I’ve never been a religious person by any stretch of the imagination. Our family only went to church on Christmas, and that was about it. As a result, finding myself excited about the prospect of the Catholic Church in space was a weird experience for me. Sisters of the Vast Black by Lina Rather scratched an itch I didn’t know I had (ARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley). Rather wrote an engaging novel about a small group of nuns learning the meaning of their faith in a galaxy reluctant to embrace the larger Catholic Church.
Sisters of the Vast Black takes place on a living ship, Our Lady of Impossible Constellations, and follows the sisters of the Order of Saint Rita as they travel to a new colony in distress. Along the way, they deal with adapting earthly church doctrine to spacefaring life in big ways and small. The Catholic Church, defeated years ago along with Earth in a war for control of the space born colonies, is resurgent and willing to test its new sense of power and reach. The sisters of the Order begin to feel the influence from the Church themselves, causing them to question their faith. Individuals’ secrets are brought into the light as pressure starts to mount and their loyalty to each other and the church is tested.
The story itself meandered a little for the first half of the book. It didn’t feel like it had a lot of direction, and the narrative often takes a backseat to the worldbuilding. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but since it is a novella I was a little worried about where the story was going to end up. Fortunately, Rather pulls it in for a tighter second half. She uses everything she explored in the first half to hone in on the characters’ individual stories as they grapple with the tightening control from the Church and reignition of war. Any concerns I had about losing the thread were washed away in the succinct but open ending that focused on individual faith in the shadow of the Catholic Church.
The narrative’s success depended on the characters themselves. Rather takes the time to develop the characters by giving them a weight that makes them relatable. I found myself enmeshed in their lives with the day-to-day of maintaining the ship instead of waiting for something to rock the boat so to speak. The daily repetitive tasks and the small conversations about church doctrine and coming changes helped to build the identity of the characters quickly without throwing a quick succession of events at the reader. The hushed ways they whispered to each other about their lives, or rumors they have heard built a sense of community among them that set them apart from the world they inhabited. It was a really nice touch that made me care about who they were as people instead of just pieces to move the story along.
The real star of the book, for me, was the setting. The world Rather created was subtle yet incredibly enticing. Not only did the church feel important to the characters, it felt like a living presence within the solar system. There was a history that felt raw and immediate, like an open wound that had not been properly tended. Rather wrote a distinct lack of finality to everything that made the world really come alive. There was also a lot of understated interplay between the characters and the setting, making the characters feel present within the world while also being very affected by it. I think that without the deft handling of the setting and its effects on the people living in it, this book would have fallen short.
Sisters of the Vast Black is unfortunately brief, but it packs a punch. The themes of sin and redemption are cleverly explored through the characters and the world. Rather’s sense of history and ability to portray the longstanding effects of past events is admirable. I want more of this world, more of the people living inside it, finding their way in the dark. I want to watch it change in the small subtle ways that mirror the real world. Needless to say, I recommend Sisters of the Vast Black especially if you’re looking for something a little different that feels human at heart, and otherworldly in scope.
I bought a jacket this past spring and have been looking at it occasionally with a longing that can only be matched by temporarily separated lovers. As such, you can only imagine my joy when the temperature here in Chicago finally dropped to numbers starting with “4,” and I could put it on. Because this is a review site, I will give my jacket five stars out of five. I loved it and will use it regularly in the future. What this dropping temperature and (awesome) jacket weather really means, though, is that it’s October! Spooky month is finally upon us and with it comes recommendations for horror short stories. I’ve put together a list of short stories and novellas from a variety of places that top my list of the best shorts out there, and I hope you take some time in the dark and grey evenings of this month to seek some of these out and enjoy them. I want to stress before we get going, however, that these are in no particular order and simply sum up some of our favorites here at QTL.
I wanted to start the list strong, so I’ve chosen the horror short that I hold all others up to in comparison. The Colour Out of Space exemplifies and embodies the true core of cosmic horror for me. Taking place on the farm of Nahum Gardner, the story describes the slow descent into madness that the inhabitants of the farm undergo due to a strange meteorite falling next to their well. The single best part of this story to me is the complete lack of “monsters” or any other frightful beings with ill intentions. Lovecraft distilled the essence of atmospheric dread down to its purest form, describing in a languid and predatory style the cascade of small events that start seeming “off” before inevitably leading Nahum and his family on an unstoppable journey to horror and death. It is the very fact that the “antagonist” of this particular story is a meteorite that perfectly sums up the sense of impersonal and unlucky inevitability that the finest cosmic horror creates. The Gardners were not personally targeted by this meteorite, and the effects it causes are not purposeful. Instead, the fundamental nature of the stone is so inimical to life on earth and humans that its simple presence acts as a corrupting influence and brings with it a pure and distinct sense of an “other” that doesn’t just not care that it’s causing suffering, it doesn’t even notice.
I love when stories decide on a specific theme and explore that idea as deeply as possible. Proboscis is either the story of a man losing his mind or a deeply unsettling revelation as to an aspect of our world better left not understood. Told through a framing device relying heavily on entomology and proboscises, shocking I know, this story features a thrilling psychological aspect that I think elevates it beyond most of the genre. Barron sprinkles the narrative with details that unsettle effortlessly and invite the reader to make connections that may or may not actually be there. The use of insects to poke at the primal disgust that they engender in humanity, and the suggestion that the protagonist is actually losing his mind coalesce and create a bubbling atmosphere of mounting dread and constant unease. While I obviously will not spoil anything in this brief blurb, I will say that the ending of this story is the single most memorable conclusion to a short story I’ve ever read, and it still makes me shiver.
One of the two entries on this list that is closer to novella-length than short story territory, A Song For Quiet is probably my least favorite of the stories here. I wanted to get that out there because that should help readers understand that when I say I’m including this for one main aspect, it’s because that aspect is so unbelievably good that it nearly erased all my other foibles with the book. A Song For Quiet is on this list due to the sheer weightiness and luxuriance of Khaw’s horrific descriptions. The prose used during the songs Deacon James plays in the narrative is stunning. I was instantly impacted by the sheer terror of what I was reading, the way it was described and Khaw’s choices of words for events. Specifically her ability to describe events that are by their nature difficult to understand and purposefully “Weird with a capital w” is incredibly impressive. This story is one of those tales that makes you want to read the rest of the author’s catalogue regardless of genre. Cassandra Khaw has a way with the horrific that I’m startled and impressed by, and while this is the second of the two current Persons Non Grata stories available, I would recommend starting here with her work.
This lovely little tale from Laird Barron is probably one of the more haunting stories I’ve read in the past couple of years. Barron fills every sentence with a creeping dread that is impossible to ignore. It follows a modern Pinkerton type investigator as he is sent to a factory in China to monitor the local disgruntled workforce. Unfortunately, there is a little exotic orientalism that seems to drive some of the horror, but a lot of aforementioned dread is built upon the transgressive nature of the protagonist. He is a voyeur through and through, expanding his work into a hobby as he spies on others through his hotel window. In my experience, Barron relies heavily on the lone gruff male stereotype, but this story is the one time I felt that this archetype is analyzed through the horror, instead of being an easy entry point. The protagonist feels creepy, but his need to watch pulls the reader into the mysteries he sees. He’s a bad guy, but the narrative is infectious through his eyes. Barron’s patient execution of the story kept me pulling at the string, needing to know more. He did not rush to reveal the terrible kernel, allowing the mystery and the protagonist’s need to investigate without revealing himself drive the story. I could not pull my eyes away from the page until the last word, and even then I still feel trapped by its trance. In some ways the story itself mirrors the reader’s fascination with the horror, but luckily for us we can’t become the story. We can only be consumed with the terror that the one true way to understand something is to be a part of it.
Here it is. Any of you who have been reading the site lately have probably stumbled on my review for A Lush and Seething Hell, by John Hornor Jacobs. This was my personal favorite of the two stories, and while I will encourage you to read the entire review here, it would be rude not to at least briefly go into why this story hit me so hard. Jacobs manages to infuse a story that is steeped in the terrifying and built to unsettle with something adjacent to wistfulness for a different and more magical time. There was something so powerful in Cromwell’s sense of longing, his need to find out whether the story of Stagger Lee was true, his need to find anything that will distract him or give him a sense of belonging or meaning. The flavor of this story was so piquant and unique, while being so familiar and almost nostalgic at the same time that I was sucked into the riptides of its narrative, completely lacking control or a sense of the time as I struggled to stay afloat. This story ripped me out of the well worn tracks of my day to day life and spat me out somewhere unsettlingly familiar, like going to your childhood home and finding that the furniture is all the same but has been moved around slightly. It’s a feeling I’ve been unable to shake since, and I highly recommend any tales with that kind of staying power.
I’ll probably be punished by “true” horror fans for including this one on the list, but they’re nerds anyway, so what are they gonna do about it? Nothing, that’s what. More humor than horror and more laugh-inducing than limb-rending, the Johannes Cabal series more winks to the world of horror than explores it, but I can’t help myself but include my favorite tale from that world in this list. Taking place just before the last of the numbered entries in the series, A Long Spoon tells the tale of how Cabal meets Zarenyia, a devil of hell. Not the devil, though they have met on occasion before, long story. After being forced to ask her “nicely” to guide him into the darkest depths of hell, the two embark on a zany and mildly horrifying romp into said dark depths. I am a huge fan of all things Cabal, and these are 32 of the most enjoyable pages I’ve read involving murder, mayhem, and women who are giant spiders from the waist down. If any of that sounds like something you can get into, go read the 4 main series books and sundry short stories and novellas leading up to this, then read it. I know that sounds like a lot, but the Cabal series is one of those palate cleansers that you can read pretty much anytime and have a great experience.
Is it wrong to include a short story that’s actually a series of vignettes in a list about short stories? I don’t think so and anyway I need to talk about this somewhere as it’s just so odd. How the Day Runs Down is a horror short story being told from the perspective of the Stage Manager, a character in Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town. Doling out small-town wisdom and anecdotes about the characters living in this small town as he discusses their successes and failings as the town falls to the living dead, there is a surreal and eminently memorable atmosphere that drips from this story from the first page. It’s even written partly as a screenplay, which creates a sort of hushed collaboration between the Stage Manager and the reader, in that we too know what’s about to happen to these characters and have an opportunity to stop it (or at least it’s shown that the Stage Manager does, when he chooses to). The culpability of watching all the events within the story unfold weighed heavy on me, and made me feel a sense of guilty voyeurism as I, we, did nothing. It was an experience I’ve never forgotten and is one unique to zombie horror at least, if not horror in general.
And with that we’re done with the list. There are hundreds of incredible stories that didn’t make the cut, and if I missed your personal favorite please let me know in the comments what it was and why you think it should be here. I hope you all have a spookily good October and find exactly the level of terror you’re looking for.
F.C. Yee’s The Rise of Kyoshi, written with Avatar co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, breaks new ground in the Avatar universe while paying homage to the source material that fans love. The novel explores new territories and pursues intriguing storylines that equally satisfy that Avatar craving and provide a fresh journey back to the world of benders.
The Rise of Kyoshi followsthe titular earth Avatar in her early days. Yee cleverly circumvents tried-and-true Avatar tropes–discovering the new Avatar, training montages, etc.– by placing Kyoshi in the center of a secret scandal. The Avatar has been incorrectly identified, and Kyoshi is his servant. The revelation that Kyoshi is the actual Avatar (and has been living with the misidentified one) kickstarts an Aang-worthy whirlwind of controversy, betrayal, and growth for both Kyoshi and her comrades. From there, the story meanders through the Earth Kingdom as Kyoshi learns about herself and her bending abilities. Yee weaves an elegant tapestry of politics, history, bending, and character to build upon the world fans know and love, but Rise doesn’t lean on these Avatar-trappings for support. Rather, Yee builds on the rich lore of the Avatar universe and crafts a unique story that deftly avoids using the critically acclaimed source material as a crutch.
Kyoshi’s story is one of heartbreak, personal discovery, and hunger for power. We meet her as a fledgling bender who’s been cast aside by her parents, teachers, and society at large. Her adventures characterize her as a tough but unseasoned bender who has a keen eye for strategy but has yet to find her true moral compass. In this way, she’s an interesting middle ground between the two Avatars we’ve explored most in the two TV shows: Aang and Korra. Kyoshi blends Aang’s thirst for bending prowess with Korra’s search for meaning and self-discovery, creating a powerhouse character that’s just plain fun to read about.
The supporting cast boasts a collection of interesting characters who typically stray into archetypal territory. While The Rise of Kyoshi deals with heavy themes and doesn’t steer clear of tough topics, the characters adjacent to Kyoshi are indicative of the young adult genre stamp. Kyoshi’s “Team Avatar” comprises a smattering of benders who each have a stand-out personality trait: there’s the aloof/suspicious leader of the bunch, the reluctant sifu, the warmhearted but tough-on-the-outside friend, and many more. This isn’t to say they aren’t lovable or enjoyable to see in action. Instead, I got the sense that there’s more to the characters than is readily available here.
The most unexpected surprise during my read-through was the exquisite description of bending. As an Avatar superfan, I worried that prose wouldn’t be a fit vehicle for the insane acts of bending often portrayed by the core series or the graphic novels. But Yee rose to the challenge and doled out amazing bending set-pieces. He treats bending techniques with great care and makes it feel real and intuitive, which is a crucial element in any Avatar story.
The Rise of Kyoshi begs the question: will non-Avatar fans enjoy this/is it a good entry point to the world? My opinion: this book is best served as a dessert following the entree that is the series rather than an appetizer. It uses the series as its foundation, despite being a prequel, and deals out fan service in a tasteful way that gives added meaning to ardent fans. That said, a new reader could very much enjoy the prosaic introduction to Avatar and use it as a gateway to the larger pantheon of TV and graphic novels set in the same universe.
Casting aside any previous fandom or lack thereof, The Rise of Kyoshi is an excellent extension of Avatar lore. Kyoshi is a perfect subject, lending a new perspective to the Avatar’s history and duties outside of Aang and Korra. As the avatar universe continues to successfully expand, it’s impressive how the worldbuilding remains consistently high quality, fresh, and doesn’t step on the toes of what came before. I’m already eagerly awaiting The Shadow of Kyoshi, which releases July 2020. If you’re a fan of Avatar in any capacity, this one’s for you.
After reading Broken Stars earlier this year, I became somewhat enamored by the idea of short story collections. I love that they can be incredibly focused while allowing the reader some room to explore outside the story. So when offered the chance to read Future Tense Fiction, a collection of works from well known contemporary authors from Slate’s column of the same name, I jumped at the opportunity. I’m not going to talk about the collection as a whole, mostly because it didn’t have the single guiding hand feel to it that Broken Stars did. Overall I came away fairly satisfied, with only a couple of the stories not leaving much of an impact. Mostly I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the stories that touched me in different ways in the hopes of piquing your interest in the form and its strengths.
First up: Domestic Violence by Madeline Ashby. The story follows Kristin as she tries to determine why a co-worker is running late. Janae, the woman in question, mentions that the smart home she lives in won’t let her out without solving riddles that her husband has devised. It’s a very simple premise, but the horror behind it stuck with me. Ashby’s prose is dripping with the small infractions men put women through on a daily basis that are easily exacerbated by technology. While I consider myself fairly cognizant of these attitudes, Ashby exposed a few other ways in which technologies that are touted as convenient may only be convenient for some. It was an enlightening read that will stick with me for a while, and will push me to continue considering the unexamined implications of convenience technology.
Burned over Territory by Lee Konstantinou was my second favorite story from the batch. It takes place in a post-Universal Basic Income United States, in which everyone receives a monthly check from the government to support themselves. The story follows Viola, a former heroin addict, who is running for Chairperson of the Federation. The Federation is an organization that members give their basic income to, and in return receive housing, food and other basic necessities, allowing them to pursue what interests they may. I particularly enjoyed Konstantinou’s ability to explore a system of government and the trials it faces within a limited page count through the fairly realized character of Viola. Often a lot of the more “political” science fiction I’ve read pushes politics to the side, waving away issues with the creation of a new system, but Konstantinou places it front and center. Although the system itself is different, the same societal problems we experience in our society linger, making the election stakes feel incredibly real and giving the Federation a vitality I was not expecting. It felt like an honest attempt at an exploration of a more left-wing ideal of politics, highlighting that revolution is ongoing and will always have to deal with the same systemic problems we face today.
Mika Model by Paolo Bacigalupi was another of the more horrifying stories in the collection. It has a neo-noir setting and follows Detective Rivera as he is dragged into a murder case where the perpetrator is a sex robot. I know it sounds a little ludicrous, and Bacigalupi seems to give a wink to the reader by using the trappings and structure of a noir detective thriller. What makes the story so much more compelling, however, is Bacigalupi’s use of language and how specific characters interact with Mika, the robot involved in the murder. On the surface it is plainly a story about determining the humanity of a robot designed to be, effectively, a mechanical sex worker. Bacigalupi does not stop there and consistently urges the reader to pull on the thread to unravel something deeper. Ultimately, I came away with my stomach in knots, unable to cope with the extrapolation of this story to any sort of “other” people may encounter on a daily basis.
I’ll end with my favorite story of the bunch, Lions and Gazelles by Hannu Rajaniemi. The main gist of the story is that ultra-venture capitalists host a yearly competition in which startups compete with each other for funds. The novelty comes from contest being a race in which the entrepreneurs competing for cash enhance their bodies biologically. In the competition, mechanical modifications are forbidden, and the competitors, in a sense, become their own experiment while they attempt to hunt down a mechanical gazelle and win the prize. Having recently read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, along with taking up running, Rajaniemi’s story cut immediately to the heart of the sport. The main character’s arc was so thoroughly satisfying, and Rajaniemi perfectly captured the thrill of the chase with his prose. It was incredibly streamlined and had such purpose driving the story I was engrossed from beginning to end. If you’re a runner, this story is magical.
All in all, this collection makes me want to pay closer attention to short stories. There is a purpose to them, and when done well, it can get a reader to feel or think differently in only a few pages. There are a few other stories I would like to highlight here, but I feel like I would just come off as gushing. Future Tense Fiction is a delightful collection that captured my imagination in fourteen different ways. So if you’re at all interested in short stories and the power they can wield, I highly recommend picking up Future Tense.
Rating: Future Tense Fiction – A Highly Recommended Cornucopia of Stories for your Fall Reading/10
P.S. If you can’t get enough of talking crows, this collection has a story for you.
Kira Jane Buxton’s Hollow Kingdom, for better or worse, is one of the most unique books I’ve read in recent memory. Buxton treads new ground within the zombie genre, exploring the apocalypse through new eyes. Buxton veers so sharply off the beaten path that Hollow Kingdom feels like something entirely new. Whether readers find the playful departure from typical zombie fare refreshing or off-putting, though, will likely boil down to personal taste and maturity. This is not a genre-defying, revolutionary work of literature, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be a fun diversion for some.
Hollow Kingdom follows protagonist Shit Turd (S.T. for short, and no, I am not joking), a Seattle-dwelling domesticated crow. S.T.’s owner, Big Jim, succumbs to the zombifying disease that has already spread to most of his known world. Following a few hilarious attempts to heal Big Jim (including delivering a cocktail of Walgreens-brand over-the-counter medications to the decaying human), S.T. takes Dennis, his basset-hound companion, on a journey to find the cure. This is where the novel veers wildly off the usual zombie-apocalypse path and represents the turning point where I expect readers will choose either to skip this story or see it through. S.T. and Dennis realize the infection is incredibly widespread and has left thousands of Seattle’s domestic pets trapped in their homes. They take it upon themselves to unite two worlds–the domestic and wild animals–to free those trapped in their homes and ostensibly find a way to cure their human compatriots
Following in the footsteps of its whimsical premise, Hollow Kingdom boasts idiosyncratic prose. It is littered with strong cussing and references to brand name products (S.T. considers Cheetos a delicacy). The jokes and irreverent language take a scattershot approach: volume over accuracy. Many of the quickfire puns or references land with chuckle-worthy gusto and others breeze by forgettably. On the whole, I enjoyed the less serious tone. There’s something enticing about a swearing crow with human-like behaviors; it led me to swiftly devour the book despite a few other misgivings.
This brings me to the story. The recap above only covers the first few chapters and overlooks some of the more spoilery aspects of the novel, but there are tons of fun set pieces in this 320-page read that I never expected. Some of it’s great, like a diversion to the aquarium during which S.T. talks to an octopus; Aura, the bird equivalent of the internet; and S.T.’s interactions with wild animals to whom he only feels tangentially connected. Other elements fell short, though I suspect those faults boiled down mostly to personal taste. The zombies are underexplored and under described, and I get it–it’s not a book about the zombies or even the humans who became the zombies. But this caveat opens up some story holes that left me saying “Huh?” more than once. The cause of the zombification, and the later stages of it, are both underdeveloped. It’s not an outright knock on the book, though. I’ve already said it, but it’s worth reinforcing that these problems may cause no issue with other readers. I just wanted a more traditional zombie story within the fun and carefree packaging of Buxton’s prose.
The characters of Hollow Kingdom slot neatly into my personal disconnect between prose and story, resting right in the middle. It’s intriguing to explore the zombie apocalypse through the lens of animals, and S.T. interacts with a bevy of them. Cool, crazy, smart, stupid–the gang’s all here, and meeting them as the human-ish S.T. is a fun romp through an interesting cast of fauna.
Hollow Kingdom is one of those books that requires a specific palate. It’s a read that I’d recommend to friends with a distinct checklist of “likes” in a novel, or to someone seeking a completely new take on zombies and the impact of their spread through humanity on other living beings. At its best, it’s an amusing adventure through S.T.’s zombie-ridden world, and if the premise sounds interesting, it’s worth checking out.
Reviewing A Little Hatred, the first book of a new trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, from the perspective of “should you read it?” is a waste of everyone’s time. If you have read The Blade Itself, Before They Are Hanged, and The Last Argument of Kings you absolutely know this will probably be the best book that comes out this year, so you should obviously read it. If you haven’t read these books, or don’t know who Joe Abercrombie is, then you should get out of here and go read them. Seriously, please do not keep reading for your own good. As with everything involving Abercrombie, it is best to go in as blind as possible and you will thank me later. So instead, I am going to do something a little different with this review. Without spoiling anything, I will be talking about the emotional gauntlet it put me through. But first, some general bookkeeping about the novel.
If you want to know about the plot, all you need to know is that it takes place a good number of years after the first trilogy and is focused mostly on the children of our characters from the previous series. The characters and action are best in class for the genre, possibly for books as a whole. The worldbuilding is good but might be the weakest part of the book; however, there is a nice focus on the current political climate that will likely resonate and stir up a lot of emotions in readers.
Jumping back to feelings, I would describe the emotional experience of A Little Hatred as ‘harrowing’. Imagine you are trapped in a beautiful room, with lots of nice furnishings and cool gadgets to play with. It creates some nice nostalgia in your brain and you feel warm and happy in the room – like you could live there forever. Then imagine that you are told there is a bomb in the room somewhere with an unknown timer, and after a bit of panicking, you try the door only to find yourself locked in. That is the emotional experience of reading A Little Hatred. At this point in my experience with Joe Abercrombie, I am familiar with the drill. Joe writes something that seems pleasant from one angle but is horrific from another. What I have enjoyed about his books is that even if you know the shoe is going to drop, it’s still incredibly hard to see the foot wearing it.
A Little Hatred knows all of this and leans into it. There is a really clever dichotomy between the older generation who know how the world works, the new cast who are filled with naivete. Abercrombie cleverly writes it so that the reader sitting perfectly between the two generations, is pushed and pulled between them. The novel is a prescription for anxiety that I didn’t want but couldn’t help but be addicted to. One of the things about Abercrombie that is so frustrating, in an intentional way, is his commentary on “progress”. Abercrombie turns his dark meditations towards the ineffable march of human technological progress and the stagnation of human emotion or intellect. It is a depressing paradox that he is unfortunately good at illustrating. One of the things that I want from these new books is for the world to finally see some progress – for humanity to finally improve and grow and get better. A Little Hatred does an amazing job of showing a possible light at the end of that tunnel. But, as only the first of a three-part story, we have no idea if that light will turn out to be a new dawn or a meteor coming to cause an extinction-level event to my trust and love.
A Little Hatred is confusing and emotional and my review will likely change two books from now when Abercrombie shows that I was wrong about everything – including things like who my parents are. The book is a gift of anxiety, lost sleep, depression, excitement, and betrayal. I don’t know why I keep reading his books, all they do is upset me for a month afterward because I can’t stop thinking about them. Everyone would probably live a happier and more carefree life if they never picked up a piece of Abercrombie’s haunting fiction. I highly recommend it, probably the best book I have read this year.
I wanted to start this review with a reference to Changes by David Bowie, but maybe that’s a little too on the nose? What about The Future’s So Bright by Timbuk 3? Probably still not quite right, and due to my lack of pop culture references to alchemy I may have to change my angle of approach. See, I know all of this may stick out as odd to you now but if you actually go and read Middlegame by Seanan McGuire you’ll notice the super-hidden and not obvious at all references I’ve made to the fact that the book is about time travel. It will also become obvious to you that they weren’t very funny and I should probably just review the book itself. The fact that I’m about to do that is another coded message to you that I hear your constructive criticism, that I’m listening to you. I’m always listening to you.
Middlegame starts in media res with our two protagonists in the midst of failing to save the world, one of them bleeding to death and the other unable to do anything about it. Through some magic that is essentially the entire premise of the book, everything is reset and we get to experience the story that led them there, sort of. This is a somewhat difficult story to parse critically without ruining a lot of the feeling of discovery, as the idea that our protagonists can essentially reset their current timeline in order to go back and try to fix something that went wrong means that we are often given information that either quickly becomes obsolete or that has significantly more importance than we’re originally led to believe. As such, I’ll try to give the barebones rundown of the setting before we move on. The world is nominally the same as ours but for the fact that the magical practice of alchemy is real. This has led to the formation of a shadowy organization called the Alchemical Congress, and it is because of their unwillingness to go along with the plans of one of their members named Asphodel Baker that our story is set into motion. Baker, in pursuit of godlike power, writes a set of children’s books that contain coded messages relating to a large number of important alchemical MacGuffins, and it is this act that sets our story into motion.
If it sounds like I’m handwaving the magic a little bit, it’s on purpose. I didn’t feel like the restraints of alchemy were really all that consistent within the text, and it felt more to me like the means to an end of telling the story McGuire wanted rather than a cohesive and living framework in which the characters lived. I don’t, however, think that’s necessarily a bad thing, as it led to a somewhat whimsical and unique feel to the magic that I enjoyed quite a great deal. McGuire’s choice to write portions of the narrative in the style of Baker’s children’s stories goes a long way to making that aspect of the story feel fundamental and coherent. The magic feels like storybook magic, which fits the story McGuire tells in Middlegame.
The characterization of our two main protagonists is great. Not only does McGuire do a great job of writing the protagonists, Roger and Dodger, she also does a great job of exploring the unique powers that the two were born with and grow into over time. I suppose I should have expected this in a book about using time travel to fix the mistakes you made in the past to save the future, but I was extremely surprised by a number of the twists and misdirects in the book. Each setback for the pair feels real and is written well enough to instill a sympathetic sense of loss in me when I think back on them. I thought McGuire did especially well writing the pair as children, their dialogue and internal monologue was believable without being over the top and really helped cement the two as real people in my mind.
I wish I could say the same for the antagonists. My main gripe with the book is that neither Reed, our main antagonist and the homunculus made by Baker, nor his assistant feel like real people. I’m guessing that’s on purpose due to the fact that they’re both constructs made by other alchemists, which McGuire takes pains to point out throughout the course of the book. While that is something of a mitigating factor, and I did enjoy getting to see the inner workings of their heads and their descriptions of how they interact with the world, they were always just a little too arch, just a skosh too pantomime evil to ever truly feel real. I enjoyed reading their segments the same way I enjoy laughing at Skeletor in images of the old He-Man show. Regardless of how close they come to succeeding, or how much danger they put the protagonists in, their motivations never feel like something I could understand or be threatened by.
I was enchanted by Middlegame. The world felt inhabitable in a very inviting way. I enjoyed the somewhat “take it as it is” magic system, I liked the protagonists a lot, and I thought the time travel mechanic that McGuire uses was a clever and unique twist on that style of story. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a sequel at some point down the line and will absolutely pick it up if it comes to be, though in my research I haven’t turned up any mention of whether that’s actually planned or not. I wouldn’t necessarily bump other stuff out of your to-be-read queue, but definitely try to make some time for this book.