Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is very much a story in the Uprooted vein. At its simplest, we have a rebellious daughter with hidden talents who must align herself with mythological, dubious intentioned entities else lose the lives of her family, her people, and quite possibly her very way of life. At its simplest, that is the story Arden has crafted, but The Bear and the Nightingale is so much more than that simple synopsis. Set in a rich world full of tradition, politics, and magic, the author strikes the perfect balance between nuanced, vibrant characters with complex motives and personalities and a plot that continuously moves forward.

Vasilisa Petrovna’s birth is marked by death when her mother dies giving her life. Her mother, Marina, who is possessed of special gifts, knows Vasilisa, or Vasya, will be her last child and that she will not survive the ordeal, but she gives birth to her daughter anyway because she knows the gifts Vasya will bring into the world will be even greater than her own. Vasya is raised a wild child. Not because of her father’s lack of tutelage but because she is a creature that will not be controlled. Often she slips into the woods on her own, walking the forest paths and meeting the mythological dwellers there that only she can see. On one such walk she comes upon a great tree and a one-eyed man sleeping at its base. The man is no man at all, but a demon who slumbers now but is slowly waking. Once he does wake, he promises “everlasting life” to any who follow him. His offer is not what it may seem, of course, and so Vasya finds herself in opposition to the waking demon.

Vasya is a headstrong woman in a world where such initiative is not often desired nor praised unless such person is a man. But Konstantin, Vasya’s daughter, is an understanding man who knows his daughter’s fire comes from her mother. I liked Konstantin a lot. He is very much walking a line of his own between the traditional world he lives in and a more progressive one where he sees his daughter’s wild spirit free to do as she pleases. The times when he considers his Vasya toiling over a hot stove and seeing to her children and husband’s needs he is stricken with a heavy heart, for he knows the great potential Vasya possesses would be wasted on such a life. At the very end, Konstantin knows what he has to do to set his daughter free forever; his love for her is strong enough that he never hesitates.

There are many other interesting characters: a priest whose story takes an unforeseen turn when he meets Vasya, a stepmother who embodies much of the atypical stepmother role so often seen in fairy tales, and an ensemble of brothers and sisters who are mostly supportive. Then there are the creatures whom only Vasya can see: vodianoy, vazila, upyrs aplenty, rusalka, and the brothers who are demons whom the real story revolves around. I’ll refrain from delving too much into any one of these, especially the brothers, for fear of giving something away, but suffice to say that the brothers are opposed to one another and Vasya finds herself caught in the middle.

Of the world Arden has built for her novel all I can say is very well done. Set in the world of Rus’, it is very much a Russia that may have existed to some degree but many aspects only in folklore. Still, it is a beautiful depiction of a deep winter world where families huddle together around their oven to sleep and stay warm and where the coming snow cuts off entirely the rural community Vasya calls home from the rest of the world.

The Bear and the Nightingale is historical fantasy fiction at its best. A vibrant world, rich characters, more than a hint of the supernatural, and an endearing main character who doesn’t have all the answers but isn’t afraid to find them makes this a must-read. Vasya’s story continues in The Girl in the Tower. It’s already on my reading list.

A Lot Like Christmas by Connie Willis

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

A Lot Like Christmas by Connie Willis is a collection of holiday themed short stories and novellas, each with a distinct fantasy or science fiction flavor. The collection is quite lengthy—it comes in at 545 pages—but because this is a collection and not a novel, many of the stories can be finished in a single sitting. While the overall theme of all the stories is, of course, Christmas, many of the stories focus in on a more granular aspect of the holiday season: Miracle is all about the tradition (and sometimes ridiculousness) of gift-giving; All About Emily mixes in artificial intelligence and the spirit of giving and self-sacrifice; and deck.halls@boughs/holly explores the future of commercialized holiday decorating. Other stories delve into holiday music and what happens when new Christmas movies are released into all-new “mega-theaters.” A Lot Like Christmas covers a lot of holiday ground and, for the most part, does not disappoint.

Willis’s writing style is fairly straightforward. Her prose is concise and informative, with nothing superfluous or, on the opposite side of the scale, inadequate or distracting. The characters are a mixed bunch when it comes to personality and motives, but all with the exception of one or two are relatable, likeable, and even endearing. Where this collection really shines is in the content of the stories themselves. Willis has a deep knowledge of Christmas, which she displays in many of the stories in the form of miniscule details or through the sheer breadth of her knowledge. For example, All Seated on the Ground is a journey through decades of holiday music, with nuanced references to particular passages that relate directly to the story. As for the science fiction angle, you’ll encounter aliens; Ghosts of Christmases Past, Present, and Yet to Come; advanced Christmas decorating technology; and even the biblical parents who risked everything for their unborn child.

While Willis’s holiday knowledge—or at least her  ability to research—is impressive, there are times when the magnitude of details piled onto the reader almost becomes a burden and the stories themselves far too long. All Seated on the Ground is, again, a good example. Apart from all other stories in the collection, this one struck me as far too long with an ending which is not very satisfying. At times, it seemed Willis was extending the narrative simply to justify the amount of time she must have spent sifting through holiday verses.

One of the more enjoyable stories was Cat’s Paw, which is a mystery in the spirit of a Hercule Poirot novel. A visit to a country estate where apes and other primates have been given the ability to speak soon turns into a whodunnit murder mystery where it seems everyone in attendance has some motive. Good thing the renowned Inspector Touffet is on the guest list. Soon the game is afoot and a murderer revealed, but only after much intrigue and a series of misdirections lead everyone but Touffet down the wrong path.

If you’re looking for something beyond the traditional Dickens to read this holiday season, A Lot Like Christmas may fit the bill for you. Despite a couple of the stories feeling like duds to me, I’m giving it four rockets because there are many more stories I enjoyed than not, and even a few which stand out as holiday gems that I’d love to read each and every year.

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb is the second book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy. In some ways this book is a departure from the first novel in the series, Fool’s Assassin. In other ways, it is more of the same. This second book picks up right where Fool’s Assassin left off, with our two main characters just arrived in Buckkeep and Fitz’s daughter, Bee, just having been kidnapped by the very same people the Fool escaped from after a long ordeal of imprisonment and torture. Where Fool’s Quest differs from Fool’s Assassin is in the amount of forward progress we make in the story. Where Fool’s Assassin felt like a really long preamble, Fool’s Quest hits the ground running, and doesn’t stop moving until somewhere in the middle of the book. At that point the reader is eased back into Hobb’s methodically slow but still engaging storytelling up until the end when Fitz sets out to hunt down his daughter’s kidnappers and bring her safely home.

Because of the pacing, I tore through the first half of Fool’s Quest very quickly. There is so much setup done in the first book that Hobb (thankfully) uses this one to have Fitz finally take action. There’s still plenty of introspection (Fitz seems to find a way to blame himself for most everything bad that ever happens to anyone) but there’s also plenty of the “old” Fitz: the King’s assassin who will do his duty no matter the personal cost.

The Fool plays prominently in this book as well. His involvement in the larger storyline was hinted at plenty of times in the first book, but he never took center stage like he does here. Long time readers of the series will know the Fool well, though the character’s circumstances have changed significantly and not for the better. Having suffered at the hands of the Servants, the Fool is a broken man both physically and spiritually. Despite this, though, he remains driven by a singular purpose: revenge against his tormentors. The Fool and Fitz, reunited at the end of Fool’s Assassin, are at their best when together, their purpose while not exactly unified is at least headed in the same direction. Theirs is a relationship which has stood so many tests that it’s only a matter of time before their purposes become unified, whether by intention or trickery. Still, they do become unified as they head into a final confrontation with the Servants (presumably in the next book).

In many ways Fool’s Quest brings a lot of Hobb’s work full circle. Early on in the Fitz series, the reader is introduced to a lost Elderling city which Fitz visits via a Skill pillar. Later, the city is found by more conventional means and re-settled in the Rain Wilds Chronicles. Now, Fitz travels there once more, but this time instead of traversing a deserted city, Fitz meets many of the characters readers of Hobb’s earlier works know well. It’s a gratifying experience and one which gives the reader a sense of the scope of world building Hobb has slowly revealed to us over fifteen or so books.

There were numerous times while reading Fool’s Quest that I felt Hobb had earned a four rocket review from me, but I ultimately settled on three (the same rating I gave the previous book) because there just isn’t enough happening overall. Despite the book’s title, the quest doesn’t really begin until almost the end. If Hobb had moved things along more rapidly while not sacrificing her usual rich content, I would have given it a solid four rockets. But given what I feel is much room for improvement in that regard, I’m giving it three. Long time readers of Hobb’s will love this book. Others probably were discouraged enough with the slow pacing of the first book in the series that they didn’t make it this far to begin with. In any case, I’ve got the next book in the series, Assassin’s Fate, lined up for reading and reviewing soon.

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Fool's Assassin by Robin Hobb is the first novel in Hobb's Fitz and the Fool series, her latest to tell the ongoing story of her beloved character, FitzChivalry Farseer. Hobb began Fitz's journey many books and series ago when the character was a child. All throughout, Fitz has built relationships, made enemies, served his king, loved and lost, and, above all, made nearly every sacrifice imaginable. It's been a long, hard road for the bastard son of Chivalry Farseer, but one that I can say with great relief isn't over yet.

Fool's Assassin picks up not terribly long after Fool's Fate. Fitz has settled into his persona as Tom Badgerlock, holder for the lands of his daughter, Nettle. Because of his past (and everyone thinking he's dead), Fitz must maintain this false identity for his own good and the good of the Farseers. Far from being resentful of it, Fitz has embraced the life of a holder since it keeps him far from the court intrigue and politics so prevalent in Buckkeep Castle. Even better, Fitz has been reunited with the love of his life, Molly, who now resides with him at Withywoods, where they lead an idyllic life. It would seem Fitz, who has sacrificed so much, has finally earned the quiet life he has wanted for so long.

That, in fact, how we find Fitz and Molly getting on for nearly the first half of the book. True to the author's style, Hobb moves us along very slowly. Longtime fans will not be surprised by this at all. It's a testament to Hobb's skill as a writer, though, that even sans many of the plot devices other authors dangle in front of readers to keep their attention, she is able to maintain the reader's interest over hundreds of pages while slowly doling out bits and pieces of the larger story to come. When the end of this first novel in the Fitz and Fool trilogy does come, it comes fast. It left me deeply interested in what's to come next for Fitz as he is finally reunited with his longtime friend, the Fool.

I will freely admit bias when reviewing anything penned by Robin Hobb as she has long been a favorite author of mine. Not that I've embraced everything she's ever written, but I, like so many other readers, has been on Fitz's journey for so long that I doubt there's any story she could tell about him that I didn't find of interest.

Even still, Fool's Assassin earned a rating of three rockets. I would have given it four if only Hobb had cut to the chase a bit and gotten to the real story sooner.

Halloween by Paula Guran (editor)

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The hardest part about writing a review for a collection this diverse is coming up with a singular opinion to describe the entire ensemble of stories. Halloween, edited by Paula Guran, is a rich collection of seasonal stories by the likes of Charles de Lint, H.P. Lovecraft, Peter Straub, Glen Hirshberg, and many more. It contains poems, short stories, and a few works which either reach novelette status or come really close. The shortest story is a few pages. The longest, well over fifty. The only story missing from the Kindle version of the book is Ray Bradbury’s “The October Game” because Bradbury’s estate does not allow digital versions of his works (If that is a particular concern, I recommend purchasing the print version, which does contain Bradbury’s contribution). Guran does include a summary of the missing entry, though, which is especially useful since the very next story, “The November Game” by F. Paul Wilson, ties directly into that one.

“Halloween” stands in at 480 pages. It contains everything from the macabre to the hilarious to the downright depressing. The horror of some stories is driven by supernatural forces; others by the pure evil nature of seemingly ordinary people. Across all of the stories there is a wide array of characters, from the deranged to the just, from the old to the young, from the human to the inhuman. Needless to say, there is something for every Halloween fiction enthusiast here.

Guran begins her collection with a fairly long preface discussing the origins and evolution of Halloween, which likely sprung from the Celtic festival of Samhain. Little is know of the practices and rituals associated with Samhain since the Celts did not write anything down, but it is believed that in their culture faerie-folk were resentful of humans, who slowly were taking over the world. During Samhain, the faerie-folk’s power was enhanced, and thus so was their propensity for mischief. Samhain was eventually adopted by the Christians, who made it into a celebration of the Virgin Mary and martyred saints. October 31 became All Hallows’ Eve (‘hallow’ was synonymous with ‘saint’ during the Middle Ages), though the old ways did not die out so easily. Today, Guran proposes, the holiday is really split in half between adults and children. For grown-ups, Halloween is the third biggest “party day” of the year (New Years and Super Bowl Sunday are first and second, respectively). While the modern celebration of the holiday has mostly been confined to North America, retailers are slowly pushing it into other markets as well, including Japan.

As far as the stories contained in “Halloween,” I found many enjoyable. There’s “The Halloween Man,” which tells the story of a demon that rises once a year to hunt for children’s souls. “Pork Pie Hat,” which I’m still scratching my head over (but in a good way). “Three Doors,” a moving tale also included in Norman Partridge’s Johnny Halloween. “Auntie Elspeth’s Halloween Story, or the Gourd, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a hilarious story within a story told when three grandchildren are unceremoniously dropped off to visit their aunt. The list goes on from there. All told, there are over thirty stories and poems to read.

“Halloween” would have earned a solid four rockets if not for the numerous typos I discovered while reading. Many readers demand perfect spelling and grammar; I am one of them. Some of the errors were simple characters missing. Others were entire words or a repeated word. These sorts of errors jar the reader from the experience and are somewhat easily corrected by employing a good line editor and proofreaders.

That aside, Halloween is such a diverse blend of Halloween stories there’s really something for everyone here. I give it three rockets and a solid recommendation to add it to your Halloween reading list.