I'm home sick with a cold, which unfortunately means I'll miss this year's annual Christmas party for Cambridge library staff, which is always a free event held in one of the local bookshops. However, it does mean I can do a quick catch up post on some of the books and short stories I've read recently, all of which I enjoyed, but don't feel warrant a full review over on my reviews blog
. All are fantasy novels or short stories.
First up is The Sisters of the Winter Wood
by Rena Rossner, an Eastern European fantasy novel in the vein of the Winternight trilogy, and Naomi Novik's Uprooted
and Spinning Silver
. Like the latter Novik work, it focuses in particular on the experience of shtetl-dwelling Eastern European Jewish communities, following the adventures of two sisters who are the inheritors of shape-shifting powers from the two branches of their family. Liba, the oldest, can transform into a bear like her father, while her younger sister Laya can shapeshift into swan form like her mother. Rossner blends Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market' with a tale of suspicion and survival, and the sense of close-knit community — supportive of its own on the one hand, judgemental and interfering on the other — is beautifully drawn. I also loved the porous nature of the boundary between the human and supernatural worlds, and the relationship between the two sisters is simply wonderful.Girls of Paper and Fire
by Natasha Ngan moves us from Eastern Europe to East Asia in terms of its inspirations (the author herself describes it as simply 'Asian-inspired'). This book is set in a strictly hierarchical society, with three castes (the demonic Moon caste ruling over the partially demonic Steel and fully human Paper castes), an imperial court seething with intrigue, and simmering rebellions breaking out all over a vast empire. All this is presided over by the Demon King, a thoroughly nasty individual who, among other things, takes a tribute of sorts in the form of a group of Paper teenagers to be his concubines. While this is supposed to be a great honour, in reality it's an act of violence and dispossession, and the majority of these girls — including the protagonist, Lei — do not go willingly. However, all is not as it seems in the court of the Demon King, and from the midst of a group of what appears to be the most disempowered individuals — the 'Paper Girl' concubines — a revolution is brewing. I have a personal preference for stories about girls and women who suffer trauma, have their agency taken away from them, and carve out spaces of survival and hope in the ruins, so this was always going to appeal to me, and the fact that it features a f/f love story (with a happy ending!) was just icing on the cake to me. However, it probably goes without saying that a premise like Ngan's is going to depict and address sexual violence, and although this is mostly done in a fade-to-black kind of way, if that's something you'd prefer not to read I would advise you to give this book a miss.
The next book, Sarah Tolcser's Song of the Current
, is a much more lighthearted affair. Its characters and plot are, in my opinion, pretty standard fantasy fare (a lost royal heir on the run, a tomboyish lower class girl swept up in political intrigue, pirates causing problems, and scheming grand vizier types seeking power for themselves), but its setting is marvellous. Its heroine, Caroline Oresteia, is the daughter of a wherryman — the captain of a river boat — and has spent her life travelling the lakes, rivers and canals, transporting legal, and less than legal, cargos. I loved Tolcser's community of wherrymen (and women), the sense of a life lived on the water, and the legends and folklore and unspoken rules of this world on the margins of land and river. Nothing in the plot surprised me, and indeed I could see most twists coming from a mile away, but it was a gentle, soothing, diverting book and I am keen to read the sequel.
Zen Cho's latest short story, on the other hand, surprised me immensely. The story, 'If at First You Don't Succeed, Try, Try Again'
, is available for free online at the Barnes & Noble website (and can also be freely downloaded to ereaders), and is about a hapless wannabe dragon, an astrophysicist seeking tenure, and the messy, complicated tangle that is life. When I read Cho's works I expect humour, and this story is
hilarious, but it's also powerful, devastating, and beautifully hopeful as well, and I had not been expecting that. The story is about the danger of being fixated on and overwhelmed by dreams, and missing the other opportunities that pass us by when we're too singlemindedly focused. As someone who had gone through two career changes before she was thirty (leaving behind the possibility of work in two fields which I had thought of as my 'dream job(s)'), this resonated deeply with me. I highly, highly recommend this short story, and am now even more impatient for the follow up to Sorcerer to the Crown
Has anyone else been reading anything good recently?