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On Books

On Books
by Kelly Jennings

Kelly Robson, High Times in Low Parliament

Stephen King, Fairy Tale

Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

John Scalzi, The Kaiju Preservation Society

Emily Tesh, Some Distant Glory

A.M. Tuomala, The Map and the Territory

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Interestingly, although I didn’t plan it this way, a common thread runs through the books in this review—they’re all looking, in one way or another, at our human ability to reshape the world through the power of story-telling, of art, of the imagination. Since this ability has been fascinating to me since I first noticed it (during a production of Man of La Mancha I saw at age eleven), that might explain why I felt such an affinity for all of these novels.

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Kelly Robson, High Times in Low Parliament

This slim novella from Kelly Robson, author of Gods, Monsters, and the Lucky Peach, is set in England in a fascinatingly alternative 1916. In this version of 1916, humans went to war with the fairies centuries in the past, and the fairies won.

As part of the peace treaty brokered at the time, humans agree to govern themselves via a world-wide Parliament. If ever that Parliament fails in its governing task, the fairies promise to drown them and everyone else in Parliament House. This is necessary, the fairies explain, because if humans aren’t forced to govern themselves peacefully, they will govern in their traditional way, by going to war every year or so, and in the process will destroy the planet.

This is also a world where biological human males don’t exist, though no one comments about that fact, or even seems aware of it. Where do children come from then? Well, people are made pregnant by the natal fairy. The natal fairy only grants children to those who deserve it, which is to say, only those who are sober and industrious.

Lana Baker, main character of the novella, could not care less about being industrious, or sober for that matter. She’s interested in high times and hot girls, and likes being the scandal of her family (three sisters and her mother, who all work in the family bakery). Trained as a scribe, she spends her days in pubs, writing notes and letters in fancy inks and keeping an eye out for kissable girls, while also drinking steadily. This is what she is doing when she is conned by another scribe, Cora, into taking her place at Parliament. Cora has been drafted to serve as a Parliament scribe, and Cora knows, as Lana does not, how dangerous such work is at the moment. Lana, who is cheerfully oblivious to politics and to current events, heads off to Parliament House, where over the next several days she will take a lot of drugs, drink a lot of ale and wine, fall in love with both a fairy and a human, and save the planet. Oh, and end up being appointed to serve in Parliament herself.

Lana is a lively, entertaining character whose saving grace is her good nature and her determination to befriend and/or bed everyone around her, as well as her refusal to take anything seriously. This latter character trait creates the tension in the story, as the reader can see long before Lana does what a perilous situation she has fallen into. The former traits, however, lead directly to the happy ending: with the help of all the friends she has made, as well as her lust for one of the members of Parliament, she contrives a way to use the power of dance—or art and music—to coerce Parliament into working together and resuming a successful self-government. The ending might come a trifle too easily; but as the real star of this novella is the world Robson has built, most readers will be more than willing to go along with it.

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Stephen King, Fairy Tale

The first half of Stephen King’s new novel, Fairy Tale, barely hints at anything supernatural. It is the story of a boy, Charlie Reade, whose mother is killed horrifically when Charlie is seven years old, and whose father slides into alcoholism as a result. Three years later, his life in ruins and desperate to hang onto the one parent he has left, Charlie makes a deal with the God he barely believes in: if God stops his father from drinking, then he will do whatever God wants in exchange.

Charlie’s father joins AA and stops drinking, and seven years later, on his way home from school, Charlie hears a cry for help from the backyard of the “Psycho House,” which is to say a run-down house inhabited by a hermit, Mr. Bowditch, and his aging German Shepherd, Radar. The neighborhood story is that Radar is a vicious killer of a dog, and that Mr. Bowditch is your prototypical mean old man. However, Charlie has all along been trying to do things he thinks God might like—community service and such—and so when he hears Radar howling and Mr. Bowditch’s feeble cry for help, he climbs over the locked gate and goes to help.

And he keeps helping. When it turns out Mr. Bowditch has a serious broken leg and will have to spend weeks in the hospital and more weeks in physical therapy, and that he will need a full-time caretaker, as well as someone to take care of Radar, Charlie steps up. At first, he just feeds and walks the aging Radar, who turns out to be very good dog indeed. Charlie soon falls in love with her, and through their shared love for the dog, he and Mr. Bowditch become friends. The only spooky part of this first half of the book is the padlocked shed in Mr. Bowditch’s backyard. Strange noises come from it from time to time.

After Mr. Bowditch dies, however, and leaves the house and land to Charlie, the book veers into more familiar King territory. In the shed is a covered well, and once Charlie removes the cover, he sees that in the well are steep stone stairs which go down and down (King name-checks Jung a couple of times in the novel, and this is a very Jungian well). Charlie arms himself with a flashlight and some food, and goes down the steps. He emerges at the mouth of a tunnel that leads—eventually—to another world, Empis. Empis is a world filled with fairytale archetypes, and not the Disney versions of those archetypes, either. There is a goose girl without a mouth, for instance, and a singing cricket being tortured by a malevolent Rumpelstiltskin; a hexed Emerald City; a transformed king; and Charlie himself, who turns out to be the Promised Prince, whose coming was foretold. He has been sent here, as he comes to believe, to save Empis and its people.

Among other things in Empis, there is a sundial/carousel in the middle of the Emerald City. If you ride this carousel backward, it will make you younger. Mr. Bowditch rode this carousel when he was an old man, giving himself an extra lifetime, and he asks Charlie to take Radar, who is close to death, to the carousel and give her a second chance at life as well. Since Charlie loves Radar as much as Mr. Bowditch did, he willingly crosses the enchanted lands, meeting several cursed people and animals, some helpful, some less so. Eventually, he learns that an evil king, the Flight Killer, has cursed Empis and its people with something called the Gray. People literally turn gray, but they also suffer horrific deformations, like the mouthless Goose Girl—who is actually a princess—and her eyeless older brother and earless older sister.

With the help of these royal siblings, Charlie successfully negotiates the maze that is the Emerald City (abandoned by all but a few followers of the Flight Killer) and finds the carousel and restores Radar’s youth. But as he and the dog are trying to make their way out of the city, Charlie is captured by some of the Flight Killer’s guard, and taken to a dungeon, where thirty other captured people are living, waiting for their number to grow to thirty-two. Once there are thirty-two of them, they can have a seeded gladiatorial contest, fighting to the death for the right to survive. (Shades of Highlander here—there can be only one.) Charlie, six feet four inches tall, who was the star of his high school football team, and also did track and played basketball, is better prepared than your average seventeen year old for this challenge; but as he makes friends wherever he goes, including in this dungeon, he is not happy about his ability to defeat his fellow prisoners. Furthermore, while he’s in this dungeon, he and they come to realize that he is the foretold prince. He owes them and Empis, in other words, not just his own survival, but the defeat of the Flight Killer and the lifting of the Gray.

The hefty six-hundred page novel drags a bit toward the middle, while Charlie is in the dungeon. Nevertheless, the novel is King’s best work probably since The Shining. It is a novel about the power of story to transform our inner landscape and by that means to transform the world itself. “All worlds are magic,” Charlie tells another character at one point; and at another a character tells him, “It’s all stories, Prince Charlie.”

This is a ripping yarn, with a great dog at its center. And don’t worry: there’s a happy ending.

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Kingfisher, Nettle & Bone

As in King’s Fairy Tale, T. Kingfisher (the penname of Ursula Vernon) plays here with common fairytale tropes—our main character is the third child of a king and queen, and there are fairy godmothers and impossible tasks and animal companions and damsels in distress and a wicked prince and even a visit to Goblin Market. And as in King’s Fairy Tale, there is also a great dog, this one a magic dog, or at least a dog created by magic.

Marra, the third-born princess, has no special gifts except a stubborn willingness to put her head down and do the job before her. Shipped off to a convent by the Queen her mother, she is being kept in reserve as a possible wife for the prince her two older sisters have, serially, been married to—this prince’s large and powerful Northern Kingdom poses a threat to Marra’s own tiny city-state, called the Harbor Kingdom because it controls a useful harbor. Marrying a daughter to him, and then another daughter when the first dies, is the Queen’s strategy for keeping Harbor Kingdom unconquered.

Marra is happy enough in the convent, where she learns skills in weaving and embroidery, animal care, and midwifery. But during a visit to the Northern Kingdom for the funeral of a niece she barely knew, she learns just how wicked the prince is, and that her second sister might soon suffer the fate of her first. This will leave Marra to marry the prince and become his third victim. Desperate, Marra goes to a dust wife, who is a powerful magician, and asks for a way to kill the prince. The dust wife sets her three impossible tasks—sew a cloak of owlcloth and nettles; build a dog of cursed bones; and catch moonlight in a jar of clay—and then is stunned when Marra accomplishes the first two.

“Do you know why you set someone an impossible task?” she demands when Marra shows up with Bonedog, the dog made of bones who is maybe my favorite character in the book (unless that is Agnes the fairy godmother who is really an evil fairy godmother but rises above it): “You give someone an impossible task so that they won’t be able to do it.

But, characteristically, Marra does the impossible. Resigned, the dust wife sets off with her on a quest that will take them into the Goblin Market (where they free an enchanted warrior), to the cottage where Marra’s fairy godmother (and great aunt) lives, into the Northern Kingdom and down into the land of the dead, all to save Marra’s sister and her newborn child from the wicked prince (now a king).

As always with Ursula Vernon/T. Kingfisher novels, the characters are wonderful, and there is heartbreak and humor and real peril along the way. But as with King’s Fairy Tale, there is also a satisfying and happy (enough) ending.

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John Scalzi, The Kaiju Preservation Society

According to his afterword to The Kaiju Preservation Society, John Scalzi wrote this novel as a kind of relief from the ongoing disaster that 2020 and 2021 were for America and for the world: protests, wildfires, an attempted coup, COVID-19. The light-hearted (veering sometimes into goofy) nature of the novel reflects that, I think.

The story opens with the main character, Jamie Gray, getting fired from their job just as the COVID-19 pandemic kicks off. (Scalzi carefully does not reveal Jamie’s gender.) Suddenly finding themself the sole support for everyone living in their New York apartment (that’s Jamie and their two roommates, one of whom is trans and has transphobic parents), they take a job as a food delivery person. This leads to them delivering a succession of meals to one of their old school friends, and eventually being offered a job with KFP, which the friend—Tom—tells them is an animal rights organization, one which deals with “large animals.”

As you might guess from the title, the large animals in question are kaiju, which is to say Godzilla-like creatures from a parallel Earth. Scalzi does a fine, indeed charming, job setting up this reveal, and the research center for studying kaiju and the alternative-Earth are also very well done. Jamie’s job lifting things means they get to roam all over the KFP research center, and their group of friends being various sorts of scientists means we get their explanations for the events from the point of view of their various specialties. The science in this novel, by the way, is very science-fantasy. Scalzi does manage to finesse this somewhat by having Jamie be a roustabout and not a scientist, so if they can’t explain the science behind what’s happening, that’s perfectly understandable

There’s a plot, involving the son of a corporate billionaire who wants to grow his own kaiju for the nuclear power plants that those creatures use as a kind of a heart (science-fantasy); but the plot almost doesn’t matter. This is mainly a story about friends hanging out and doing cool stuff and making wisecracks. It’s kind of like going on a really cool ride at an amusement park with all your best friends, and so long as you bear in mind that’s what to expect—a delightful ride, rather than a serious artistic experience—this novel is a lot of fun.

*   *   *

Emily Tesh, Some Distant Glory

I knew Emily Tesh from her fantasy duology, Silver in the Wood and Drowned Country, which I liked very much, even though (or maybe because) the novels occasionally veered toward the twee. So I was very interested when I heard she had written a new novel, a space opera. There is nothing twee about Some Distant Glory. Quite the opposite.

Some Distant Glory starts with a group of child soldiers, a “mess,” being raised in Gaea Station, which is a tiny scrap of living space carved from an asteroid whose inhabitants are malnourished, exhausted, and barely hanging onto life.

Kyr, short for Valkyr, is our point of view character. She is the leader of the Sparrows, seven girls who have lived and trained together since they left the nursery. Gaea Station is all that is left (Kyr has been told, and believes) of humanity, since the Majo War destroyed Earth and its fourteen billion people. It is not at first clear who or what the majo are—Tesh’s technique here, one I like quite a lot, is to dump us in the middle of the story and leave us to figure out what’s going on.

Eventually we figure out that the majo is a kind of artificial intelligence. Majo means “wisdom,” and every place in the Majoda has a “wisdom node,” or a link to the AI. (The Majoda is a federation of majo-allied planets and stations). This AI is incarnated in the Prince of Wisdom, who is a majo zi. Majo zi are feathered bipeds. We further learn that not only is the Prince of Wisdom an incarnated AI, but that the AI, the majo, can—somehow—skip through dimension, through time, and through universes. If it does not like this universe, that is, it can skip reality into a universe that it believes is better. The previous universe then ceases to exist. About twenty years before the novel opens, the majo destroyed Earth and its people because it decided that a universe without humanity in charge would be a better universe than one with humanity in charge.

The child soldiers on Gaea Station have been raised with the understanding that their sole mission is revenge against the majo. Kyr and her cohort have now reached the age when they will be given their adult assignments, and Kyr, the best of the Sparrows, is expecting a combat assignment. Instead, she finds herself assigned to Nursery. That is to say, she will be compelled to have sex with Command officers and to stay pregnant for the next two decades, in order to meet population quotas for Gaea Station. Unable to bear this, and also astonished to find that her twin brother, Mags, has refused his own (combat) assignment and defected from the station, Kyr enlists the aid of Avi, the “queer” who was Mags’s friend. (Gaea Station is not just gender essentialist, it is also very homophobic and sexist and white supremacist—our clues, if we needed more than the fact that it is raising up child soldiers, that this is a very bad place.)

Avi and Kyr, working together, learn that Mags has not defected; that in fact he’s been assigned to Strike, the terrorist wing of Gaea. Mags has been sent to a nearby planet, Chrysothemis, which the Prince of Wisdom is about to visit. Mags’s mission is to kill the Prince, and—since he will certainly fail at that—to kill as many human “traitors” as he can in the process.

Kidnapping a majo prisoner, Yiso, and the ship captured with Yiso, Kyr and Avi set off to find Mags. Kyr is not planning to stop him from killing the Prince of Wisdom; indeed, she is certain that she can do a far better job than Mags at completing the mission. But when they arrive on Chrysothemis, Kyr learns that what she has been taught on Gaea, about humanity, and about the majo, is far from the truth.

This first iteration of the story is satisfying in pace and plot and character development; but halfway through the book, it crashes into a horrifying ending. I found myself checking how much of the novel was left and wondering what Tesh was doing—and then Kyr learns that the majo can engineer a “time slip,” which is to say, it can jump through time and space and make changes. She jumps back to the destruction of Earth, and stops the antimatter bomb from striking the planet, and then finds herself in a universe in which humanity is now in charge. In this universe, the majoda does not exist. Instead, humankind is colonizing (with all the horrors implicit in that word) planets inhabited by other sentient species. Mags and Yiso—this universe’s iteration of Mags and Yiso—come to find Kyr (now called Val) and convince her that this universe, this reality, is a mistake. They do this in part by having Yiso (the incarnated Prince of Wisdom) restore her memories of the former universe, showing her that this reality is even more unjust than the one in which Earth was destroyed. Horrified and convinced, Kyr once more skips into a new universe. Here, she struggles to find a way to make decisions that will lead to a just world, or at least a more just world.

This is a thoroughly satisfying book. I read it all in one gulp, staying up until two in the morning to do so, and found myself still thinking about it days later. Highly recommended.

*   *   *

A.M. Tuomala, The Map and the Territory

At the start of this novel, the two main characters, Eshu and Rukha, who have not yet met, are both traveling homeward. Rukha, working as a mapmaker and geologist, is making her way by foot across an area of one of the planet’s main continents, doing research in watersheds for a map update. She is close enough to see the lights of the city Sharis when disaster strikes—she witnesses what looks like fireworks or a bright rip in the sky, and then the lights go out in the city, and shortly thereafter what feels like an earthquake shakes the land. The next day she makes her way into Sharis to find that the entire city has fallen into the ocean; the bay is filled with collapsed buildings and floating, rotting bodies. She joins with a handful of survivors, pulling bodies from the water and scavenging for food and supplies in the ruins. One of the few surviving buildings in the city is the wizards’ tower, so the survivors are living there. The wizards, importantly, are gone, though their mirror remains.

Wizards travel through the Mirrorlands. This is a magical space with its own laws of physics and reality. Wizards use the Mirrorlands to travel from place to place across the planet. As the name suggests, you get into the Mirrorlands by stepping through a mirror (it has to be a magic mirror). Then you must cross to exit through another mirror—there are hundreds of them. You find the right one by its locus, which is to say, by remembering the space you want to get to.

Thus, your way of thinking, your thoughts, your belief system, all these influence and to a certain extent create the Mirrorlands. (This becomes an important point later in the novel.) Eshu is in the Mirrorlands, traveling toward home, when the disaster strikes. He has left a party, fleeing his emotionally abusive ex-lover, and deep in the shadowy other-reality of the Mirrorlands he hears a loud crack. Around him, all the mirrors go dark. Distressed and afraid, he remembers stories that abusive lover, Tuuri, told him about hungry ghosts who eat lost travelers. Because while you are in this liminal space, what you believe becomes reality, Eshu’s memories of Tuuri’s stories immediately conjure up a hungry ghost, which chases him through the dark until he finds a mirror and leaps through it. He lands on Rukha, who has climbed up to the top of the wizard’s tower in Sharis to look around.

The two of them end up traveling with the Sharis survivors out to a farm in the country, taking the mirror with them. Along the way, Eshu reveals another of his talents—as a wizard, he can sing songs that shape the nature of reality, keeping—in this case—monsters and predators away as the survivors walk through the night. Not only will this ability help him and Rukha more than once as the story progresses, it also touches on one of the main themes of the novel, which is the ability of art (songs, stories, religions, paintings) to reshape the nature of reality: to remake the world. In fact, early on, we learn that it is a custom in Sharis, when bad things are happening, to rename yourself, so that the Crowtaker, the God of Death and Disaster, cannot find you.

Rukha renames herself Fern for this reason, but later, as the weight of her grief grows heavier and heavier, she decides that she will be Fern, and that by becoming Fern, she can leave all the horrific things that have happened to Rukha behind. She can create herself anew, as it were, as a person called Fern, whom nothing bad has ever happened to.

From the farm, Eshu and Fern travel through the Mirrorlands to Zumera, where they find it is not just Sharis that has suffered a disaster. Zumera has become encrusted with gems and crystals, killing most of its inhabitants in their sleep (they are either buried under or pierced by or encased in various kinds of crystals and gemstones). Here, they attempt to take an airship to Eshu’s home, only to be captured by the airship captain, who, in a desperate attempt to restore order to her world, is keeping people imprisoned on the airship platform or in the airships themselves.

After Eshu and Fern help an airship and its people escape, they land on the coast about a hundred miles from Kulmeni, the city where Eshu has been attending university, and decide to walk across a mountain pass to reach that city. From the university, they hope, they will be able to cross through the mirrors to their respective homes and find out whether their families and communities still survive.

This journey takes time, and Eshu and Fern get to know one another while we get to know their lives and this world. Since Eshu is gay and Fern is (from what I can tell, because she never thinks much about it) asexual, this is not a romance novel. But it is a bromance: they become very good friends. We also see more of the magical nature of this planet—Eshu has a singing duel with the Crowtaker, each of them singing their version/vision of the world until one of those versions (Eshu’s, in this case) prevails. And this is a key point in the novel. At one point, Fern asks Eshu, “Do you think she was real? Or just a story?”

*   *   *

A part of him wanted to give the wizards’ answer: that all real things were only stories cloaked in the mantle of truth. That real was a matter not of fact, but of belief. But he’d been Njowa longer than he’d been a wizard, and with Fern looking up at him with that earnest curiosity in her eyes, the Njowa answer felt more true. “Njo isn’t a story—she’s the anvil on which the story bends. We’re the story. And we’re real.”

And later, Fern will think to herself that one of the most annoying aspects about wizards—their absolute certainty that they were always right—is in fact the way they do magic. Because wizards are certain about the nature of the world they want to be real, that world becomes real. She will use this understanding about how to shape reality when she finds herself in the Mirrorlands, and she will use it to defeat the villains she and Eshu encounter in Kulmeni.

Kulmeni, when they first reach it, seems unharmed. But soon they realize that what looks like a thick fog is actually another manifestation of the disaster, and that the city itself has become as changeable as the Mirrorlands—has, in fact, become an extension of the Mirrorlands. Worse, a former crime boss has staged a coup, and is running the city as her own private gangland. And even worse, when they do find the university, one of the survivors of the disaster is Tuuri, Eshu’s abusive ex-lover; and Eshu must work with him if they are to stop the disaster which is spreading outward from the Mirrorlands, causing disaster after disaster in every large city (every city with a wizard’s tower) across the world.

The novel reaches a satisfying conclusion, though it seems set up for a sequel, perhaps one in which Fern and Eshu find their missing families. I hope so; I would read it.

Copyright © 2023 Kelly Jennings

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