Fireheart Tiger – Frigid And Brittle

Having spent the last two years digging into the world of novellas, I feel I am starting to get the hang of consistently identifying stories I am going to enjoy. Unfortunately, there are always going to be wild cards that slip through the cracks and ruin your day, much like Fireheart Tiger, by Aliette de Bodard, did to me. I really wanted to like this novella. As the back cover blurb will tell you, it is billed as – The Goblin Emperor meets Howl’s Moving Castle – in a Vietnamese-inspired setting. I have just finished reading an Asian-inspired novella about fire and tigers that I loved (When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo), and I thought this was a sure thing. It also has a very alluring and well-illustrated cover that pulled me in, but it was a trap. Fireheart Tiger’s length ultimately is its undoing, as there isn’t enough heat here to light a match, let alone warm a heart.

The entire story of Tiger can be summed up in a few sentences. Princess Thanh has been living a life as a hostage in the Ephteria kingdom for most of her life. When she is young, she is witness to a brutal magical fire that devastated Ephteria’s royal palace. She also falls in love with the Ephterian queen in waiting, which is problematic for an enemy of the state, to say the least. Now she’s returned to her mother’s imperial court and has found herself with a number of issues. First, her mother thinks her useless and tries to box her away from the world. Second, the magical fire that burned down the palace in her youth was caused by a powerful spirit that seems to have followed her home. And third, the magnetic queen in waiting, Eldris of Ephteria, is coming on a diplomatic trip to Thanh’s home that leaves our protagonist in a complicated situation. What will happen?

Fireheart Tiger would have definitely worked better as a larger novel. There is potential here, but it is absolutely not realized. The novella opens with its strongest sections. We find Thanh returning to her mother’s court where she is met with disgust and disapproval. The power dynamics at play feel promising, and though Thanh’s mother is a bit of a shallow character, I bought into their disagreements at first. However, this setup leads to a lot of self-pity and moping that never really goes away. This pity party is interrupted by occasional memories such as the Ephterian palace burning and a burgeoning romance with the Ephterian princess Eldris. The romance is very hard to wrap your head around, as Eldris’ personality is made up of how she looks physically. The romance feels a little sweet in the flashback (relevant for later), but Ephteria is a ruthless nation that is devouring those on its border and Thanh’s country/island/nation is next on the chopping block. I wish I could feel bad about this, but we get zero context or worldbuilding around Thanh’s place of origin, so I had a very hard time feeling bad for it.

Eldris comes to Thanh’s country and their romance picks up almost immediately, which is very jarring and feels unearned. As opposed to feeling sweet like in the flashback, Eldris is now creepy and manipulative for no other reason than to serve the plot. It is very unclear why Thanh even likes Eldris, given neither character has much of a personality. Thanh is purported to be clever and shy, but we see very little of the former. Her motivations supposedly revolve around protecting her country, but the majority of her inner monologue consists of railing against how her mother treats her.

On top of the characters being generally uncompelling, the dialogues were awkward. There was a lot of tonal mismatch and cliché that somehow exhausted me despite the short page length. The romance was utterly unconvincing, and possibly had slightly problematic intentions that I can’t discuss because of spoilers, and didn’t endear me to any of the characters in the slightest. Really the only things I did like were the premise, the inclusivity of the themes, and the ending which has a pretty decent twist. Otherwise, this is definitely a novella that you can skip.

Rating: Fireheart Tiger – 3.0/10
-Andrew

Tower of Mud and Straw — Colossal in its Brevity

They say it’s never a good idea to judge a book by it’s cover. After a while, when it comes to actual books, that advice gets harder and harder to follow. It’s not easy with all these amazing artists out there, providing color and form to black and white text. Some of my favorite covers are striking juxtapositions between the title and the actual picture. However, the cover for this book felt oppressive and mysterious and it just lured me in. A dark tower invades the page, punctuating the cover’s foggy negative space. Even though the perspective is from above the gargantuan feat of engineering, it still towers over you, begging you to throw stones at it while it cackles at your powerlessness. The owner of this cover, Tower of Mud and Straw, by Yaroslav Barsukov, is a flurry of a novella, and delivers its meticulously planned punches with style and heart. 

The book follows one minister Shea Ashcroft after he has been banished to the border for defying the queen’s orders to gas a crowd of protestors. His task is to aid in the construction of the largest anti-air defense tower in history. Having no other choice, Ashcroft heads to the bordertown of Owenbeg and begins to learn about the construction and the hazards that plague it. Upon discovering that risky Drakiri technology is being used to prop up the giant tower, Ashcroft is pulled into conspiracy after conspiracy. Some want the tower finished to aid in the coming war with their neighbor, others want it destroyed as it will fulfill an apocalyptic prophecy. Ashcroft just wants his life back and will do what he must to make sure the construction succeeds. 

One of the most standout aspects of this book is Barsukov’s writing. It’s flowery, but in the way that kudzu is flowery. It’s dense and tangled, and obscured much of my understanding beyond the surface. Barsukov doesn’t hold the reader’s hand. Sometimes it’s easy to get a little lost, but I think that’s partially the point. Interesting things are clearly afoot, but at the same time they are clouded by Ashcroft’s perspective. It’s often manic, jumping between past memories, present events, and futures imagined. Barsukov sometimes highlights these different mental spaces within the writing. Other times it blends together, allowing Ashcroft’s guilt and pain to come to the forefront, blurring his current reality. It’s clever, even if sometimes confusing. My advice, take it slow to fully appreciate the whirlwind. 

I also had a blast with Barsukov’s worldbuilding. It’s minimal, and forces you to ask questions and pay attention to everything. Often my curiosity on a subject was answered by the character’s own ignorance. It creates this neat little push forward that compels the reader to keep digging in the hopes they might discover the answer to the mysteries themselves. A lot of these answers remain ambiguous, but in a way that feels thematically fulfilling. Barsukov plays it tight to the chest, only giving the reader what the flawed narrator discovers, allowing Owenbeg to slowly flesh itself out as needed. It doesn’t hurt that Ashcroft is not a great investigator, but he does know a thing or two about the technology from the secretive race of Drakiri that is being used to cut corners. It makes the world feel exciting, and casts Ashcroft as a bull-fish in a chinashop out of water. 

However, I will say I was lukewarm on Ashcroft himself. I think there are aspects to him that are compelling, but I wasn’t entirely sure of his drive. The book starts out with his refusal to follow the queen’s orders, and while I admire his moral standing on not gassing protestors, I never got the sense it was part of who he was. He has a past, but it’s never satisfactorily explained how he gets from his history to the place we meet him in the opening pages. Normally I wouldn’t mind so much, but the gap in Ashcroft’s development is disappointing when the book seems to explore the desire for power and the atrocities one has to carry out in order to achieve and secure it. I didn’t feel his own lust for power that propelled him to the capitol, and in the queen’s graces, he just happened to be there. Everyone around Ashcroft has their own agenda, pushing him to complete or destroy the tower for intangible and tangible reasons. It leaves him bewildered as there is just not enough time to inform himself before committing to one side or another. Yet, Ashcroft feels like a dog chasing cars. There wasn’t enough of a foundation to make me feel this was who he was leading up to defying the queen. It’s not a deal breaker, and if you read the book as some fever dream, that is packed with innuendo and metaphor, it works really well. It’s just something that stuck out to me, and kind of hampered some of the introspective tension in the climax.

All in all, Tower of Mud and Straw is worth the couple of hours it takes to read it. In the ever growing market for novellas, Barsukov’s story is a contender for the top brackets. It’s clever, it’s feverish, and he leaves much up for interpretation. There aren’t any real answers to the myriad of questions, and the whip crack transitions between plot points cover Barsukov’s tracks even better. Some people might want explanations, but I was quite satisfied by the end of the book. It’s a real treat, and I implore you to check it out. 

Rating: Tower of Mud and Straw – 8.0/10
-Alex

Riot Baby – Anger As Art

71rws3vbplThis year has been full of some genuinely fantastic novellas, and TOR has done an exceptional job of leading the charge. Novellas have such potential to be focused, and a lot of authors have recently showcased that potential in big ways. Novellas can be explosive and monumental and addicting. One that has stuck with me through the year, and I couldn’t help but re-read a couple of times due to the protests this summer and fall, is Riot Baby, by Tochi Onyebuchi. I wish I could find a way to distill how I feel about it into a single sentence, or even a review. I’ve attempted below, but this is easily one of the most subjective and gut feeling reviews I’ve written. Onyebuchi’s Riot Baby is a laser focused story of anger, pain and revolution, and you should read it.

Riot Baby is the story of Ella and her brother Kev, two kids who grow up while black in an increasingly dystopian America. Ella witnesses her brother’s birth during the LA riots, after the officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King were acquitted. Ella has a gift; she can see the future of those around her, and it’s filled with pain, suffering and death. She ends up leaving her family as her power grows, and Kev is thrown in jail. As they grow older, Ella is able to use her powers to take Kev mentally somewhere else and show him the world, but he slowly grows impatient, knowing she could level the prison and help him escape. Ella visits Kev while he’s in jail, reminding him she’s still there for him but unable to do anything about his predicament despite her powers. Meanwhile Kev lives day to day, trying to survive without succumbing totally and completely to the system.

There is no dancing around this, I loved Riot Baby. Onyebuchi drives through the story with purpose, using his disjointed structure to maximum effect. The story jumps back and forth between Ella and Kev, showing their individual experiences within America as it grows increasingly bleaker as they get older. Ella’s journey to understand her power, to learn to carry the knowledge she has of the future and shape it, is phenomenal. Kev’s time in prison is equally claustrophobic, pent up and hopeless, lending a sense of desperation and anger. Onyebuchi knows exactly when to switch between them to highlight their mirrored journeys and growing frustration with the tension between them.

While the bare bones of the story itself is a solid foundation, Onyebuchi’s writing style kept me enthralled and heightened the emotional impact of the siblings’ story. There is a brewing anger behind every sentence. An undercurrent of injustice rippled each page as Kev and Ella had to come to grips with the world they lived in. What I found so fascinating about the anger in Riot Baby is how incredibly right it felt. There is a fervor in it that grows in a raging crescendo towards the end of the book that is unavoidable, and it feels like a siren’s call. I initially read this in January, and felt it, and after this summer, it feels even more poignant on re-read after re-read.

The way Onyebuchi interweaves Ella’s powers into the history of Black America is poetic and righteous. It’s a casual reminder of our past, so much as it is a clarion call for a better future. Each scene is painted vividly, focusing on the people and how they are affected. Sure places, and things play an important role, but how these people’s lives are affected by the system are highlighted. Whether it be children or adults, men or women, they can’t escape the ever watchful eyes of the state. It’s an exercise in empathy, an empathy rooted in a passionate rage at the injustice of the system, that I’ve rarely seen and Onyebuchi pulls it off with aplomb.

It’s hard to talk about this book as a book. I could go into the technicals a little more, and maybe dig into whether the characters work or not. But I honestly feel like I’d be doing Onyebuchi and Riot Baby a disservice to break it down so mechanically, when it’s so purposefully full of emotion. There is such a powerful whirlwind in it’s pages, howling to those who read it. I recommend Riot Baby wholeheartedly. You should read it with others and talk about it. Be galvanized by it. It’s a story, sure, but it’s the perfect representation of art speaking a truth most should know by now. Let it speak to you, so you don’t remain silent about it afterwards.

Rating: Riot Baby 10.0/10
-Alex

The Seventh Perfection – Septacular

49247320This is a weird novella, and I am here for it. The Seventh Perfection, by Daniel Polansky, sits somewhere between a full novel and a novella at just under 200 pages. But what a 200 pages it is. The story’s main gimmick is it is told completely from a second-person point of view, and it makes for a strange and fascinating tale. However, there is a reason that most books AREN’T told from this perspective, so did Daniel Polansky manage to use an original narrative technique while telling a compelling story? Yes, yes he did.

The Seventh Perfection tells the story of Manet, but you won’t know that for a while. Manet is a historian of sorts who has mastered the seven perfections. Each perfection represents a difficult skill, including things like perfect pitch and perfect memory. The perfections get harder as they climb in level, and Manet is one of the few who has mastered all seven. Manet is trying to track down the hidden stories of how the current God-King ascended the throne and overthrew the previous tyrant. When her chase starts to overturn stones that were better left unturned, she finds herself on the run from the law – yet consumed with the need to find out what happened.

While the story feels a little tried-and-true, Polansky’s narrative style breathes fresh life into the tale. Because the book is in the second person, we never actually get to hear our protagonist think or speak. The entire book is written in dialogue from people in conversation with Manet – and you never hear Manet’s side. The result is a book that sounds like it would be confusing, but Polansky’s eye for knowing which tidbits to include means that it actually flows extremely well. Since the entire book is dialogue, the pace is lightning fast, and I managed to finish the entire story in about two hours – every minute of which I spent glued to the pages. It felt like I was reading the book version of a video game speedrun. I was constantly in awe of how effortlessly Polansky managed to paint a vivid picture of the world, people, and story with only half of the dialogue in a conversation. Truly, it is an impressive piece of writing.

The crowning achievement of The Seventh Perfection is probably how well I felt I knew Manet by the end of the book, despite literally never hearing her speak or think. The dialogue slowly helps the reader piece together who this mysterious woman is and the process helps you become extremely invested in her struggle. I needed to know the answers to her questions because she needed to know. And the answers shocked and delighted me.

I can’t say too much more about The Seventh Perfection without giving away some large spoilers. Suffice to say, I very much recommend this book to anyone looking for something short and different. Its tiny page count and lack of bulky descriptives mean you will blast through it in about a day, but what a day you will have. Polansky has created something clever, rich, and fun, and I think everyone should check it out if given the chance.

Rating: The Seventh Perfection – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Kraken’s Tooth – What’s Krakenalackin

the_krakens_tooth_by_anthony_ryanThe real takeaway I got from The Kraken’s Tooth is that Anthony Ryan is a strong writer. I obviously already knew that, given my familiarity with his other work, but it’s nice to be reminded that the authors you like are good at their craft. The Kraken’s Tooth is the second installment of a seven-part novella series called The Seven Swords that Anthony Ryan is writing for Subterranean Press. In my opinion, the physical copies are a bit cost prohibitively expensive due to being collectible (which is a bummer for physical book lovers), but the digital versions are very reasonable. Normally I don’t mention the price and publisher when talking about a review, but in this case, I think it’s important to point out the roadblocks that will keep this body of work from being better known because I want you to jump them and go check The Seven Swords out.

The series tells the story of a man questing to find seven magical swords for reasons I don’t want to spoil. My review of the first book, A Pilgrimage of Swords, dives deeper into the series’ premise. All you really need to know is The Kraken’s Tooth picks up where Pilgrimage leaves off and unsurprisingly tells the story of one of the seven swords our protagonist (called the Pilgrim) is seeking. The plot brings our Pilgrim to a new Venetian style city, where the entire urban area is supported by a kraken’s heart deep underneath the streets. The Pilgrim’s arrival kicks off a multi-party race for the heart to see who will reach it first and claim the power of the heart for themselves.

I think what’s really interesting about The Seven Swords is it kinda feels like reading a fantasy book blueprint. That isn’t to say the novellas are unfinished, but that they are stripped down to minimalist plot points to keep the meat of the story moving. It feels like looking at the bones of a book and reading the author notes that tell you what the major story beats are, and it works. Ryan has really good ideas, which is particularly impressive for a fantasy subgenre (sword and sorcery) that is considered by many readers tired and cliché at this point. His writing (excuse the pun) has teeth. The Kraken’s Tooth has a real feeling of adventure around it and it sparked both my imagination and my love of fantasy with its fun and thrilling story.

On paper, The Kraken’s Tooth is a dungeon crawl where the party needs to surmount traps, decipher riddles, and kill monsters to reach the treasure beneath. What I love about it in practical terms is it refuses to be boring. Ryan never phones it in, and all of his ideas stick in the mind. It’s a raucous story that is easy to consume and discuss. It’s the perfect snack to bring a little fun and excitement to this depressing year.

There isn’t much else to say about The Kraken’s Tooth. It’s fun, easy, and you should definitely make the extra effort to check out the series. I really hope Subterranean eventually puts out a compilation book as I would be willing to stand on a street corner and hawk it. Don’t let a little leg work distract you from this excellent read.

Rating: The Kraken’s Tooth – 8.0/10
-Andrew

Prosper’s Demon – But He’s My Angel

50905325._sx0_sy0_So is it just me, or everyone else getting tired of me writing reviews about books I liked and/or loved? No? Just me then? Well luckily for you, I have another one of those reviews that you can’t get enough of. Fortunately, this one is a short little piece for a perfectly sized book. If you haven’t already guessed, I’ll be talking about Prosper’s Demon by K.J. Parker, an explosive novella that knows exactly what it’s doing and has a blast doing it. I’ve never read any of Parker’s other books, unless you count some of his works as Tom Holt (which is the real one?), making this novella an extremely pleasant experience.

Prosper’s Demon is told through the eyes of an exorcist that lives in a land reminiscent of Renaissance Italy. However, the main character, whom I’ll just refer to as the Exorcist (he goes unnamed) is fairly brutal and efficient in his exorcisms. He doesn’t really mind a little collateral damage, as long as the demon is forced out and the “greater good” is served. On top of that, he takes special pleasure in knowing that while demons never die, they feel exponentially more pain than a person upon their removal. The problem is his next target is a genius, artist, and scientist named Prosper of Schanz, who also happens to be tutoring the next king.

I apologize in advance for the amount of gushing that this short review will contain; it will honestly feel like an advertisement, but I’m quite okay with it (note I was not paid, but did receive a free copy from the publisher). This is easily my favorite novella, and for good reason. Parker absolutely nails the narration from the exorcist. Two pages in and he knows you hate him as much as he hates himself, but what can you do? Me, I just kept reading, pulled into the exorcist’s head as he regaled me with his tales of demon hunting. His lack of morality matches his wealth of cunning and cruelty. The way he describes his feelings is palpable, tangible and utterly relatable. I feel weird being so enthralled by him, but he’s such a convincing character that you buy into his pathological tendencies. He’s definitely not a good guy and he recognizes it, but he also knows that it’s you who really holds the ability to judge him. I do want to highlight that this is a dark book. Funny, too, but it’s pretty dark. There is a sadism present on every page, and a very casual, almost gleeful, acceptance of it by the exorcist himself. This is just what he does. He’s good at it, really fucking good at it, and I love him for it.

Beyond the main character, Parker does an incredible amount with so little space. I think it helps that he pulls from well known tropes within western enlightenment and renaissance history, but it feels deliberate. You immediately know how the world works, and he’s just peeling back the curtains. It’s an excellent way to fast track the story to focus on this single event, the exorcism of Prosper of Schanz, and holy hell is it an event. The whole novella builds up to it, as if the first page was a match being lit and you’re watching the spark wind through hallways to its ultimate destination. It’s fast and it’s furious, and it’s one heck of a ride. The demons themselves have a character to them as well. I won’t spoil too much, they are too much fun to encounter on your own, but I will say it’s easily my favorite representation of demons in fantasy. There is a weird humanity to them that is twisted by their nature, and twisted further still by the exorcist’s point of view. It’s brilliant.

I could go on about just how effective this book is at selling its incredibly short story. Chatter gleefully about it’s stark and cynical meditations on some of the greatest western enlightenment and renaissance ideas. But really, I just want you to read it. It’s dark, it’s horrible, it’s funny, it’s absolutely messed up, but it’s a great time and an excellent example of how much can be done in one hundred pages. K.J. Parker, this book has possessed me to finally pick up more of your work, you glorious monster.

Rating: Prosper’s Demon 10/10
Alex

The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – A Scrumptious Political Snack

91xjptkuklI have been beginning to feel like a metaphorical Goldilocks lately when it comes to Asian inspired political period pieces. The last two I tried were The Throne of the Five Winds and The Wolf of Oren-Yaro – neither of which quite did it for me. But, apparently, I have a thing for these kinds of books because I picked up my third in a few months in the form of a novella called The Empress Of Salt And Fortune by Nghi Vo. Turns out that if you keep reading books, you often can find the one that feels juuuuust right.

There are a lot of strange things about this novella; the first being that it is a novella, not a novel. Political dramas, on average, have some of the highest page counts I run into, and cramming one into a novella seems like a tall order. Yet, somehow Empress does the job and tells an engrossing story of a foreign princess carving a place for herself in a hostile court. The drama is stripped down to the bare essentials here, providing you with the perfect amount of information to be invested in the story and excited by the politics. For better or worse, the novella lacks the usual chapters of intricate detail and facts that bring the world to life – focusing more on how the evolving court drama plays out. That isn’t to say that there is no worldbuilding. There is plenty and it is excellent. It just focuses more on broad strokes than small details, which will delight some and turn others away.

The other very interesting thing Empress has going for it is its narrative style. The novella is told from the POV of an archivist/cleric named Chih. Their job is to travel the world collecting stories for their magical talking bird who has a perfect memory so they may be recorded. As such, the entirety of the drama is told in the past tense through conversations with a servant who lived in the palace at the time it was going on. It’s an original way to tell a political drama. The advantage is that it makes the story easy to chop up and streamline without feeling like you are missing chunks of the story. The disadvantage is it makes the events feel more distant, less personal, and less engrossing than if the reader was experiencing the drama as it happened in real-time. Or so I thought at the start of the novella. Through clever writing and beautiful prose, Vo pulls the reader in. The entire story is also dripping with emotion so that it easily pulls you in and keeps you invested.

While writing this review I realized that The Empress Of Salt And Fortune is only the first in what seems to be a series of novellas about Chih traveling the world and collecting tales. Count me in. Empress is an impressively tight package that does more with its short page count than most political dramas do in 500 pages. It is exciting, beautifully written, and overall a good time. I highly recommend you check out this novella and I eagerly await the next one in the series.

Rating: The Empress Of Salt And Fortune – 9.0/10
-Andrew

Come Tumbling Down – Sisterhood Meets Finality

Come Tumbling Down Cover

Seanan McGuire’s fifth Wayward Children novella brings us once again to Eleanor West’s home for the titular youth. It also returns to the story of Jack (Jacqueline) and Jill, sisters whose collective tale of sibling love and loss rises to a volcanic climax in Come Tumbling Down. Beware–spoilers from previous Wayward Children installments ahead!

Jack and Jill have long been two of this series’ deepest, most intriguing characters, and Come Tumbling Down brings their arc to a heavy, satisfying conclusion. I don’t know for sure if McGuire has future (or prequel) plans for the pair, but my hopes are high that this outing remains their last. 

Come Tumbling Down opens on Jack’s dramatic return to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children in the hands of her significant other, Alexis. Returning staples Christopher, Cade, and Cora quickly find that Jack’s in a heap of trouble: Jill has forced her twin to switch bodies so her master, a vicious vampire from the Moors, can turn Jill into a vampiric life companion. Jill’s body, in which Jack now resides, has been resurrected, and thus can no longer become a vampire (rules are rules). More jarring for Jack, perhaps, is that her brain cannot cope with the shock of being thrust into a new body. She seeks the help of her school friends to bring justice upon Jill and return to her own corporeal form.

Revisiting The Moors is a real treat in Come Tumbling Down. Jack and Jill’s brutal chosen world continues to ask devastating questions about science and limitations. When everything is possible, what shouldn’t you do? The Moors are filled with monsters and powerful creatures all precariously perched in a delicate balance, with factions gaining the upper hand but never taking over completely. It’s a world where balance and brutality beget growth and progress, and Seanan McGuire’s worldbuilding prowess is on full display here. 

It’s a world that yearns for adventure, and McGuire offers it in spades. The group’s journey through The Moors offers a deep dive into the inner workings of the setting. The only downside here is the pacing. Jack ushers her friends through a gauntlet of sights, sounds, and places that are entirely new to the group, but the short runtime requires a breezy jaunt through each narrative beat. As usual, the prose provides beautiful renderings of these locales and inhabitants, but the quickfire nature of the plot makes big events feel small and low-stakes. One exception, however, is Jack’s final confrontation with her sister. Their explosive final encounter boils over with all the turmoil of their past differences and disagreements, and I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough during the novella’s final stretch. I can’t say much else here for fear of outright spoilers, but if you’re even the tiniest bit invested in Jack and Jill, you’ll want to read every last word of this installment. 

There’s not much more to say about the characters that I haven’t touched on in previous reviews. There are a few new faces–a water demigod named Gideon stands out as my favorite–and our familiar cast of misfits remains as charming as ever. Christopher still earns the “underutilized” award, and I desperately hope that he gets a starring role in one of the upcoming books. Cora, of Beneath the Sugar Sky fame, has a marvelous role to play in Come Tumbling Down, and I’m looking forward to more from her as well. 

Come Tumbling Down stretches the boundaries of the Wayward Children world (or worlds, I suppose), planting seeds for deeper character stories to come. Most impactful, though, is the effortless way McGuire ties the knot on a multi-book arc for sisters Jack and Jill. 

Rating: Come Tumbling Down – 8.5/10

Beneath the Sugar Sky – Nonsense Meets Mortality

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky returns, if only for a moment, to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. The third novella in the aptly named Wayward Children series brings us back to present-day following Jack and Jill’s prequel adventure in Down Among the Sticks and Bones. This pattern of alternating past-present stories will continue, according to author Seanan McGuire in this Twitter thread, through at least book eight in the series! But for now, let’s focus on this third installment. Spoilers follow, particularly for Every Heart a Doorway, so proceed with caution.

Beneath the Sugar Sky introduces Cora, a new student at Eleanor West’s school. Cora comes from The Trenches, where she lived her otherwordly years as a mermaid. Cora and her friend Nadya (who traveled to the watery world of Belyrekka, making the two an apt pair) are exploring the pond on school grounds when a young woman falls, seemingly from nowhere, into the water. The newcomer introduces herself as Rini, daughter of Sumi. *Pause for effect.* Yes, she’s the daughter of Sumi, the first victim of Every Heart’s serial murderer. Rini hails from Confection, a land comprised of baked goods, soda, and literal tons of sugar. Her existence itself is a miracle, seeing as her purported mother died a teenager before she ever met Rini’s father. But it’s possible because Confection is a “nonsense” world, dictated by its own rules and timelines but beholden to no others. However, Rini is disappearing after her mother’s untimely death, so a Confection wizard gives her a way to travel between worlds, and she ventures to Eleanor’s School for help. 

There are literal and figurative worlds of themes to explore in Beneath the Sugar Sky. The characters, plot, and themes mix together in a batter worthy of Confection’s countless baked goods, but after some time in the metaphorical oven, those parts don’t coalesce into a satisfying treat. 

That said, Beneath the Sugar Sky offers some distinctly positive ideas. Cora and Nadya both explore body positivity in compelling ways. Cora is overweight, and she openly calls herself “fat.” But she comes from a world where size doesn’t matter, and the weightlessness of living underwater allows her to shed any insecurities about her weight. These learnings carry over into the real world, where she sees judgmental eyes and hears judgmental words but remains confident and poised as ever. Nadya’s right arm is missing below the elbow, and she’s part of a storyline late in the novella (which I won’t spoil here) that echoes Cora’s sentiments and sends a powerful message about being comfortable in one’s own skin. McGuire elegantly discusses body image and positivity through these two new characters, and it’s genuinely inspiring stuff to read. So far, Wayward Children has excelled at conveying strong morals. 

Powerful message aside, Beneath the Sugar Sky suffers from a weak plot and low stakes. The characters shine, as always, but their involvement in Rini’s story doesn’t make much sense. Cora never knew Sumi and just met Rini, yet she embarks on the quest to save both without much thought. It’s a kind gesture, and I’d overlook it, but the plot continues meandering through weird whirls of wackiness (much like this sentence) straight through to the end. Cora and Nadya are accompanied by Kade (a Fairyland reject and Every Heart staple) and Christopher, who can reanimate skeletons with his bone flute (also an Every Heart staple, though he gets more well-deserved screen time here). The ragtag bunch decides that reconstructing Sumi is the best path forward, so they set out on a quest of sorts to revive her. I’ll spare the spoilerific details here, but the crew travels to two separate portal worlds on their quest to save Rini and Sumi. 

Confection is the primary setting, and we’re whisked along as readers through various locales without any real chance to take it all in. Confection’s nonsensical nature feels like a crutch, allowing the characters to duck and weave, avoiding any real danger. Just when the stakes could spark an adrenaline rush, the world throws curveball solutions that allow Cora and her companions to brush aside every threat that comes their way. Would-be emotional moments are stilted by the plot’s racing pace as it speeds toward a conclusion. As I read the conclusion, I asked myself “Did I miss something?” And I don’t think I did–the ingredients of Sugar Sky don’t have the time they need to rise into a delicious morsel. 

While it’s hard to buy into the plot and the stakes of Sugar Sky, there’s still plenty to love. McGuire’s positive messages and morals shine through despite the book’s weaknesses. The lure of doors to new worlds still rings in my head as I journey through the series, and visiting those worlds is a real treat.

Beneath the Sugar Sky: 6.5/10

Down Among the Sticks and Bones – Childhood Meets Brutality

Down Among The Sticks and Bones by Seanan McGuire

Down Among the Sticks and Bones, Seanan McGuire’s first prequel to Every Heart a Doorway, offers brutal ruminations on the nature of childhood and the implications of growing up. This story, starring twin sisters Jacqueline (Jack) and Jill (before you ask–yes, there are plenty of references to the nursery rhyme. No, they’re not overdone), paints a sweeping picture of a difficult upbringing and self-discovery. Seanan McGuire explores the darkest corners of individuality and coming of age while giving us a much-needed injection of Jack and Jill, two key characters from Every Heart

Jack and Jill are thrust into life after their unfit parents decide to have children for no good reason. The book’s first third collects a series of vignette-ish descriptions of their parents, Chester and Serena Wolcott, and their stubborn natures. They want kids to show them off, to earn social status, and to mold them into something convenient rather than unique. Jack and Jill, born into this mindset, find a temporary savior in Gemma Lou, their paternal grandmother. Until they’re five years old, Gemma Lou teaches Jack and Jill to think for themselves, at least as well as a toddler can. When Chester and Serena abruptly eject Gemma Lou from the twins’ lives, Jack and Jill must look out for one another. The years that follow breeze by within a single chapter as Jack and Jill struggle against the strict barriers their parents have erected. It is only when they turn twelve that everything changes. Jack and Jill discover a hidden staircase to another world in what was once their grandmother’s trunk. The secret doorway closes behind them, and they begin their adventure in the Moors. 

The Moors are an unforgiving place. The recently dead don’t always stay that way. Vampires and werewolves roam villages at night. Science is a tool to be wielded with none of the inconvenient limits so prevalent in our world. The Moors burst with possibility and dread. Jack and Jill choose their own paths. Each twin grows up in the Moors under the careful watch of her chosen master–Jill’s, a ruthless vampire known only as “the Master,” who has a stranglehold on the village; and Jack’s, a mad scientist named Dr. Bleak, who resurrects the dead and stretches the limits of science with every experiment he performs. 

The summary above covers a vast swathe of McGuire’s prequel, but context here is crucial. The Jack and Jill from Every Heart a Doorway have already experienced the events of Down Among the Sticks and Bones, and reading this preamble makes the continuation of their story even more intriguing. Sticks and Bones cuts deep and hits hard. As I learned quickly, McGuire doesn’t pull punches. The Moors are a devastating place, and while Jack and Jill both call it “home,” the world shapes them in remarkable ways. Jack, consumed by science, learns all she can under Dr. Bleak’s stewardship, crafting her logical mind into a sharply honed weapon able to solve problems quickly and creatively. Jill learns obedience and patience, at least at first, and must stay vigilant under the Master’s tutelage. Even as the twins find their place, The Moors carves out their dark sides and forces them to the surface. Just as this new world augments Jack and Jill’s inherent individuality, it siphons out their demons. 

So far, Wayward Children is more about the children than the waywardness, and that’s okay. McGuire’s talent for character-driven prose conjures images from words, and the people within these novellas feel fleshed out and believable. That said, for a series with other worlds at its heart, this installment didn’t completely satiate my need for a rich, distinct new world. The Moors serves more as a catalyst for growth than a vibrant setting. I appreciate the approach, and I relish the world-building–I just want more of it. 

Like its predecessor, Sticks and Bones breezes by at a lightning-quick pace. McGuire knows how to tell a story in limited space. She cuts the fat and offers a lean, juicy tale. The plot here doesn’t offer much by way of surprise or shock; most of the significant events are mentioned or hinted at in Every Heart. But it’s still worthwhile. Questions of identity, quarrels between right-and-wrong, and unconventional upbringings make Sticks and Bones a melting pot of intrigue. Worth noting as well is McGuire’s inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters and how she writes them: they’re real, they’re people, they love, and they lose. Their orientation doesn’t make them different or “other.” It’s refreshing to read. 

The Wayward Children series continues to discuss big questions, explore hard truths, and tell stories worth telling. Pick it up, stack it neatly on top of Every Heart A Doorway, and make space for Beneath the Sugar Sky, which I’ll review next. 

Down Among the Sticks and Bones: 8.0/10