Nicola West, Catch Us the Foxes (2021)

Author: Nicola West

Title: Catch Us The Foxes 

Format: E-book

Pages: 384

Series: –

Firstly, an announcement. Catch Us the Foxes is officially the worst book I’ve read this year – I know, I know, the year hasn’t ended yet, but I sincerely hope I won’t read anything worse than this – and it really had some solid contenders for this dubious award. But none of the other horrible books of 2021 seems written specifically with money in mind and nothing else. Well, there’s always a first. Now that the weight is off my chest and I can breathe freely, I can muster my writing skill to explain why I think that you should avoid this book like a plague.

And to think that it all started so innocuously. I was asked to review a thriller written by an Australian writer about “a small Aussie town and its secrets – and I thought, “what can go wrong?” What indeed. The list of what didn’t would be much, much shorter, but as I really need to share my misery with you, you’ll be treated to at least some of the cardinal sins of Catch Us the Foxes.

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Marjorie Liu, The Tangleroot Palace: Stories (2021)

Author: Marjorie Liu

Title: The Tangleroot Palace: Stories

Format: E-book

Pages: 256

Series: –

Other: Short story collection

I’ve known Marjorie Liu as the author of Monstress, a dark fantasy graphic novel series with the wonderful art by Sana Takeda. I liked Monstress well enough to request Liu’s short stories collection from NG the moment I saw it there – just look at this cover! In hindsight, I might’ve been better served by gathering more intel on Liu’s work of fiction first. That’s not to say that the collection is irredeemably bad; most stories are inherently readable and subtly creepy in Liu’s trademark Monstress way, and there are a couple that are actually all right. As for the rest, however, ah – best see for yourself, below.

As usual, I offer here a short summary of each story, each scored separately, with an overall rating at the end.

Sympathy for the Bones 7/10

A nicely creepy voodoo (here called hoodoo) story, with dolls and gris-gris and the possession of one’s soul. The sewing aspect was what’s really drawn me to the story, and the spin on the usual witch-and-her-victim trope was interesting. In Liu’s stories men have no agency – and while in this one it made perfect sense, the issue of male agency clearly delineated in the conclusion in a wonderfully perverse way, the whole idea quickly turned into a tired, overused schtick in other stories.

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P. Djèlí Clark, A Master of Djinn (2021)

Author: P. Djèlí Clark

Title: A Master of Djinn

Format: E-book

Pages: 396

Series: Dead Djinn Universe #1

Let me start this review by saying I that enjoyed Clark’s short stories set in the Dead Djinn Universe quite a lot; A Dead Djinn in Cairo was snappy and entertaining, offering a refreshing mix of ideas, and The Angel of Khan el-Khalili is a solid psychological story rooted in real events, showcasing Clark’s strengths in the short form. A Master of Djinn, on the other hand…

Yup, there’s no way around it: if not for NG I would have DNF’ed this book without a second’s hesitation. It was jumbled, incoherent, predictable, and boring. There are many reasons why I judge this book so harshly. First is probably the case of expectations versus reality: I really liked the short stories set in this universe and expected the novel to be more of the same, or even better. It was not to be.

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E. J. Beaton, The Councillor (2021)

Author: E. J. Beaton

Title: The Councillor

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: ?

Soft-BDSM LGBT+ YA Court Intrigue (and not the “feminist Machiavellian political fantasy” it’s marketed as, at least for me)

I just thought I’d get it out of the way first.

Now that’s done I can start with the proper introductions 😉. The Councillor is E.J. Beaton’s debut novel, published today by DAW. It takes place in a fictional world bearing strong resemblance to our world’s Italy in Renaissance times and all this time and place entailed: separate city-states, feudalism, a ruling caste of cutthroat nobles, condottieri and the constant warring they made their fortunes in, and even something of an Italian League (not the football one, this one). The main character, Lysande Prior, is an orphan foundling who through sheer talent (she translated an ancient poetry artifact, Silver Songs, at the age of twelve) became a protégé of Elira’s Iron Queen, Sarelin. When the queen is murdered, our poor scholar must take the position of a Councillor – a sort of an interrex, responsible for choosing a new ruler from among the four remaining city-state rulers. The decision is urgent, for the person responsible for Sarelin’s murder is no other than Elira’s nemesis, The White Queen: Mea Tacitus (more on that masculine suffix later) who over two decades earlier set the realm aflame (quite literally, being an elemental able to control fire). The White Queen wants to conquer Elira for good this time, and won’t take “no” for an answer. So it falls to our hapless and seemingly mousy protagonist to make the right decisions under mounting pressure and successfully defend the realm. Lengthy discussions, banquets, balls, tournaments, and sightseeing trips abound, and there’s even one short battle.

The book is written in an assured, flowing style, imaginative and lush, bordering on purplish – all the more remarkable considering this is a debut novel for the poet Beaton. The exposition is done deftly, the intricacies of the world explained in small bits and pieces, allowing the plot to flow naturally. The cast of characters is sizeable but managed effectively by the author: while their characteristics are mostly limited to the bare minimum allowing the reader to recognize each without trouble and focused mainly on physical traits – with the exception of the dead queen and the main protagonist, who were given a bit more depth and much needed ambivalence – the characterization seemed adequate for the task of differentiating the various persons of interest. Beaton’s writing holds a promise, and her broad literary knowledge can be glimpsed in the myriad of references to various texts, from Machiavelli to Marx. The introduction of magic as a discriminatory trait in a feudal post-war society was an interesting decision and resulted in the lion’s share of my enjoyment of the book. I wish the novel lived up to the marketing description and actually focused on politics of the realm; however, after a promising start it shifted its attention toward romantic/sexual fantasies and relationships of the main character couched in the glittery cloth of court intrigues – and left me feeling increasingly disgruntled.

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Cixin Liu, To Hold Up The Sky (2020)

Author: Cixin Liu

Title: To Hold Up The Sky

Format: E-book

Pages: 336

Series: –

Liu’s short story collection comes in the wake of his breakthrough success with the award-winning The Three-Body Problem. Translated by several translators (none of which was Ken Liu, who translated The Three-Body Problem, and Ican’t help but wonder if politics wasn’t the reasond for that) To Hold Up the Sky offers 11 diverse stories spanning near and far future of our own reality; their main common point seems to be their prominent focus on China and a strong undercurrent of Chinese nationalism. As usual with short stories collections, I’ll review each story separately and give a composite score at the end.

The Village Teacher 0/10

I’d give it 0/10 if I could. Oh, wait, you know what? I can.

Over a quarter century after the collapse of the USSR I never expected to read such a prime example of soc-realist fiction fresh off the publishing press. The primitivity of this story is simply staggering on every level: from the utterly two-dimensional character of the martyr to knowledge – the selfless village teacher bravely giving his life in the heroic quest to teach little kids the Newton’s laws of motion on his death bed in the mountain shed serving as a classroom – to the cosmic conflict between the good carbon-based life-forms who live peacefully in a Federation and the bad silicone-based life-forms who formed a bloodthirsty Empire… Having read both the Polish positivist literature (Orzeszkowa’s ABC vividly comes to mind, and that’s a horrific memory of sickly good intentions married to a total inability to write) and the USSR bestseller and soc-realist opus magnum Story of the Real Man by the Hero of Socialist Labor Boris Polevoy I’ve been scarred for life already. But this… This was even worse. Much, much worse. Polevoy’s book was actually interesting, if you stripped it of the Soviet propaganda – maybe because it was based on a true story. Here? Nothing makes sense.

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