Winterwood
by Jacey Bedford
432pp (Mass Market Paperback)
My Rating: 5/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.62/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

Set in 1800 in Britain, Mad King George is on the throne with Napoleon Bonaparte knocking on the door. Unregistered magic users are pursued to the death, while in every genteel home resides uncomplaining rowankind bondservants who have become so commonplace that no one can recall where they came from.

Meanwhile, Rossalinde Tremayne is satisfied with her life as a cross-dressing privateer captain on the high seas. But a bitter deathbed visit to her estranged mother changes her life completely when she inherits a magical winterwood box. Now, not only is she confronted with a newly-discovered brother, and an annoyingly handsome wolf shapeshifter, Rossalinde has to decide whether or not to open the box to free rowankind and right an ancient wrong—even if it brings the downfall of Britain.

This brand-new series is perfect for fans of Elizabeth Bear, D.B. Jackson, and Marie Brennan, as well as readers of historical fiction who are looking for an accessible gateway to fantasy.

Winterwood, the first book in Jacey Bedford’s Rowankind series, has been one of my most anticipated releases of 2016 ever since I hosted the cover reveal toward the end of last year. Both the book and the heroine sounded wonderful, and after reading the first chapter, I thought I was going to love it. Despite its promising opening, I soon found myself bored, and it only occasionally managed to recapture my interest for short spurts once I got further into it.

The first few pages introduce Ross, a widowed privateer captain who followed her heart and defied her mother’s expectations when they didn’t suit her—as well as society’s expectations about how a woman should dress and behave. I was immediately intrigued by her story as I read about her final encounter with her estranged mother as she lay on her deathbed. It shows exactly why Ross left home years ago as her mother hurls insults at her, but it also shows some of the life she’s lived as she thinks about her losses and the ghost of her husband that often appears to her. Their conversation also sets up a big part of the story as Ross inherits a winterwood box and learns that there is a family secret to be uncovered.

I was looking forward to finding out more about these mysteries, but I found the actual story rather dull. Ross encounters magical beings who spout cryptic information about her family’s past in a rather cliche scene, and there’s a lot of wandering around meeting characters who do not appear often enough to have fleshed out personalities. It’s especially unexciting as Ross tries to resist the task that was thrust upon her, but once she decides to pursue it, there’s a lot of time spent investigating that I didn’t find much more exciting: traveling, observing, discussing magic, and asking questions. The narrative spends too much time examining the meaning of what is learned, but I think the biggest problem was that there was a lack of personal connection that kept me from becoming invested in any of the characters.

I loved the idea of Ross as a character: a fiercely independent privateer captain whose crew respected her and looked to her for leadership. Yet, despite being the only character with much development and having her own arc about letting go of her own past, she’s not given much depth since there’s more focus on magic and mystery than her as a person. Even as the story does delve more into the personal when Ross discovers family she never knew she had, there’s still some distance. The closest it comes to a meaningful connection is the romance, but that too seems underdeveloped since it advances rather quickly. There isn’t time spent showing how the relationship grows since she and this other person barely even spend time together before it’s mentioned that he’s in love with her.

Winterwood contains some fantastic seeds for a novel, and the premise of a female privateer captain confronting both her own and her family’s past appealed to me. I also appreciated the emphasis on freedom in various forms that ran through it: literal freedom but also freedom from societal constraints and one’s own reluctance to move forward. Unfortunately, the novel in its entirety wasn’t to my taste due to the dearth of well-rounded characters, a bland narrative voice, and a rather uninspired storyline.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt (click link below cover image)

Other Reviews of Winterwood:

Today I’m giving away All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders! Since its release earlier this year, I’ve been hearing it’s wonderful, and I have one signed copy to give away courtesy of Tor Books. Those in the United States are eligible to enter this giveaway, and more details on the book and giveaway are below.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

ABOUT ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY (read an excerpt):

Every so often a book comes along that transcends genre and moves into literary territory, marked by the beauty and skill of the writer’s story telling. ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is one such novel. Tor Books is thrilled to publish this wonderful tale by Charlie Jane Anders, editor-in-chief of io9.com, on January 26, 2016.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY takes place in a time much like our own, with the psychological realism of Lev Grossman, the near-future savvy of Cory Doctorow and the magic of Jo Walton. It is both fantasy and tech sci-fi, a story of outcasts and insiders and of love and hate. Told in alternating chapters, the story follows the lives of Patricia, a girl that can talk to birds and who, “misplaced herself in the woods over and over, until she knew by heart every way to get lost,” and Laurence, a nerdy science geek who runs away to MIT to watch a DIY spaceship launch into orbit. Outcasts in their middle school, they rely on each other to make it through the rough world of bullies — and a potential assassin who is out to destroy them by turning them on each other.

Fast forward 10-years and we meet our wunderkinds navigating young adulthood in hip, Mission District, San Francisco. He is a rock star techno Silicon Alley prodigy, and she is a magician that secretly repairs the world’s ever-growing ailments. As Laurence and Patricia reconnect, they find themselves getting drawn into the opposite sides of a war between science and magic. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, has brought them together to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY is a story of best friends, enemies, and lovers, as lyrical as it is enchanting. It is sure to be a tour-de-force that will go down in the annals of great genre fiction by one of the most widely read online writers today.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

CHARLIE JANE ANDERS is the editor-in-chief of io9.com, the extraordinarily popular Gawker Media site devoted to science fiction and fantasy. Her debut novel, the mainstream Choir Boy, won the 2006 Lambda Literary Award and was shortlisted for the Edmund White Award. Her Tor.com story “Six Months, Three Days” won the 2013 Hugo Award and was subsequently picked up for development into a NBC television series. She has also had fiction published by McSweeney’s, Lightspeed, and ZYZZYVA. Her journalism has appeared in Salon, the Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, and many other outlets.

Courtesy of Tor Books, I have one copy of All the Birds in the Sky to give away to a resident of the US!

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen AT fantasybookcafe DOT com with the subject “Birds Giveaway.” One entry per household and one winner will be randomly selected. Those from the United States are eligible to win this giveaway. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Monday, March 28. The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway has ended, the form has been removed.

Last Song Before Night
by Ilana C. Myer
416pp (Hardcover)
My Rating: 7/10
Amazon Rating: 4.2/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.33/5
Goodreads Rating: 3.53/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

A high fantasy following a young woman’s defiance of her culture as she undertakes a dangerous quest to restore her world’s lost magic

Her name was Kimbralin Amaristoth: sister to a cruel brother, daughter of a hateful family. But that name she has forsworn, and now she is simply Lin, a musician and lyricist of uncommon ability in a land where women are forbidden to answer such callings—a fugitive who must conceal her identity or risk imprisonment and even death.

On the eve of a great festival, Lin learns that an ancient scourge has returned to the land of Eivar, a pandemic both deadly and unnatural. Its resurgence brings with it the memory of an apocalypse that transformed half a continent. Long ago, magic was everywhere, rising from artistic expression—from song, from verse, from stories. But in Eivar, where poets once wove enchantments from their words and harps, the power was lost. Forbidden experiments in blood divination unleashed the plague that is remembered as the Red Death, killing thousands before it was stopped, and Eivar’s connection to the Otherworld from which all enchantment flowed, broken.

The Red Death’s return can mean only one thing: someone is spilling innocent blood in order to master dark magic. Now poets who thought only to gain fame for their songs face a challenge much greater: galvanized by Valanir Ocune, greatest Seer of the age, Lin and several others set out to reclaim their legacy and reopen the way to the Otherworld—a quest that will test their deepest desires, imperil their lives, and decide the future.

Although Ilana C. Myer’s fantasy debut novel Last Song Before Night, released in fall 2015, stands alone, there is a sequel in progress. I was glad to hear this news since this book was so absorbing that reading “just one more chapter” often turned into reading multiple chapters before being able to force myself to put it down!

Last Song Before Night contains tragedy, but it isn’t overly grim or completely hopeless even though all the main characters are touched by darkness, either from within or the actions of others (or some of both). This isn’t a book to read for the plot, which was basically a quest complete with many cliches, but one to read for the characters’ journeys. For better or worse, each of them end up in a different place than where they began and the end of their stories was not at all what I’d been expecting.

My favorite, Lin, is also the one I considered the main character despite being only one of multiple characters followed. She’s been through a lot and is simultaneously hiding from her cruel brother and pursuing her dream of becoming a poet—even though women are not accepted for training at the Academy and a female poet is quite uncommon. When she performs at a wealthy man’s home, she meets my next favorite protagonist, Rianna. These two do not spend much time together throughout the novel, but I loved their few interactions: how Rianna turns to Lin with her questions, knowing she’ll understand she doesn’t need to be sheltered from the truth like her father and fiance believe; how Rianna’s keen eye leads her to be the first to realize Lin’s true identity even though she just met her; how Lin sets Rianna on the path to learning to defend herself. Both women face great obstacles, and though very different from each other, both are determined survivors.

There are other protagonists, but those who get the most page time besides Lin and Rianna are two Academy-trained poets, Darien and Marlen. They were a team until Marlen betrayed Darien for his own gain, goaded by his father’s belief that he’d forever remain in Darien’s shadow. Marlen’s perspective is an examination of one who has followed a path that led to a descent into villainy.

Although I enjoyed reading Last Song Before Night very much, I did feel as though it were right on the brink of being excellent without quite reaching its full potential. The details of the actual quest didn’t particularly interest me, and the trope of the mysterious famous person guiding younger people toward a goal without providing much information, among other familiar elements, was dull. Though the writing was smooth and readable, it sometimes explained more than was necessary and told more than showed. The ending was rushed considering the amount that happened toward the end. Even though the characters, especially the two main female characters, were far from one-dimensional and were the reason I kept reading, I felt like just a little more depth could have taken them to the next level as truly unforgettable.

Most of all, I wanted more exploration of poets within this world since the book set up some intriguing aspects of this but didn’t actually follow through and examine them as deeply as I had been hoping. I was intrigued by so many of the protagonists being people who influenced through words and music, and earlier in the book, it did show the admiration others had for them, the power they had, and the limitations they had regarding their turbulent relationship with the king, their refusal to teach women, and their strict regulations concerning which songs could be performed publicly. Yet once the quest started, it seemed that these were dropped and it failed to fulfill my expectation that this was going to be a unique feature of this novel. In the end, I thought that Darien and Lin could have been mages instead of poets without changing that part of the story much.

Despite feeling that there were a few issues holding it back, Last Song Before Night was a strong debut that put Ilana C. Myer on my radar as an author whose future books are worth reading. The characters kept me engaged, making it a compelling novel that kept me turning the pages (probably long after I should have stopped for inconveniences like household chores or sleep!).

My Rating: 7/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.

Read an Excerpt

Other Reviews of Last Song Before Night:

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week–old or new, bought or received for review consideration (usually unsolicited). Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Last week brought two books that sound wonderful, but first, here’s what happened last week in case you missed it:

For reviews, I’m working on writing up some thoughts on Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer.

On to the books!

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories by Ken Liu

This collection of short stories by Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning author Ken Liu was just released on March 8 (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The hardcover edition is gorgeous!

I’ve read a couple of these stories before (the Hugo Award-winning “Mono No Aware” and the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning “The Paper Menagerie”) and enjoyed both of them, especially the latter.

 

A publishing event: Bestselling author Ken Liu selects his award-winning science fiction and fantasy tales for a groundbreaking collection—including a brand-new piece exclusive to this volume.

With his debut novel, The Grace of Kings, taking the literary world by storm, Ken Liu now shares his finest short fiction in The Paper Menagerie. This mesmerizing collection features all of Ken’s award-winning and award-finalist stories, including: “The Man Who Ended History: A Documentary” (Finalist for the Hugo, Nebula, and Theodore Sturgeon Awards), “Mono No Aware” (Hugo Award winner), “The Waves” (Nebula Award finalist), “The Bookmaking Habits of Select Species” (Nebula and Sturgeon award finalists), “All the Flavors” (Nebula award finalist), “The Litigation Master and the Monkey King” (Nebula Award finalist), and the most awarded story in the genre’s history, “The Paper Menagerie” (The only story to win the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy awards).

A must-have for every science fiction and fantasy fan, this beautiful book is an anthology to savor.

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders

All the Birds in the Sky by Hugo and Lambda Literary Award-winning author Charlie Jane Anders was released in January (hardcover, ebook, audiobook). The first four chapters are on Tor.com.

I’ve been hearing this is wonderful and I was intrigued by the little bit I read toward the beginning.

 

From the editor-in-chief of io9.com, a stunning novel about the end of the world–and the beginning of our future

Childhood friends Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead didn’t expect to see each other again, after parting ways under mysterious circumstances during high school. After all, the development of magical powers and the invention of a two-second time machine could hardly fail to alarm one’s peers and families.

But now they’re both adults, living in the hipster mecca San Francisco, and the planet is falling apart around them. Laurence is an engineering genius who’s working with a group that aims to avert catastrophic breakdown through technological intervention into the changing global climate. Patricia is a graduate of Eltisley Maze, the hidden academy for the world’s magically gifted, and works with a small band of other magicians to secretly repair the world’s ever-growing ailments. Little do they realize that something bigger than either of them, something begun years ago in their youth, is determined to bring them together–to either save the world, or plunge it into a new dark ages.

A deeply magical, darkly funny examination of life, love, and the apocalypse.

Mar
11
2016

Toward the end of last year, I launched the Fantasy Café Patreon account, which has a reward tier that allows voting on blog content for a post during the next month. In January, I reviewed Patricia A. McKillip’s beautifully written stand alone The Changeling Sea, and last month I reviewed Nalo Hopkinson’s unique, memorable short story collection Falling in Love with Hominids. The March book theme is a fairly recent science fiction or fantasy debut novel, and the book to be reviewed later this month is…

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter

In the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Merlin College, the most talented—and highest born—sons of the Kingdom of Britain are taught the intricacies of magickal theory. But what dazzles can also destroy, as Gray Marshall is about to discover…

Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.

Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.

Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost…

I’m looking forward to reading a book by a new-to-me author! April’s book, a novella, will be announced later this month.

The Fifth Season
by N. K. Jemisin
512pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 4.7/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4.36/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.33/5
 

Book Description from Goodreads:

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

N. K. Jemisin is a phenomenal writer who excels at narrative voice, worldbuilding, and characterization. Her debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is wonderful, and I also added The Broken Kingdoms and The Killing Moon to my favorites list after reading them (The Killing Moon remains my favorite of all her books I’ve read).  I was incredibly excited to hear about her Broken Earth trilogy, and though I didn’t find it as gripping as the other books just mentioned, The Fifth Season is a brilliant novel and a strong start to the series.

The beginning immediately made me want to keep reading. It introduced the Stillness (“a land of quiet and bitter irony” because it’s anything but still) and Essun, a forty-two year old woman who just found the body of her not-quite-three-year-old son Uche—killed by his own father, who must have discovered the boy was an orogene like his mother. Essun hid the fact that she’s an orogene as they are commonly feared, misunderstood, and treated as less than human, for though their power can quell the shakes and save, it can also destroy. After the prologue, sections focusing on Essun are written in second person, and it’s heartbreaking to read about her loss. For two days, she shuts down, staying near his body, but soon she leaves to search for her husband because he has their daughter, also an orogene.

As you can probably tell from that start, The Fifth Season can be a rather dark book. It shows a young orogene being taken from her family so she can be trained to control her power by any means necessary—even violent ones. It shows a woman whose eyes are opened to the truth of the terrible fate of some orogenes. It’s about the end of the world, the rewriting of history, and the unjust treatment of a group of people, and as such is not a happy book, though it is a powerfully memorable one peopled with compelling characters. I loved that it had a complex, well-developed “older” woman as a protagonist, a survivor who could be caring and compassionate and fierce and prickly.

It’s also a smartly written book with a fantastic twist. Even though I realized what was going on long before it was revealed, it’s so fitting that it seems inevitable and smoothly integrated rather than a supposed shocking revelation that’s eye-rollingly predictable. If my theory had turned out to be incorrect, I would have been sorely disappointed since it worked perfectly with this book.

The only reason I don’t love The Fifth Season the way I do many of N. K. Jemisin’s other books is the pacing. It does seem to be setting up the rest of the trilogy, and given that, it seems like it’s just getting to the meat of the story at the end. Since I did enjoy the world and characters, there were times I found it completely engrossing anyway, but there were also other times I wanted it to move faster.

Despite not finding it quite as engaging as most of the books I’ve read by the author, The Fifth Season is a book I appreciated very much. It’s a well-written book set in a unique world filled with complicated characters, and the fascinating setting and mysteries yet to be unraveled have made me quite eager to read The Obelisk Gate, coming this August!

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: Finished copy from the publisher.