is required despite there being times that I was unsure of some casually mentioned Russian concepts. I should stress that this isn’t a bad thing though; it’s far more realistic that these things be embraced by the author without slowing down the book explaining what they mean, especially considering that there was nothing vital to the story that was confusing. The folklore was handled a little less gracefully with many creatures just explaining to Vasya (and by extension, the reader) what they are and how they are relevant. But more important than how they were individually handled is how they were intertwined. The creatures felt like just another aspect of the world – the characters just accept that kitchens have domovoi and stables have dvorovoi, if not knowing why which leads the reader to accept this as business as usual too.

Without doubt my favourite aspect of the book was the familial relationships. From the outset, the siblings are portrayed so perfectly in how they interact. They tease each other, are playful, argue and support each other. A special shoutout to Vasya and Alyosha whose every conversation reminded me of mine and my sister’s.

“What’s that, Lyoshka?” she said, around a mouthful. Her brother leaned on his spade, squinting up at her. “What’s it to you?” Alyosha quite liked Vasya, who was up for anything—nearly as good as a younger brother—but he was almost three years older and had to keep her in her place. “Don’t know,” said Vasya, chewing. “Cake?” She held out half of her last one with a little regret; it was the fattest and least ashy. “Give,” said Alyosha, dropping his shovel and holding out a filthy hand. But Vasya put herself out of range. “Tell me what you’re doing,” she said. Alyosha glared, but Vasya narrowed her eyes and made to eat the cake. Her brother relented.

Ultimately the book delves into two heavy topics – the role assigned to women in society and how ignorance can so easily be controlled. The former, in particular, is handled well and is discussed all throughout the book. Fairly early on Vasya’s sister Olga is married off and from that onwards Vasya becomes acutely aware that she will soon be forced to do so also or else join a convent. When she pushes back from these options almost everyone points out that this is the natural lot in life for women. Arden tackles the topic with nuance – Olga is shown to be content with her marriage and Vasya doesn’t look down on her for it. She’s happy for her, at the same acknowledging that the life isn’t for her.

The Bear and the Nightingale is altogether a fantastic book. I suppose that isn’t a surprise revelation at this point but really for a debut novel, I was blown away by the elegant storytelling and the authentic characters and can’t wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

 

r/fantasy 2018 Bingo Micro-Reviews

The annual r/fantasy bingo challenge is a staple of the community and the latest one finished on March 31st. I managed to complete it this year thanks to many of the squares lending themselves to the books on my pre-existing TBR.

Since I have written reviews for very few of my bingo books, I thought I’d write a quick 2-3 line micro-review of each, roughly in order of ratings (emphasis on roughly)

The Steel Seraglio – Mike Carey, Linda Carey, and Louise Carey (Non-Western Setting)

Okay I actually did write a review for this one. You can read it here, but the gist is that this book is perfect. And at only 646 Goodreads ratings, it’s criminally underrated. Written in the style of folktales, it’s a poetic and optimistic telling of a group of 100 concubines exiled and forced to adapt to life in the desert. My absolute favourite book of the year and easily an all-time contender.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant – Seth Dickinson (2017 Top Books)

Most people will have heard of Traitor Baru by this point, the story of a gifted young women who plots to tear down an oppressive empire from the inside. It’s got everything that you want in book – anti-colonialism themes? F/F relationships? Copious accounting? What else do you need?

The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood (Novel Adapted)

You know how sometimes classics really let you down because everyone talks so highly of them (looking at you Gunslinger)? The Handmaid’s Tale is the complete opposite of that. While it seems incomprehensible that the real world could suddenly become what Atwood describes, the subtle little changes that finally result in such a dystopia are all too easy to imagine, making this as powerful as it surely was 30 years ago.

The Fifth Season – N K Jemisin (LGBT Characters)

I’m glad I started with a fairly unknown book because wow these last few are making me look so basic. Anyway, Fifth Season. You know the deal. Three books, three Hugos. Scathing indictment of racism and otherism. Partially written in the second person. Legitimate reasons for multiple POVs (rather than a crutch for showing more of the world). Nonchalant poly relationships. Two glossaries. Okay that last one wasn’t as important but for real, go read the book and come back to read the rest of this post.

The Winged Histories – Sofia Samatar (< 2500 GR Ratings)

Okay good back to unknown books, look I have such sophisticated tastes. The Winged Histories is such an excellent book, not just because of all the political manoeuvrings that go on in the background, or the themes of independence, religion, and rebelling against or accepting predetermined lives, but because of the prose. It’s mind blowing well written. It’s lyrical, it’s densely packed with information for just 300 pages, and Samatar casually switches between the present day and political, historical and cultural asides when necessary. This sounds like a hassle, but it works seamlessly. I could go on and on but just know it’s beautiful and so much more than simply a civil war.

Record of a Spaceborn Few – Becky Chambers (Space Opera)

Remember when I said these would be 2-3 lines each? Okay let’s be more concise. This one’s easy anyway. If you’ve liked any Wayfarers books, you’ll like this no doubt. With Chambers’ trademark sanguinity it’s another perfect instalment in the series.

The Golem and the Jinni – Helene Wecker (Historical Fantasy)

A great slice of life novel following the titular beings in 1900 New York. Everyone talks about the exploration of friendships and religion and self-purpose which are excellent but the stand out feature is the plotting. The two main POVs along with a few side ones sublimely snowball into a tense climax. Whenever you feel underwhelmed by a book’s pacing but can’t verbalise how it should be, this is the answer. Worst part is Wecker using the vastly inferior spelling of djinn.

Lud-in-the-Mist – Hope Mirrlees (Features the Fae)

Described by Gaiman as ‘the single most beautiful and unjustifiably forgotten novel of the 20th century’ and I can’t put it any more succinctly or accurately than that. Benefits from the novel factor of being pre-influential fantasy books/dnd and thus entirely unique in its depiction of the fae. Also it’s quaint af. I can’t overstate just how adorably quaint everyone is.

The Tower of Living and Dying – Anna Smith Spark (Featuring a God as a Character)

Spark has this magnificent way of describing everything so intensely, almost aggressively. Not just the visceral fights but even scenes that would be banal or filler by another author, like descriptions of food or buildings are so detailed it’s almost uncomfortable. It’s hard to explain but it’s utterly unique and while it’s certainly not for everyone, it’s brilliantly unique. Also, it’s a brave decision and certainly not easy to make every character unlikeable and still be captivating but Spark pulls it off with aplomb.

The Lions of Al-Rassan – Guy Gavriel Kay (Protagonist is an Writer)

My first GGK and certainly not my last. I was hesitant going in, wondering how GGK would be able to create a convincing epic historical fantasy and resolve it satisfactorily within one book but he absolutely accomplished it. A clear analogue of Spain/Morocco relations with some Jewish-esque persecution thrown in for good measure, the book could easily have become a mess of political and religious strategies but instead it’s a fascinating and complicated study of love, bigotry, and war.

The City & The City – China Mieville (Standalone)

What if there were two identical cities split not by a Berlin Wall divide but instead geographically overlapped with the citizens resolutely ignoring the those from the other city? That’s the premise of the book and was more than enough to attract my attention. Fortunately, so, as the main plot advancement of a detective trying to solve a murder that involves both cities was interesting but not quite as novel. Regardless, Mieville’s limitless imagination and nuance is on show once more – I can’t imagine anyone else pull off such an ambitious and culturally heavy topic.

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories – Ken Liu (Anthology)

Anthologies are a tricky breed to evaluate but this was easily worth the price of admission just for The Paper Menagerie. Better to go in blind, just know it’s a touching wee story. A lot of the stories will resonate more with 1st/2nd generation immigrants and many focus on the clash of Eastern and Western cultures but even if those themes are not directly relevant to your own life the number of award noms and wins (spoiler, it’s a whole bunch) will surely pique your interest.

City of Lies – Sam Hawke (Reviewed on r/fantasy)

Either I’m blissfully unaware of the genre or there is a distinct lack of whodunnit fantasy novels. Fortunately, Hawke comes blasting in with a debut that remedies this with a stellar group of main characters that are dangerously likeable considering how constantly they are at risk of being poisoned. Seriously, if you’re into intrigue and poison, this book is perfect.

The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories – Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin (RRAWR Book)

From a blockbuster list of authors (Neil Gaiman, Maria Dahvana Headley, Nnedi Okorafor, Sami Shah and Helene Wecker among many more) comes an eclectic spread of interpretations of djinn behaviours and cultures. The diversity will ultimately mean it’s unlikely you’ll love them all, but every story is a fresh and unique take on the now somewhat overused mythology of djinns. Bonus marks for the exemplary spelling.

The Prince of Cats – Daniel E Olesen (Takes Place in One City)

Imagine an Assassin’s Creed style plot (without the weird Apple of Eden stuff) but with a lone wolf version of Locke Lamora as the MC. That’s the Prince of Cats in a nutshell but glosses over how cleanly written it all is. Olesen isn’t afraid to slam the brakes on the fast-paced plot to hit Jawad (the MC) with some serious development but then doesn’t get bogged down in his head. Every aspect is so historically and culturally accurate it could easily pass as historical fiction. Despite having only one perspective, side characters are fleshed out enough to steal scenes – everything comes together to make an excellent novel.

Princess Princess Ever After – Kate O’Neill (Graphic Novel)

I’m not much of a comic reader or audiobook listener so was kind of dreading this square. Fortunately, a friend linked to this cute webcomic. ‘Cute’ being the definite word. It is so adorable. Between there being random petals fluttering in the background every time the princesses touch to them stopping an ogre destroying a town by teaching him to dance, everything about this comic is wholesome.

Arm of the Sphinx – Josiah Bancroft (Features a Library)

Did you guys know that the Books of Babel is a good series? I know right, but bear with me. Arm of the Sphinx is a great sequel to an already very great debut – getting access to the viewpoints of the supporting cast was a pleasant surprise and only emphasised my correct theory that Voleta is the best character. I did feel that the book slowed down compared to the first as a result of having more character POVs, but the world is so weird and interesting that it was hardly a bother.

Circe – Madeline Miller (Goodreads Book of the Month)

Circe is tough one to sum up. On one hand, it’s written wonderfully and perfectly grasps the wonder of the Greek gods. The descriptions and sardonic remarks by Circe simultaneously draw you into the scope of the myths while keeping you grounded to the very real (well, ‘real’) implications of them. And of course, it gives a voice to Circe moving her past the depiction of a jealous, vapid, psycho woman who turns nice men into pigs. But the feminism representation that it boasts rings hollow when it takes these one-dimensional portrayals and just passes them onto every other female character (Scylla, Athena, Pasiphaë, and basically every nymph           ). It’s still an excellent retelling of Greek myths and an excellent in its own right but I feel that there’s better bastions of female empowerment out there.

Assassin’s Apprentice – Robin Hobb (Under Author Pseudonym)

Hobb’s gigantic saga starts here and it’s a very different start than one might expect. There aren’t any big action scenes hook in the reader or a bunch of POVs to reveal the world. It’s a very introspective, character-driven book. Definitely a love-or-hate type depending on your preferences but it’s exactly what I like. I did feel it went on a bit long though and while I really want to keep reading the series, I have yet to build up the strength to read of Fitz ‘my-life-is-a-literal-nightmare’ Farseer suffer for two ~700-page novels.

Borne – Jeff VanderMeer (One Word Title)

Borne is a weird af book. That’s not an insult mind you, being weird is VanderMeer’s forte and Borne is no exception. In this biopunk world, one thing I really liked was VanderMeer’s use of nature in uniquely interesting ways such as memory fish, firefly-based lighting, and attack beetles. If none of that makes sense, don’t worry. You don’t go into a book like this to understand the science fiction being used. Just embrace the strangeness and dive in.

Traitor – Krista D Ball (Self Published)

A quick read but by no means an easy one, Traitor follows a self-loathing, heavily depressed individual eking out a life in indentured servitude. If that doesn’t sound fun, I don’t know what does. Despite the heavy topics dealt with, through injecting just enough humour and keeping the plot moving swiftly, the book never gets too despondent. I do feel that there was a little too much emphasis on just how terrible the villain was. It probably would have been fine in a longer book but spending so many precious pages repeatedly showing that he is a creep was a bit disproportionate (but to be clear, he really was an ultra creep).

The Whitefire Crossing – Courtney Schafer (Features a Mountain)

Look, people need to stop using the trope of ‘oh I have a massive secret, but I won’t tell this person I’m entrusting my life to because they might react poorly’. There were some really interesting concepts used in this book (I liked how despite magic being locked to minority of people, most can buy magical artefacts for a variety of purposes and I’m pretty sure all the mountain climbing was accurate to real life) and I was pleasantly surprised by the story going further than one might expect. But this single trope annoyed me for about three quarters of the book until it was resolved.

The Black Company – Glen Cook (Published Before You Were Born)

I was looking forward to reading The Black Company – it’s a short read, is a model military fantasy along with being one of the precursors to the grimdark genre. But I was underwhelmed by the first book. Little things like characters using Americanisms such as ‘pants’ and ‘cussing’ kept pulling me out of the world. Not to mention, there’s one token non-white guy and I swear every time he’s mentioned; the MC has to describe him as a ‘little black man’. Is there a name for the phenomenon where if a person has a dark skin colour, then it’s referenced at every occasion? If there is, The Black Company fails that test repeatedly. The rest of the books are probably pretty great, and I’ll get around to them eventually, but I don’t feel any great rush.

The Wolf – Leo Carew (Published in 2018)

This ambitious alt history of Great Britain intrigued me with its premise of having two species of humans living on the island. But I was disappointed when it turned out to be just a very by-the-numbers fantasy. There’s the hero who reluctantly becomes king, those in his inner circle conspiring against him because why not, the single woman who of course is excessively snarky and then gets semi-fridged, the old mentor, secret police/assassins that keep threatening the hero but never actually do anything and the evil neighbouring kingdom. Every so often there’s a glimpse of something interesting and I wish Carew focused more on the biological differences between the human species (which I’ve never seen before) but ultimately, with so many stellar debuts coming out every year, it’s just not worth reading one that is exactly okay.

Theft of Swords – Michael J Sullivan (Hopeful Spec-Fic)

The most diplomatic way for me to review this is to say it wasn’t for me. Stop reading there if you’re a fan or your name rhymes with Cycle K Mulligan, I’m going to lay into it. But to be specific, the dialogue is clunky (“No, I won’t order you to marry my daughter, I treasure her” who talks like that?), the reader is repeatedly bashed over the head with exposition, in one page elves are transparently used as an allegory for racism and then the next chapter one of the MCs quips how much he hates all dwarves and it’s played for laughs. People say the book is an example of how to embrace tropes properly. They’re half right: literally every trope under the sun (except dragons, but who knows, there’s a million books in the extended setting) are thrown in. If The Wolf follows a checklist of tropes, Theft of Swords photocopied the list and put a cover on it. I would equate it to fanfiction but considering AO3 was just nominated for a Hugo, it would be an unfair comparison.

I think, as a whole, the challenge was a success. I delved into genres that I would usually ignore and some of the more specific prompts convinced me to finally get to some books that I’d been meaning to for a while. I was pretty pleased with all the books I read for. Even those that I didn’t enjoy too much, I’m still glad I read. I think I’ve found that I’m just not that into epic traditional fantasy anymore (or at least for the moment). I definitely seem to be giving higher ratings to smaller scale, character-focused books.

One issue I have is the ‘one author per card’ rule. Of course, it makes sense to be included as the point is not stick with just one author and fill up the card with all their books. However, it has the unintended side effect of discouraging sequel. The Fifth Season was one of my favourite books read over last year and I couldn’t wait to read the next two. But since I don’t read a huge number of books a year, 25 is quite a significant portion of that and I wanted to focus on finishing the card. So ultimately, I chose to fill out squares rather than finish multiple series. This was also the case with The Traitor Baru Cormorant and The Black Company, though to a lesser extent. As a result, you might notice that a vast majority of the books were standalone – partially because I like standalones more, but also so that I didn’t give myself too many unfinished series.

City of Brass by S A Chakraborty

As a whole, I liked City of Brass.

It suffers from a case of having a weak first half – never a good thing but especially dangerous for debut authors. It starts off awfully slowly and despite having two points of view, very little is accomplished. The main character, Nahri’s POV alternates between mountains of exposition regarding the djinn world, clans, culture and her attempting to be cool whenever Dara breathes nearby. Ali’s chapters consist of him being reminded repeatedly that the systemic djinn caste culture is pretty terrible and that he will be the king’s advisor when his older brother receives the crown. Nothing else really happens for the first 250 pages. A lack of story doesn’t inherently bother me, but if it’s the case there needs to be something else to hook the reader like moreish prose or introspective character studies (neither of which were bad at all here but not so great as to specifically note).

I recommend powering through it as once Nahri and Dara arrive at the city of brass, it gets far more interesting. In particular, Dara clashing with and antagonising literally everyone was immensely enjoyable to read. I was a huge fan with Chakraborty’s careful creation of an incredibly morally grey world. It’s obvious that the djinn in charge are not exactly kind rulers to the lower castes but those that oppose them are pretty shitty people as well. This is reflected well in the characters also – Dara is critical of much of the city (and rightfully so, mostly) but he’s hardly a paragon what with his historical reputation. Ali, too, is pretty reasonable in that he wants to help the poor but then he turns around and shows how religiously zealous he is and how he looks down on basically everyone around him. It’s the same for every major character and faction and never feels like whiplash personality changes; every chapter I was switching my opinion on who to support, it was expertly done.

I kind of felt that the female characters were a bit lacking, unfortunately. Nahri is an excellent character who goes through significant development throughout the book and I’m interested to see where her story goes in the future. But the supporting cast is somewhat lacklustre. Zaynab has one scene where she shows her cards immediately and Nahri’s like ‘okay not gonna hang out with her again’ and then she’s barely seen. Nisreen is more consisntenly prominent but she doesn’t really do much except be disapproving up until the climax. I expect she’ll have a bigger part in the sequels, and I hope Zaynab does too; she was a great character that deserves more focus (especially after her one particular conversation with Ali).

Probably every review has mentioned this at some point, so I won’t linger, but I really appreciated the Arab-esque setting, particularly because it was clearly so well researched. Djinn are to Islamic folklore what Baba Yaga is to Slavic folklore – that is to say, when anyone dares write about something so ‘exotic’, they probably are only interested about including djinn. So, it was refreshing to see references to marids, peri, daeva and nahids.

I think this review reflects more negatively than how I feel. I didn’t love it as I had hoped but I did enjoy it as a whole. I like that it doesn’t try to hide its Arab inspirations, written by an author who clearly isn’t writing in the setting because its ‘ethnic’ but actually because they’re interested in and knowledgeable about it. I like the constant struggle Ali has between wanting to support his family and help the needy. I like how Nahri is put in a shit position but negotiates her way to the ‘optimal’ solution even if it’s not the happiest for her. While I don’t feel an urge to rush out to buy Kingdom of Copper, I’ve heard that it is better by those who loved City of Brass so I will certainly be reading it in the future.

The Hod King by Josiah Bancroft

I feel that reviews become less useful further into a series. Of course, they’re important for the first and probably the second to see if quality is consistent but no one’s stumbling onto book three by accident; they already know they like the author and just want to read more. With that in mind, I’m going to be a little more critical of The Hod King than I might be for a series debut.

I noticed that the POV changes are more regimented compared to Arm of the Sphinx’s headhopping. I don’t know if this was an intentional decision, but I wasn’t a huge fan of how often and casually the POVs would switch in book 2; fortunately, The Hod King finds a comfortable compromise between it and Senlin Ascends’ solo-POV by having three clear sections following Senlin then Voleta then Edith (while occasionally dipping into other characters when it feels natural).

The book was interestingly structured – the novel (almost) entirely takes place in the ringdom of Pelphia over roughly a week. Each of the three sections covered the same week from the three perspectives. It was a little jarring to jump back in time just as things get exciting with both Senlin’s and Voleta’s story endings being cliffhangered until the future POV(s) can catch up. But that’s the nature of storytelling and the story was told quite cleverly with everything coming together in the final 100 pages or so with subtle enough foreshadowing to not be overbearing. It felt a little redundant however, to have this clear three act story structure but also have four named, distinguished parts. Splitting the story into four parts is a Books of Babel standard for sure but it might have been better to have three of the four parts line up with the three POVs and then have the fourth be an epilogue rather than having the two framing devices be separate.

Surprising no one, the prose continues to be excellent. Every sentence is given so much care, not a word is wasted – it’s just a joy to read. The book touches on some serious issues – domestic abuse, oppressed societies, torture and slavery to name a few – but does so with tact. It’s all described through a lens of whimsy yet never feels flippant or twee for its own sake. Outside of raw imagination, the characters’ voices may be Bancroft’s greatest talent and have now surely been perfected. It felt like Tarrou wasn’t gone a second, let alone a book and a half, and the new characters Eigengrau, the King, among others, were all so different and distinctly described, they were absolutely a delight.

I only read the previous books early last year and I didn’t realise how much I missed the bizarre world of the Tower but with some characteristically weird and wonderful additions (shout out to the ‘slapper-gram’ which definitely needs to be a thing), I was glad to be back. Without being too expository we learn more about the Tower with some side mentions of more ringdoms above the Silk Gardens and a future plot point in the secret electrical sea.

The biggest complaint I had was in regards to the epigraphs which were a bit pointless to be honest. They made sense in Senlin Ascends, a fun juxtaposition of the Guidebook detailing the tower and the constantly inversely stark reality. And in Arm of the Sphinx I could see the need for them, the diary entries of Captain Mudd were a clever way to fill in some history and character development without killing the pacing. But here it’s mostly just a collection of intentionally vapid sayings from a tabloid columnist. I think the intentions was to compare his faux-profound quotes with the poetry of the less popular Junet, but it came off as filling required space in order to continue the series’ style of chapter epigraphs. Like any part of a novel, they don’t have to be useful to the reader or world, but they should have some purpose even if it is to intentionally create misleading expectations like in book one.

So, I think the weakness of The Hod King was its attempt to stay in line with the first two books both in terms of the four-part structure and the epigraphs. While neither made the book significantly worse to the extent that I was disappointed by their inclusion, neither were ultimately required. It seems they were there simply because that’s what the skeleton of a Books of Babel member is expected to have. Looking at the book in their absence makes it no worse which one could argue would thus make it better.

Despite these complaints, the book really was marvellous. It was tightly plotted with Bancroft’s distinguishingly delightful prose and raised quite so many questions to answer that I’m more than looking forward to a hopefully packed concluding novel.

The Fifth Season by N K Jemisin

There’s not much that needs to be said about The Broken Earth by now. The trilogy has already made Hugo history, and everyone knows that N K Jemisin is a force to be reckoned with. So, I’m just going to go through a few of things I particularly liked about The Fifth Season which boil down to: read the book dummy, you’ll like it!

One of the biggest talking points about this book is the different tenses. I’m all for non-standard prose so I fully embraced the second-person narrative present in one of the three perspectives. This viewpoint is of Essun, a grieving mother who has to quickly leave her home in fear of persecution. Her chapters are supremely intimate, with Jemisin almost telling the reader what to feel. It can be somewhat intrusive to begin with, but you quickly get immersed in the character’s plight. Her suffering demands sympathy through the choice of narrative and if anything, the reader is left wondering until the end why this character is singled out in second-person and not the others.

Multiple points of view can sometimes be used as a crutch for complex stories. The author might realise that the reader doesn’t have access to a crucial development through the eyes of the main character(s) and so they just add another solely to showcase it (a familiar example may be Areo Hotah of ASoIaF, gifting the reader an insight into Dorne politics). This is not the case in The Fifth Season however. The two other characters, Damaya and Syen, play important roles in the story, interweaving with each other naturally. Damaya, a young girl, taken from her home to the Fulcrum to be taught how to control her powers of orogeny. Jemisin subverts the ‘magic school’ trope with the Fulcrum – it’s less a school and more a prison controlled by non-orogenes who force the young children into horrifyingly abusive relationships with a Guardian. Syen is the output of this oppressive system – a young adult, ambitious and blunt with a simmering anger at her prescribed tasks.

While speculative fiction is often read for the purposes of escapism, some of the most influential works in the genre are those that do so while combating current day socio-political issues. The race parallels in The Fifth Season are not subtle, they’re not meant to be. Jemisin is hitting us over the head with how bizarre it is that this backwards concept still exists. It’s impossible to read this book without seeing the absurd hypocrisy in how the population sees orogenes – simultaneously hating them, being terrified of them, relying on them for safety, and enslaving them. The pejorative term ‘rogga’ is used repeatedly in reference to orogenes, a clear analogue for the n word (right down to the -gga). In comparison, the slur for non-orogenes is ‘stills’ which no one really reacts to – equivalent to any attempted slur for white people (e.g. cracker, gammon) which are comparatively entirely inoffensive.

“You must remember, though, that most normal people have never seen an orogene, let alone had to do business with one, and—” She spreads her hands. “Isn’t it understandable that we might be… uncomfortable?” “Discomfort is understandable. It’s the rudeness that isn’t.” Rust this. This woman doesn’t deserve the effort of her explanation. Syen decides to save that for someone who matters. “And that’s a really shitty apology. ‘I’m sorry you’re so abnormal that I can’t manage to treat you like a human being.”

The frustration of the author is felt most keenly through the actions and words of a particularly strong orogene, Alabastor. Though he is more powerful than probably everyone in the world of The Stillness, he is still looked down upon by and a slave to the Fulcrum. It’s through him that Syen (and transitively, the reader) realises just how utterly flawed the system is.

One smaller thing I want to touch upon quickly is the topic of relationships. Polygamous and gay relationships are portrayed casually and hardly commented on. They are popular topics to be fetishized or demonised in fiction so to see them both be present without much bearing on the overall plot is a refreshing representation.

The Fifth Season isn’t a straightforward book – the magic is intentionally left vague for much of the book, the world and its history are intricately designed (with two glossaries!), and the three stories don’t quite line up until the end. Nor is it an optimistic book – it opens with filicide, later Damaya is tortured by her Guardian ‘for her own good’ and it doesn’t let up from there. But it is amazing and should absolutely be read by everyone.

The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.

The Prince of Cats by Daniel E Olesen

The Prince of Cats is a captivating new fantasy novel by Daniel E Olesen. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern city, the book almost instantly reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed game (but with a thief). The main character, Jawad, running across rooftops, slinking around alleys displays the city of Alcázar in a way that is so reminiscent of the game that it got me all nostalgic.

People have compared this book to The Lies of Locke Lamora; while I can see why, the similarities mostly end at the protagonist being a thief – Jawad is very much a lone wolf (in contrast to Locke’s thief buddies), there isn’t a secret thieving underworld and the tone of the book is very different. The Lies of Locke Lamora is very tongue in cheek, filled with witticisms, and while The Prince of Cats isn’t gritty/hyper-realistic by any means, it takes itself more seriously and isn’t afraid to get serious at points (discussed below).

As mentioned, Jawad is first and foremost a thief. Every time he meets someone, his first impression is the monetary value of their possessions. It’s great to see him always try to estimate potential profits and is a perfectly simple way to show his priorities.

‘A necklace of gold hung around his neck with a few gemstones as ornaments, giving it a value of around two hundred and twenty pieces of silver.’

‘While he spoke, he noticed the earring in Hashim’s undamaged ear, worth about five silver pieces, and the dagger in his belt, worth only trouble.’

Unfortunately in fantasy there’s often a trend of male authors writing male main characters who, when introducing a woman, will immediately first describe her looks and establish just how attractive or unattractive she is. Olesen bucks this trend with Jawad by continuing to focus on his jewellery obsession.

‘Contrary to what he would have expected, she did not pair her expensive clothes with any jewellery other than pearl earrings,’

This isn’t an isolated incident either as Olesen continues to subvert gender tropes throughout the book. Later on Jawad rushes off to save the ‘maiden’ from trouble only to find out that she’s fine and is instead organising a rescue operation to help the actual victims. It’s refreshing to see the female characters treated like normal people (wow what a depressing sentence) and with The Prince of Cat’s wide cast of women (honourable mentions go to the the creepy torturer and irritable fence), Olesen creates a gender balance that feels completely natural and appropriate.

Though the plot focuses solely on Jawad’s trials and tribulations, there are plenty of interesting side characters who get to shine despite their limited ‘screen time’. Ishak is one who I particularly enjoyed – he’s a nice comic relief character that provides light-hearted interludes to balance the occasional quite serious moments that the book goes through. Not only does he have some great one-liners but he also has a nice wee friendship with Jawad. Considering Jawad’s tendency to work alone and when with others, to deflect emotion with humour, his visits to Ishak adroitly showed the little chinks of vulnerability in his demeanour.

It can sometimes be a little iffy when western authors write a book set in the Middle East. Often it just actually is a Eurocentric culture and style with a desert painted over. Or it goes way in the other direction and becomes a weird fetishisation of Arab culture with little historical basis. Oleson, a known history nerd, avoids these common pitfalls entirely. He clearly did his homework since often Arabic terms are used and always accurately. One of the characters mentions her family used to live in the desert and appropriately their family name is al-Badawi  (translates to desert dweller). This example is somewhat pointed out to the reader but even the casual correct usage of words like ‘sidi’, ‘sayidaty’, ‘mamluk’ etc. are easy little ways to make the world more realistic. There are a few words that I think the author made up (‘haramlik’ and ‘salamlik’ in particular) but their etymology is clear enough to match up with the intended use (forbidden and permitted areas of the estate, respectively) such that they are still completely believable.

It’s worth mentioning that even though the book is set in a greater fantasy world, due to the cultural accuracy and lack of magic and fantastical elements, it could easily be considered a standalone historical fiction book.

One aspect of The Prince of Cats that I was particularly interested in was the character of Faisal al-Musharaf. More than once he is shown to have noticed a stealthing Jawad, and each time Jawad is taken aback. Jawad mentions how the upper class never see him when he chooses to move around covertly and this is proved multiple times so it’s curious to see how perceptive Faisal is. Not only that but the characters is also described as carrying a sword with a confidence that suggests he has a history with it. We never see this confidence in action which only boosts my curiosity. Outside of his mysterious backstory he is shown to be simply a nice person. He’s always courteous when talking to Jawad; compared to other members of the wealthy houses, he genuinely respects Jawad’s talents.

The only real criticism I have with the book is that the main character’s backstory is a handled a little clumsily. We are treated to a single memory of Jawad’s childhood with his brothers. This scene obviously haunts Jawad as we see it more than once but it becomes a bit too obvious that it’s vital exposition considering that it’s the only scene of Jawad’s past that is mentioned. In my opinion the story would have profited from having no explicit flashback. There was some clever exposition placed in the narrative each time Jawad visited his old teacher and this scene with his brothers could have been slipped into one of those meetings rather than being front and centre in the narrative.

The Prince of Cats is a fast paced book but there’s this one top-notch section that hits the brakes hard. What with Jawad’s lighthearted outlook disappearing combined with a drastic change in tone, this section makes for an excellently sudden brick wall for the reader and the Jawad to hit. The book could have been a little longer considering the pace and short-ish length but, all things considered, it’s a hugely enjoyable story with a compelling protagonist in a wonderfully real world.. While it comfortably works as a standalone, there are a few threads left open and I’m looking forward to see where they go.