The Quicksilver Pool

This was a pleasant surprise.

The blurb on my copy of The Quicksilver Pool by Phyllis Whitney paints it as a somewhat cliché gothic novel. When I paid a couple of dollars for this vintage (1955) novel at a used book sale, I wasn’t expecting much, perhaps a knock-off of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. (There are several points of connection, including a character in The Quicksilver Pool named Rebecca.) The ingredients indicating horrors ahead for the main character, Lora, are certainly there: a marriage of convenience between two near strangers (Lora and Wade Tyler); a gloomy, stifling family mansion; the mother-in-law from hell; a stepson described as “strange”; a trouble-making Other Woman; a husband still deep in mourning for his first wife; suspicious circumstances around the first wife’s drowning. But The Quicksilver Pool doesn’t follow the gothic novel conventions, and goes off in surprising directions.

But if it isn’t a gothic novel, what is it?

A solid historical novel: The story takes place in the middle of the American Civil War (December 1862 to July 1863), and captures the some of the ambivalence—or often, outright hostility—many Northerners exhibited towards the Union cause. It is set on Staten Island (before it became part of New York City) against the backdrop of resistance to the imposition of the draft, culminating in the (real) New York City draft riots and a (fictional) confrontation with a mob looking for a Black scapegoat.

A study of healing and reconciliation in a dysfunctional family: I haven’t seen a good term for the primary driver of the action in this story. “Novel of manners” perhaps, as it is concerned with social conventions and mores, but that seems a flabby term for the sort of muscular, active acts of kindness that Lora exhibits. Another, rather unfortunate, term I’ve seen is “kindness porn”, referring to stories like The Goblin Emperor or Becky Chamber’s Wayfarers series, where the theme is the power of seeing every person one encounters as an individual of with inherent worth and dignity.

Lora jumps in without hesitation—sometimes rashly—in defence of the powerless: her neglected stepson; the neighbour’s mistreated Black servant; even Wade who, in his thirties, is still tyrannised by his mother. Her actions naturally lead to some fireworks, but equally important, she has a grounding in pragmatic good sense, and learns to defuse a tense situation with a smile and soft words, without giving ground on what she believes is important. As she feels her way into the centre of the household, old misunderstandings are resolved, tensions loosen, and the gloom lifts. And Wade develops more of a spine.

A romance: This is the weakest part of the story. Lora is an appealing character, but Wade is much less so. (But then I can’t imagine my dear husband ever daring or even wanting to tell me I’m better off being ignorant of the news or what he does with his time. I’m very glad I don’t live in an era when women were expected to be uninformed.) The last fifty pages (out of three hundred) falls back on that old, tired trope of romantic difficulties arising simply because the two people involved don’t tell each other what they want. Sigh.

Aside from my quibble about the romance, this was a lovely story, and better than I expected. I’m glad I took a chance on it.

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Winter’s Orbit

Irresponsible Prince Kiem isn’t ready to be married. But his cousin, Prince Taam, died in a crash, tearing a hole in the carefully arranged structure of alliance marriages binding the seven-planet Iskat Empire together. Someone has to salvage the situation by marrying Taam’s widowed partner, Count Jainan. (Yes, the relationships are male/male.) When the emperor orders him to, Kiem finds himself signing a marriage contract with someone he’d met only hours earlier. Irresponsible he may be, and in a state of shock, but he’s enough of a gentleman to give the still-grieving Jainan time and space to recover.

Romances where the plot hinges on simple communications failures usually make me toss the book unfinished in the giveaway box by the back door. Why can’t these people just talk to each other? (No one is a mind reader. If you don’t get what you want because you never took the time and trouble to articulate what that is, that’s on you, not on them.) But in Winter’s Orbit, Everina Maxwell’s debut novel, the communications failures actually make sense for once. Over the course of Jainan’s toxic five-year marriage to the sadistic, domineering Taam, he had been trained to never rock the boat, to be self-effacing, to never say what he wanted or do anything to trigger Taam’s contempt or volatile temper. Kiem, unaware of the abuse Jainan suffered, is determined not to pry into his relationship with Taam.

As the plot unfolds, of course, they have to learn to communicate. The stoic Jainan has to learn to trust the effervescent Kiem, and Kiem has to uncover depths of diplomatic skills no one (including himself) believed he had, because there’s a good deal more at stake than one relationship. Prince Taam’s death was not an accident. Jainan is accused of the murder. Someone attempts to kill Kiem. Jainan and Kiem grapple with the military and the emperor’s Internal Security, two forces at odds with each other. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down on negotiations for renewal of the treaty that gives the Iskat Empire access to the larger galaxy, and that provides protections against encroachment by far larger and hungrier expansionist empires. If they can’t uncover who is behind the deadly events, and why, everything around them is in jeopardy.

There’s quite a bit going on in this space opera/murder mystery/romance: blackmail, piracy, military hubris, stolen alien artifacts, etc. Apparently it started out as a web serial romance on AO3 (, but was reworked to give more emphasis to the mystery and space opera aspects of the plot when picked up by Orbit books. The balancing act isn’t entirely successful and it gets off to a slow start, but it’s still a fairly light-weight, enjoyable read whether you’re more interested in nicely-plotted mystery with a side of romance (as I am) or a heart-warming romance with a side of space opera and mystery.

Trigger warning: domestic abuse.

Posted in Contemporary Romance, Space Opera | Leave a comment


Piranesi’s house is no ordinary building: its rooms are infinite, its corridors endless, its walls are lined with thousands upon thousands of statues, each one different from all the others. Within the labyrinth of halls an ocean is imprisoned; waves thunder up staircases, rooms are flooded in an instant. But Piranesi is not afraid; he understands the tides as he understands the pattern of the labyrinth itself. He lives to explore the house.

Piranesi’s world seems like something from a fable, or perhaps a fever dream: a vast, world-encompassing building filled with statues, like some monumental European art museum. The only things outside the House are the sun, moon, and stars. It rains inside, and snows in winter. Some parts of the House are in ruins. The upper floors are lost in the clouds and the lower floors are awash in salt water. As far as he knows, there have only ever been fifteen people in the world, thirteen of them dead. He does not often see the other living person, a well-dressed man he calls “The Other.” Piranesi spends his time harvesting seafood from the ocean in the lowest level, or wandering the halls, recording what he finds in a series of journals. He is alone, but not unhappy.

At first glance, categorising the novel Piranesi as a fable or allegory might make sense, because otherwise there are too many questions: Who built the House? If the narrator has been alone all his life, how did he survive? If he’s never been outside of the House, how did he recognise the subjects of statues like Woman Carrying a Beehive, or An Angel Caught on a Rose Bush?

But if this is a fable or allegory, it is an odd one. The current entries in his journal are dated in “The Year that the Albatross came to the South-Western Halls”, but earlier journals are dated 2011 and 2012. His possessions include a sleeping bag, plastic bowls, and bottles of multivitamins. He meets The Other at 10 o’clock on Tuesday and Fridays mornings to discuss his progress in their mutual search for the Great and Secret Knowledge hidden somewhere in the House. In their meetings, The Other gazes at a shining device that is clearly a cell phone or tablet.

There are gaps in Piranesi’s journals, and in his memory. He tells us that The Other is his friend, but The Other doesn’t treat him like one, berating him for his lack of diligence in their quest. As Piranesi re-reads and tries to make sense of the older journals, other scraps of knowledge about our world trickle in, raising more questions about his relationship with The Other. And then The Other warns him that a third person—a very dangerous person—may be wandering about the House. The story takes on urgency and a more sinister cast, and it is now obvious that this story is both fantasy and mystery.

Piranesi, by Susanna Clarke, was a nominee for Best Novel in the 2021 Hugo Awards, sixteen years after Clarke’s earlier novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, won in that same category. The books share a common theme: the silencing of marginalised people. In Jonathan Strange…, none of the other characters recognise Lady Pole’s or Stephen Black’s entrapment by the uncaring fairy. In Piranesi, well, that’s a spoiler. Unlike Jonathan Strange…, however, Piranesi is not an 800-page glacially-paced doorstop. The print versions are around 250 pages/64K words—quite small, by fantasy standards—and there are no footnotes. It does start off a little slowly, but once it gets going, it’s compelling. I read three-quarters of it in one day.

Piranesi, by the way, is a nickname given the narrator by The Other, even though he knows it is not his name. It’s a joke at the narrator’s expense; Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th-century Italian artist whose most notable output was a series of prints called Imaginary Prisons.)

A canny reader will figure out at least a few of the answers to the mystery long before the narrator does—and perhaps want to give him a good, hard shake for his naïveté—but that’s okay; the story is captivating even when you know where it’s going.

When Piranesi was published in 2020, the descriptions of it didn’t encourage me to read it. What I gleaned from the early reviews made it sound like an over-hyped exercise in writerly indulgence. And then I read an excerpt, and was intrigued enough to get a copy and read the full thing. I’m quite happy to say that my initial impression was wrong. Piranesi is a magnificent exercise in world building, but it is much more than that, with excellent characterisations and a satisfying plot. However you want to categorise it—speculative, literary, alternate worlds, mystery—this is first-rate fiction, lyrical, imaginative, and haunting.

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Elder Race

Lynesse Fourth Daughter, the last and therefore least important of the queen’s daughters, is her family’s wild child. The one who gives the tutors ulcers and tries her mother’s patience. She is also the only one who takes seriously the stories of a demon rampaging through the Ordwood. Who believes it is her family’s responsibility to do something about it.

Nyr Illim Tevitch, anthropologist second class, is the sole remaining member of a scientific expedition sent out as part of a far future Earth’s second, and extremely technologically advanced, wave of galactic exploration. Their mission was to study the descendants of the colonists from the first wave’s slower generation ships. When news came that things were going wrong at home, he volunteered to stay while the rest of the team travelled back to Earth in their faster-than-light ship. They were supposed to return soon. That was centuries ago, and unsurprisingly Nyr is quite depressed. He spends decades at a time in suspended animation, waking only occasionally to check his automated outpost’s maintenance logs, or when one of the locals appears on his doorstep.

Lynesse believes in magic. To fight a demon, she asks a sorcerer for help.

Nyr is a scientist. He doesn’t believe in magic, or demons. He also has a mandate not to interfere in the local’s society.

Together, they have a communication problem.

Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law—Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic—is the driving idea in Adrian Tchaikovsky’s Elder Race, one of the contenders for this year’s Hugo award in the Best Novella category. This culture clash has been done before, frequently, but it’s an idea that’s still fun when done well, because there are so many possible choices in how or even whether the magician attempts to explain the magic, and in how the other party reacts to it. Here, Nyr does attempt to explain, but Lynesse lacks the vocabulary to make sense of his explanations, a situation compounded by translation software that transforms his technical language without him realising it. The story is told in alternating chapters, her viewpoint and then his, except for one chapter where we are shown side-by-side what he says and what she hears:

Nyr: Your ancestors came to this planet from another, a place called Earth. They came in a spaceship…
Lynesse: The ancients brought men into this world from the otherworld, ferrying them upon a boat through the seas of night…

Nyr: And when I’ve said all that, when I’ve committed that unconscionable betrayal of all the non-contamination rules they pounded into me at anthropology HQ… Lyn says, “Yes, that is how we tell it.”

Nyr is a more fully fleshed-out character than Lynesse, with the book’s secondary focus on his struggles with depression, and his innate decency at odds with the Explorer Corp’s non-interference policy. He copes with his depression with the aid of an “Dissociative Cognition System”, which lets the higher order parts of his brain continue to reason even while aware that his body is suffering emotional stress. The drawback is that he has to regularly shut off the dissociation, and cope with his feelings, before the buildup of emotional stress overwhelms him.

There isn’t much of a plot, and the explanation of the “demon” left me scratching my head, but those are minor quibbles. From the point of view that all science fiction is about the intersection of technology and culture, and interesting only in so far as it has something to say about the human condition, this is a fine story, with a delightful blending of the fantastical and the technological.

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Right Wing Fairy Tales

Once upon a time…

That’s the start of a fairy tale, right? Well…

Once upon a time, a position espoused by the American right wing—the Republicans, the conservatives—was that the government should keep its nose out of personal life, that it had no business getting involved in decisions people make regarding their families.

What decision could possibly be more intimately connected to family life than whether or when to have children?

But if the religious zealots making up the majority of the U.S. Supreme Court strip away the right to abortion, more than half of the state governments will soon be making very intrusive decisions about what pregnant women can and can’t do.

So here’s the fairy tale: that the anti-abortion movement is pro-life. It isn’t. [1] Their theology is debatable, too. [2]

Here are a few more fairy tales: that the right wing is conservative. It isn’t. [3] That America is the land of the free. It isn’t. [4] That the move to restrict abortion rights is anything other than a naked power grab to control women.

Life in the U.S. is already damned hard on transgender children, people of colour, and anyone carrying an unwanted foetus. If the Supreme Court axes abortion rights that are based on an implied right to privacy in the 14th Amendment, other related rights could also be stripped away. They already have their sights on gay marriage. And contraception. [5]

I live in New Zealand, so why should I care about the U.S. Supreme Court? Because—even if I didn’t have family and friends in the U.S., quite a few of them either queer, trans, or women of childbearing age—the U.S. is the 800-pound gorilla. Whatever happens there spills over into the rest of the world. You have to look no further than the MAGA-hat-wearing, Trump-flag-waving covidiots present in the recent NZ parliament occupation to see that. Right wing authoritarian campaigns all over the world have been emboldened by the decline in American democracy.

That’s why this poem seems particularly pertinent right now:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
     Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

— Friedrich Gustav Emil Martin Niemöller, German Theologian writing about the Nazi’s rise to power.

I’m a woman, a feminist, a liberal, a Unitarian. Authoritarians don’t like me, either.

So, my American friends, in this year’s elections, get out and vote as if your life depends on it. Because it does.

[1] Pregnancy is dangerous, especially for poor women. Do the anti-abortionists care about the life of the mother? Apparently not, given the proposed laws that don’t allow for any exceptions—not for rape, not for incest, not for the mother’s health. And they don’t appear to give a shit for babies once they’ve been born, either.

Here are a few things that would be pro-life: Abolition of the death penalty. Strict gun control laws. Widespread access to inexpensive pre-natal health care. Parental leave commensurate with parental leave in other wealthy countries. Continuation of 2021’s expanded Child Tax Credit. Don’t hold your breath waiting for any of those.

[2] The Christian Bible doesn’t outlaw abortion. The few places it says anything related (not nearly as many references as, say, explicit passages stating the government’s obligation to help the poor), some can be read as pro-choice, some as anti. But, their argument goes, we know more science now than we did when the Bible was written, and we now know that life begins at conception.

But here’s the thing: this “scientific” argument only goes halfway into what we now know from the science. Only about one-third of fertilised eggs ever come to term. Most are flushed before the mother ever knows she’s pregnant. So tell me again that it’s God’s will that every fertilised egg should produce a baby?

[3] The right wing has ruined the word conservative. The Cambridge English dictionary’s first definition of conservative is “not usually liking or trusting change, especially sudden change.” By that definition, stripping away a right the American public had until the mid 1800s, and has had again for the past fifty years, is hardly a conservative position. The right wing wants to turn America into something it has never been: a religious theocracy. The Founding Fathers—many of them Deists or Unitarians, not believers in the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth—were quite clear about the separation of church and state. (And I won’t call their theocracy a Christian one, because their theology bears little resemblance to the compassion at the heart of Christ’s teachings.)

[4] The so-called Land of the Free has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. And then there’s this, by David Bentley Hart in Commonweal magazine, who says it much better than I can:

Americans are, of course, the most thoroughly and passively indoctrinated people on earth. They know next to nothing as a rule about their own history, or the histories of other nations … Chiefly, what they have been trained not to know or even suspect is that, in many ways, they enjoy far fewer freedoms, and suffer under a more intrusive centralized state, than do the citizens of countries with more vigorous social-democratic institutions. … An enormous number of Americans have been persuaded to believe that they are freer in the abstract than, say, Germans or Danes precisely because they possess far fewer freedoms in the concrete. They are far more vulnerable to medical and financial crisis, far more likely to receive inadequate health coverage, far more prone to irreparable insolvency, far more unprotected against predatory creditors, far more subject to income inequality, and so forth, while effectively paying more in tax (when one figures in federal, state, local, and sales taxes, and then compounds those by all the expenditures that in this country, as almost nowhere else, their taxes do not cover). … One has to ask, what state apparatus in the “free” world could be more powerful and tyrannical than the one that taxes its citizens while providing no substantial civic benefits in return, solely in order to enrich a piratically overinflated military-industrial complex and to ease the tax burdens of the immensely wealthy?

[5] You would think, wouldn’t you, that the people the most concerned about eliminating abortions would have a stake in reducing the number of unplanned, unwanted pregnancies? And that the logical steps towards that would be making inexpensive contraception and real sex education (proven to be more effective than that abstinence-only rot) widely available? Apparently logic isn’t their strong suit. The fact that many of them consider contraception itself a sin gives away the game that this is about controlling sexuality, not saving babies.

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Anna Pigeon is enjoying her temporary assignment as Acting Supervisory Ranger of the Dry Tortugas National Park. The Dry Tortugas, seventy miles further into the Gulf of Mexico than Key West, is one of the U.S. National Park System’s least accessible parks; a perfect place for someone needing time to think over one of life’s big decisions in a low stress, thinly populated environment.

And then, on a hot, calm night, a blast rips through the silence. A boat sinks, taking at least one body with it to rest on the sea floor. A park ranger vanishes. As Anna directs the hunt for the missing ranger and the investigation of the accident, she soon learns that those are just the beginnings of a series of disturbing and deadly incidents.

Explosions, near drownings, body parts, bullets, a brewing tropical storm… These are not a recipe for a low-stress assignment, but they do make for an exciting story. Flashback, by Nevada Barr, gets off to a bit of a slow start, with the first few chapters just exploring the setting and establishing the main characters, but once it cranks into high gear it stays there.

The book contains two intertwined stories, told in alternating chapters. The first one, involving Anna, is a thriller set in the near present-day (2003). The second story, also a mystery/thriller, takes place in the late 1860s, and is told in a series of letters from the fictional wife of the Union Army officer in command of the real Fort Jefferson, the park’s centrepiece. The gimmick tying the two stories together is that the letters have been handed down in Anna’s family from her great-great-aunt, and her sister sends them to her to make her stay in Fort Jefferson more interesting.

The letters build a mystery around a real historical event. Fort Jefferson is massive, the largest brick masonry structure in the Western Hemisphere, containing more than 16,000,000 bricks, and almost completely encloses the island it is built on. It was built in the mid 1800s to protect the shipping lanes to and from the Mississippi River. It stayed in Union hands throughout the war, and after the war it was used as a federal prison. (It would have been even harder to swim away from than Alcatraz.)

Its most famous prisoners were the men convicted of conspiracy to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln. Those prisoners included Dr. Samuel Mudd, who remains a controversial figure, as his role in the conspiracy has never been fully established. The actions in the story told by the letters, including torture and murder, are driven by his attempt to prove his innocence. This second story doesn’t have quite the same momentum as the first, but it is still interesting on its own.

Flashback is the 11th in a series with Anna working in a variety of locations as a law enforcement officer for the National Park Service. This is the second I’ve read, and had no difficulty reading them out of order. Anna is a bit of a quirky character, not entirely likeable, but the depictions of the national parks makes up for her shortcomings. Barr’s writing has a strong sense of place; I feel almost as if I’ve experienced the sand, the heat, and gone diving in the waters of the Dry Tortugas, even though I’ve never been, and probably never will be, close to the Florida Keys.

A couple of minor quibbles: I’m not sure exactly how old Anna is supposed to be, but she must be at least in her mid-forties, if not older. She is described as being a physically active person, but it still strains the imagination a bit when she takes one beating after another over the course of a few days and still manages to kick ass. Short, middle-aged, female action hero? Yeah, right.

Also, the short section where Anna speculates on the nature of the pair of lesbian, possibly trans, lighthouse keepers was squicky, unnecessary, and heavy on stereotyping.

And on a side note: book blurbs frequently seem to have been written by marketing people who have, at best, skimmed the book, if they looked at it at all. The blurb for this one talks about unidentifiable body parts. Um, no. I think I would have preferred if some of the collected body parts had been a little less clearly identified.

Trigger warnings: Violence and gore, lots of it. Drugs. Near drownings. Mention of rape. Claustrophobia-inducing situations.

Posted in Historical Mysteries, Mysteries | Leave a comment

Death and Taxes

Death and taxes: the only things certain in this world, and they’ve taken a toll on us over the last few weeks. Between a funeral (of a friend and former neighbour, not a family member) and some complications in our taxes, I’ve had no time or energy to deal with much else. (Being subject to two tax regimes—US and NZ—stinks, let me tell ya.)

A month ago I was gung-ho about finishing the first draft of my new novel, and then I got side-tracked. I’m three chapters from the end, and I’ve gotten zilch done on it this week. Grrrr.

With no emotional energy to spare, I’m reading for pure relaxation and escapism. As much as I like SF&F, right now I’m more interested in detective novels: stories with intelligent, fundamentally decent and humane protagonists who unravel a complex problem and give us, the readers, the reassurance that justice of some sort is achievable.

I have a stack of books on my desk, waiting for me. They are all by writers I’m already familiar with, so I can reach in and pluck one out at random, and be reasonably sure it will be something I enjoy. The authors and series currently represented include:

  • Faye Kellerman: Detective Peter Decker & Rina Lazarus in contemporary Los Angeles.
  • Bruce Alexander: Blind magistrate Sir John Fielding in 18th-century London.
  • C J Sansom: Lawyer Matthew Shardlake in 16th-century London.
  • Ellis Peters: Detective Inspector Geoge Felse in post WWII Shropshire. (Not quite as good as the Brother Cadfael novels, but I’ve read all of those.)
  • Susanna Gregory: Doctor Matthew Bartholomew in 14th-century Cambridge.
  • Elizabeth George: Detective Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers at the contemporary Scotland Yard.
  • Margaret Frazer: Dame Frevisse, a 15th-century English nun.
  • Ben Aaronovitch: Police Constable Peter Grant in contemporary London. (This one is also fantasy. The overlap between police procedural and the supernatural is terrific.)
  • Reginald Hill: Detectives Andrew Dalziel and Peter Pascoe in late 20th-century Yorkshire.
  • Anne Perry: Thomas and Charlotte Pitt in 19th-century London.
  • Nevada Barr: National Park Ranger Anna Pigeon in the contemporary US.
  • Louise Penny: Chief Inspector Armand Gamache in contemporary Canada.

Hmm… Until I made this list, I hadn’t realised how heavily slanted my reading material was towards English detectives. Maybe I should branch out a bit… After tax season is over…

Posted in A Writer's Life, Historical Mysteries, Mysteries, On Reading | 2 Comments

A Few Short Disasters

I’ve been reading more short fiction lately than I used to. Here are a few stories I’ve stumbled across and enjoyed enough to want to share. The only thread that they have in common is that the main event in each one is a disaster of some sort.

  • One Hundred Seconds to Midnight by Lauren Ring has monsters, insurance salespeople, and the impulse to make connections with complete strangers when disaster strikes. Plus the setting (the Charlotte Douglas airport) hooked me in right away; I’ve been through that airport many times, on my way to or from visiting family in the Carolinas.
  • Anyone who has ever worked for a penny-pinching, soul-stealing corporation should be able to relate to the call centre employee narrating Thank You For Your Patience by Rebecca Campbell. Like One Hundred Seconds to Midnight, the focus is on the ordinary human need to help out other people in trouble.
  • The Eight-Thousanders by Jason Sanford is about a mountain climber’s encounter with a vampire on Mount Everest, but the real story is about the toxic masculinity that drives people to take ridiculous risks.
  • Of the four stories here, The Longest Season in the Garden of the Tea-Fish by Jo Miles is one most clearly “speculative fiction.” The main character in this story isn’t human, but she’s a person who can suffer loneliness, despair, and exhaustion, and who will do whatever it takes to ensure her daughter’s survival.

Reminder: Nominations for the 2022 Sir Julius Vogel awards close at the end of March.  If you read and liked The Wordsmith, please consider nominating it in the Best Novel category. Anyone can make a nomination. The guidelines are here; the nomination form is here.

And if you’d rather nominate some other New Zealand writer’s work, do that, too. The awards are all about what the fans like, so speak up!

Posted in Short stories, Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

Isobar Precinct

Lestari Cassidy and her two friends have witnessed a murder. Or have they? The video they captured on a cell phone agrees with what they reported to the police—a man’s throat is slit; blood sprays out, soaking the shrubbery—but the police find no trace of blood or any other evidence of a crime at the location in the inner-city cemetery where the event, whatever it was, occurred.

Other strange things are happening around Lestari. People appear and disappear, and some seem to be in the throes of reactions to bad drugs, spewing purple vomit. Her tattoo parlour is subject to targeted, repeated break-ins, as if someone has a vendetta against her and her partner. She finds a picture of herself from high school, sporting a tattoo that she didn’t acquire until years later. And then she has a chance encounter with her father, who had disappeared from her life when she was fifteen. She learns that he believed that terrible things would happen if he ever saw her again. And he was right.

Her father, a former golden surfer boy, has struggled for decades with mental illness, not helped by his participation in a clinical trial of a psychoactive drug expected to help depression. The drug trial went off the rails when all but one of the original participants died. That would have been the end of it if the sole surviver, Lestari’s father, hadn’t demonstrated some very unexpected side effects. Since then, the covert trials have continued, using society’s most vulnerable—vagrants, runaways, the mentally ill—as its test subjects.

Isobar Precinct, a speculative fiction novel by New Zealand author Angelique Kasmara, gets off to an excellent start with a high-stakes opening chapter, and moves briskly along through a convoluted plot that takes the reader on a whirlwind ride through some of the grittier parts of downtown Auckland. I was engrossed.

Lestari is a great character: warm, caring, active, with a distinct voice, and an unusual profession. (Unusual to me, anyway. I don’t recall ever before reading a book with a tattoo artist as the main character.) Her instincts are to help; when trouble happens she runs towards it rather than away. She picks up waifs and strays: a homeless Samoan boy, an old vagrant, even the young man she catches breaking into her work premises tugs at her sense of responsibility.

Other characters are equally well-drawn. Her alcoholic immigrant mother earns more sympathy than censure. (A lawyer in her native Indonesia, she had to take minimum wage grunt work in New Zealand to support her daughter and deteriorating husband. That might drive me to drink, too.) Even minor characters appearing only briefly—an old woman getting her first tattoo, a prostitute at the Sex Worker’s Collective, etc.—feel like real people. (The only one that felt like a cliché was the monomaniacal evil scientist running the drug trials.)

And like real people, they are all wracked by regrets and the wish to go back and have a second chance at a few things. In Lestari’s case, she desperately wants to replay a missed chance to connect with her father on the day he disappeared. With the lines blurring between her reality, alternate realities, and drug-induced distortions, it’s that desire to do things over that leads her into trouble. Like the rebellious ouroboros tattoo on her right calf, her life doubles back on itself as the plot becomes increasingly tangled.

This is a striking and beautifully written book, and quite impressive for a debut novel. The fundamental humanity of the people involved leavens the grim grittiness of their daily lives, and the ending is optimistic. Hopepunk, not grimdark.

Posted in Kiwi author, Modern literary fiction, Speculative fiction | Leave a comment

Against the Grain

Against the Grain, by Melanie Harding-Shaw, is a great little comfort read, best enjoyed with a cup of your favourite hot beverage (hot chocolate for me) and a plate of warm baked goods close at hand. Part of the Witchy Fiction collection, it is a novella combining a couple of delightful characters with romance, magic, and suspense. Just the recipe for a relaxing weekend read.

Powerful witch Trinity and her shape-shifting demon familiar, Saifa, have to keep moving. If they settle in any one place too long, bad things happen. So when she rents a flat over a bistro in the Wellington suburb of Karori, with an appealing baker (Charlie) for a landlord, she’s torn. She knows better than to get romantically involved, even with a man who is sympathetic to her physical ailments (coeliac disease) and who enlists her as a taste tester for all sorts of gluten-free goodies.

But then she discovers she can’t leave Karori, even if she wanted to. Someone has built a magical barrier around the suburb, trapping Saifa, and by extension, her. Who would want to trap them, and why? Is the perpetrator after any witch who falls into the trap, or after her specifically? While they search for answers, her romantic life gets more complicated, and the danger mounts for her, Saifa, and her new friend, Charlie.

The romance in this story was sweet, but underdeveloped. The real sparks were between Trinity and Saifa. Their relationship—intense, conflicted, and more than a little snarky—was the best part of the story.

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