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Wednesday, December 26, 2018

The Bird King: A Historical Fantasy About Escape From Christian Spain

It's said that history is written by the winners.  The Bird King by American Muslim G. Willow Wilson is about those who lost.  Before Ferdinand and Isabella became the rulers of Spain, there was a long struggle in Spain between Muslims and Christians.  As The Bird King opens Grenada is the only part of Spain that is still Islamic.  The protagonist Fatima is a concubine to the Sultan, and her closest friend Hassan is the Sultan's mapmaker who also has an unusual paranormal gift.

The Bird King has been sitting on top of my Net Galley priority list since I received the ARC.  Now I finally have the time to read it.  I've been a fan of G. Willow Wilson's work with Ms. Marvel, the first Islamic female superhero.  I also read her memoir, The Butterfly Mosque with interest.  I reviewed it here . I couldn't wait to spend time in Islamic Spain with an independent minded concubine and a paranormally gifted mapmaker.

                               
                           

To begin with I wasn't too fond of Fatima's immaturity, but I recognized that she was seventeen and made allowances for her age.  I liked her better over the course of the narrative because of her loyalty toward Hassan who is truly a remarkable character.   His paranormal gift apparently results from a type of neurodivergence.  He's also gay.  Fatima is determined to rescue Hassan from the Spanish Inquisition when it arrives in Grenada with a Castilian delegation.  They escape with the help of a djinn.

 Fatima matures as a result of their journey which takes them away from their familiar lives into a mythical realm where I perceive them as eventually becoming lost to history as a result of a difficult decision that Fatima makes.   I feel that this decision has highly ambivalent consequences.  Many readers probably feel more positive about it than I did.  I saw many five star reviews on Goodreads, but  I have a more mixed perspective toward the resolution of  The Bird King.  I just wished that the ending could have been different.

                           
                             

                    

Monday, December 24, 2018

Dumpstermancer 1: Discarded--Magic Incorporated?

I've always believed that fantasy should be imaginative and entertaining.  I want to be immersed in a plot that keeps me turning pages, a well-developed magical system and characters that I can care about.  Yet I also believe that fantasy can be more.   It can grapple with issues that are relevant to the real world lives of readers.  Canadian urban fantasy author Charles de Lint is such a writer.  He deals with important themes in a lyrical style straddling the modern world and the world of myth.  He writes books that make fantasy seem true in a very deep way that connects with readers.

Michael J. Allen isn't the same sort of writer as Charles de Lint.  His world is a good deal darker than Charles de Lint's Newford.  Yet, like de Lint, he also deals with significant real world issues in the context of urban fantasy. This post is a review of his first  Dumpstermancer novel, Discarded.  I agreed to review the second in the series, Duplicity.   When I told Allen that I hadn't read Discarded.  He generously sent it to me via Bookfunnel.

                           

The central theme of Discarded is magic for profit.   This is the first time I have ever seen the corporatization of magic in a fantasy novel.  There is nothing inherently wrong with making a profit.   The problem arises when profit becomes a service provider's only consideration.  In the real world, we have seen people robbed of their life savings by schools for profit that didn't provide students with any skills.  Thoth, the corporation that is the antagonist in Allen's series,  doesn't care whether the spells they sell actually benefit their clients. Protagonist Elias Graham, who had once been a spell designer for Thoth, cared very much about helping people.  Thoth didn't just fire him. They completely destroyed his life.

Racism is more of an implied theme than an explicit one in Discarded.  Elias is an African American, but this is only mentioned once late in the novel.   It was then that it hit me that he had been the victim of racial prejudice.  Thoth's successful plot to frame Elias for a crime he didn't commit was facilitated by a justice system that was inclined to look the other way when people  of color were railroaded.

All of this had happened before the novel begins.  Discarded opens with Elias on the street after having served a prison term.   As we know from the title of the series, Elias eventually learns to use the resources available to him as a homeless mage.  Some readers might have a visceral response of disgust to the concept of a dumpstermancer.  I was intrigued by the idea of a homeless individual in an urban fantasy being empowered by magic.

Elias, who is often referred to as Eli, is definitely a sympathetic character.  His circumstances showed me why someone who was homeless might want to remain on the street.  Allen also gave us a female sympathetic character in Sunny, the operator of a Christian homeless shelter, that Eli visited briefly.  What I enjoyed most about Sunny is that she was a woman who got things done.  I also very much liked Razcolm, the entity who possessed the origami spider that Eli created and animated, in order to spy on Thoth's activities.  Razcolm provides some much needed doses of humor through snarky dialogue.

Discarded is one of several indie published fantasy novels that I read this year which I found to be both well-written and provocative.  I look forward to reading and reviewing the sequel, Duplicity, early in 2019.

                         

                           

Saturday, December 22, 2018

In The Month of the Midnight Sun: A Dark Mystery Set in 19th Century Sweden

I first learned of In The Month of the Midnight Sun by Cecilia Ekbäck when it was nominated as a Book of the Month on a Goodreads group.  When I looked at the summary, I discovered that this historical murder mystery contained Sami characters.  The Sami is what the indigenous inhabitants of Lapland call themselves.  I had read and loved a thriller dealing with Sami characters translated into English as Forty Days Without Shadow by French author Olivier Truc.  I reviewed it on this blog here.  Truc has written two more Sami thrillers that haven't been translated into English.  So I leaped at the opportunity to read more in English about  Sami characters from an author whose parents come from Lapland.  See Cecilia Ekbäck's bio on Goodreads hereIn The Month of the Midnight Sun isn't available from U.S. sources.  So I purchased it from Book Depository, and this is my honest review.

                               

This is the second novel by Ekbäck.  The first, Wolf Winter takes place in Lapland a century earlier.  So In the Month of the Midnight Sun can be read as a standalone. I haven't read Wolf Winter and based on my experience of  Ekbäck's second book, I'm not certain that I ever will.

Ekbäck's style is very literary.  She states in a Q & A  appended after the text that all three narrators are deliberately portrayed as unreliable.  This is appropriate in a noir novel, but I am not all that fond of noir.   We do find out whodunit and there is a form of justice, but there was also terrible injustice.  I found the book rather dark and tragic which isn't my preference.

The viewpoint characters are complex enough to be interesting, but they aren't always sympathetic.  Each one is an outsider who has been victimized by conventional attitudes, but they are also invested in the beliefs of 19th century conventional Swedes to at least some extent.   I found it particularly sad that Biija, the Sami viewpoint character, was so Christian that she was deaf to the spirit of  her deceased shamanic husband.

The female character that I found most interesting was Adelaide who had founded a local sect of  Christian mystics with no clergy who I thought seemed somewhat similar to the Shakers.  They are referred to as separatists because they had separated from the official Church of Sweden which was Lutheran.  I discovered through research that Sweden had a
Tolerance Act for religious dissenters such as Adelaide and her followers.

Attitudes toward the Sami were quite negative.  There was a reference to a Sami revolt that had taken place four years before the events of  In the Month of the Midnight Sun called the Kautokeino Uprising. Ekbäck's Author's Note discusses it briefly, but I found a fascinating page about it on a University of Texas Sami culture site here that deals with its causes and various theories about this revolt in depth. 

I learned quite a bit about the Sami in the 19th century, and 19th century Sweden in general from this book, but I finished it feeling depressed.  I would only recommend it to people who enjoy rather literary Scandinavian noir.

                              


                                



Saturday, December 8, 2018

Unsheltered: In Times of Paradigm Shift

The truth is that I've never previously read anything by Barbara Kingsolver.  I thought I'd read and loved The Bean Trees, but I wondered if perhaps it might have once had another somewhat different title that included a reference to a town in Maine. When I ran a search, it turned out that I was trying to recall a different book called The Beans of Egypt, Maine by Carolyn Chute.  I read it so long ago that I'd forgotten the name of the author.  Aw Chute! 😬 Carolyn Chute isn't an author I should have forgotten, and I've just re-discovered her. I'll be picking up on that lost thread as soon as I can manage it, but it probably won't be until next year.

This time I'm blogging about the first book I've ever read by Barbara Kingsolver,  Unsheltered.  It's her most recent novel, and I won it in a Goodreads giveaway.  The last Goodreads giveaway win that I reviewed was an Amish romantic suspense novel called Her Fear.  That review is here.  I have four more 2018 Goodreads giveaway wins to fit in to my schedule.  I'm sorry that I continue to fall behind.  I have committed myself to giving each one an honest review that will appear on Goodreads at the very least.  Unsheltered  merits a longer review because it's a complex book, and my reaction to it is also complicated.  That's why it's appearing here.

                               

It seems to me that there are two different perspectives on the concept of being "unsheltered" in this book.

 First, there's contemporary protagonist Willa's perspective.   Willa still believes in the American Dream.  I perceive this as a middle class sense of entitlement.  A key part of this American Dream is that Americans should all be able to own homes.   Her home is falling apart.  So she feels "unsheltered".  It makes her uneasy.

Another perspective is that being "sheltered" means that you don't understand what the world outside your own protected bubble is really like.  You have the illusion that all Americans have access to achieving the American Dream. Willa's daughter Antigone feels that her mother has been sheltered from the realities of existence, and considers the American Dream unsustainable.  Antigone wears her "unsheltered" status as a badge of honor.

If you get the impression that I am more in sympathy with the views of Antigone, you'd be right.  While reading Unsheltered, I alternated between feeling sorry for Willa with being annoyed with her.  A continuing source of annoyance was her calling Antigone by the nickname Tig.  Many parents affectionately nickname their children, but this one felt trivializing to me. Willa's Greek husband had named their daughter.  Antigone is one of my favorite plays in the classical Greek canon.  Willa disliked the name and didn't seem to realize that the classical Greek Antigone might be significant.

I've always seen Antigone as a symbol of resistance to unjust authority.  French playwright Jean Anouilh must have felt the same about her.  He portrayed Antigone as a French Resistance figure in his 1944 play based on the original Greek tragedy by Sophocles.  There's an essay by Alexa Rae Burk that discusses the Anouilh play, and what Antigone represents in a modern context which appears on Burk's blog here.  I was also struck by a link in Burk's bibliography to an NPR article about a performance of Antigone by female Syrian refugees in Beirut which I am also hyperlinking here.  The Syrian refugee women identified with Antigone.  It bothered me that a writer like Willa was so clueless about this cultural icon.

If Barbara Kingsolver had made Antigone the central character of the contemporary story line instead of Willa, I would have loved it. I think that Antigone's life from her own perspective instead of  Willa's uncomprehending one, would have made this a much stronger book.  I particularly would have wanted to know more about Antigone's experiences in Cuba.

The historical narrative dealing with the real woman scientist, Mary Treat and the 19th century opposition to Darwin's theory of evolution, worked much better for me.  Mary Treat was a rebel against conventional expectations in the 19th century just as Antigone was in the contemporary narrative.

 For me, Antigone and Mary Treat run parallel to each other. They both grasped the need for a re-examination of  worldviews in their respective times of change. Willa perceived Mary Treat as having been "born under the moon of paradigm shift" toward the end of the book, but didn't see her own daughter in the same light.  Why choose a protagonist who lacks insight?  I think this was a discordant decision that caused me to view Unsheltered ambivalently.

                         
                

                            



Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Storm Over Paris--A World War II Art Thriller

 The Storm Over Paris, a debut novel by William Ian Grubman, is about a courageous Jewish art gallery owner in German occupied Paris during World War II who conceives of an audacious plan to save art from the Nazis.  This is a story line that captures my interest.  So I agreed to review this book and received a copy from publicist Wiley Saichek.

                           

The strategy that protagonist Mori Rothstein uses to save the art looks like collaboration with the Nazis.  There's a book that might seem similar called The Woman Who Heard Color by  Kelly Jones which I found very problematic.  It seemed to me that the art dealer Hanna Schmid in the Kelly Jones novel really was collaborating with the Nazis. So I would like to emphasize that Mori Rothstein only appeared to be collaborating.  I considered him quite admirable.  On the other hand, I thought that the Kelly Jones character was seriously ethically challenged.

Mori's son, Emile, played a crucial role in this plot to save the art, and his son Jacob was also involved to a lesser extent. The risks they all took made The Storm Over Paris very suspenseful.

The book did leave me with an unsolved mystery.  A Caravaggio painting that probably doesn't exist of the Biblical expulsion of Hagar was prominent in The Storm Over Paris.  The expulsion of Hagar has been painted by many artists, but I couldn't find one dealing with this subject by Caravaggio when I ran searches. The cover of this novel looks like an expulsion of Hagar. It's probably intended to represent the presumably fictional Caravaggio painting.  The art isn't credited, so I wondered who was responsible for that illustration. I uploaded it to Google Images, and it was correctly identified as the cover for The Storm Over Paris, but no name was given for the artist.  I'm just curious about the cover, and would like to know more about it.

I also wondered if Mori identified with Hagar because those in power in the country that he had always thought was his home didn't consider him welcome to remain there.

I recommend The Storm Over Paris to those who love World War II thrillers and to those who love fiction centered on art.  This was a wonderful example of both these types of books.