Book Review: Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 edited by B. Morris Allen (2017)

Thursday, July 13th, 2017

They’re Good Stories, Brent.

four out of five stars

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

I hate to think how things would have been if that dog had gone to a shelter. I wonder what the workers and volunteers would have done when the little guy started to expand like unspooling Christmas lights, impossibly bright, tangled in the shape of dog. It hurts my heart to picture that loving collection of cosmic bodies crouching in a kennel.

(“My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major” by Jarod K. Anderson)

Trans-human. That’s what I’m called, somehow. The word never felt right though, then least of all. Trans is too high, too grand for someone so cobbled together. So is human, I suppose. If I get hurt, I’m as like to spill oil as blood. That’s why the witch didn’t see me. She didn’t see a person, she just saw parts.

(“Strix Antiqua” by Hamilton Perez)

When I spotted this anthology of “vegan” science fiction and fantasy stories on NetGalley, I knew I had to have it. Though I love both genres, the animal exploitation that seems ubiquitous in each makes active compartmentalization while reading a must. (Though you could say the same of all literature, fwiw.) Vegan SF/F? Sign me up!

Alas, Best Vegan Science Fiction & Fantasy of 2016 isn’t quite what I envisioned. Instead of, say, stories featuring vegan protagonists, plots that involve daring animal rescues, or narratives that hinge on animal sentience or human/nonhuman kinship, the stories contained within these pages are “vegan” more for what you don’t see than the things you do. There are no scenes of animal cruelty, exploitation, or speciesism here. Often there aren’t any animals at all!

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing! On the contrary, some of the stories are downright magical. To no one’s surprise, my favorite was the sole story that did center a nonhuman in its narrative. In “My Dog is the Constellation Canis Major,” the narrator inherits a dog from his eccentric yet beloved grandmother; a creature who literally shines with love, and one the grieving guardian must ultimately set free.

I also adored Hamilton Perez’s “Strix Antiqua,” in which speciesism (automatonophobia? robophobia? technophobia?) proves to be the evil witch’s downfall. You might look at “Strix Antiqua” as vegan in the larger sense, e.g., in that it promotes compassion and respect for all animals, including those of the human variety. (Or, to expand the circle even further, all sentient beings, including those that are non-organic.) Likewise, “Closed Circuit” has a bit of a social justice bent, as the settlers of an abandoned mining colony fight for their freedom on a hostile planet/in a hostile world.

“Murder on the Adriana” is also worth a mention, if only because it brought to mind one of my favorite shows, Joss Whedon’s Firefly. (That one episode with Mal and Zoey’s war buddy Tracey in particular, which has forever earned a special place in my heart.)

The book ends on almost as strong a note as it begins, with Kelly Sandoval’s “Small Magics” – a twist on the trope of a gifted child leaving home to save the world. A mother’s love means knowing when to hold tight to your magical little munchkin…and when it’s time to send him out into the world to forge his own path.

Overall, this is a satisfying (if short!) collection of SF/F stories that won’t make animal lovers cringe with horror (or even just disapproval). Animals aren’t always introduced into the stories – but when they are, it’s with kindness and respect.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Beast Is an Animal, Peternelle van Arsdale (2017)

Wednesday, March 8th, 2017

Dark and beautiful, but ultimately unsatisfying.

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss. Trigger warning for child abuse, miscarriage, and misogyny.)

It would have been better not to have any babies at all than to give birth to two girls. Some even said it was an act of spite on the mother’s part. Only a truly disobedient woman would do such a thing.

She couldn’t get away from the monster. She was the monster.

— 3.5 stars —

Once upon a time, in a village near the forest in the land of Byd, two babies were born. They came into the world a mere two minutes apart, after their mother had labored for days. They were girls in a world that considered female children useless and unlucky; identical twins in a land ruled by superstition and mistrust. Mirror twins, at that: each a reflection of her sister, her other half.

Mindful of their neighbors’ intolerance, the woman and her husband kept the children at home, hidden from prying eyes. At least as long as they were able. This grew increasingly necessary, as the village was wracked by drought and famine, year after year. But one fateful day a visitor selling eggs caught sight of three-year-old Angelica and Benedicta; and by nightfall, an angry mob had gathered outside the family’s door. Determined to be a witch and the offspring of her coupling with the Beast, respectively, the mother and her twins were banished to the forest upon threat of death.

The girls grew wild and feral while their mother withered and faded away. Eventually they became orphans, alone save for each other – and the bitterness eating away at their hearts. The resulting hole could only be filled with the fear and hatred of others; of people like the ones who created them.

Once upon another time, also in the village of Gwenith, there lived a precocious seven-year-old girl whose brain wandered at night. One fateful evening her feet and legs followed. Though Alys’s parents cautioned her to never go out at night, lest she encounter the much-feared soul eaters – or, worse still, their master, The Beast – she disobeyed. By morning, every adult in Gwenith would be dead. Killed by the soul eaters, who Alys encountered in the pastures during her midnight stroll. She failed to sound the alarm. She was as bad as the soul eaters. She killed them all.

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Book Review: Monstress, Volume 1: Awakening, Marjorie M. Liu & Sana Takeda (2016)

Monday, August 15th, 2016

Devastatingly Gorgeous Artwork & Intricate World-Building Make Monstress a Must-Read

five out of five stars

To quote the poets…murder is terribly exhausting.

— 4.5 stars —

I pre-ordered Monstress based on the cover alone; and, the more I learned about it, the more excited I became. A steampunk fantasy set in turn-of-the-century Asia, featuring a diverse cast of mostly-female characters, written and illustrated by two women of color? Sign me up!

As it turns out, Monstress is everything I’d hoped for and then some. The story takes place in 1920s Asia, though you might not know it at first glance: this alternate ‘verse is so very different from our own. Humans are not the only – or even the first – sapients to walk the earth. (To borrow a term from The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.) We were preceded by Cats, the children of Ubasti: Multi-tailed, talking creatures, who can wield a weapon as easily as a sarcastic comeback. The immortal Ancients assumed the forms of beasts and, like their Greek cousins, enjoyed toying with humans. It is from such relationships that Arcanic halfbreeds were born: some are human in appearance, while most are not; yet all Arcanics possess great powers, powers which can be extracted from their very bones. Last but not least are the Old Gods, of which precious little is known. Some believe them to be monsters.

While humans and Arcanics coexisted in peace for generations, war broke out for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. An infernal bomb, which rained destruction down upon the city of Constantine, resulted in a stalemate. Now both races live on their respective sides of the wall. Yet the Cumaea – a powerful order of nun-witches that rules the human federation – is intent resurrecting the war and exterminating the Arcanics.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Winterspell, Claire Legrand (2014)

Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

A Dark & Dangerous Reimagining of The Nutcracker

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Goodreads’s First Reads program. Please note that there are clearly marked spoilers near the end of this review. Also, trigger warning for rape.)

Our stories say that when the human world was first made, not all of it fit.

Pieces fell off the whole, like too much dough being stuffed into a small pan, and those bits dropped into cracks and were forgotten. Our stories, the oldest ones, the ones most people no longer remember, say that my country, Cane, is one of those forgotten places, hidden away in some cosmic pocket of existence, for the most part separated from the human world, but not entirely. Tenuous links connect the two worlds – like certain traveling songs, and hidden doorways, and magic, if you’re able to use it.

New York City, 1899.

Though more privileged than most, seventeen-year-old Clara Stole’s family suffers under the rule of Concordia, a powerful gang of thugs, politicians, and businessmen (well, mostly men) whose corruption and thirst for power threatens to suck the city dry. Her mother Hope fell victim to the violence that plagues the streets, poor and wealthy alike; nearly a year ago, her bloated, mutilated remains were found by the river, her body marred by strange symbols. In his grief, father John hit the bottle hard, leaving Clara to run the household and care for her younger sister Felicity.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Secrets of Life and Death, Rebecca Alexander (2014)

Wednesday, October 8th, 2014

A Mostly Fun Mix of Urban Fantasy & Historical Fiction

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free ARC for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

It is said in Poland that nowhere is the line between alive and dead finer, than in Transylvania. Only when a corpse is bloated and festering, or entirely beheaded, is it believed dead.

Poland, 1585. The scientist-slash-sorcerer Dr. John Dee and his assistant Edward Kelley are summoned to the castle of His Majesty King Istvan Báthory of Poland, King and Duke of Lithuania, King and Viovode of Transylvania, Prince of Hungary (say that five times fast!). His sister’s daughter, the Countess Elisabeth Báthory, is dying of a mysterious illness – one with symptoms eerily similar to the sickness that claimed her mother Anna and grandmother Katalin before her.

Caught between the warring forces of the Vatican and its brutal Inquisition; Elisabeth’s husband, the fierce Ferenc Nádasdy; and the angels (or are they demons?) who communicate with Dee through Kelley, the scientists risk death if they fail to cure the Countess – and possibly their mortal souls should they succeed.

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Book Review: The Fever: A Novel, Megan Abbott (2014)

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

“We’re all sick here.”

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewers program.)

On the surface, the Nashes seem to be the model, all-American family. Father Tom teaches history at the local high school, where his son Eli excels at hockey (not to mention heartthrobbery), and daughter Deenie is an exemplary student. But when a mysterious illness rips through the female population of Dryden High School – starting with Deenie’s own clique of friends – the ensuing panic brings long-buried family secrets to the fore. Could Deenie and Eli’s estranged mother have been right to flee Dryden when she did – ahead of the “demon fog” that threatens to corrupt the town wholesale? Or is the cause of the looming epidemic much more mundane?: HPV vaccines, pollution, stress?

As more and more girls succumb to fits of seizures, vomiting, and hallucinations, hysteria tightens its grip on parents, school administrators, and the media. By week’s end, one thing is clear: Dryden’s survivors will never be the same.

Megan Abbott’s The Fever is an eerie, atmospheric retelling of The Crucible, for a modern YA audience. It’s got a wonderfully creepy vibe that’s slightly negated by the decidedly natural (as opposed to supernatural) ending – which, conversely, also makes the story that much more plausible. Since the threat looming over Dryden remains unidentified until the final chapters, the parents (and readers, some of whom may also be parents) are invited to use it as a placeholder for their own worries and fears: teenage sexuality, vaccines, environmental catastrophe, internet predators, pedophiles, gun violence – or even their own shortcomings as parents: “We’re all sick here.”

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: The Hex Breaker’s Eyes, S.D. Tennant (2014)

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Mean Girls Meets That One Episode of Supernatural

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program.)

I wasn’t frightened until the girl started to glow in the dark.

“You seriously can’t see that?” I ask my best friend.

“See what?” […]

Across the street from us, a girl is glowing. Well, I shouldn’t say that. It’s not like she’s painted in neon green body glitter or anything. But this girl’s got a real sort of, well, glow. There’s yellow light radiating from her. She looks like a low-watt bulb. I swear she does.

But Tamara doesn’t see it.

Fifteen-year-old Mindee Vefreet is just your average Wilfred Laurier Secondary School sophomore. Sure, maybe she’s not the most popular girl in school; her family doesn’t have a whole lot of money, and after her mother was institutionalized for schizophrenia, the kids at school started to whisper behind her back. And right in her face. You’d think that after her mother died, they’d back off just a bit – but you’d be wrong. Even now, years later, Mindee’s known as ‘the daughter of that psycho.’

But, for all intents and purposes, the only exceptional thing about Mindee is how unexceptional she is.

Until, one day, she isn’t.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Burning Girls: A Tor.Com Original, Veronica Schanoes (2013)

Friday, April 4th, 2014

Beautifully Conceived and Written

five out of five stars

(Caution: minor spoilers below!)

Born in Bialystok, Poland at the turn of the century, Deborah is possessed of the power like her bubbe. Deborah is a witch, and spends her summers in training with grandmother Hannah: learning to assist in childbirth, cure common ailments, terminate unwanted pregnancies, craft blessings and talismans, and drive away demons. But Deborah’s magic is little help against the growing tide of antisemitism sweeping through Europe; and when the Cossacks lay waste to Hannah’s village, killing Deborah’s beloved grandmother and mentor, it becomes clear to her family that they must escape to America. America, where “they don’t let you burn.”

While the family – mother, father, and sister Shayna – work overtime to save enough money for the trip, Deborah discovers a horrifying secret. There, among grandmother’s sparse belongings, is a mysterious contract: “The ink seemed to be made of blood and vomit. A stench like cowshit rose off the page. My stomach churned every time I unfolded the paper.” When a demon tries to steal her newborn brother Yeshua, Deborah realizes that her grandmother did the unthinkable: traded her daughter’s next child in exchange for the family’s safe passage to America. Though Deborah succeeds in destroying the contract, it’s at great personal cost; and while Deborah and Shayna eventually make it to the New World, they’re ultimately unable to escape the lilit’s clutches.

(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood et al. (2012)

Wednesday, December 4th, 2013

Season of the Witch

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: The publisher sent me a free copy of this book for review at my request.)

“Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live.” – Exodus 22:18

While the term “witch hunts” often conjures up images of the Salem Witch Trials, the truth is that those American colonists persecuted for witchcraft were but a drop in the bucket. From the mid-1300s through the 1700s, tens of thousands of people were imprisoned, tortured, and executed across Europe for the crime of heresy, including practicing witchcraft. In Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times, Rocky Wood, Lisa Morton, and Greg Chapman offer a succinct yet chilling account of the witch trials in graphic novel format.

Driven by fear, superstition, greed, and misogyny, religious and “secular” authorities alike found new and inventive ways to interrogate and kill these hapless victims, whose property was routinely confiscated and redistributed among the nobility, offering a powerful motive to accuse the innocent of consorting with the devil. In more extreme cases, this strategy backfired (or rather, progressed to its natural conclusion): entire towns were laid to waste as citizens were murdered en masse and others fled: “Finally, in 1593, the executions in Trier ended only when the city and its people were too impoverished to continue, the population had too much diminished, and food became scarce because farmers had been among those burned at the stakes.” (page 86)

Likewise, misogyny was a driving force as well; a majority of those tried and executed for witchcraft were women – including Joan of Arc, who was convicted of heresy for wearing men’s clothes. (After the first offense, she was imprisoned for life, as only repeat offenders could receive a death sentence. She resumed dressing as a man after an English Lord tried to rape her, in what was likely a trap devised by her enemies. Yet another piece of history I don’t remember hearing about in high school!) The authors recount the life’s work of one Henricus Institoris, also known as Kramer, the Dominican priest who co-authored the witch hunting bible Malleus Maleficarum, i.e., “The Hammer of Witches.” Kramer ordered that women accused of sorcery – overwhelmingly young and “buxom” – be stripped naked prior to their interrogations, which he frequently performed himself, alone behind closed doors. As the authors so charitably note, “The Inquisitor clearly had a passion for helpless, unclothed victims.” Had Karmer been born in different time and place, he might have become another Ted Bundy or Arthur Shawcross. Kramer proved so extreme that he was formally denounced by the Inquisition in 1490.

The illustrations by Greg Chapman are stark and often grotesque – appropriate for the subject matter, in other words. While Witch Hunts: A Graphic History of the Burning Times might prove useful in introducing high school readers to this shameful chapter in human history (one of many), I suspect that parents and teachers might object to the nudity. (The subjects of which are primarily attractive young women. It’s difficult at time to tell whether this accurately reflects history – see, e.g. the previous paragraph – or is just in keeping with current cultural norms. Some of the panels are oddly reminiscent of a 90s S&M scene.)

The authors also take care to note that, while the mass hysteria that swept Europe during the height of the witch trials may be long past, women and men are still being condemned to death for witchcraft to this day. Saudi Arabia, for example, still classifies witchcraft as a crime punishable by death; 74% of those charged are women.

(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: Sorceress, Celia Rees (2009)

Monday, February 25th, 2013

A satisfying conclusion to WITCH CHILD.

four out of five stars

Sorceress continues the story of Mary Nuttall/Newbury, a young Englishwoman who immigrated to the “New World” in 1659. Forced from her village after her grandmother is executed for practicing witchcraft, Mary’s mother sends her to America in the hopes that she’ll be safe from persecution. Stuck in the isolated settlement of Beulah, surrounded by Puritans so intractable in their beliefs that they proved unwelcome even in Salem, Mary’s existence grows increasingly perilous. Try as hard as she might to fit in, Mary is an outsider – and a young, intelligent, and independent female, at that – and when things start to go sideways, she proves the most convenient of scapegoats.

The story finds Mary where Witch Child left off: slowly dying of hypothermia and starvation in the forest surrounding Beulah, after having narrowly escaped the town’s religious authorities. A she-wolf comes to her in the middle of an especially harsh snowstorm, caring for Mary until the morning, when her friend Jaybird and his grandfather White Eagle come to her rescue. Thus begins a rather epic journey, beginning at The Cave of the Ancestors and ending many decades later, in Canada. Mary marries (Jaybird, in a terribly bittersweet romance) and gives birth to and adopts several children, one of whom she buries much too early; becomes a pupil to White Eagle and, in time, a respected healer in her own right; establishes a secret medicine society, still in existence to this day; and travels ever northward, trying in vain to stay ahead of the escalating tensions between indigenous peoples and the French and English settlers.

Unsurprisingly, it’s the colonialists she encounters who prove most threatening to Mary’s well-being: terrified of her skills and offended that she’d rather live with “savages” than her “own kind,” Mary is kidnapped not once, but twice. Whereas the French pirate Le Grand drugs, rapes, and threatens to sell or enslave her, the Mohawk warriors who seize her and her children adopt them into a village decimated by disease. Likewise, the English Captain Peterson attempts to “rescue” her from her Pennacook kin – by force.

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Book Review: Witch Child, Celia Rees (2000)

Monday, February 4th, 2013

“Words have power. These are mine.”

four out of five stars

Mary Nuttall was just sixteen years old when her grandmother Eliza – the only family she’d ever known – was murdered. Accused of practicing witchcraft, the old woman was tortured, stripped naked, bound, and “floated” – tossed into a river to sink or swim. Her buoyancy taken as a sure sign of guilt, Eliza was pulled from the water only so that she could be hanged in public. Once trusted to heal their loved ones, Eliza’s friends and neighbors in this rural English town proved eager witnesses to her execution.

Rescued from similar persecution by her long-lost mother, Mary is sent away to the “New World” in search of a better life. She’s to travel with a group of Puritans bound for Salem, where they’ll join their brethren and pastor. Upon arrival, the group is dismayed to discover that their kin have moved on, to the isolated town of Beulah. After much deliberation they decide to follow, forging ahead into the wilderness with two Natives – of the Pennacook tribe – acting as their guides.

Unsurprisingly, Beulah couldn’t be further from the safe haven Mary’s mother envisioned for her child. Ruled by a Puritan preacher so strict and demanding that he proved unwelcome in Salem, Mary is in constant danger, just by virtue of being a newcomer to the community. Though she tries hard to stay under the radar, her “transgressions,” real and imagined – which include befriending members of the opposite sex; spending time alone in the forest to gather food and herbs; harboring anything more than uncharitable thoughts about the “heathen” natives; and proficiency in transcription – don’t escape the notice of Reverend Johnson. When items suggestive of witchcraft are discovered in the forest and several of the town’s teenage girls start exhibiting strange behavior, Mary’s worst fears are realized.

All of this we learn from Mary’s journal, which spans roughly a year from 1659-1660. Urged to burn it by her protector/surrogate mother Martha – its opening sentences (“I am Mary. I am a witch.”) alone being sure proof of guilt – Mary instead hides its pages inside a quilt. Discovered more than three hundred years later by one “Alison Ellman” (one of Mary’s descendents, perhaps), Mary’s journal stands testament to the horrors she and her kind endured.

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Movie Review: The Initiation of Sarah (2006)

Sunday, April 20th, 2008

CHARMED meets MEAN GIRLS

three out of five stars

I loved Summer Glau in FIREFLY, SERENITY and TERMINATOR: THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES, so when I saw THE INITIATION OF SARAH on Netflix, I decided to give it a try. (You might say I have a girl crush on her, and you mightn’t be wrong.)

The story centers around two competing covens of witches, both set up as rival sororities on the same college campus. The “good” coven is comprised of natural-born witches – those who derive their power from Mother Earth – while the “bad” coven must occasionally feed The Eternal Flame with the blood of a very powerful natural-born witch (“The One”) in order to maintain their powers. Believing newly arrived freshman pledge Sarah (Mika Boorem) to be The One, both sororities try to lure her and her fraternal twin sister, Lindsey (Summer Glau) to their side in the battle between Good and Evil.

THE INITIATION OF SARAH is an entertaining enough flick; a pleasant piece of fluff for those nights when you’d rather sit down with a bowl of Soy Dream and zone out on the couch. Though it was made for TV – and ABC Family, at that – it’s not as cheesy as you’d expect. Think MEAN GIRLS meets CHARMED, but not quite as satisfying as either.

Oh, and Jennifer Tilly rocks as the magi. Love me some Jennifer Tilly, too!

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)