Book Review: The Black God’s Drums by P. Djèlí Clark (2018)

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018

This is the alt history Confederacy story you’re looking for.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free e-ARC for review through NetGalley. Trigger warning for racism.)

The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land. Only we forgot the names that went with that power we brought over here. Since Haiti got free, though, those gods were coming back, she’d said, across the waters, all the way from Lafrik. Now here’s two of them in a bordello in New Orleans. Who knows what that means.

The year is 1884, and the Union is still divided. In this alternate steampunk version of American history, the Union and Confederacy called a truce after eight years of war, in the Armistice of Third Antietam. Any states not already a part of the Union were abandoned, its enslaved citizens left to perish in bondage. As if the reality of slavery wasn’t (isn’t) horrific enough, Clark throws in an especially chilling detail, reminiscent of the Sunken Place: slave owners dose their human chattel with a drug called drapeto vapor, which zombifies them into compliance.

I’ve seen the tintype photographs from inside the Confederacy. Shadowy pictures of fields and factories filled with laboring dark bodies, their faces almost all covered up in big black gas masks, breathing in that drapeto vapor. It make it so the slaves don’t want to fight no more, don’t want to do much of nothing. Just work. Thinking about their faces, so blank and empty, makes me go cold inside.

Against this backdrop we meet a plucky AF heroine, thirteen-year-old Creeper (given name Jacqueline). Orphaned three years prior when her mother died of yellow fever, Creeper lives in the nooks and crannies of Les Grand Murs, the Great Wall that surrounds free New Orleans, protecting it from the superstorms that plague the coast – ever since the Haitians let loose a supernatural weapon called The Black God’s Drums in order to drive Napoleon and the French from their country.

While hiding in her alcove, scoping out some potential marks, Creeper overhears a plot to deliver a Haitian scientist to the Confederacy. Supposedly this Dr. Duval has found a way to recreate The Black God’s Drums, thus unleashing the power of the Gods here on earth once again. With such a powerful weapon in their hands, the Confederacy could actually win the war. Now it’s up to a tween pickpocket, an airship captain named Ann-Marie St. Augustine (previously her mother’s paramour), a pair of renegade nuns, and a feral child descended from plantation owners to foil the plot and save the day.

And oh, let’s not forget the two sister-wife goddesses (or pieces of goddesses, rather) that have attached themselves to Creeper and Ann-Marie.

The Black God’s Drums is amazing, and my only complaint is that we don’t get to spend more time in the spectacularly captivating world Clark has created here. While Creeper shines (I’m a sucker for girls disguised as boys), every single character is multi-dimensional and engaging. I really love the interplay between Creeper and Ann-Marie – and their goddesses, Oya and Oshun. The relationship between Ann-Marie and Rose adds another layer to an already complex situation. And Sisters Agnès and Eunice are all kinds of awesome.

Clark paints a colorful and vibrant picture of 1884 New Orleans, from the mixed-race and gay-friendly bordello Shá Rouj to the crumbling plantations claimed by the swamps. The alternate history is fascinating, though it’s frustrating that we don’t learn more about the circumstances leading up to (and fallout of) the treaty; I really, really hope that The Black God’s Drums won’t be the only glimpse we get into this ‘verse. The titular Black God’s Drums, particularly how Clark weaves it into Haitian history, is just the icing on the cake.

I need more. Maybe a twenty-something Jacqueline, now a college graduate and bonafide member of the Midnight Robber, helping Ann-Marie and the rest of the crew to take down the Confederacy for good? Bonus points if guerilla fighter Harriet Tubman makes a cameo. Not to typecast her, but Aisha Hinds has to play Tubman in the film version. (She’s just too perfect, once you see the monologue episode of Underground you won’t ever be able to picture anyone else as Minty.)

And yes, this needs to be a movie like yesterday. Get on this, Hollywood.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (2018)

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

This is the CONFEDERATE we need and deserve.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for racism and misogyny, including sexual violence.)

The day I came squealing and squalling into the world was the first time someone tried to kill me. I guess it should have been obvious to everyone right then that I wasn’t going to have a normal life.

It was the midwife that tried to do me in. Truth be told, it wasn’t really her fault. What else is a good Christian woman going to do when a Negro comes flying out from between the legs of the richest white woman in Haller County, Kentucky?

An Attendant’s job is simple: keep her charge from being killed by the dead, and her virtue from being compromised by potential suitors. It is a task easier said than done.

Every time I sit down and attempt to write this review, three things jump to mind. (Reviewing books I so thoroughly enjoyed? HARD. I never feel like I can do the writing justice.)

1. This is the Civil War-era alternate history series HBO should be throwing money at, mkay. BY THE BOATLOADS.

2. This tweet by the author, posted as I was elbow-deep in her Confederate zombie viscera.

3. THAT COVER.

Okay, now on to the review!

Jane McKeene was born on a plantation just a few days before the end of the Civil War. Only, in this timeline, the war didn’t end in a victory for either side. Rather, the North and South were forced to band together to fight a new threat – the zombies that started rising from the ruins of their battlefields.

While slavery as it was is no longer technically permissible, African-American and Native American children are conscripted to fight the dead. Middle schoolers are sent to boarding schools, where they receive training in weaponry, fighting techniques, and – in the more hoity toity institutions – proper manners and grooming. After graduation, they’re free to seek employment guarding upper-crust white folks, though they’re treated like servants, at best.

At least, this is the case up North: Jane is in training at the elite Miss Preston’s School of Combat in Baltimore. The zombies that wander the desolate and mostly-abandoned landscape between settlements make communication difficult, and there’s no guessing what conditions are like for Attendants down south or out west. But when Jane and a friend stumble into a conspiracy involving the Mayor, the staff of Miss Preston’s, and Baltimore’s richest citizens, they’re kidnapped and sent to a small, dusty new outpost in Missouri, where time seems to have slipped (or been forced) backwards and Attendants are seen as disposable objects at best.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Elsewhere, Volume 1 by Jay Faerber, Sumeyye Kesgin, and Ron Riley (2018)

Tuesday, January 23rd, 2018

What happened to Amelia Earhart?

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

This a fun, quick read. A more outlandish piece of alternative history told in graphic novel format, Elsewhere explores the mystery of what happened to Amelia Earhart. When she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, had to bail from their plane due to do engine trouble, they jumped right into a space-time portal that transported them to an alien world. Amelia is rescued by a ragtag team of freedom fighters and quickly drawn into their cause, as the groups’ missions converge. Together with another stranded earthling named D.B., Amelia and her allies storm the fortress of despot Lord Kragen in search of their friends.

The result is entertaining, if not terribly substantive. What Elsewhere lacks in plot depth and character development, it mostly makes up for with a cheeky sense of humor – not to mention a plot twist that maybe kinda sorta hinges on male entitlement and misogyny. (Whether it’s intentionally or accidentally feminist is anyone’s guess.) The artwork is stellar, and Amelia makes for a delightfully plucky protagonist. Overall Volume 1 lays the foundation for what could be a really great series.

3.5 stars, rounded up to 4 a) because I’m a generous reviewer and b) to make up for the book’s current middling 3.18 stars on Goodreads.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Blood For Blood (Wolf By Wolf #2), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Friday, November 18th, 2016

Now this is how you end a series!

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for violence, including scenes of war. This review contains spoilers for WOLF BY WOLF, the first book in the series.)

The world heard it. People of all stations, colors, creeds . . . Aryan mothers and fathers with broods of blond children, a balding shisha merchant in Cairo, an oily-faced adolescent in Rome. Many stared at the screen—mouths slack, stunned eyes—trying to process what had happened. Others who watched understood. This was the signal they’d been waiting for. One—a frizzy-haired Polish woman by the name of Henryka—even smiled at her television, whispering, “That’s my girl,” before she stood and got to work.

“Monsters cut children open and call it progress. Monsters murder entire groups of people without blinking, but get upset when they have to wash human ash from their garden strawberries. Monsters are the ones who watch other people do these things and do nothing to stop it. You and I are not monsters. If anything, we’re miracles.”

Yael almost rolled up her sleeve there and then, almost pointed to the loping lines of Aaron-Klaus’s wolf, almost told Luka everything she was. But Luka was playing with his father’s dog tag again. And Yael found herself wondering if Kradschützen troops had rolled through this very village, letting their motorcycles idle as the SS made it a pile of bones. She wondered if Luka had any idea how their pasts tangled and tore at each other’s throats.

When last we saw concentration camp survivor/skinshifter/member of the resistance/trained assassin Yael, she had just shot Adolf Hitler. Or rather, the man she believed to be Adolf Hitler. Before he died, the Führer’s doppelgänger revealed his true face; flashes cycled through so quickly that only Yael was able to process and make sense of them.

This not-Hitler was, like her, a product of Experiment Eighty-Five: Dr. Engel Geyer’s attempt to make Jews and other ethnic “undesirables” more Aryan in appearance. The experiments succeeded, and then some: with changes in Yael’s skin and eye color came the ability to change her appearance, drastically and at will. In a delicious twist of fate, Yael employed this newfound skill to escape from the camp – and, eventually, masquerade as Victor Adele Wolf, enter the 1956 Axis Tour, and get close enough to Hitler to shoot him three times at point-blank range. Or so she thought.

Though she didn’t win the race – thwarted as she was by Luka Löwe, 1954’s Victor and the boy Adele betrayed to win in 1955 – Yael still scored an invitation to the Ball, thanks to lovesick Luka. Yael ripped his heart out and waltzed all over it at the end of Wolf by Wolf – not because she doesn’t reciprocate his affections, but perhaps precisely because she does, and nothing good can come of it. And so Yael is cruel to be kind, dumping Luka in the harshest of terms before gunning down not-Hitler. Only this doesn’t save Luka from becoming embroiled in her mess; quite the contrary. The guy who brought Hitler’s assassin to the ball? Well, the Gestapo’s going to want to have a word or two with him, and Luka knows it. So when Yael runs, Luka follows.

Luka isn’t the only boy Yael left behind. There’s also Felix Wolfe, Adele’s twin, who Yael bound, gagged, and abandoned in his room at the Palace. Now he’s fallen into the Gestapo’s hands. Though Yael revealed her true identity before shooting Hitler, it doesn’t really matter one way or the other to the Reich. They need a scapegoat, and it’s going to be Adele and the Wolfe family. That is, unless Felix can gain Yael’s trust and infiltrate and betray the resistance.

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Mini-Review: Iron to Iron (Wolf By Wolf #1.5), Ryan Graudin (2016)

Wednesday, November 16th, 2016

“Iron called to iron, and there was always something more.”

five out of five stars

Once upon a different time, there was a boy who raced through a kingdom of death. He wore a brown jacket where all others were black, and it was said that his face could snare the hearts of ten thousand German maidens at first sight. His own heart? Hidden behind layers of leather and sneer and steel. Untouchable.

Until it wasn’t.

— 4.5 stars —

Set a year before the events of Wolf By Wolf, this novella takes us back to the infamous 1955 Axis Tour: when a sixteen-year-old fräulein named Adele Wolfe, masquerading as her twin brother Felix, materialized from seemingly nowhere to take the Iron Cross. To do so, she not only beat out top contenders Luka Löwe and Tsuda Katsuo – who won the cross in 1953 and 1954, respectively – but circumvented the Führer’s ban on female competitors. The risk paid off: Hitler was so smitten with his newest Victor that he requested a dance with her at the Victor’s Ball. (This proximity, of course, inspired the resistance’s plan to steal Adele’s identity and enter its own racer/assassin in her place in 1956. But I digress.)

To win a grueling, 20,780 kilometer, cross-continent race, a girl’s got to break a few hearts. Iron to Iron follows the competition from Luka’s perspective, from his temporary alliance with the silent and secretive Wolfe boy to his burgeoning romance with Adele Wolfe – and his eventual, inevitable betrayal on the final leg of the tour.

Graudin does an excellent job of adding depth to Luka’s character, softening his harder edges, and establishing his mindset (REVENGE!) when we meet him in Wolf By Wolf. Perhaps more importantly, she satisfies our curiosity about What Happened Between Luka and Adele in the previous year’s race. The betrayal is marginally worse than I expected – a little more violent and sudden – and, while my heart ached for Luka, I couldn’t help but side with Adele.

After all, Luka said it himself: “He didn’t need to win. Not the way this girl did.” Impress your abusive, impossible-to-please father – or escape a life spent popping out babies to feed to Hitler’s empire? It’s kind of a no-brainer. And yet, instead of handing the Iron Cross over to his new love, Luka offered to help her win…next year.

Asking women to sublimate or defer their goals for the good of men? How very 1955. Luka didn’t give her any choice, really.

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Book Review: Everfair, Nisi Shawl (2016)

Monday, September 5th, 2016

Fascinating Idea, So-So Execution

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Ever fair, ever fair my home;
Ever fair land, so sweet—
Ever are you calling home your children;
We hear and answer swiftly as thought, as fleet.
Tyrants and cowards, we fear them no more;
Behold, your power protects us from harm;
We live in freedom by sharing all things equally—
We live in peace within your loving arms.

Leopold II of Belgium founded the Congo Free State in Central Africa in 1885. Ostensibly established as a humanitarian and philanthropic venture, Leopold instead exploited the land and people as a personal venture. Indigenous workers were forced to harvest ivory, rubber, and minerals. Failure to meet quotas was punishable by death, so proven by delivery of the offender’s hand – leading to a rash of mutilations, as villages attacked one another to procure limbs in anticipation of not meeting Leopold’s unreasonable demands. Between murder, starvation, disease, and a drastically reduced birth rate, countless indigenous Africans perished under Leopold’s short rule; some estimates put the death rate as high as 50%. Due to international criticism, Belgium annexed the Congo Free State and assumed control of its administration in 1908, after which time it became known as the Belgian Congo.

Turning her lens on “one of history’s most notorious atrocities,” Nisi Shawl looks at what might have become of the Congo Free State, if white socialists from England and African-American missionaries had united to purchase land from King Leopold II, making it a haven for free blacks, “enlightened” whites, and Chinese and African refugees from Leopold’s reign of terror. Picture an eclectic fusion of Western, Asian, and African cultural practices, politics, and religious beliefs, all made more prosperous – and feasible – through fantastical steampunk technologies: aircanoes capable of transcontinental flight (and easily weaponized); mechanical clockwork prosthetics (also made deadly with the addition of knives, flamethrowers, and poisoned darts); steam-powered bikes; and Victorian-era computers, to name a few.

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Book Review: Wolf By Wolf (Wolf By Wolf #1), Ryan Graudin (2015)

Monday, October 19th, 2015

“The wolves of war are gathering…”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through NetGalley.)

Once upon a different time, there was a girl who lived in a kingdom of death. Wolves howled up her arm. A whole pack of them – made of tattoo ink and pain, memory and loss. It was the only thing about her that ever stayed the same.

Her story begins on a train.

Babushka – the one who gave her purpose.

Mama – the one who gave her life.

Miriam – the one who gave her freedom.

Aaron-Klaus – the one who gave her a mission.

Vlad – the one who gave her pain.

These were the names she whispered in the dark.

These were the pieces she brought back into place.

These were the wolves she rode to war.

An exhilarating and imaginative fusion of alternate history, science fiction, and historical fiction, Ryan Graudin’s Wolf By Wolf mines the many what ifs? surrounding World War II: What if the United States had held fast to an isolationist foreign policy? What if the Hitler had successfully executed Operation Sea Lion? What if the combined forces of the Third Reich and Imperial Japan had won the war, painting most of Europe and parts of Asia and Africa red? What if Nazi scientists successfully found a way of “curing” Untermensch, making them at least appear more perfectly Aryan on the surface? What if these experiments surpassed even Dr. Mengele’s wildest dreams, creating mutants who are able to change their skin at will, the way you or I would change our clothes?

While the first three scenarios were arguably possible at one point or another in history – and Nazi scientists did indeed try to tinker with eye color – that last what if is what catapults Wolf By Wolf into the realm of science fiction/fantasy. And is it glourious. (Misspelling intentional.)

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Book Review: The Last American Vampire, Seth Grahame-Smith (2015)

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

American History V

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received an ARC through Goodreads’s First Reads program.)

It’s one of the few true blessings to the curse of being a vampire. For in those ephemeral moments we cease to be monsters and get to be superheroes.

I have a confession to make: I’ve never read Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Sure, I watched the movie – when it came to DVD last autumn – and liked it. Just not enough to check out the book on which it was based, apparently.

So when I spotted a Goodreads giveaway for The Last American Vampire, I was torn. Usually it’s pure folly to read a series out of order, but the alternate history aspect proved impossible to resist. Also, it looked like the story was far enough removed from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that I might enjoy it anyway; as of this writing, Goodreads doesn’t even list them as part of the same series, though this could very well be a temporary oversight.

While fans of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will undoubtedly get more out of The Last American Vampire, this newcomer loved it just the same. The story follows Henry Sturges – Abe’s immortal friend and mentor – in the years before and since the fatal shooting in Ford’s Theater. Breaking one of the Union’s few rules – “A vampire will make no other vampire.” – Henry stalks Abe’s funeral procession, finally stealing the corpse from its casket in Springfield some three weeks after Abe’s death. Henry lovingly resurrects his friend, nursing him back to health, only to have Abe commit suicide by sunshine upon realizing what he’s become.

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Book Review: The Illegal Rebirth of Billy the Kid, Rebecca Ore (1991)

Friday, November 8th, 2013

Of Mythoconstructs and Men

four out of five stars

* Caution: minor spoilers ahead! Also, trigger warning for discussions of rape. *

Billy the Kid keeps dying.

Night after night, it seems, Sheriff Pat Garrett guns down Henry McCarty in Pete Maxwell’s darkened bedroom – after, of course, an evening romp with Celsa Gutierrez, one of The Kid’s many female admirers. But bleeding through these “real” memories come images of a distant, nightmare world: a trocar jammed in Billy’s neck. A coffin filled with a warm salt bath. Dozens of Celsas: always the same, but different. A man – Pat Garrett, but not really – spying, killing, reviving. “Like a God.”

Henry McCarty has been dead for centuries, but in 2067 his memories – or rather, the history books’ construction of them – live on in a Billy the Kid chimera. Commonly referred to as “nonhumans,” “animals,” and “dog meat,” chimeras are beings made out of “rebuilt” animal cells. Purchased by wealthy civilians as pets and exploited by the government as “meat-robot” spies, many chimera look physically human – though they can be made to a variety of weird specifications (Luna, for example, has fangs like a vampire). While their DNA is indistinguishable from that of “real” humans, by law the DNA of chimeras must be branded with a special DNA marker. The recreation of criminal personalities is outlawed.

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