Magic for Liars – Sarah Gailey

Magic for LiarsMagic for Liars by Sarah Gailey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

3.5 stars. I adore Sarah Gailey, and loved American Hippo. While I enjoyed reading Magic for Liars, it didn’t surprise me very much. I think the magic-school setting overtook the L.A. noir elements, so it didn’t feel like the true genre mash-up I was looking for. I will say, the ending is depressing af, and that nailed the noir mood.

I recommend Magic for Liars to those who like character-driven detective stories, magic school settings, sibling relationships, and adult-coming-of-age stories.

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“A Dead Djinn in Cairo” – P. Djèlí Clark

A Dead Djinn in CairoA Dead Djinn in Cairo by P. Djèlí Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I re-read “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” both to prepare for reading Clark’s new novella set in the same world, The Haunting of Tram Car 015, and because I heard Clark speak about “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” during a panel appearance at Readercon in 2018, and I realized how much I had missed, and how little credit my previous review gave the depth of the story.

After I first read this, I was caught up in the wonderfully quick pace, the witty banter of the characters, the satisfaction of the climactic fight scene, and I called this story a confection. I often compare writing to desserts, because I love both, but that review does “A Dead Djinn in Cairo” a disservice.

This novelette has more markers and symbols of colonization and the anxiety of modernity than a James Joyce story. Lush with details that are so excellently woven into the fabric of the narrative, I didn’t notice them until Clark said the story is about colonization, and I read it again. Egypt has a very long history as colonizer and colonized, which Clark pays careful attention to throughout. In this alternate history, not only is technology developed at an earlier time to give it steampunk elements, the Egyptians stave off British colonialism and impose their own colonization on neighboring Sudan. And in turn, they are all colonized by creatures of legend emerging again into the world—djinn, angels, ghuls, gods, and monsters. None of the political colonizing is described in the text—I learned of the fight between Egypt and Britain to colonize Sudan when I started looking up the history of colonialism in Egypt—and yet it is, through every minutiae of cosmopolitan Cairo in the early 20th century, and the characters we meet as they move through their re-imagined cityscape investigating the mysterious death of the titular djinn.

I recently read Clark’s novella The Black God’s Drums, which does for New Orleans what he does here for Cairo—sketch out a whole different history in a few words, a few pages; food, clothes, and the people consuming them; city streets and the people inhabiting the corners. I immediately slide into his reimagined places as though they have always been this way. I won’t overlook the complexity again.

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The Witches of New York – Ami McKay

The Witches of New YorkThe Witches of New York by Ami McKay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I recently took a 3-day business trip that afforded me the rare opportunity to read for uninterrupted hours while on airplanes, and I tore through this book. Ami McKay’s style is light and leading, and she builds solid and interesting characters. The focus on friendships, while somewhat overtaken by romance, is a lovely closing note in the final scenes. The book was an enjoyable light read, but left me wanting something with a little more teeth.

Big and small tensions drive the story forward. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice have private concerns and arcs that connect to the two big plot arcs of the story: the threat from the reverend and the tenuous lease of the tea shop. Their private and public struggles (fraught romantic relationships, family, ghosts) epitomize commonly-explored themes and issues in stories about women: the patriarchy, the oppression of female power and autonomy, friendship, knowledge, and empowerment. However, some of the many side plots get the short shrift as we move inexorably toward the completion of the main plot, leaving a sense of dissatisfaction and rushed storytelling, even as the pages of worldbuilding lend a lavishness to the tale.

I think McKay missed a lot of opportunities to craft a different kind of villain and show us a different side of Victoria-era New York City. Our main villain is a reverend whose interest in the Salem Witch Trials becomes an obsession that unlocks the serial killer within. Maybe I’m just over serial killer stories, but I thought maybe the forces aligning against our witchy protagonists could be of a political or social nature rather than a religious one, and could have been just as threatening without a religious psychopath and a murder basement. The story takes place at the height of both the Spiritualism movement and the Gilded Age, but both seem a muted backdrop or an emerging force rather than the very prevalent agents of change and social upheaval that they were. Alex Brown’s review of the book on rightly points out McKay’s missed opportunities for exploring a less white and privileged side of New York City at this moment in time. The intersection (and schism) of white and African-American suffrage efforts, the varied Victorian attitudes toward lesbian relationships, and the occult practices and traditions of the many different ethnic and immigrant communities living side by side in New York City are all absent.

Is the book enjoyable and full of strong characters and interesting details of a bygone era? Absolutely, yes. Could McKay have dug deeper and tread lesser-explored ground to lend her story subtler teeth instead of blunt edges? Also, yes. Pick this one up if you want a good book, but not if you want a great one.

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Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas – Tanith Lee

Companions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two NovellasCompanions on the Road and The Winter Players: Two Novellas by Tanith Lee

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first discovered these collected novellas on a list whose theme I have since forgotten (adventure fantasy? standalone reads?) and added the volume to my to-read list when I read the subtitle “wondrous tales of adventure and quest” and saw that it is authored by the late great Tanith Lee. Over the holidays, I found a copy in an unexpected used book store in my hometown and snapped it up immediately.

I’m reviewing the novellas out of order, because The Winter Players, “a game of cold sorceries and burning shadows,” delivered exactly what it promised on the cover—an adventure quest of sorcerous confrontations . . . until it surprised me at the end with one of my favorite story tropes: time travel. Not only that, Lee interrogated the trope quite thoroughly while using it; her characters dissect the impact of the strange circle they’ve created, and the consequences of perpetuating or breaking it, before making their decision to try for a happy ending. And what great characters they are! Oaive and Grey are intelligent and resourceful, with deep feelings and constraints on their liberty that they find creative ways around. Occasionally, the text breezes past moments of Oaive making connections of thought and logic that feel a little too expositional, but Lee’s smooth prose carries me past these bumps. This novella could be longer, perhaps even full novel length, but it also wears its brevity well.

Companions on the Road surprised me from the outset with its ominous mood and touch of horror. The mood is employed with a deft touch – no overdone horror cues or descriptions, just an incredible sense of dread. Lee plays with this beautifully, keeping it in a place of tension throughout the story and creating an ebb and flow with moments of strangeness and unease between the travelers and other characters they meet along the road. The danger of the three pursuing figures is made immediately clear, but Havor prioritizes other feelings and problems as he encounters them, only giving the full weight of his anxiety to the three spectral figures as his companions fall away one by one. (This was the second surprise of this story: the description prepared me for an adventure story with a party of travelers I expected to follow to the end, but instead I followed only Havor.) Even as Havor surrenders to his inevitable doom, he fights against it, allowing the dread to grow and saturate the story like the best horror fiction.

The character work in Companions is superb – while Feluce and Kachil are strong foils who make Havor seem like a really great guy, Havor still possesses flaws and complications. Lukon is on the page so briefly but is so wonderfully rendered and used to highlight positive and negative aspects of the other characters. Silsi is a wonderful mirror, reflecting Havor’s stubbornness and strength and balancing Havor’s sense of doom with hope and quick wits.

Companions on the Road is compact storytelling at its best. The title is perfect, encompassing the structural parallels of the three travelers and the three pursuers, as well as playing on the idea of death personified as a companion. This novella reminded me of the writings of Lord Dunsany and leaves me excited to read even more by Tanith Lee.

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Wicked Wonders – Ellen Klages

Wicked WondersWicked Wonders by Ellen Klages

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ellen Klages might be my writing spirit animal. In the Afterword at the end of this collection, “Why I Write Short Fiction,” she describes her process, and it’s very similar to my own. Except for all the research, and the deadlines. I have no deadlines, so I never write anything. But damn if reading her work doesn’t make me want to write. I’ve been longing to tap away on this keyboard all day. If I could attack my fiction with the same gusto I’m giving this review, I would be content.

Every story in this collection is unique. Every story made me think. I want to read half of them again right now, which is one of the highest compliments I can give a writer. I also want to get a copy of everything else she’s written so I can binge on it until I’m stuffed and happy. Klages builds such a strong sense of place in every piece, through details of the setting, but also through the characters, that I fall into her work and inhabit it. I don’t want to leave.

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