Steeplejack – AJ Hartley

Steeplejack (Steeplejack #1)Steeplejack by A.J. Hartley

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Well that was underwhelming.

Fantasy thrillers are my jam, but Steeplejack is a disappointment. The worldbuilding relies too heavily on a mish-mash of Victorian and generic colonialist tropes, an unsatisfying shorthand to create a society that feels more like a backdrop for a plot than a real place an intriguing story is happening. Ang is a cardboard cut-out of a Real Girl, her investigation awkwardly interrupted by confusing and inexplicable sexual and romantic attractions to any young man she has a serious conversation with as well as her struggle against a generic patriarchy that feels as empty and pointless to the world and the story as it does to the characters who wish it wasn’t there. I wish it wasn’t there. I want more interesting obstacles for a character in a story like this, not the old stand-by.

The luxorite and the disappearance of the Beacon are a solid foundation for an urban fantasy detective thriller. If this had been a tight and fast novelette or novella—drop the unnecessary patriarchy and the appallingly unrealistic b-plot where Ang takes care of a baby for several days without ever changing its diaper while fighting with a sister that does little for the story that can’t be accomplished through other characters—and it would have packed the punch the author wanted. The only reason the narrative felt fast-paced was because I sped-read my way through, skipping anything that wasn’t dialogue or necessary plot information; everything else was filler.

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In the Night Wood – Dale Bailey

In the Night WoodIn the Night Wood by Dale Bailey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book does everything I want a haunting story to do: echoes and parallels; allusions and mash-ups of ancient sinister figures; the blurring of lines between grief and madness; the uncovering of old family secrets; history recent and ancient repeating itself again and again; shadows and dread and a legacy of darkness.

This is one of the few stories meditating on stories I’ve enjoyed in quite a while, because it focuses on the stories and not the storyteller or the act of telling the story. This focus keeps the story from becoming another self-indulgent meditation on the act of writing, keeps it in the realm of horror as the character realizes he’s just another turn on an inexorable wheel. Such an effective use of the ouroboros motif.

I’ve been equally fascinated and unsettled by the horned king/erl-king/Cernunnos/Herne since I first read about them years ago. Bailey crafts a wonderfully sublime threat from what little we know of these mythic figures.

I didn’t want this book to end, I enjoyed reading it so much.

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Mapping the Interior – Stephen Graham Jones

Mapping the InteriorMapping the Interior by Stephen Graham Jones

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much packed into such a small, unsettling space. Jones walks the line so many attempt in stories like this, the ambiguity of is-it-real or is-it-all-in-their-mind. Junior’s child logic keeps us wondering through nail-biting confrontations with the thing that might be the ghost of his father, or might be his own mind’s efforts to impose meaning and logic on meaningless and illogical things. The gritty reality of the story is so grounding, you don’t even realize its true horror until the end, where you see what lies within Junior, that neither Junior nor Dino ever really grow up or truly leave that house, never escape the legacies that made them. The layering of meaning and metaphor in this novella is masterful.

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The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – P. Djèlí Clark

The Haunting of Tram Car 015The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this SO MUCH.

Not only is it delightful to return to the world of “A Dead Djinn in Cairo,” Clark develops the world further while he tells another story. The conversations underpinning the world about modernity, social change, gender roles, and feminism, carry forward into The Haunting of Tram Car 015 and not only advance in the background but are intrinsic to the plot. The style and technology move from Victorian Steampunk into Art Deco. I could visualize the many geometric patterns and the Art Deco style of the women’s suffrage posers while reading this story, and although it doesn’t quite go full Decopunk, the flirtation in that direction makes my heart happy. Clark turns the second wave of Egyptian Revival from the Art Deco period an actual Egyptian movement instead of a Western fashion trend. The alternate history worldbuilding is so tight and clever, I can’t say enough good about it.

As I’ve come to expect from Clark, he delivers a kick-ass story driven by kick-ass characters. Every encounter is a character study, and every character leaps off the page. Hamed and Fatma gossiping about her case from “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” over tea and cake was the perfect ending note.

More, please.

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