The Girls at the Kingfisher Club

By Genevieve Valentine

Book CoverI’ve mentioned before that I’m a big fan of Genevieve Valentine. I love both her blog and her fictional writing, but am continually surprised by how different they are. She is so funny on her blog; her recaps of the television show “Penny Dreadful” were as much a delight as the show itself. Her books and short stories, however, are almost unrelenting melancholy. Her novels are not hugely long or densely worded, but she somehow gives everything a sort of portentous double-meaning which gives the narratives a heavy tone. It is such a vague feeling in the text that I’m struggling to describe it.

Anyway, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a retelling of the folktale of the twelve dancing princesses, set in New York City during Prohibition. (The titular Kingfisher Club is the dancing girls’ speakeasy of choice.) The Twelve Dancing Princesses was not a favorite story of mine as a kid, so I only vaguely recalled it. What is just sort of casual misogyny in the original story (of course the king locks up the twelve princesses in a tower – that’s just what you do with princesses in fairy tales), gets fleshed out here into true cruelty in the utmost neglect in a real-world setting. This builds up a strong sense of suspense throughout the novel, as the consequences are suddenly more real.

It made me cry several times in the privacy of my home, but it also, embarrassingly, made me laugh out loud on the metro.


Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells

Edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling

Book CoverThis anthology is collected by the same editors and many of the same authors as Teeth, which I read and reviewed previously. It is described on the cover as “an anthology of gaslamp fantasy,” and having the setting be the common factor instead of the characters allowed for a greater range in the stories, which I appreciated.

The Victorian Era, too, is an excellent setting to pick, since so much was going on! There was the very first world’s fair, an explosion of technology, science, and manufacturing, and a return to romance in the arts. It was an era of lots of contradictions, as well: most well-known for extreme wealth, it also had predominant extreme poverty; the British Empire was both strongly xenophobic and driven to colonize; and Queen Victoria herself was both a pretty and lively young girl, and a solemn and joyless widow.

Though, once again, I checked out the book for the short story by Genevieve Valentine, I was pleased that the anthology also included Elizabeth Wein and Caroline Stevermer. My favorite stories ended up being “The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear, in which a governess takes a position in a very troubled household, and “Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes, about the strike of the women who worked in the match factories. Don’t those two alone reveal the wide scope of the book?

Can I also describe how ridiculous I can be? I had always had a vague feeling that I didn’t care for Elizabeth Bear, because I believed that she had written Clan of the Cave Bear (because “Bear”) and/or Women Who Run with Wolves, or some amalgamum of both books that only exists in my head. In addition to the fact that Elizabeth Bear did not write either of those books, I have not actually read either of those books, or any books that Elizabeth Bear has actually written. No reality will keep me from my pointless prejudices!

— Anna


Edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling

Book Cover: TeethI picked up this book as an impulse loan at the library when the title typeface caught my eye. (Design nerd moment: I really like how they were able to make the title actually look like teeth without being totally cheesy about it – very elegant, especially coupled with the lack of teeth in the image) I also had already heard of the book because one of my favorite blog writers, Genevieve Valentine, wrote one of the stories in the collection, and posted that story online. It was awesome, so I figured I wouldn’t mind reading it again and see if the other stories were of the same caliber.

Of course, some were and some weren’t. Well, Valentine’s was still the best, but there were others I really liked, too. In fact, Valentine’s story was first in the collection, and then the second story, All Smiles by Steve Berman, dealt with a vampire myth from a more unusual, non-European culture, as well, so I was pretty pleased. (Actually, both these first two stories are available in a preview of the book here.)

The problem with this type of anthology is that lots of people, me included, like to read about vampires, so it makes sense to collect stories about them. Good vampire stories, though, often use vampirism as a surprise twist in the story, so you see the problem. Just being included in this type of anthology spoils a lot of the stories, so there were certainly several that I think I would have liked a lot more if I hadn’t just been reading them waiting for the vampires to show up.

A not-so-brief gripe to close out this review: the book cover promises contributions from Cassandra Clare & Holly Black, Neil Gaiman, Melissa Marr, and more. Now, I’m a recent fan of Holly Black, and I really enjoyed her story here, co-written with Cassandra Clare; and I’m starting to think Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely was a fluke because I haven’t enjoyed any of her other writing nearly as much; but my real gripe is with Neil Gaiman. I love his Sandman graphic novels and every full-length novel he has ever written. I consider myself a huge fan of his. However, his short stories are crap. So, I knew not to actually consider his name on the cover to be any sort of selling point, but he must have disappointed legions of not-already-disappointed fans with his short and hasty-seeming poem that reads more like a pop song. Weak sauce, Gaiman, weak sauce.


Willful Impropriety

Edited by Ekaterina Sedia

Book Cover: Willful ImproprietyIn spite of considering myself an avid reader, I don’t actually buy books very often. I have a history of moving every 4-5 years, and after a couple of times moving countless heavy boxes of books, a large personal library just seems cumbersome. However, when I saw a copy of Willful Impropriety in the store, I bought it without a second thought. Young adult fiction, with some Fantasy elements, set in the Victorian Era? Yes, please!

Plus, I had originally heard of the book on the blog of one of the contributing authors, Genevieve Valentine, of whom I’m a big fan. (Also, she tends to contribute stories to more esoteric collections that are not picked up by my library.) Valentine is a bit of a conundrum for me, though. I love both her blog and her fictional writing, but they are shockingly different. Her blog is very funny with acute analysis of current popular culture, while her fiction has a lyrical and melancholy tone, and her story in this collection is no exception.

I was also pleasantly surprised that another of the authors, Caroline Stevermer, was the co-author, along with Partricia C. Wrede, of Sorcery & Cecilia, which I’ve already raved about here. Her story was probably my favorite of this collection, and has inspired me to track down some more of her books Another author, M. K. Hobson, whose story felt a bit like a P.G. Wodehouse story but with magic, also wrote The Native Star, which Kinsey recommended to me a while ago, and while is definitely going on my to-read list.

The introduction to the book describes that young adult literature set in the Victorian Age seemed like a complimentary match, since YA Lit is often about rebelling against the status quo to establish an individual identity, and the Victorian Age sure had a lot of status quo to rebel against. But after more than a dozen stories, I was a little saddened by how many of them ended with the heroine finding a solution in a relationship with a man.

Which, of course, is one of the few historically accurate ‘happy endings’ for women, but the stories didn’t stay so rigidly accurate in other features, so having them return to that trope was a bit of a bummer. The stories that did not include such a pat ending stood out all the more, though.

— Anna

More links, and why I sometimes don’t listen to people

I’m not quite ready to talk about The Magicians yet (although it’s still awesome), so it’s links again. This time I thought I’d share another review site I like: Asking the Wrong Questions by Abigail Nussbaum. She reviews books and movies and TV, focusing mostly but not exclusively on science fiction. Her reviews are tremendously detailed and thoughtful, and I appreciate that she’s in Israel and provides a non-American, non-European point of view that I don’t come across that often. I have to admit that I sometimes choose not to read her when she’s reviewing something I really love (Doctor Who, Persuasion, Community), because she doesn’t pull any punches. I’ve been known to describe her as “not liking anything,” but that’s not really fair. She just expects a lot of her media and isn’t willing to give anything, even a show or book she likes, a pass when its lazy. Which is great, but I’m not very good at disregarding something once I’ve read it, and sometimes I just want to watch a Doctor Who episode without worrying about the character inconsistencies. But I am always interested to see what she’s reading and watching and you can damn sure that if she gives something a good review, it is a really solid piece of media.

Today I specifically want to point to a review she did at Strange Horizons comparing Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. I haven’t read Mechanique yet but I love Valentine’s blog. (Her movie reviews are priceless, as are her critiques of Miss Universe contestants’ costumes and her theory that Keanu Reeves is immortal.) I did recently finish The Night Circus and I thought about reviewing it here, but could never quite figure out what I wanted to say about it. I enjoyed reading it. It was very well constructed and featured some beautiful set pieces. But even after reading hundreds of pages, I didn’t have any stronger reaction to it than that. Abigail captured it perfectly in her review when she said that The Night Circus doesn’t inspire much emotion because the characters don’t feel like human beings. And it’s true, at no point did I feel overwhelmingly invested in the characters (with the exception of Bailey and I ended up being worried about how his story ended–join me in the comments if you’ve read this and want to talk about my concerns about Bailey!). At one point Abigail says the book has a sense of “weightlessness” and I think that’s perfect. The Night Circus has some really stunning imagery in it, so I’d recommend it to people who enjoy that sort of it-paints-a-picture writing, but based on the Strange Horizons review I’m thinking that I’ll move on to Mechanique.