By Emily Lloyd-Jones
This was a tough read honestly. It is a moderately well-written YA fantasy novel with a great title and an interesting premise. Demons are real and will grant wishes for people in exchange for a body part. Small requests cost a finger or toe, and they go up to a hand or foot, to an arm or leg. The body parts appear to get taken in a supernaturally clean amputation, and there doesn’t seem to be much lasting physical pain to the process.
Our protagonist, Dee Moreno, is desperate for the money to pay the tuition for her boarding school, which is the only thing that keeps her out of her parents’ abusive home. It seems likely this would have cost her a foot, or an arm at most, but unfortunately for her, she meets a demon who transacts only in hearts. Which of course sounds appalling, and everyone is appalled, but here’s the thing: he takes the heart on a two-year contact, during which Dee must run errands for him. Admittedly, they are life-endangering, supernatural errands, but after two years she gets her heart back. Which sounds like a much better deal than losing even a toe for life.
She joins four other teenagers, who have also lent out their hearts to run this demon’s errands, and of course one of them is a quirky, sensitive artist boy. Dee spends a fair amount of time mulling over her heartless state, though it doesn’t seem to prevent her from falling for the obvious romantic lead, and I spend a fair amount of time mulling over how I’d probably lend out my heart for two years just for the favor of not having to feel anything for two years. Which made me feel old and sad, but is probably not ultimately the book’s fault.
(I do still fully blame the book for telling, but not showing, any real consequence to being ‘heartless.’ Every time the book emphasized the awfulness of it all, I kept thinking how angry I would have been to have given a limb without knowing that the heart was an option.)
By Natasha Pulley
Oh, man, you guys! This book is so good! The Bedlam Stacks is the second novel by the author of The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, and I’d forgotten how good that novel was, too! They both have this beautiful atmosphere of dreaminess and suspense, and all the characters are so smart and interesting, even when they are at odds with each other, and the dialogue is so witty!
So, The Bedlam Stacks is about a guy who works for the East India Company as a smuggler, which the book fully recognizes is super problematic. Merrick Tremayne travels around the world, steals other countries’ protected resources and brings them back to London for the English company to sell at a huge profit. When the story starts, he has been injured in China and convalescing at his decrepit family estate. Though he isn’t fully able to walk yet, the company asks him to go to Peru to steal some cuttings of a native tree that is the main ingredient of the only known malaria cure at the time.
I would say that this is a stand-alone book and you don’t have to read The Watchmaker first, but you actually do. There is very little overlap in characters and setting, but to borrow from the clockwork theme, there’s a small but important cog in the story that you won’t understand if you don’t already know the secret of The Watchmaker. One of the very cool chapters when things start falling into place won’t make any sense at all, and will probably just confuse everything worse.
That said, The Watchmaker had one key magical element that transformed the very mundane London setting. The Bedlam Stacks exponentially expands the world-building to an entire region in Peru, where what we would consider magic is built into the way of life, both to the benefit and detriment of the locals. I loved it, it broke my heart, and I can’t stop thinking about it!
The end of 2017 and beginning of 2018 have been rough, y’all. Not good at all. And since comfort reading is one of my big coping strategies, I have spent the past few months reading mostly romance novels, Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries (still working my way through all those, Murder Must Advertise was loads of fun), and the occasional true crime story. But recently two well-reviewed literary books snuck in that both tell stories about a world much like our with just the slightest fantastical shift. They were also both beautifully written and slightly terrifying, which might be a good fit for all our feelings in this deepest, darkest winter?
The Power is also a good fit for our current #MeToo culture, since it is based on the idea that one day, women all over the world suddenly begin to manifest the ability to shock/attack people with electricity. If women have no reason to fear men physically, what could happen? In this story, piece by piece, place by place, this shift begins to upend society. The narration moves between characters, including women who are able to exercise this power in their lives, and men who begin to understand what it is like to live in fear. The premise is excellent, but what makes this book so genius is the subtlety with which the author approaches all the possible different ways that this change in the power balance affects politics, sex, school kids, the workplace, and every other bit of society. The Power has gotten all sorts of accolades in the U.K., where it originally came out, which was honestly surprising to me because it feels so subversive I can’t believe it’s had such mainstream popularity. Also, the framing conceit of the book–letters between scholars talking about a draft manuscript that makes up the bulk of the book–is just absolutely genius and may raise some painful memories for any women who have spent much time with men in the workplace.
Exit West has also received rapturous press and was on a number of Best of 2017 lists, and it was all deserved. This story revolves around a couple in an unnamed Middle Eastern country who are falling in love and starting a tentative relationship right as their country is beginning to destabilize and eventually descend into war. (The parallels with Syria feel unavoidable.) At the same time, all around the world, an unexplained phenomenon is occurring where suddenly a normal door can begin to open to some random location in another part of the world. Now that people can move around the world without crossing borders, countries have lost control over immigration and the world is in upheaval. The book is clearly making statements about refugees and political states in the modern world, but for me the more haunting part of the story was the descriptions of the small, incremental changes in a society that can lead to one day waking up in a war zone. While the plot is heavy, the writing here is very light and poetic and the book is not overly long, so it doesn’t feel like a burden to read.
Neither of these is what I would call a comfort book, and neither of them made me feel particularly more hopeful about the future. But if you’re looking to be captivated by a story and slightly horrified about what the world could come to, one of these might be for you.
I wrote a review of the first three stories in Bujold’s Penric & Desdemona series back in November 2016 and then Anna wrote a review of the fourth one in July 2017, but I am here to tell you that the fifth and sixth ones have both come out and they are both awesome!
Penric’s Fox (story #5) is essentially a sequel to Penric and the Shaman (story #3). Although it’s set some years later, it’s the same cast of characters and is set decidedly before the events of story #4. One of the things I really enjoy about Bujold is that she plays around with her genres even in the same series and thus this is a detective story, with a discovered corpse and police investigation and all. It was also kind of heart-wrenching and made me tear up a bit but just so very good.
Prisoner of Limnos (story #6) is a direct sequel to Mira’s Last Dance (story #4) with barely a few weeks having passed for the characters between the two books and dealing directly with some of the uncertainty left at the end of #4. I was also all geared up for some raciness to it, too, but Anna can be reassured that events stay relatively chaste (even as my mind is in the gutter giving me occasional wink-wink nudge-nudges.) This is something of a heist storyline and also introduces a whole swathe of new secondary characters that seem very interesting and open up all sorts of possibilities for future story lines. While this one doesn’t end in quite the almost-cliff-hanger (emotionally at least) of #4, it does leave me just craving more. I just really need to know more about those new characters and their stories and what they do next. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Bujold continues to write these stories at the amazing pace she’s had so far.
Kinsey’s Three Word Review: Entertaining urban fantasy
You might also like: Anything by Patricia Briggs or Ilona Andrews–I think the official Biblio-therapy position is that we are strongly in favor of those series. But Ben Aaronovitch’s supernatural mysteries, also set in London, would be good companions to this.
By Lois McMaster Bujold
Rebecca is a much bigger fan of Lois McMaster Bujold than I am, and she already raved about the first three entries in this series last year, but I’ve jumped in to review the fourth because…whoo, boy.
Before we started this blog together, I don’t think any of us realized how much more prudish I am than either the other reviewers. I get easily embarrassed by reading pretty much anything more explicit than a kiss on the lips, and I very much appreciate just the literary version of a ‘fade to black.’
Which this story actually does! However, the situations that are set up before the polite drawing of the curtain where almost too much for my poor weak sensibilities. This is really a novella with an estimated reading time of a little over an hour, but it took me a full week, with all the breaks I had to take to repose myself.
Now, I’m sure this all sounds very titillating, but before you jump right in, it is not at all a stand-alone book. The four Penric & Desdemona novellas feel more like a single, serialized novel than sequels, and this one picks up from the moment the last one ends. Each one also builds in intrigue (and scandalousness), so the first couple are fun but comparatively decorous.