Frances Hardinge, A Skinful of Shadows (2017)

A Skinful of Shadows

Author: Frances Hardinge

Title: A Skinful of Shadows

Format: E-book

Pages: 448

Series: –

“Twenty-seven months is long enough for a place to seep into your bones. Its colours become the palette of your mind, its sounds your private music. Its cliffs or spires overshadow your dreams, its walls funnel your thoughts.

Humans are strange, adaptable animals, and eventually get used to anything, even the impossible or unbearable. […] Terror is tiring, and difficult to keep up indefinitely, so sooner or later it must be replaced by something more practical.

One day you wake up in your prison, and realize that it is the only real place. Escape is a dream, a lip-service prayer that you no longer believe in.”

A Skinful of Shadows is my first Hardinge book, but definitely not the last. Dark and atmospheric, full of loss and anger, horror and hope, this novel transports the reader into the 17th century Britain in the throes of its first Civil War. And while the actual battles, army marches and skirmishes remain on the fringes of the story, the very acute human ugliness always accompanying such conflicts is very much in the center of the novel, making the life of our young protagonist a rather difficult endeavor, fraught with danger, ill-timed happenstance and simple callousness and greed. But fear not, all is not as bleak and dark as it may seem from my introduction; and we have Makepeace Felmotte to thank for this. Makepeace (what an amazing Puritan name!) is a young girl gifted – or cursed – with the ability to see and interact with ghosts. The exact manner of this interaction I will leave to curious readers to discover; suffice to say that there are more things one can do with ghosts than I imagined, and all of them are rather creepy 😉 But despite that strange family trait, which drags her into danger more times that she can count, Makepeace is an inherently optimistic creature; indomitable would be a perfect word to describe her, were she not too humble to accept such aggrandizing epithets. But she is both, and more: humble and indomitable, steadfast, and full of empathy, ability for strategic planning and very un-youthlike patience.

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Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic (2020)

Mexican Gothic

Author: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Title: Mexican Gothic

Format: E-book

Pages: 352

Series: –

The title says it all. A distinctly Gothic novel set in 20th century Mexico, complete with a sprawling, haunted house shrouded in mists, a feisty female protagonist thrown by fate into the middle of unknowable, and a terrible secret from the past. Sounds a bit like paint-by-numbers piece, but Moreno-Garcia deftly introduces elements of postmodern literary play into that sombre, creepy genre, freely mixing moods and plot threads, artfully twisting tropes and the rules of the game, all the while staying true to the spirit of the Gothic fiction. Blending body horror with social commentary regarding colonial past and gender roles in old and modern Mexico, Moreno-Garcia creates a unique story that will be perversely satisfying to fans of Hannibal Lecter and Brontë sisters alike.

Noemí Taboada lives her carefree life of a rich, spoiled socialite in mid-century Mexico City – until she receives a troubling message from her beloved older cousin, Catalina, who had recently – and hurriedly – married an English heir to a run-down mining estate and moved to her husband’s mansion in the mountains. Asked by her father to check on Catalina, whose missive seems both furtive and deeply disconcerting, Noemí embarks on a perilous journey. The High Place, Doyles’ family seat, is a remote, crumbling house, full of mould and ghosts of a wealthier past. Yet the estate, however repulsive at first sight, keeps much more horrifying secrets, which our protagonist will learn in time, together with us readers, whether she wants it or not.

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Neal Stephenson, Anathem (2008)

Anathem

Author: Neal Stephenson

Title: Anathem

Format: Ebook

Pages: 937

Series: –

“They knew many things but had no idea why. And strangely this made them more, rather than less, certain that they were right.”

Neal Stephenson is a prolific writer, known for his SF and speculative fiction novels (for some reason lack of dragons or other mythological creatures seems to exclude one from the fantasy genre 😉), all of them full of alternatively mind-bending or awe-inspiring ideas, and all incredibly long, even considering the current market conditions. I have reviewed on this blog his 2015 SF novel Seveneves, which dealt with the consequences of an improbable but possible event – the shattering of  Earth’s Moon and the subsequent fallout of the debris on the Earth’s surface. I admired the sheer scientific drive of this novel and enjoyed its far-reaching plot – to a point 😉. Seveneves is a brilliant example of the opportunities and pitfalls inherent in literary imbalance – namely, the dominance of ideas over plot and character development, not to mention certain scientific facts, like the pace of evolution; and yet, it remains a flawed but intellectually highly rewarding, thought-provoking read. Looking for something similarly intellectually stimulating, I was encouraged by Bart at Weighing a Pig Doesn’t Fatten It to try another of Stephenson’s critically acclaimed bricks and Bart’s favorite – Anathem.

Forewarned in foreword by the author, I jumped straight in, eager to immerse myself in the highly conceptualized and yet absolutely addictive world of Arbre – and this is the course of action I would advise any potential readers to take. The process of figuring out what’s going on in Anathem and how it relates to our own reality, constitutes at least half of the fun the novel offers. And a lot of fun it is indeed, especially for those philosophically minded, who enjoy nothing more than a riveting peregrination through the philosophical origins of the Western culture now and then.

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Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood

Format: E-book

Pages: 359

Series: The Hazel Wood #1

So many people recommended this book that I couldn’t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity – and now here we are 😊.

The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better – until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, it’s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before it’s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place – for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.

The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF.  And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novel’s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albert’s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands – The Hazel Wood’s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides – both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes – these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales – similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.

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Adrian Czajkowski (Tchaikovsky), Made Things (2019)

Made Things

Author: Adrian Czajkowski

Title: Made Things

Format: E-book

Pages: 190

Series: –

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Adrian Czajkowski is probably most well-known to SFF readers for his science-fiction novel Children of Time – and, of course, for his unconditional love of spiders. Yet to me, his best work to date is unequivocally the ten-book fantasy series Shadows of the Apt, which I don’t hesitate to call his opus magnum – both because of the sheer length of the saga (and I’m not even counting the companion collections of short stories), but also because it is insanely creative, ambitious, and yet respectful toward its historic sources. Czajkowski has become a truly prolific writer, mixing many flavors of the SFF and even horror genres into unique, original work. Made Things, his novella/short novel, can be described as such an effort – a whimsical tale of adventure and magic in an alt-Mediaeval world.

Made Things are literally made things – little homunculi originally created by a human from a variety of materials, from metal and wood to paper and thread, and given life through magic. Now, having gained independence from their maker in somewhat traumatic circumstances, they find themselves completely on their own in a not very friendly, and frankly rather enormous, real world. They are drawn to the human world and human-made sources of magic: various trinkets, jewelry and items of great power, as magic imbues their bodies with a life-force and sentience. They are also drawn to people themselves, however dangerous that might be, because people tend to possess a lot of non-magic stuff – out of which a new body for a new member of the colony can be fashioned (or outright stolen, as the case may be for some of the more entrepreneurial little people).

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