Deathless – Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless (Leningrad Diptych, #1)Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I started this book in the middle of winter, read 40 pages, then left it on my nightstand for months. Once I returned to it, I very much enjoyed the read. I can always count on Valente for beautiful, stylized language and sharply-rendered characters. She also has a way of leading me on with little surprises waiting around the corners, layering in gorgeously horrible details about Leningrad during the war. I appreciated the structural motifs (the triplicate repetitions, the Russian folktale textual cues, etc), however, I couldn’t connect the thematic motifs in a way that felt satisfying. I have no doubt the threads are there, but they never coalesced as I was reading, and I ended the book feeling like I didn’t understand the point she was trying to make. Not sure if I read it at the wrong time or if I’d always feel that way about it. Rather than read this one again, or even read any eventual sequels, I’d rather read Valente’s other novels I haven’t gotten to yet.

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The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings – Angela Slatter

The Bitterwood Bible and Other RecountingsThe Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings by Angela Slatter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love related short stories, and Angela Slatter takes it to the next level in The Bitterwood Bible and Other Recountings. She explores the history of an order of archivist nuns, their fight against a man seeking immortality, and the strange and tragic tales of the many women whose lives and family histories cross and re-cross paths with this conflict. Each story stands on its own, with perhaps the exception of the final story, “Spells for Coming Forth by Daylight,” which follows immediately on the heels of “By the Weeping Gate” and must tie up all the threads of this epic tale.

This collection absolutely deserved its win of the 2015 World Fantasy Award. I feel like I read a multi-book series in 270 pages. I didn’t want it to end, so I doled out the stories slowly, and when I read the last line of the last story, I desperately wanted to return to the beginning and read it all again. I enjoyed Slatter’s collection of fairy-tale retellings, The Girl with No Hands, but the stories of The Bitterwood Bible make me want to write. They are that satisfying and inspiring.

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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 Tor.com 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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Vassa in the Night – Sarah Porter

Vassa in the NightVassa in the Night by Sarah Porter

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I have never read the Russian tale “Vassilissa the Beautiful,” I enjoyed the story Porter told in Vassa in the Night. I wanted to read this novel because I love fix-it stories, where the protagonist finds something broken or gone terribly wrong and must correct it. The empowerment journey those characters take appeals to me, time and time again. Throw in some urban fantasy and I’m excited to pick up your book!

There were a few moments in the first half of this novel where I considered putting the book down and marking it as “did not finish,” but Porter always managed to bring me back with an interesting character or one of Vassa’s wry self-observations. I wasn’t sold on Erg at first (she seemed more of a mechanic than a character), but by the end I was definitely in an “I’m not crying, you’re crying” situation. Even more than Vassa’s sassy self-awareness, what kept me going was how violent the story is, not for the sake of the gore, but for what it represents. This novel has real teeth. Beneath the feisty and sarcastic narrator is a darkness that Vassa feels helpless against, and that she must contend with to reach her goal. This book did not feel safe, and that uncertainty kept me turning the pages.

I’ve read a number of interpretations of Baba Yaga, set in different periods of time, and this was the most violent and irredeemable. Baba Yaga is not a cranky old woman who is painted as a monster by the patriarchy because she is powerful (although I have read good interpretations taking that stance). She is not a misunderstood protagonist, or an agent of revenge against bad people. She is not to be rescued by the end. She is the villain and is unapologetically brutal in a society that prefers to think it is less dangerous and more civilized than it used to be. Porter deftly employs the physical violence of the story not only to explore the brutality of modern society against people of color, but also to prepare Vassa to face the violence of her own emotions. Vassa’s feelings are as repressed and disassociated as a lot of people’s willingness to believe that the world is like navigating a BY’s: you are vulnerable to the capriciousness and ill will of people in positions of power who may hurt you with impunity. And like modern society, Vassa must learn to carry the burden of her feelings and embrace them in order to set the captive free and set the world to rights. I’m glad I took this journey with her.

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