Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand

Middle Distance: Long Stories of Aotearoa New Zealand is a recent anthology of stories around 10,000 words each, shorter than a novella but longer than the typical short story. For me, these long stories (novelettes?) were a nice change of pace, with enough meat on their bones to be satisfying, while not requiring the time commitment of a longer novel or novella. Published by Victoria University Press, the book contains fourteen new stories by New Zealand writers, covering a range of styles and genres. Most, but not all, are set in New Zealand, with a very Kiwi flavour. Ordinary family problems are a recurring theme, but some stories delve into other-world fantasy and horror. There’s something here for everyone. The stories are:

Scales, Tails, and Hagfish by Octavia Cade: A pre-teen girl with scaly eczema claims to be a mermaid. Her continued insistence antagonises people and gets her into trouble as she engages in increasingly bizarre activities to prove her point—activities that eventually land her in hospital after an encounter with an angry seal—but her mermaid dreams may not be entirely delusional.

School Spirit by Joy Holley: A ghost story, with several graduates returning to their old school after dark.

The Promotion by Maria Samuela: Twenty years apart, a father and his abandoned son come to Wellington from the Cook Islands looking for work, and experience similar cases of culture shock.

Basil and the Wild by Rem Wigmore: A fairy tale of sorts, and I love fairy tales. Two outsiders—a slow-witted shepherd and a forest giant—become friends, but the frightened villagers are unable to see past the giant’s threatening bulk, or understand the shepherd’s attempts to protect his peaceful friend.

Getaway by Nicole Phillipson: Unlike the previous story, this is grounded in current reality, showing us a dysfunctional family whose members are unable to communicate with each other or see past their own noses.

Backwaters by Emma Sidnam: A tale of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand in the 1870s. It starts out appearing to be a pleasant historical love story, but gradually morphs into something rather more unsettling.

The Dead City by Jack Barrow: This story is the most clearly fantasy, with nomadic tribespeople pursued by ghosts in a lush, jungly world. It includes evocative descriptions of an abandoned, haunted city, but I was not sure quite what was going on, and unfortunately I lost interest in trying to find out.

Ko tēnei, ko tēnā by Vincent O’Sullivan: A 19th-century bored, wealthy gentleman has tangled relationships with his sister-in-law and half-sister. He leaves England and travels to New Zealand, where he buys a tattooed head as a macabre souvenir. On his return to England, he gets drunk and shows the head to the two women. It isn’t clear where the story is going, or how the two women feel about him, until the very end, where they deal out what is a clear instance of poetic justice.

Ringawera by J. Wiremu Kane: Culture clashes again, along with a bit of a mystery involving several people attending a Māori funeral. One woman is intent on giving her deceased aunt the proper ceremonial farewell she wasn’t allowed to give her late Pākehā wife. Two others—both young gay men, one a cop—struggle to fit in with the other Māori. For me, this was the outstanding story in this collection, with universal emotional arcs around otherness and acceptance.

Around the Fire by Anthony Lapwood: A father of  three, struggling to keep his family together after his wife leaves, reflects on an incident in his own childhood: his father, divorced from his mother, took him and brother on an unauthorised, two-week long, incommunicado “camping trip”.

Afterimages by Sam Keenan: Set in the World War II era, a woman draws on theories about recently-discovered dark matter to escape painful reality by disappearing—literally, as in becoming invisible.

Like and Pray by Samantha Lane Murphy: A young couple’s daughter dies suddenly. The father, confronting reality, wants to grieve silently, but the mother, a member of some charismatic evangelical cult, is sucked into an ecstatic worship service attempting to call the girl back to life.

Sea Legend by Kathryn van Beek: This is a different sort of mermaid story. A fishing trawler pulls a mermaid up in its net, forcing the newest member of the crew into a crisis of conscience.

The Black Betty Tapes by David Geary: This is speculative fiction and the most adventurous story, told in a fast-paced—and rather baffling—series of transcripts of interviews with people involved in the future Queen Elizabeth III’s ascension.

As with any anthology, the stories are not equally successful. Besides Ringawera, the ones that left the biggest impression on me, either because I enjoyed them or they stuck in my head afterwards, were Backwaters, Ko tēnei, ko tēnā, Basil and the Wild, and Scales, Tails, and Hagfish. There’s a lot to like here; other readers may have different favourites.

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Aftermath: Stories of Survival in Aotearoa New Zealand is a collection of about two dozen stories, poems, and images, set in post-apocalyptic New Zealand. The disasters represented range from the quite possible (catastrophic climate change, nuclear war, earthquakes, pandemics, …) to the highly unlikely (zombies, aliens, etc.), and in at least one case, it isn’t clear what exactly did happen. That’s fine; the focus here is on the recovery, not the disaster itself. In most cases, the disaster, whatever it is, is already over, sometimes decades ago. These are stories of hope, fortitude, and resilience. Of people finding new communities, coping, and rebuilding.

As is the case with most anthologies, the stores aren’t all equally successful. These are the ones I liked best. YMMV.

Lizards and Villains and Wars (Oh, My!) by Scott Fack: Friends and co-workers offer a PTSD sufferer a helping hand in an alternate Christchurch, where the destruction was caused by rampaging robotic lizards rather than an earthquake.

Thirty-Four Days by C D Jacobs: Earthquakes again, with a woman looking after a boy she finds trapped in a pharmacy.

Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade: A blind teenager, learning to fend for herself after most of the rest of the world dies of plague, refutes would-be rescuers’ pity.

Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Erica Challis: Plastic-eating bacteria let loose in the wild has a profound impact on human society.

Bounded by Rivers by Jacqui Greaves: Survivors in an isolated valley set up a breeding program to ensure the best genetic health of future generations. Towards the end of her life, the designer of the program plans to go out in style.

Boy-Boy by Barbara Uini: Two kids hide in the bush after an alien invasion. The older girl makes trips into town, telling the boy she’s foraging for supplies. He has to find out for himself that the humans won the war; she’s been afraid to tell him because he’s all the family she has left.

Flipsides by Miriam Hurst: What seems like a disaster doesn’t always turn out to be one.

Best Mates by Gary M Nelson: This one is my favourite of the lot, with a friendship that survives even death.

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The refuge in Sanctuary, by New Zealand author Andi C Buchanan, is a many-roomed house dating from the 17th century. Once a mansion, it is now in a state of disrepair, tended to by residents with inadequate funds for its proper upkeep. The refugees it shelters come in two sorts: (A) neurodivergent (autistic, ADHD, …) and/or LGBTQIA+ individuals escaping abusive backgrounds or just looking for a non-judgemental environment where they don’t stand out, and (B) ghosts.

Yes, Sanctuary is a ghost story, but an unusual one. The resident ghosts are not responsible for the horrors inflicted. In fact, it is the ghosts who are most at risk in the early parts of this story. The motley collection of eight living residents treat the ghosts with respect, and try to protect their privacy from the prying eyes of sensation-seeking ghost hunters. As the story develops, a more serious threat appears, attacking first the dead and then the living, until both sets of residents are fighting for… well, let’s not say their lives, but their continued existence is as stake.

The events leading up to that start when an elderly man arrives with a collection of old bottles. He is downsizing on his way to a retirement home, and wants to find a good home for the ghosts in the bottles. The residents, horrified at the thought of being trapped in a bottle for eons, begin freeing the captives, but in doing so, also free something unexpected and evil: a ghost eater.

The narrator is an autistic trans woman named Morgan. (I’m not sure which pronouns Morgan prefers; I’m going with they/them/their as potentially least offensive.) Morgan gives their partner Araminta a gift without realising the gift comes with strings attached. When the gift brings Araminta under the ghost eater’s power, Morgan is forced far out of their comfort zone, to do whatever is necessary to bring back the woman they love.

Sanctuary is a lovely story of a found family, a collection of damaged misfits who discovered a place where they belong. The residents have different strengths and weaknesses, and conflict does happen, but they all work to accomodate each other, although some of the ways they work together might be a bit baffling to more neurotypical people. I particularly enjoyed one scene where they are gathered in one room but to all appearances isolated in individual bubbles, as each one is focused on their own electronic device. Morgan, however, is experiencing a strong sense of family togetherness and support as they all participate in a group chat, because all of them are less stressed by text than by speech.

Sanctuary is also an introspective and character-driven story, with the first half mainly introducing the residents, both living and dead, and immersing us in an autistic person’s psyche. The plot, such as it is—thin and without surprises—doesn’t really get moving until the second half. This isn’t necessarily a problem, if you understand going into it that the author’s focus is on the people involved and their relationships, not action.

There are a few problems: It should have had another proofreading pass before publication. (I’m usually tolerant of a few typos—I have to be; I make enough myself—but there was one glaring continuity error that made me wince.) A lot of character names are introduced, and it takes a while to get them all sorted out. (Wait, which one is Joseph again? Is he alive or dead? A score card or cast of characters would have been helpful.) And parts of the climactic action sequence were quite vague. (I have no idea how long that confrontation with the ghost eater went on. Minutes? Hours? Days? Probably not days… My confusion wasn’t helped by Morgan’s narration going off on tangents in the middle of it, although I suppose that’s part of the point: their strategies for coping with stressful situations are not typical.)

Problems aside, I loved the story, both for its insights into Morgan’s heart and mind and for its depiction of a cohesive, supportive family bound not by blood ties but by shared needs and the values of kindness and empathy.

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Beyond Magenta

I read Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out, by Susan Kuklin, for this year’s Banned Books Week, since it has popped up in the American Library Association’s Top 10 Challenged Books list several times since it was published in 2014.

The book is fairly short, only 182 pages in hardcover. Six teens talk about their gender identities and journeys towards transitioning. Two of them (Jessy and Luke) transition from male to female, two from female to male (Christina and Mariah), and two (Cameron and Nat) are non-binary, using they/them pronouns and not identifying as either male or female. Of those two, Cameron—the teen pictured on the cover—presents as more feminine or more masculine depending on their mood, while Nat is intersex and apparently asexual, preferring to present as neutral/ambiguous.

The reasons given for the book being challenged include its LGBTQIA+ content and because it is considered to be sexually explicit. There are some passages that mention sex and anatomy, but that’s hardly surprising, given the subject matter, and they don’t seem unreasonable given the context. Besides, the odds are good that any teen with access to the internet or who has ever been in a high school gym locker room has been exposed to a lot worse. The adults who worry that books like this will “give kids ideas” really need to get a grip. It seems unlikely to me that most teens would be interested in reading this book unless they were already experiencing gender dysphoria, and if they are, withholding information about similar people’s experiences—including the impacts on their physical bodies—is simply cruel.

That said, this didn’t strike me as a particularly good book. For one thing, it isn’t really clear who the expected audience is; it feels as if it is targeted more towards cisgender adults trying to understand transgender teens rather than the teens themselves. For another, the organisation is less than ideal; the most interesting chapters (at least, to me) are all in the second half of the book, and some readers will bail before they get that far.

And then there are the narratives: they are in the teens’ own words, but are drawn from interviews by the cisgender author, so there was non-trivial editing involved on her part. Since she doesn’t give us the questions she asked, it’s hard to tell how much she drove the direction the interview took, or where the subject was more or less forthcoming. In addition, in the first chapter, Jessy and his girlfriend talk about their relationship. He claims he’s happy, but his girlfriend refuses to refer to him by his chosen pronouns (he/him). That makes me wonder if his claims that his family and friends are supportive are overstated in an attempt to convince the author—or perhaps even himself—and left me with persistent doubts about the emotional honesty throughout the book.

There were also some really unfortunate gender stereotypes expressed. I suppose it isn’t fair to expect a high degree of self knowledge and articulation from a group of otherwise rather ordinary teens who are still struggling to come to terms with their own identities, but I have little patience for the idea that loving to shop for pretty clothes equates with being a girl. (I never have enjoyed shopping for clothes. I hardly ever wear a dress. I despise pantyhose and heels. I’m not trans.)

Before reading this book, I had hoped it would illuminate a gender dysphoria strong enough to drive someone to transition. Unfortunately, it didn’t give me any new insights into what makes someone do something so life-altering.

But just because this book doesn’t speak to me, doesn’t mean it wouldn’t be useful to someone else.

A few notes on the chapters I found most interesting:

  • They include the ones about the non-binary teens, Cameron and Nat, possibly because they were less invested than the others in gender stereotypes.
  • Nat’s story was the one that resonated the most with me, although as much for their efforts to be taken seriously as a musician as for their story about gender identity.
  • Similarly, Luke’s involvement in theatre gave an extra dimension to his story.
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Banned Book Week 2022

It is, once again, Banned Book Week: the American Library Association’s yearly campaign to draw attention to efforts to remove certain books from classrooms and libraries. Their current list of the most frequently challenged books is here.

As far as I can tell, the books most at risk fall into two categories:

  • Any that challenge gender essentialism (the idea that male and female roles are fixed and innate) or a hierarchical view of society and families with men at the top, and women and children subservient. That would include medically factual information that would empower teens by helping them understand their own bodies.
  • Any that make the United States look bad, by, say, covering the real history of slavery, race relations, police brutality, depopulation of indigenous peoples, etc.

As I have commented on in earlier posts, in the United States “challenged” has been a more appropriate term than “banned.” Unfortunately, that may soon no longer be true. Radical right-wing extremists are in full roar, and with the courts stacked in their favour, they may succeed in implementing governmental bans in some states. They’re certainly trying hard in Florida, Texas, and Virginia. In the Virginia case, Republicans attempted to use an old law, unused in decades but still on the books, to have a pair of books declared obscene and illegal to sell or lend in the state. That law would have allowed a challenge in one district to ban the book in the entire state. A Virginia judge ruled against them, but similar laws in other states may find more receptive judges.

Censorship was a hot topic at the recent Chicon8, the 2022 World Science Fiction Convention. As a virtual attendee, I listened to a session that included Ada Palmer, a historian at the University of Chicago, who is an expert on the history of censorship. She made an interesting observation (I’m summarising/paraphrasing here, so if I mis-represent her, it’s my fault, not hers):

For hundreds of years, attempts at censorship have come in waves every 25 to 30 years, and historically they have always censored the wrong things, because the cat is out of the bag. The censors don’t perceive the next threat coming down the line, which would have been easier to deal with if they could have nipped it in the bud. Censorship is a panic reaction to a perceived threat, but the things we’re afraid of now aren’t necessarily the ideas that are powerful in retrospect from a hundred years later.

What I took from this is that the current furore over books by or about non-gender-conforming people or people of colour will eventually die down, because they can’t put the genie back in the bottle. The information in the books they want to suppress is already out there, on the internet, in Little Free Libraries, in donations from Friends of the Library groups, etc. Ideas are notoriously hard to kill. And the fact that there are so many more challenges in recent years of children’s books with LGBTQIA+ characters underscores the fact that there are so many more of those books being published; you can’t challenge something that doesn’t exist.

(Of course, Dr Palmer’s observation also implies that the fight against censorship will just move on to something else not even on the conservative radar yet. Legal rights for non-humans, perhaps? But that’s a worry for another day. She also said that the panics come from the grassroots, but then are harnessed from above to advance elite and governmental interests, which squares with Republicans pushing for book bans.)

But even if the would-be censors lose in the long run, that doesn’t mean they won’t make life miserable for lots of people before the current conflagration is extinguished. They can. They will. But there are ways to fight back:

  • Campaign for non-extremists (or run yourself) in your local school board elections.
  • Get to know your local school board members and let them know what’s important to you.
  • Stock a Little Free Library with challenged books.
  • Join your local Friend of the Library group.
  • Spread the word about the Brooklyn Public Library’s Books Unbanned project, which includes giving teens anywhere in the United States access to their full eBook collection and learning databases.
  • And most important: VOTE! Lots of people don’t pay attention to local elections, but sometimes they matter even more than national elections, because the margins can be very slim. If you don’t know who is up for election, here are good places to start: for the US, ballotpedia , and for New Zealand, policy.nz.
Posted in On Reading, Politics | Leave a comment

The Hands of the Emperor

I am conflicted about The Hands of the Emperor, by Victoria Goddard. I’m giving it three stars on goodreads.com, a compromise between five stars (It’s wonderful! You have to read it!) and two (meh).

Let’s start with the part I loved. This fantasy novel contains a beautiful, riveting story about a man—His Radiancy, Lord Artorin Damara, the Last Emperor of the Astandala, a god come to Earth—who is trapped by responsibilities and ritual, and slowly dying in the gilded cage of his position. It is strictly taboo for anyone to touch him; if or when the strictures protecting him are violated, people die. In all the years he has been emperor he has not felt the comforting touch of another human being. Even the Royal Physician and the people who dress him have magical instruments to assist them in doing their jobs from a respectful distance.

Cliopher (Kip) Mdang—His Radiancy’s secretary, the man who sees that things get done—realises that His Radiancy needs a vacation, and organises a trip away from the capital city. The subsequent voyage across the South Seas Wide Seas and holiday in a beach house near Kip’s hometown set in motion cascading events that lead to hard choices His Radiancy must make, and a possible way out. They also lead to deepening friendships between and among His Radiancy and his senior attendants.

His Radiancy is a terrific character, exuding compassion, empathy, and gravitas, mixed with frustration and an impeccable sense of humour. I enjoyed nearly every scene in which he was the central character. Unfortunately, he isn’t the book’s main character; Kip Mdang is. His Radiancy makes his momentous decision less than a third of the way into this long book, and then the focus shifts to Kip and his problems with his family and the civil service. Except for one health crisis (chapters 36 through 49, out of 80), His Radiancy fades into the background in the rest of the book. The longer it went on, the more irritated with it I became, and it’s a very long book indeed.

Kip is the book’s biggest problem. At the beginning he comes across as a self-effacing civil servant, a workaholic policy wonk in late middle age who reads all the reports that come across his desk and has an encyclopaedic memory for detail. He appears set on a course headed for either burnout or a heart attack from overwork. Although the first chapter says he is head of the Imperial Bureaucratic Service, he seems more comfortable with massaging data than in dealing with actual people. So far, so good. This is someone I can understand, and accept as a real person.

But then it gradually becomes clearer that Kip really is the Secretary in Chief: a capable administrator of a large bureaucracy, and the second most important person in the empire’s government, after only His Radiancy himself. This is where he started to bother me. In my view (admittedly making sweeping generalisations here), detail-oriented bureaucrats and people-savvy, politically-adept executives tend not to appear in the same person, and people who climb to the highest levels of government service tend to have inflated egos, but hey, extraordinary people do appear occasionally. I was willing to accept this version of him, too, for the sake of the story.

Unfortunately, the author wasn’t done building up Kip, and the longer the book went on the less I liked him[1]. By the end, he was the most glaring example I have see in years of a Gary Stu—a character whose existence deforms the universe around them to show how wonderful they are. Goddard lays an unbelievable list of accomplishments on him—reform of the postal service, implementation of a progressive tax system and a universal basic income, hospitals, … a liberal’s dream agenda—until at the end he is being lauded as the most important person in the history of the Astandalan government, and I’m ready to heave the book across the room.

That brings us to the second problem: Kip doesn’t seem to have encountered any serious friction in implementing his reforms. People and governments just don’t work like that. People don’t like change, even when it’s good for them, and the societal changes Kip is credited with would have been massive. After the aforementioned crisis, I kept waiting for blowback from Kip’s assault on the religious hierarchy, but it was never mentioned again. Seriously? Besides the priests, there are the nobles. They wouldn’t all be stupid; somebody would have grasped how he was undercutting them and would be pushing back. (Not to mention that any one of those reforms would be a life’s work for a normal person; reformers don’t often get things right on the first try.)

Kip’s problems with his family aren’t believable either. Yes, I understand that, at the start of the book, the provincial islanders he comes from might not understand that “Secretary in Chief” is a different beast from a secretary/clerk assisting his boss with his correspondence and calendar, but they should have gotten the message after he was promoted to Lord Chancellor. We are told over and over again what gossips the members of his huge family are, and how he’s related to half the population of Gorjo City, so why is it that they don’t talk about him? Half a dozen members of his family are visiting him when His Radiancy’s health crisis occurs, but a few years later Kip’s best friend from childhood, living only two or three blocks from his mother and sister and seeing them on a regular basis, hasn’t heard any of the details of that visit? Not credible. Just, not.

Did I mention that this is a long book? At 900 pages (hardcover) and 319K words (according to Kobo), it’s a doorstopper. (For comparison, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell—another doorstopper—is 332K words. For the Nebula Awards, the dividing line between novella and novel is 40K words.) Most of the second half of The Hands of the Emperor is either Kip losing his temper and telling someone off, or some wide-eyed relative being reminded of how important he is. (They seem to forget that with astonishing regularity.) One or two of these scenes can feel satisfying, even cathartic. After that, the repetition gets tedious. I skimmed a lot of the second half, looking for His Radiancy’s appearances. I would have liked this book twice as much at half the length, and at 160K words, it still would have been a long book.

On looking back at what I’ve written, I realise it turned into a rant. (And I didn’t even get into  the cultural appropriation, or the time slippage inconsistencies.) So why have I bothered to write about it? Because the beauty of some parts of it make the disappointments of the rest harder to bear. As I said earlier, there are parts of it I loved: His Radiancy’s vacation; the emphasis on kindness, empathy, friendship, and respect; the image of a communist islander in a grass skirt and shell necklace winning his case before the assembled nobles; middle-aged protagonists; Kip’s story of his voyage across the Wide Seas in a boat he built himself; great world building; …

I would happily read other stories Goddard has written about His Radiancy. I’m just not interested in hearing any more about Kip.

If you want to read His Radiancy’s story, I suggest you read chapters 1 through 20, 36 through 49, and skim or skip most of the rest.

Trigger warnings: a brief discussion of cannibalism, and one also brief incidence of violence. Otherwise, nothing. No sex, no bad language. People behave themselves and are polite to each other. How refreshing.

[1] If Kip is so brilliant, why did it take him so [insert-your-favourite-expletive] long to realise His Radiancy needed a holiday? Oof.

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A Trio of Short Reviews

A trio of books, all by New Zealand authors:

Ten Acceptable Acts of Arson: and other very short stories, by Jack Remiel Cottrell, is a collection of flash or micro fiction; the longest stories are a page and a half, most stories are less than a page, some are just a sentence or two. Perfect for dipping into while waiting for the bus, or on hold with the bank’s help line.

It is a bit of a mixed bag. Some of the stories don’t quite work, or aren’t fleshed out enough to be engaging—ideas I would have shoved in the plot-bunny drawer to expand on later. But the format lets the writer cover a lot of ground—fantasy, sci-fi, horror, politics, sports, religion, and more—in ways that are both fun and surprising. Some of the stories that did work were splendid, and pack a punch in a small space. I will be looking forward to seeing more from this writer.

Here are titles of a few of the stories that I found particularly amusing, or that kept me thinking long after I’d put the book down. Note that the descriptions are my synopses, not the stories themselves!

  • But the graffiti is amazing: Fae wars in train station tunnels.
  • The flour dealer: Black market dealing during a supply chain crisis.
  • Changeling: As seen from an autistic kid’s point of view.
  • Phantoms: A twist on the phantom limb syndrome.
  • An unfortunate legacy: An unusual spin on the story of Doubting Thomas.
  • And there are so many to choose from: A compassionate view on conspiracy theorists. “…that there are people with enough faith in their elected officials that they believe government is capable of orchestrating huge, elaborate intrigues and keeping the secret for decades. Kind of touching, when you think about it.”

You will probably have different favourites. Go find a few for yourself.

I’ve written about Grace Bridges’ YA Earthcore fantasy series in earlier posts (RotoVegas and Volcano City). The 4th entry in the series, High Tide, foregoes the paper-thin megalomaniacal villain of the earlier books, and the story is, in my opinion, stronger without him.

The starting point is when Maori elders on an island near Auckland call in the Earthcore team to investigate a series of earthquakes that don’t follow any established pattern. The team dig into long-forgotten tunnels under World War II gun emplacements, and have to deal with cave-ins, people lost in the tunnels, and two girls trapped in a cave at the tide line with the tide rising. The enemies in this story are time and upset taniwha, with the tension rising the longer the Earthcore team is underground.

There are a few too many people to keep track of easily, but I like stories emphasising teamwork, and this is a good entry in that category.

I’m a sucker for stories with librarians as the romantic leads. What can I say?

In Jamie Sands’ Overdues and Occultism, Basil, a librarian, and Sebastian, a ghost hunter, fall for each other while searching for the secrets behind a haunted library in the Mount Eden suburb of Auckland. This is another novella in the Witchy Fiction brand, which I have reviewed a few of before, and it’s a short, sweet, and charming M/M romance. There’s a sequel available, too: Monsters and Manuscripts, where Basil and Sebastian continue their adventures with a monster that likes chocolate biscuits.

Posted in Fantasy, Kiwi author, LGBTQIA+ | Leave a comment

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 (archiveofourown.org), 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, LGBTQIA+, 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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