Waters of Versailles – Kelly Robson

Waters of VersaillesWaters of Versailles by Kelly Robson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“You are a striver.”

I loved this scene. Usually I hate it when a story that’s otherwise leaning toward literary states what it’s about, but I loved this, I think because striving is the protagonist’s guiding principle, and he tries so hard to hide it. Every person in the court is striving and pretending they’re not. And by making this statement so baldly, it allowed everything else room to breathe. I wasn’t on an emotional journey with Sylvain to admit he was striving (that was pretty fucking obvious). I was along for the ride as he reached his limits, realized what all this striving was costing him and everyone else, admitted what he really wanted. All stories are about someone wanting something, and the revelation of the story was Sylvain’s suppressed desires.

Also, this is a dramedy about toilets set in a court that reached new absurdities of behavior. In short, this story is fantastic.

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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 Girl in the Green Silk Gown – Seanan McGuire

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown (Ghost Roads #2)The Girl in the Green Silk Gown by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved Sparrow Hill Road so much I walked into a bookshop minutes after finishing it to purchase the sequel, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, which I tore through with gusto. A more traditional novel, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown did not begin life as a series of short stories later “fixed-up” into a longer work, like its predecessor. Instead, McGuire set out to tell more of road-ghost Rose’s story in long form. I relished the twists and turns of the tale, as the cat-and-mouse pursuit from book one again stands as the narrative through-line, only darker and more dangerous. Rose’s journey took her many places (a hitcher has to keep moving), echoing the episodic structure of the previous book, and delved deep into themes of trust, identity, coming of age, the burdens of power, and choices. Familiar characters populate the highways and byways of Rose’s quest, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering if she’d defeat Bobby Cross or be destroyed in the attempt, wondering who might betray her and for what price. It’s rare that I genuinely wonder if a main character will make it to the end (it’s almost always obvious they will, no matter how harrowing the writer thinks they’re making the story), but McGuire kept me on tenterhooks and I love her for it.

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Sparrow Hill Road – Seanan McGuire

Sparrow Hill RoadSparrow Hill Road by Seanan McGuire

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I orbited Sparrow Hill Road for years before finally reading it when I got a free copy in my swag bag at the 2018 World Fantasy Convention. It was worth the wait, and I loved it as much as I hoped I would. I love linked short stories, and this book introduced me to the term “fix-up,” coined by sci-fi writer A.E. van Vogt in the 1950s to describe the trick of linking up previously-written short pieces into a novel with some tweaks and/or the addition of new material to create transitions. I had not read any of the short pieces that comprised Sparrow Hill Road on their own, and I thought it worked really well as an episodic novel. The main character – a hitchhiking road ghost named Rose – and her through-line story – a cat-and-mouse game with the man who killed her – lent themselves well to the format. Also, McGuire has a way of making things work, seemingly through sheer charisma but really because she has a deep understanding of what makes stories approachable and structurally sturdy. I don’t read her for fancy language or post-modern stylistics. She delivers strong character voice and good plain fun every time.

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Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy, #2) – Ruthanna Emrys

Deep Roots (The Innsmouth Legacy, #2)Deep Roots by Ruthanna Emrys

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I enjoyed Winter Tide, and I looked forward to Deep Roots, looked forward to again following a quiet, contemplative protagonist as she searched for survivors of her people to rebuild her community. As much as I love thrillers and adventure stories, I also like taking a break with a character who is cerebral and relationship-focused, a thinker like me.

Winter Tide’s search for information in the midst of paranoia and mistrust was like reading a John Le Carre spy novel, slow but satisfying. Unfortunately, Deep Roots didn’t satisfy me in the same way. Emrys tried to use the same techniques again, but that, ultimately, was the problem. That ground had been trod. Deep Roots needed to be a different kind of story. It had all the elements of a more old-school pulp sci-fi action story (aliens, G-men, everyday folks caught in the middle!), but it didn’t come together that way. I wanted this book to be a blend of an action-thriller and a cerebral exploration, but it was too much thinking and not enough action.

I usually advocate for larger casts of characters in stories, but a large cast requires splitting it into smaller groups, and too many of the characters in Deep Roots are together too much of the time. I could see the work Emrys was putting in when seven or eight people were crammed in a hotel room or a van trying to have a conversation. All they did was bicker, and it was work to read it and keep everyone distinct. The first-person narrator is also too much of a constraint on the novel’s structure. We only get other points-of-view through brief, italicized journal entries. Emrys allows the conceit of the diary entry to fall away as she writes these scenes, and I wanted her to take it further and allow the first-person narrative to be disrupted by third-person chapters that follow these other characters. I was excited to follow Caleb and Deedee into their own investigation, and instead that fizzled out. Switching between first- and third-person narration is a workable model, and in this story would have allowed us to follow other characters and know things Aphra doesn’t. It would have made the story feel less claustrophobic.

These characters also talk everything to death. They keep talking about paranoia, but it feels like anxiety as the talk their way in circles about the Outer One’s motivations and philosophies and the rights of everyone to do what they want, but what about The Consequences. I didn’t care about the consequences anyone would suffer in this book. I didn’t care if they convinced Freddy to move to Innsmouth to help them reclaim and rescue the land. I didn’t care if Nekko went traveling with the Outer Ones. I knew Aphra wouldn’t suffer any permanent damage from the Outer One’s technology because she’s the protagonist and she’s suffered enough, and I knew Emrys wasn’t going to permanently disable her any more. The only exciting rescue of consequence in the story was when they went to save Spector. I just wanted them all to take more action instead of analyzing everything into a state of stupor. A car chase, fist-fight, or on-page kidnapping would have added some zing. Aphra kept thinking, “we’re running out of time,” but I felt no sense of urgency from eighty percent of the text.

Aphra spends almost the entire book in a state of exhaustion, wringing her mental or physical hands about what’s happening around her and the mistakes she’s making. I was exhausted reading this book. I almost abandoned it several times, and I skimmed the last hundred pages, pushing myself to finish because I’m a completionist and got really stubborn about it. But I didn’t enjoy it, and that makes me sad because I genuinely wanted to.

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