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

Every Heart A Doorway – Magic Meets Reality

Every Heart a Doorway Cover

Seanan McGuire weaves a poignant tale in Every Heart A Doorway, the first novella in her award-winning Wayward Children series. Through expert world-building and a sharp writing style, Every Heart A Doorway provides a heart-wrenching look at belonging, acceptance, and what it means to be stripped of them. 

When protagonist Nancy finds herself ejected from The Land of the Dead back into the “real” world–our world–her parents don’t understand her anymore. After finding a doorway to the Land of the Dead, Nancy spent months learning to be perfectly still, walking the pomegranate orchards under a dark sky, and dancing with the Lord of the Dead. Convinced of her “delusions” after what they believe was a kidnapping, Nancy’s parents send her to Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There, Nancy discovers that her story, though unique in its details, is more common than she thought. The Home for Wayward Children hosts a few dozen students who found portals to other worlds. Lands of sugar and sweets, worlds where children can run across rainbows, goblin kingdoms, fairy worlds, frolicking skeletons, and many others are counted among the places her peers have visited–and left. Nancy quickly learns that all of Eleanor West’s students wish, on some level, to return “home.” Tragedy strikes as a fellow student is murdered, and Nancy spirals into the darkness of her new world as she and her new cohorts struggle to stay alive while simultaneously trying to solve the murder.

It’s hard to do right by Seanan McGuire’s beautiful plot with only a short paragraph like that. Every Heart a Doorway, clocking in at a brisk 163 pages, packs a dense narrative punch. The effortless homage to classic portal fantasy and the subversion of the tropes it has created reverberate throughout the book’s plot. This is a story about stories, and the layers are stacked with such care that it’s easy to balance them all even as the pages whisk by at breakneck speed. It’s a testament to McGuire’s talent that these precariously perched elements all blend together so well. Her words about magic have a way of becoming magic on the page, and her narratives are joyous to read. Every Heart contains a murder mystery, tales of worlds beyond our own, coming-of-age commentary, hardship, loss, and so much more. McGuire deftly handles her myriad concepts within a small space, and it’s beyond commendable; it’s worth celebrating. The most I can truly say while remaining spoiler-free is that all the interwoven concepts within this single story are worth exploring, and the story is worth reading.

Dissonance prevails in Every Heart a Doorway. Nancy and her classmates have been ejected from worlds where they felt perfectly at home, and their original world doesn’t make sense to them any longer. Nancy’s desire for stillness, honed by her long stay in the Land of the Dead, is in constant competition with our world’s need for incessant motion. The Wayward Children are dissonant with one another, each coming from portal worlds that have different rules and ways of living. The happiness of finding a world you can call home spars with the darkness of being expelled from that home. McGuire’s concepts are at odds with one another on every single page, offering an elegant commentary on what it feels like to be different, to come from a different place, or to be perceived as different despite countless similarities.

That said, Every Heart a Doorway brushes some of its dissonant narrative elements under the rug. These moments are jarring–for example, the students at Eleanor West’s Home remain virtually unfazed by the death of a fellow student after finding the body. Eleanor cancels classes for half a day, and the teachers notice something is off about the students. The police are referred to as “authorities,” but there’s always some sneaky way Eleanor can conveniently avoid their involvement in anything suspicious or outright villainous. For a book whose premier strength is its handling of intriguing concepts, this glancing over is a significant blemish. 

Fortunately, Every Heart’s weaknesses end there. The characters shine with a unique type of radiance only one who has walked between worlds can claim. Two adult figures bear signs of deep loss and yearning while they try to imbue their charges with a sense of hope. Nancy’s ragtag group of former world-hoppers comprises a few really compelling characters. Among them is Kade, a gender-fluid expatriate of Fairyland; twin sisters Jacqueline (who prefers “Jack”), a bowtie-wearing scientist, and Jill, a vampire’s ward; and Christopher, a flutist whose instrument can animate skeletons. Like I said above, there’s a lot to explore here, and McGuire delivers with dynamic and sympathetic characters. 

Every Heart a Doorway ends with a glimmer of hope and the promise of more beyond Nancy’s story (don’t worry, I’m reviewing the rest of the series, too!). Brimming with personality and breezing by with the help of smart and succinct prose, McGuire’s charming novella is an excellent read. 

Every Heart A Doorway: 8.0/10

Upright Women Wanted – Standing Tall

Upright Women Wanted By Sarah Gailey starts off strong with its main character, Esther, stowed away in a librarian’s book wagon. She’s a runaway in a future dystopian American southwest. Esther is running away from a marriage arranged by her father. The man she was set to marry, was originally going to marry her best friend, and secret love, Beatriz. Beatriz had been found with resistance propaganda, otherwise known as “unapproved materials”, and summarily executed. The old West is back again, but this time with even more small-town tyranny aided by an oppressive military focused on keeping order and restoring “traditional family values.” All the while, a group of upstanding women of reputation, the Librarians, distributes resistance literature under the guise of providing “traditional” education town to town in their roving wagons. 

There is something special contained within Upright Women Wanted, but it doesn’t quite reach its full potential. Gailey has certainly built an immersive world, filled with details that make it feel alive. The casual way stereotypical western movie-speak has infiltrated daily conversation is fun and feels very natural. Gailey leaves no stone unturned as they litter the novella with descriptions that feel old-timey, but with a modern sense of vigor. Every bit of the world-building feels purposeful, and while I wanted more, I can understand the decision to keep some aspects of the world vague. For instance, how this future came to be doesn’t really feel as important as in other dystopias, which felt refreshing. Overall it feels more tangible, as if it just sort of happened while no one was looking, because the oppressive aspects of that culture exist today. 

The characters are a big selling point to me beyond the western trappings. They leap off the page with a dynamism and loudness I was not expecting in a novella. The people that Esther encounters fully understand the world that they live in, and have chosen a life that allows them to skirt the edges. They have to, as they are all queer, unable to live the life they want, for otherwise they’d be hanged by the society that requires heterosexuality. Gailey is not subtle about this either, and it’s bracing. I loved learning about their struggles, but I really loved how they have not succumbed to their fears and taken the fight head-on. There is a lushness to their lives that stands in stark contrast to the open and empty desert around them. Cye, a librarian in training, in particular stands out as they have to lead a dual life since they are non-binary. They consistently remind Esther to refer to them as “she” within towns so as not to give them away. That it was something that their entire well being hinged upon struck me deeply. 

While there is not a lot of time to get deep within the novella, Gailey has added a richness to a straight forward story. It both makes me want more of this world, and satisfied with the story already told. If Gailey never goes back to this world, Esther and Cye along with the other women on their journey have taught me there is always a way to fight for your future, whether it’s in plain view or in the cracks that appear in civilization. 

Upright Women Wanted: 7.5/10

-Alex

Ormeshadow – A Little Slice Of Life

712zdrcfehlPriya Sharma’s Ormeshadow overflows with dark family secrets, generations of lore, and tragedy. Sharma has a knack for pitting characters against one another with beautifully selected words. Ormeshadow reads like a wood-carving: Sharma removes all the excess material and presents a pristine, sharp product that feels at once succinct and sprawling.

Gideon Belman’s life completely changes when his father, John, ushers the family to Ormeshadow farm on the heels of his failure as a scholar in Bath. The land rests near the Orme–a sleeping dragon, as legend puts it, upon whose back the land has grown. John regales young Gideon with tales of the dragon and his family’s inextricable ties to it. John’s wife, Clare, tolerates the stories. Ormeshadow is tended by John’s brother Thomas, a rugged farmhand supported by his wife Maud, his boys Peter and Samuel, and his daughter Charity. The reunion dredges up years of resentment and hatred, and Gideon is thrust against his wishes into a life that seems intent on dragging him into madness and cruelty.

A true novella, Ormeshadow reads at a brisk pace, following Gideon’s life after the move and skipping years of time. Sharma’s chapters are snapshots in time, and the blanks she leaves can be easily filled in by imaginative readers. It’s almost like a series of vignettes, each serving a simple purpose: to tell us how Gideon has coped with the innumerable tragedies that befall him in Ormeshadow. The short length serves to better the book by quickly leading the reader to new, darker territory with every turn of the page.

The plot itself could be described as predictable (and probably has been described that way by some). However, when a predictable plot point was finally revealed, I felt spurred on by it, rather than hindered. Sharma’s characters are so believable that I became ravenous for more detail. To experience the characters dealing with their struggles is the heart of the story. Moments of realization and heartbreak abound, but they’re overshadowed by the subtler character moments that follow. Peppered throughout the book are the stories of the Orme and how it came to be. These stories lend mystical context to the modern-day goings-on in the tale, and they’re the cherry on top of the Sharma’s prosaic cake.

All that said, if you read Ormeshadow for any reason, let it be the prose. Sharma writes with a lyricism and brevity reminiscent of McCarthy’s The Road. She says what must be said, and she does it with remarkable verbal grace. Simple, accessible, and beautiful descriptions lie on every page, and it’s a wonder to behold.

Stories of the Orme and legends of the Belman family give Ormeshadow a distinct mystical bent, as I mentioned above. These, presumably, are the reason for the novella’s “Dark Fantasy” genre-billing. I bring this up because, unless you sensationally interpret the story’s final moments, Ormeshadow is more of a dark realism story. It’s replete with family drama, plenty of lore, and a dash of mystery, but the fantasy elements are minimal. This doesn’t detract from the book’s quality at all. Instead, it’s a fair warning to readers seeking a grim fantasy tale. This novella may not satisfy that particular craving, but it is worth your time.

Priya Sharma’s novella bursts with character and flawless prose. She weaves a tale of family intrigue, dark pasts, and overcoming adversity. For such a quick read, Ormeshadow packs a hell of a punch.

Rating: Ormeshadow – 8.0/10
-Cole