Book Description:

Set in the world of the New York Times bestselling Seven Realms series, a generation later, this is a breathtaking story of dark magic, chilling threats, and two unforgettable characters walking a knife-sharp line between life and death. This dazzling beginning to a new series is indispensable for fans of Cinda Williams Chima and a perfect starting point for readers who are new to her work.

Adrian sul’Han, known as Ash, is a trained healer with a powerful gift of magic—and a thirst for revenge. Ash is forced into hiding after a series of murders throws the queendom into chaos. Now he’s closer than ever to killing the man responsible, the cruel king of Arden. With time running out, Ash faces an excruciating choice: Can he use his powers not to save a life but to take it?

Abandoned at birth, Jenna Bandelow was told that the magemark on the back of her neck would make her a target. But when the King’s Guard launches a relentless search for a girl with a mark like hers, Jenna assumes that it has more to do with her role as a saboteur than any birth-based curse. Though Jenna doesn’t know why she’s being hunted, she knows that she can’t get caught.

Eventually, Ash’s and Jenna’s paths will collide in Arden. Thrown together by chance and joined by their hatred of the ruthless king, they will come to rescue each other in ways they cannot yet imagine.

There are what some may consider spoilers for the Seven Realms quartet and a certain occurrence later in Flamecaster in the fourth paragraph of this review. My personal opinion is that the occurrences mentioned are too predictable to be spoilers, but I wanted to provide a warning for those who try to avoid spoilers at all costs! 

Cinda Williams Chima’s Seven Realms quartet (The Demon King, The Exiled Queen, The Gray Wolf Throne, The Crimson Crown) is one of my favorite young adult fantasy series. When I heard that there was going to be a new series about the next generation, I was thrilled, and the first book in the Shattered Realms series, Flamecaster, was one of my most anticipated releases this year.

Unfortunately, Flamecaster has the same major weakness as the first book in the Seven Realms series with none of its strengths. Like The Demon King, it took me a long time to become at all interested in the story, but it took me even longer to start finding Flamecaster readable—about half the book, which is over 500 pages long! It also didn’t manage to keep that interest once the book ended since it did not do what the previous series did so well: make me care about the characters. Han and Raisa were the main reason I enjoyed the Seven Realms books so much, and the main protagonists in Flamecaster were not nearly as memorable as the two who came before them.

Although there are four point of view characters, there are two I’d consider the main characters: the healer Ash, who seeks vengeance against a king, and the revolutionary Jenna, who is sought by the same king due to the mysterious magemark on her neck. It’s easy to sympathize with both of their situations since both of them have rough lives, but they were missing that spark that made Han and Raisa special. Ash and Jenna didn’t come alive as characters and neither of them underwent any major character development, and although I didn’t dislike them, I didn’t find either of them particularly compelling either.

Part of the appeal of the previous quartet was also Han and Raisa’s relationship: their interactions and seeing them fall for each other. The romance in Flamecaster happened quickly and without any chemistry between the characters involved. Of course, sometimes people do connect quickly, and in this particular case, there is a magical reason for the relationship to proceed so quickly from “just met” to “madly in love,” but skipping over the progression of the relationship and not showing the two getting to know one another is boring.

Although the second half was quite readable, I just didn’t care enough about the main characters to really enjoy it or give Flamecaster a second thought after I’d turned the final page, especially since the writing and plot were not particularly notable either. It’s possible I’ll give the second book a chance, but if so, it will be due to my fondness for the first quartet—not because of the first Shattered Realms book, which I found rather forgettable.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from a publicist.

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April is now over, and so is the fifth annual Women in SF&F Month. THANK YOU so much to all of last month’s guests who made this year’s series possible with their great discussions and recommendations! My own wish list always grows even faster than usual during April.

Thank you to Renay for her work on the list of recommended science fiction and fantasy books by women that she started in 2013. We’ll be collecting submissions to add to it for a couple more days—if you haven’t already added some this year and would like to do so, you can add 10 of your favorite old or new SFF books by women read over the last year here. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to add some books and helped spread the word about it!

Thank you to my husband John for his help with graphics; he did all the weekly schedule graphics (and any older graphics related to this month, just like he designed this website!).

Thank you to the those who read and helped spread the word about the articles.

Since Sundays throughout April have been included summaries of the last week, here’s what happened then in case you missed anything:

If you missed any of the 2016 articles, all of this year’s guest posts can be found here.

It’s been an extremely busy month so I’ll probably be taking at least a couple of days off from blogging before starting to catch up with the reviews I need to write—but I will be returning to reviews and features soon as well as announcing the stand alone fantasy book to be reviewed in May!

Bone and Jewel Creatures
by Elizabeth Bear
133pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.3/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.88/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.95/5
 

Elizabeth Bear’s novella Bone and Jewel Creatures is set in the same world as her Eternal Sky trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars, Steles of the Sky), though it focuses on a completely different set of characters, mainly the 96-year-old wizard Bijou. It was released before a prequel novella, Book of Iron, about the same protagonist during her adventuring days many years ago. Although it’s not absolutely necessary to do so, I am glad I read Book of Iron first since it provides more background on the characters involved in the central conflict (plus I loved it—here’s my Book of Iron review).

Bone and Jewel Creatures has a rather straightforward plot: Bijou discovers that something is awry in Messaline, the city of jackals, and works toward preventing the triumph of evil. One day while in the workshop in which she creates her wondrous creatures of bone and jewel, Bijou’s current project is interrupted by the arrival of Brazen the Enchanter. He has come in hopes that Bijou can save a feral child, unable to speak due to having lived in the wild without the company of other humans, with an infected hand. In order for the child to survive, Bijou must amputate the hand and she wastes no time proceeding with what must be done. As she’s examining the tainted limb after the surgery, Bijou finds a white rose petal embedded in it and knows it could only have come from the garden of the man she used to love, Kaulas the Necromancer—and realizes it’s probably not a coincidence that this child was put into her path.

After that, it seems to take a long time to come around to the inevitable conclusion, and I don’t really think this is a novella to read for the plot. It’s one to read to admire the imagination that went into Bijou’s menagerie of bone and jewel creatures, the beautiful writing, and the character perspectives. Both Bijou and Emeraude (the name Bijou eventually gives the child) stand out as quite different from other characters I’ve come across in the books I’ve read.

I loved that the story centered on a woman in her nineties and I loved Bijou as a character, just as I did in Book of Iron. She’s feeling her age—she’s arthritic and slower than she used to be—but she still constructs the titular bone and jewel creatures and “not one other alive could do [what she did]” (page 7). What Bijou does is a combination of art and magic. Her creations are each unique, put together from different types of bones and decorated with jewels, and animated. They fill her household and assist her with daily tasks; she trusts many of them, especially the first of them all that she’s had for about seventy years, Ambrosias. Bijou also has a sharp mind and is a compassionate, practical person. She doesn’t hesitate to take in and care for this stray child, and after the surgery, she sets aside the bones and creates a functional hand for Emeraude.

Emeraude also has a third person perspective told from the viewpoint of “the cub.” Having lived in the wilderness with a family of jackals, the child has learned to survive as they do and views the world as one of them. Although quick to learn, Emeraude is new to human customs and perceives humans as a separate group to which the cub does not belong, and it’s quite compelling to read events through this child’s eyes as one who has not had contact with humans before.

Though a quick read due to its short length, Bone and Jewel Creatures is also a slow moving read since it introduces a problem in the first chapter and doesn’t have much follow through until toward the end. However, it’s notable for other reasons: as usual with books penned by Elizabeth Bear, the writing is lovely, and it’s unique due to the characters it focuses upon and the creative array of creatures populating Bijou’s household.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: My husband got me a signed copy for Christmas.

This book is April’s selection from a poll on Patreon.

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Today’s guest is novelist, short story writer, and poet Laura Lam! Her first novel, Pantomime, won the Bisexual Book Award for Speculative Fiction and was nominated for other awards, including the Cybils Award for Young Adult Speculative Fiction. It was followed by the second book in the Micah Grey series, Shadowplay, which was selected for the 2014 Tiptree Award Long List, and some short stories and novellas set in the same world collectively known as the Vestigial Tales. A third book in the series, Masquerade, will be released in 2017, and she has a new book—a science fiction thriller titled False Hearts—coming this June!

False Hearts by Laura Lam US Edition False Hearts by Laura Lam UK Edition

More than Wives, Love Interests, and Daughters: The Women in False Hearts

My next book, False Hearts (June 2016), stars two sisters who should know each other better than anyone else. One has a secret, and the other will do anything to find out the truth. It is a book about women and the fraught, nuanced, interpersonal connections between them. Women are still fighting for equal recognition in stories. In film and television, women still have less than half of the speaking roles. I’m not sure if a similar study has been done for literature, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was similar. Women-dominated genres like romance are still often derided in the media, despite having equal literary merits with male-dominated novels. In False Hearts, I had no interest in writing female characters that are reduced to the love interest to be won, the fridged victim at the start of the story, the kidnapped daughter to be rescued. Every woman I meet is the star of her own story, or to quote The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton, she is the architect of her own fortune. Novels should not be any different.

The book stars conjoined twins, who were raised connected at the chest in the secluded cult of Mana’s Hearth, set where Muir Woods is now. At sixteen, their shared heart begins to fail, and according to the beliefs of the Hearth, they should bow to the will of the Creator and let themselves die. They decide they want to leave, but it’s not as though Mana-ma, their leader, will let them simply walk out of the compound. Once the twins escape, they are separated due to the pressures of a San Francisco obsessed with perfection and given mechanical hearts. Ten years later, one twin is accused of murder, and the other has to assume her identity in order to prove her sister’s innocence and save her life.

I’ve tried to reflect the Bay Area I grew up in and postulate a potential future. In this version of San Francisco, everything is recycled and people live minimally. Crops grow in skyscrapers and the bay glows green at night with algae that can be eaten. All meat is vat-grown. There have been numerous medical advancements, such as very good prosthetics, and through gene therapy and walk-in plastic surgery clinics, people often change aspects of their appearance. People can dye their hair various colours and map it to their DNA so they never have roots (as someone who currently has bright pink hair, I think that would be great). Some aspects of this future are a utopia, but other aspects are darker. There is a lot of pressure to fit within Pacifica’s narrow demands of what is desirable.

False Hearts is full of women; possibly more women than men. “Likeable” and “unlikeable” women. Complicated women. I didn’t want to ignore intersectionality, and have women from different backgrounds and of varying sexualities. For instance, Taema and Tila are bisexual and white, black, and Samoan. They have distinct personalities, different strengths and weaknesses. A supporting character, Kim, is Japanese, gay, and a prominent neurosurgeon. Another character, Mia, is a drug addict hooked on the dream drug, Zeal. Mana-ma, one of the villains, is a woman, and another woman in the underground mob, the Ratel, called Malka. That’s not to say I’m reducing the male characters to love interests or pure victims, either, but that I try to make sure all of my characters compelling enough that, under different circumstances, they could lead in their own novels.

Zero Sum Game by S.L. Huang Grimspace Borderline by Mishell Baker

There’s been an uptick in female-led thrillers in non-SFF, like Gone Girl, Before I Go to Sleep, Luckiest Girl Alive, and Black-Eyed Susans. I suppose, subconsciously, I wrote False Hearts wanting to bring that feel into a near future setting and blending two genres I really enjoy reading. I’m far from the first. A few other female-led thrillers are Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie, Zero Sum Game by SL Huang, some of the Culture novels by Iain Banks, Grimspace and the sequels by Ann Aguirre, and Borderline by Mishell Baker.

False Hearts was a book of the heart. I’d had some discouragements in my writing, and wrote something completely different and fell back in love with telling stories. I’m excited to have my book join the ranks of other female-led SF thrillers, with women who hopefully stay with you for a long time after the book is done.

Laura Lam
Photo Credit: Elizabeth May
Laura Lam was born in the late eighties and raised near San Francisco, California, by two former Haight-Ashbury hippies. Both of them encouraged her to finger-paint to her heart’s desire, colour outside the lines, and consider the library a second home. This led to an overabundance of daydreams.

After studying literature and creative writing at university, she relocated to Scotland to be with her husband, a boy she met online when they were teenagers and he insulted her taste in books and she insulted his right back. She almost blocked him but is glad she didn’t. She is now a dual citizen, but at times she misses the sunshine.

While working a variety of jobs from filing and photocopying endlessly at a law firm to library assistant to corporate librarian, she began writing in earnest. Her first book, Pantomime, the first book in the Micah Grey series, was released in 2013, which was a Scottish Book Trust Teen Book of the Month, won the Bisexual Book Award, was listed a Top Ten Title for the American Library Association List, and was nominated for several other awards. Robin Hobb says “Pantomime by Laura Lam took me into a detailed and exotic world, peopled by characters that I’d love to be friends with . . . and some I’d never want to cross paths with.” The sequel, Shadowplay, followed in 2014, as well as several the Vestigial Tales, self-published short stories and novellas set in the same world. The third book in the series, Masquerade, will follow in 2017.

Her newest book is False Hearts, a near-future thriller released in June 2016 by Tor/Macmillan and in three other languages. Peter F. Hamilton calls False Hearts “a strong debut from someone who’s clearly got what it takes.” Another thriller, Shattered Minds, will be released in 2017.

She is still hiding from sunshine in Scotland and writing more stories.

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Today’s guest is Joanna from Strange Charm! This is a wonderful site dedicated to showcasing speculative fiction written by women, and I particularly appreciate that many of the books reviewed are ones that are not currently being discussed all over the Internet. Joanna and her co-blogger Rachel post new reviews and interviews every Monday and Thursday, and they also cover books fitting into a fun unifying theme such as the spring series Joanna just finished: Musical Magic, ending with Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks.

Strange Charm

Like many girls who spent their teenage years reading fantasy books, I wasn’t one of the popular girls; I didn’t understand how to wear makeup, how to wear clothes, or how to flirt with boys. Little wonder, then, that I retreated into stories where girls who were just like me got to have adventures, save the day and live happily ever after, usually with a love interest who liked them for who they truly were. Looking back, I realise now that this common factor was a trope called the tomboy princess.

I still feel huge affection for these tomboy princess books, which comforted me in my awkwardness and assured me everything was going to be ok. As an adult, though, I can also look back at them and see the more problematic aspects of the messages I was learning. Do these problematic factors ruin the enjoyability of the book? Or can we still take something away from the tomboy princess story as feminist adults? I’ve scoured my shelves for examples to take a more critical look.

The Horse and His Boy (C.S. Lewis) was always my favourite of the Narnia books. Rereading it as an adult, I realise it must have been because of Aravis, because there’s very little else I like about it now. We first meet her fleeing in the middle of the night, to escape an arranged marriage with a much older man. We learn that she isn’t keen on typical ‘girly’ things, preferring outdoor pursuits like riding, hunting and swimming. Unusually for a tomboy princess, Aravis isn’t the heroine of this story; I think this must have something to do with her being written by a male author. And she definitely drew the short straw for a love interest! But I include her because she was my first introduction to the trope, and in many ways she is the archetypal tomboy princess.

Deerskin by Robin McKinley

In Deerskin (Robin McKinley), Lissar must also escape marriage to a much older man by escaping into the wilderness, in this case, her deranged father (in a retelling of the fairytale Donkeyskin). An unwanted marriage is the most common catalyst for a tomboy princess story, and although arranged marriage was an occupational hazard of being a princess throughout history, you might think that it’s not really a relatable issue for modern girls. However, most girls (even the shy ones) can relate to being stared at by older men as young teenagers, and a story where a heroine is uncomfortable with this situation and actively rebels helps us to express our own discomfort.

Hawkmistress by Marion Zimmer Bradley

Romilly in Hawkmistress (Marion Zimmer Bradley) dresses as a boy, runs away from her life of privilege, and becomes a wandering outcast in order to escape her arranged marriage. For both Lissar and Romilly, their defining relationship in the book is with an animal: Lissar with her dog, Ash, and Romilly with her hawk, Preciosa. Their respective love interests are present, but not at all crucial to the story. It’s odd that liking animals is considered a tomboyish trait—but I think it’s less that they simply like animals, and more that they get emotional fulfillment from these relationships, and so do not need or want a love interest. I think this is a nice message to take away.

Romilly also suffers by being compared to her ‘more perfect’ sister, another trope that crops up for the typical tomboy princess (although this role might be filled by either a friend (such as for Aravis) or even a mother (for Lissar)). This sister is more beautiful than our heroine, and knows how to do traditional homemaking tasks such as sewing; she never messes up her clothes, or gets dirty, and she knows how to behave in formal functions. This is the aspect of these stories that I find most problematic, because our heroine is deliberately framed as ‘not like all those other, silly, girly girls’, because she likes ‘boy stuff, like riding horses and swordfighting’, and boy stuff is better. Placing our heroine in opposition to these other women might feel cathartic, because we want to be on her side, but we’re still making value judgements about the best kind of woman to be.

Wildwood Dancing by Juliet Marillier

In Wildwood Dancing (Juliet Marillier), Jena is one of five sisters, and the most tomboyish of them, although this isn’t framed as a bad thing as it is for Romilly. Happily, the sisters mostly band together despite their differences, and their love for each other is the emotional heart of the book. Jena struggles with asserting her authority despite her sex—she wants to run the family business in the absence of any brothers, and despite being obviously capable, she must fight for this against her overbearing cousin (whilst also avoiding his unwelcome advances).

The Goose Girl by Shannon Hale

Ani in The Goose Girl (Shannon Hale) is the least naturally tomboyish of all the tomboy princesses on my shelf, so is something of a counterpoint to the others, but she shares their resourcefulness. As she travels to a neighbouring kingdom to fulfill her arranged marriage with a young prince, a jealous lady-in-waiting stages a coup and takes her place. Despite living a life of luxury until now, Ani must quickly learn to fit in with the common people, and takes a job as a gooseherd while she works out how to reclaim her rightful position. Eventually, this gives her the insight needed to be a wiser ruler, unlike the established ruling class who are out of touch and unaware of the problems the ordinary people face. And, like Lissar and Romilly, this subterfuge rewards her with a love interest who loves her for who she really is.

The Girl King by Meg Clothier

Also learning what it means to be a ruler, Tamar in The Girl King (Meg Clothier) is a princess who must fight to be Queen after the death of her father. She has the requisite perfect sister, the love of horse-riding and fighting and an unwanted arranged marriage. Like Lissar, Aravis, Ani and Romilly, she is forced to fend for herself in the wilderness despite being utterly unprepared. What makes Tamar different is that she really existed: she was a real 12th century princess of Georgia who successfully defended her reign to become one of the country’s most popular queens, and as far as I can tell, The Girl King sticks very closely to the actual history. The tomboy princess may seem like a modern trope, but actually history is full of wonderful women who defied their society’s expectations, if we know where to look.

Rereading these books as an adult, I’ve enjoyed every single one. Yes, there are problematic aspects, such as the tendency for our heroine to be presented as a favourable contrast to most women, or the fact that we are so focused on women with economic privilege. However, I think the idea of the tomboy princess story comes from a good place. We get a self-sufficient female character with agency in her own story, and she is relatable because she is deprived of her privilege and must live like an ordinary person. In the end, we can’t help cheering her on as she defies the conventions of her society to earn her happy ending. I’d now love to find some new examples—so what are your favourite tomboy princess books?

Joanna Joanna has been reading science fiction and fantasy for as long she could read. Her favourite genres are feminist science fiction, magical realism, and historical fantasy, and she particularly enjoys finding science fiction and fantasy stories in unexpected parts of a bookshop. She is also half of the feminist SFF book blog Strange Charm. She lives in the Cotswolds, where if she isn’t reading, she’s probably singing. You can find her on twitter, as @joanna_m, or on the TV quiz show Only Connect, as a Nørdiphile.

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Today’s guest is writer and editor Laura Anne Gilman! She’s the author of fantasy, horror, and science fiction short stories, mystery novels (as L. A. Kornetsky), and several speculative fiction novels and novellas, including the series that comprise the Cosa Nostradamus books (Retrievers, Paranormal Scene Investigations, and Sylvan Investigations). Flesh and Fire, the first book in her Vineart War series (which features wine magic!), was nominated for the 2009 Nebula Award. Her latest novel is the first book in the Devil’s West series, Silver on the Road.

Silver on the Road by Laura Anne Gilman Flesh and Fire by Laura Anne Gilman

When Fantasy Cafe invited me to write for their Women in Fantasy series, I had a handful of ideas circling in my head, bumping into each other and arguing for space. What I read as a child, as a teen, as a young adult, that created the storyteller I became (both pro and con).

And then my father was diagnosed with cancer, and died within a space of three weeks, and my thoughts scattered again, refocusing, probably inevitably, around the influence of my dad.

But wait, my brain reeled me in. This is “women in fantasy” month. Dad doesn’t fit the theme. Try something else.

So I did. And it kept circling around to dad. And I realized that it wasn’t only because of my loss. It was because of what I’d been given.

It is inevitable that our parents shape us—and when one of those parents is of the opposite gender, that shaping is often invisible until long after the fact.

My father didn’t read fantasy. My father didn’t read much fiction at all, honestly. That all came from my mother. But he did read, and read voraciously, in history. He delved into the why and the who, the elements that drove action, and the results of those actions. And he taught us by example to do the same, seeing absolutely no reason why our gender would or should have any impact on what we were capable of, with no apologies for being smart, or tough, or delicate, or emotional or clinical, and to hell with anyone who tried to shove us into half-a-space because of Being Female.

I appreciated that when I was in my twenties, and became aware of being female in a male-shaped world. Certainly all that came through in the main characters of the Cosa Nostradamus novels: Wren, who deals with being the “invisible woman” in a competitive field. Bonnie, who carries privilege on her shoulders as both shield and obligation. Ellen, a woman of color whose move from outcast to exceptional made her more vulnerable, not less.

But it wasn’t until I began writing SILVER ON THE ROAD, the first of the Devil’s West novels, that I consciously sat down to think about what it meant to be a daughter to a father, to have that strangely powerful influence on every element of who you are, and all the ways it can go both wrong and right, even with the best of intentions and the most heartfelt of affections.

Isobel née Lacoyo Távora is a daughter—of the Devil, of Flood, of the Territory, of a new world being born around her. She carries with her the weight of masculine expectation, because that is the world within which she was born, the product of forces perceived as masculine—and yet, those forces given a feminine form, the Infinitas that marks her palm and shapes the power she uses, the world she will help reform.

And it wasn’t until my father’s funeral, looking for solace in my loss, that I found the words that matched what I had been exploring.

If my boundary stops here
I have daughters to draw new maps of the world
they will draw the lines of my face
they will draw with my gestures my voice
they will speak my words thinking they have invented them

they will invent them
they will invent me
I will be planted again and again
I will wake in the eyes of their children’s children
they will speak my words.

(from the Mishkan T’Filah, for the house of mourning)

We cannot shape the world, any world, without understanding what (who, and how) first shaped us.

Laura Anne Gilman
Photo Credit: Elsa M. Ruiz
Laura Anne Gilman is the author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series of novels and novellas, and the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy. Her newest project is the Devil’s West series from Saga / Simon & Schuster, beginning with 2015’s Locus-bestseller SILVER ON THE ROAD, and continuing with THE COLD EYE.

She has also dipped her pen into the mystery field as well, writing as L.A. Kornetsky (CollaredFixedDoghouse, and Clawed).

A member of the writers’ digital co-op Book View Cafe, she continues to write and sell short fiction in a variety of genres, most recently appearing in the anthologies Genius Loci and Temporally Out of Order.