Blackout/All Clear

Willis - Blackout coverOpening line: ‘Colin tried the door, but it was locked.’

Their assignments were straightforward: Eileen, posing as a maid in a manor house, was observing evacuated children in 1940. Polly, after observing FANYs during the V1 and V2 attacks in 1945, was going to observe civilians in London during the Blitz in 1940. Michael, whose research focus was ordinary-people-turned-heroes, was going to Pearl Harbor and a handful of other important moments in American and British history, including Dunkirk. But their supervisor, Mr. Dunworthy, has been  rescheduling drops, sometimes even cancelling assignments entirely.

Willis - All Clear coverHistorians can’t alter events, they’ve all been told. The continuum wouldn’t allow it. The drop simply wouldn’t open, or there would be enough temporal or locational slippage to prevent the time-travelling historian from interfering where they weren’t supposed to. But what happens when it looks like a historian does alter events — through influencing someone they meet, or by saving a life?

And what happens when they can’t get home?


Blackout 
and All Clear by Connie Willis is a single story split into two volumes, chronicling the lives of three historians from 2060 and their experiences in 1940’s Britain. Willis again demonstrates her ability to translate an impressive amount of research to bring the daily experiences of ordinary people in the past to life, and then succeeds in doing so through the quality of her fiction. In Blackout/All Clear, Willis weaves time travel, the Blitz, Dunkirk, the evacuation of children, the fire-watch of St Paul’s Cathedral, the V1 and V2 attacks, Bletchley Park, Fortitude South, Agatha Christie, Shakespeare, and more to create a tapestry of unsung heroes, each doing their bit to win the war.

It is difficult to summarize the book too much without giving anything away, because nearly everything is important (even if you don’t know it yet), so instead I will say that Willis’s writing improves over the course of her Oxford Historians series. The Doomsday Book is good, but To Say Nothing of the Dog is better, and Blackout/All Clear are even better in terms of the tightness of the prose, the presentation of different timelines or storylines, and of characterization.

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Beacon 23

Opening line: ‘They don’t prepare you for the little noises.’

Howey - Beacon 23 cover

After being shipped home with a war injury and decorated as a hero, the unnamed narrator is reassigned to Beacon 23, where he can have some R&R in the vast loneliness of deep space. The beacons serve as lighthouses for interstellar travel, warning ships of asteroid belts and other obstacles that a ship travelling faster than light would not want to run into. Most of the time it is quiet on the edge of space — except for when it’s not. And, as the saying goes, when it rains, it pours. Beacon malfunctions, bounty hunters, hackers and pirates, and alien enemies — the beacon keeper faces all of these and more on his own. He thought that Beacon 23 was as far away from the war as he could get. He was wrong.

Beacon 23 by Hugh Howey is an introspective novel as the narrator examines his own psyche in the solitude and isolation of deep space. He lives alone on the beacon and communication takes three months to reach him. His only visitors are the occasional ships bringing supplies; most of the time, his patch of space is empty, as it should be. The whole point of the beacon is to keep ships away from his asteroid belt.

The novel was originally serialized, and I could tell. The beginning of each section includes a brief recap of the previous chapters that felt out of place when reading the novel as a whole, but which would fit weekly installments. Each section covers a different episode in the narrator’s time on the beacon: a malfunction, unexpected visitors, repairs, a rescue, more unexpected visitors. The narrator’s monologue is simultaneously honest, funny, and poignant. The events that led to his becoming a beacon keeper are teased out bit by bit throughout the novel as the narrator shies away from them, distrusts his own mind, and eventually confronts his memories face to face. This is not only an entertaining and funny novel about a quirky lighthouse-keeper, but also an honest study of a mind with PTSD. This is novel worth reading.

Shades of Milk and Honey

Opening line: ‘The Ellsworths of Long Parkmead had the regard of their neighbours in every respect.’

Kowal - Shades of Milk and Honey coverJane Ellsworth is a talented and eligible young woman in nearly every respect: she paints, plays the piano, and weaves glamour with ease. But she is not beautiful; that blessing was bestowed on her younger sister Melody. The summer brings several newcomers into the neighborhood: Mr. Vincent, the renowned glamourist invited to create a new glamour in the Fitzcamersons’ dining room; Captain Livingston, one of Lady FitzCameron’s nephews, is also back from serving in His Majesty’s Navy (and catches the eye of every matchmaker in the neighborhood); and Miss Dunkirk, the younger sister of Mr. Dunkirk. Jane is not at all surprised that Melody seems to hold the attention of all of the eligible young men in their set, and so she devotes herself to being a dutiful sister, daughter, and neighbor. Despite her admiration of the new glamourist’s work, however, he is always disgruntled with her. Meanwhile, it seems possible that Mr. Dunkirk esteems her instead of Melody! And what is Captain Livingston up to? Miscommunication and intrigue abound in this Regency-styled comedy of manners.

Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal is set in a world similar to the landed gentry of Jane Austen, only with the addition of ‘glamour’, a type of magic that can create illusions. The ability to manipulate, or ‘weave’, glamour is another of the many skills a young noblewoman needed to know to demonstrate her refinement and education of the arts. For the most part, Kowal stays true to her source material; to the well-trained eye or experienced reader, it sounds ever so slightly different from Austen’s writings because it is written by a twenty-first-century author, not an eighteenth-century one. As someone who appreciates Regency-era novels, rather than loving them, I enjoyed Kowal’s novel because of the addition of magic and from recognizing the author’s homage to Austen. The novel is the first in a series, though stands well on its own.

For fans of fantasy and Jane Austen: This novel is for you!

Doomsday Book

Opening line: ‘Mr. Dunworthy opened the door to the laboratory and his spectacles promptly steamed up.’

Willis - Doomsday Book coverKivrin has always wanted to go to the Middle Ages. Fortunately for her, a history student at University of Oxford in 2054, time travel is possible, though still relatively new technology. When it is time for her to go, her tutor Mr. Dunworthy still holds misgivings about how her other tutor is running the ‘drop’ and whether Kivrin should be allowed to go at all. When the net technician collapses after sending Kivrin through, no one is able to confirm where or when Kivrin was sent to, and the only person who seems to care is Mr. Dunworthy. Oxford is put under quarantine; the Head of History is somewhere in Scotland; Balliol College is filled with detainees, including a group of American bell ringers and a student’s insufferable mother; Mr. Dunworthy has taken in his friend’s twelve-year-old grand-nephew while she takes charge of the situation in the hospital; it’s Christmas, and, as his secretary frequently informs him, the college is nearly out of lavatory paper. While Mr. Dunworthy tries to manage the confusion in the future, Kivrin arrives in the fourteenth century, and also collapses. She recovers, only to realize that she doesn’t know where she is or where the drop is for the rendezvous. Undeterred, Kivrin records her observations: of her hosts, the manor house, the village, the church, and the preparations for Christmas. She becomes enmeshed in the lives of Lady Eloise, her mother-in-law, and her two daughters, Rosemund and Agnes, and of the village priest, who believes Kivrin is a saint sent from heaven to help them in their hour of need. Kivrin thinks that finding the rendezvous before Lady Imeyne decides she’s a runaway nun and sends her off to the bishop is the worst of her troubles — until the first of them falls ill with the ‘blue sickness’, and Kivrin realizes exactly when she is.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is a detailed, fascinating, and devastating book. Willis’s attention to detail captures characters’ idiosyncrasies with wit and compassion, creating fully-developed characters. This is the second time I’ve read Doomsday Book (I actually listened to it as an audiobook this time around), and it is still as wonderful and terrible as the first time I read it. The quote from the New York Times on the cover calls the novel a ‘tour de force’, and it really is. The first three-quarters of the novel are about the daily lives of Kivrin and Mr. Dunworthy in their parallel timelines; there are difficulties, but they seem manageable at the time. And then people start dying, and it doesn’t stop.

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Ninth City Burning

Opening line: ‘We’re only a few minutes into our quiz when the sirens start, and the first thing I feel is relief, even though I know that’s totally wrong, totally not how I should feel.’

Black - Ninth City Burning coverJax is a twelve-year-old fontanus who has been raised in the military academy to defend Earth in a war that has lasted for centuries. Also at the academy are Vinneas, Imway, and Kizabel, older cadets about to become officers. Outside the Ninth City are the settlements; and outside those, the empty wildlands filled with tribes unaffiliated with the Principates and the nomadic traders who travel between settlements, belonging to neither the Principates nor the tribes of the lands through which they travel. Naomi and Rae, scouts of their caravan, cross paths with Torro of Granite Shore settlement. The young fontani, the artificer, the commander, the equite, the gunslinger, and the infantry soldier each have a role to play in the battle to defend Earth.

Ninth City Burning by J. Patrick Black is a difficult book to summarize without giving any spoilers. The structure of this debut novel was ambitious: seven perspective characters, each linked in some way to the other characters. When I saw from the description of the novel that it was a group of unlikely allies that would save the world, I expected that once the characters were assembled they would work together as a team to pull off some harum-scarum plan* that they had concocted, as is usually the case (and feels a lot like RPG campaigns). But I was wrong, and I love it when a sci-fi novel does something unexpected.

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The Ghost Bride

Opening line: One evening, my father asked me whether I would like to become a ghost bride.

Choo - The Ghost Bride coverLi Lan is the daughter of a respectable Chinese merchant family and, like any young woman her age, hopes for a favorable marriage. There’s only one problem: Her family is poor, so poor that the only offer she has is to be the bride of a dead man. The tradition is old, and rarely practiced, but the young man’s family pursues Li Lan despite her refusals. While his living relatives draw Li Lan into the intrigues of their family, the ghost of her prospective fiancé haunts Li Lan’s dreams in order to court her. Caught between worlds, Li Lan must navigate political and social intrigue in both the land of the living and of the dead, and, to solve more than one mystery, may have to go into Death itself.

The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo is about the relationships between two Chinese families in late nineteenth-century Malaysia. Li Lan, the protagonist, has been chosen to be a ‘ghost bride’ for a rich family’s deceased son: This practice ensured that the deceased would still have a spouse in the afterlife once the living spouse eventually died; in the meantime, there would be someone to perform the necessary rituals to provide for the deceased’s spirit in the afterlife.

I had picked up The Ghost Bride some time ago at a used bookstore, on a whim, as I always forget the titles or names of authors I’m interested in as soon as I step into a bookstore. The premise intrigued me, and the first page effectively whetted my appetite to read more. I am also trying to be more conscious about reading science-fiction and fantasy centered in non-Western traditions and written by people of color (especially women of color). I was entranced by the descriptions of the spirit world and the tapestry of folk lore Choo presents in her novel. In addition to being fascinating culturally, the novel does everything right: the prose was beautiful, employing rich descriptions that advance the narrative instead of as info-dumps, as is often the case in author’s debut novels; the pacing was just right, neither dragging at any point nor rushing through at others; the characters were each distinct and relatable. Overall, this is a stunning debut novel and I look forward to more from this author.

Earlier this year I was looking for a novel to read alongside The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (as one would determine wine and cheese pairings): both are set in the late-nineteenth-century/early-twentieth century and feature magical realism. The Golem and the Jinni also highlights non-Western folklore. I wish I had thought to read The Ghost Bride then; The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo fits perfectly alongside them.

Blood Rose Rebellion

Opening line: I did not set out to ruin my sister’s debut.

Eves - Blood Rose Rebellion coverAfter Anna’s peculiar talent to unmake spells results in the disaster of her sister’s debut into London’s Luminate society, Anna is sent away to live with relatives in Hungary until the gossip about the scandal blows over. From London to Vienna to Budapest are signs of growing unrest in the working classes. In Hungary, even the local Luminate, the upper class, chafe against Hapsburg rule. When some of the Hungarian revolutionaries learn of Anna’s unusual talent, they attempt to recruit her to their cause. Her job? To break the Binding, the powerful spell that restricts access to magic for only the upper class. However, there are those among the Luminate who do not want magic made available to everyone, and will protect the Binding at any cost. Anna has only ever wanted to fit in Luminate society; will she risk everything for a revolution in a country she’s come to love?

Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves is the first of a trilogy set in an alternate nineteenth-century Europe, where the differences between the upper and working classes are intensified by strict regulation of magic through the Binding. Only the upper class has access to magic, and yet there is inequality even among the Luminate class: each individual Luminate has their access to magic determined by the Circle, and a family that crosses the Circle might find that their children are given only nominal access to magic. The setting and its exploration of class and magic were one of the elements I enjoyed about Blood Rose Rebellion. The second element I enjoyed was the use of Hungarian folklore and alternative use of magic by the Romani.

Although Blood Rose Rebellion is the first of a trilogy, it read more like a later book in a series. The premise and setting of the book caught my attention, but overall the world lacked depth. There is too much ‘telling’ instead of ‘showing’: we have Anna saying in her first-person narration that she has always wanted to fit in her society, rather than seeing Anna respond. The pacing of the narrative was off: the middle of the book dragged on, when in other places, the narrative progressed too quickly, problems solved too easily: how did Noemi know about the underground tunnels? No sooner had Noemi suggested it did she and Anna find an entrance. At times, I lost track of which of the revolutionaries was speaking because they all sounded the same. I am also a very visual reader and there was not enough description in the narration for me to ‘see’ many of the places Anna went to. Finally, the magic of the world was inconsistent: the Binding was more than a spell, but a place or realm one could enter; and what was the extent of the Binding — did it limit all magic around the world? Did only Europeans have magic? And Anna’s ability didn’t break all spells, but only some of them. At first I thought she only broke spells that were cast in her presence, but then how could she break the binding if it was cast centuries ago? I’m not too much of a stickler that all magic must have rules and be consistent (it’s magic after all, not science), but there were enough irregularities that even I was bothered by them.

Many of these problems I can forgive because this is Eves’s first published novel. Building a world that has depth takes experience. I will probably read the next book in the trilogy, both to see what happens next in this world and to see how Eves grows as a writer. I would recommend this book to those who want a fun, quick fantasy read and to those who are interested in Central and Eastern European folklore.

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.