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Book Reviews: February 2016

For this month’s review column, we’ll be looking at All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, Steal the Sky by Megan E. O’Keefe, The Wildings by Nilanjana Roy, and The Girl from Everywhere by Heidi Heilig.

All the Birds in the Sky
Charlie Jane Anders
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN 978-0765379948
Tor Books, January 2016
320 pages

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane AndersMany readers believe in strong, defined genre boundaries. Science fiction is science fiction and fantasy is fantasy, and never the twain shall meet. Do not get your peanut butter in my chocolate.

To them, Charlie Jane Anders flips the bird. All the birds. In the sky.

Patricia Delfine is a witch. Laurence Armstead is a mad scientist. They meet as children, neither one truly appreciated by their parents (poor Patricia practically lives under the stairs like Harry Potter), and they find a kinship in their shared secret freakdom. As adults, they have grown apart, fully immersed in their respective worlds, unaware that both the magicians and the scientists are very, very concerned with the salvation and/or destruction of the human race and the planet. And they each have very, very different ideas of what that constitutes.

All the Birds in the Sky is what would happen if Kelly Link got really high and wrote a novel. Anders filters all of the fantasy and science fiction through whimsical cheesecloth until it becomes mundane. She describes Laurence building a time machine as if he whipped together a ham radio out of spare parts. When Patricia talks to birds, it’s only as out of the ordinary as the reader feels it is. Although there’s plenty of worldbuilding—and this book has twice the worldbuilding of most—the focus remains on the “real” world, as it were, a satirically imagined near-future San Francisco Anders describes with all the absurdity of her legendary Writers with Drinks monologues. It’s so delightfully weird I didn’t want to stop reading. I didn’t even care that I couldn’t tell what the “plot” of the book was because it was so fun to read. The characters and offbeat voice made up for the rather loose narrative.

Eventually, however, the book takes a turn as various bits of foreshadowing bring the shadows to the fore, and rather than laughing out loud every few pages, I was staring in shock every few pages. Things become more and more dire and then this book made me cry in a Pasta Pomodoro restaurant.

The brilliance of the novel’s genre mash-up is the way Anders embodies each in her characters, making them individual representatives of the corresponding factions. Although, as a whole, the “science fiction” side and the “fantasy” side are in conflict with each other, Laurence and Patricia clearly belong together. As friends, as lovers, how ever. In a way, it’s as if Anders is opening the conversation to fandom entire: Why can’t we all just get along? I have no doubt All the Birds in the Sky will start all sorts of conversations. It doesn’t resemble your typical SFF novel, and it does so with confidence and aplomb. This is the Reese’s peanut butter cup of a book everyone will be talking about.

Steal the Sky
Megan E. O’Keefe
Paperback/Ebook
ISBN 978-0857664907
Angry Robot Books, January 2016
448 pages

STEAL THE SKY by Megan E. O'KeefeIn the first chapter of Steal the Sky, Megan E. O’Keefe masterfully establishes character, world, and plot through an interrogation scene. Detan Honding, a charming rogue with rogueish charm, has been detained by Ripka Leshe, a Watch captain who has little love for the man causing trouble in Aransa. Aransa is on the Scorched Continent, so named for its volcanic firemounts that produce the gas selium, which certain people can manipulate. In only a few short pages, O’Keefe sets up the economics, politics, geography, and culture of a world that revolves around this magic, and then comes the hook. In order to secure his freedom, all Detan has to do . . . is steal an airship from ex-Commodore Thratia Ganal, a woman so ruthless she’s known as General Throatslitter.

I love that the book is full of complex women with differing agendas. Thratia, making a play to become Warden of Aransa by any means necessary. Ripka, trying to keep her job in the face of this power play. Pelkaia, changing her face with the power of selium and assassinating key figures on a revenge quest. A couple other characters appear later to throw wrenches into the proceedings, and they’re also women: Women hold all the power in this book. But Detan Honding and his brutish companion, Tibal, men though they are, have skills of their own, sometimes hidden. It didn’t take long for me to care about each and every character.

I found the world itself fascinating as well, especially the different ways selium could be used. Although its primary use seemed to be as a buoyant gas for airships, the society mines the most out of this mined material, using it to do everything from lift up walkways to enrich liqueur. And yet the sel-sensitives who can actually work selium magic are feared and hunted, because if there’s a prejudice to be had, humans will find it. O’Keefe also conveys the nature of her secondary world through language, with mixed results—neologisms like “firemount” are clever but using common words to mean something else (“grain” for “coin,” “mark” for “hour”) feels confusing and unnecessary. The slang, too, reflects the world these characters live in. From beginning to end, you are in this meticulously constructed world.

Steal the Sky is a fun secondary-world adventure with plenty of exciting action, surprising twists, and wonderful payoffs to small seeds skillfully laid throughout the story. While Detan Honding might scrape his way out of the huge mess he gets himself into this time, I’m sure O’Keefe can give him new challenges for years to come.

The Wildings
Nilanjana Roy
Paperback/Ebook
ISBN 978-0345812612
Random House Canada, January 2016
336 pages

THE WILDINGS by Nilanjana RoyAre you tired of books about boring old human beings? Then let Nilanjana Roy take you into the world of The Wildings, where you can whisker mind-link with psychic cats in Delhi.

Yes, I said psychic cats in Delhi.

In the old neighborhood of Nizamuddin live a great many creatures: cats, mice, kites, crows, mongooses, and even boring old Bigfeet. Roy imagines the world from the perspective of these animals, allowing them to communicate not only through the vocal utterances we cannot understand—often they speak the universal language of Jungleese—but also through telepathic connections. Occasionally, however, a cat with incredible psychic powers arrives, foretelling a time of great crisis, and this time the Sender is a scared little orange kitten who won’t leave the house.

With remarkable skill, Roy brings these characters to life in all their feline glory: They are not human characters written as cats but actual cat characters, down to their mannerisms and thought processes. I had absolutely no trouble accepting them because the writing was so effortless, and Roy doesn’t shy away from the inherent humor in treating cats as people: I was sold from the moment she used the word “all-cats-bulletin” on page five. The early chapters especially are truly delightful, and I loved the vibrant cast of side characters, including a chorus of crows named Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa, Dha, and Ni, which is the Indian equivalent of naming them Do, Re, Mi, Fa, So, La, and Ti. Each animal—the mouse the cats kill, the mongoose the cats fear—has a unique perspective on the world, creating a community as dynamic and interesting as any human one. In The Wildings, you see the world as they do, not only socially but also environmentally, in the way Roy depicts the buildings and locations and foliage.

The book has no clear main character, nor does it have a straightforward plot. While, in the end, I believe this is the story of Mara, the new Sender, Roy continually shifts POVs among the major cats in the clan. Beraal, the queen who is initially sent to kill the intruder. Miao, the elder Siamese. Katar, the strong fighter. Southpaw, the curious kitten who’s always getting into trouble. I expected to spend far more time with Mara, but I enjoyed the journey wherever Roy took me, and through a series of encounters cute and horrifying, she builds to a very satisfying climax that rewards the investment I had in all of these animals, cat and non-cat alike.

Though The Wildings is the first in a duology—the second book will be released in July—this book stands alone . . . but I’m as curious as little Southpaw to see where Roy takes the story after this. It’s a lovely, evocative novel that will make you look at your cat in a whole new light.

The Girl from Everywhere
Heidi Heilig
Hardcover/Ebook
ISBN 978-0062380753
Greenwillow Books, February 2016
464 pages

THE GIRL FROM EVERYWHERE by Heidi HeiligTIME-TRAVELING PIRATE SHIP.

Do I have your attention?

I could sell The Girl from Everywhere on the concept alone: Captain Slate is a Navigator, with the power to use maps to take his ship, Temptation, through time. As if this weren’t cool enough, he can even use fictional maps to visit mythical realities, acquiring mythological creatures and objects like fire salamanders and a bottomless bag. He could do many things with this power, but he is driven by love, looking for the map that can take him back to one woman: the mother of his daughter, Nix. There’s just one problem: doing this could potentially erase Nix from existence.

But focusing on the high concept would do this book a disservice, not to mention be a bit misleading—one might go in expecting a seafaring version of Doctor Who, when in fact most of the book takes place in one location and time period. And unlike Doctor Who, which can tell stories in any time and place and chooses to keep returning to modern-day London, Heidi Heilig transports us to a far more interesting setting: nineteenth-century Hawaii, the kingdom of Hawaii, pre-statehood. Having only seen the tourist’s version of twentieth-century Hawaii myself, I loved exploring this world, from the royal palace to the lush forests complete with guavas.

As much as I like time travel, what kept me reading was the characters, especially Nix. Heilig very clearly establishes what’s at stake and what each characters wants in the first few chapters, making it easy to get invested in them. Nix is truly a girl from everywhere, having grown up on the ship, but that also makes her a girl from nowhere, all thanks to her obsessive father’s quest. What does home mean for her, if her home is under his control? Her complex relationship with her father—whom she rarely refers to as such, usually calling him captain or Slate—is as compelling as any trip to eighteenth-century Calcutta. She must also examine her feelings for the charismatic thief, Kashmir, and the adorable artist, Blake Hart, and how those feelings affect her secret desire to escape. I appreciated the diversity of the crew aboard the ship: half-Chinese Nix and Persian Kashmir, plus a Sudanese first mate and Chinese cook who don’t have major roles but are entertaining characters.

There’s so much to love about The Girl from Everywhere, honestly. It’s littered with literary references, and there are beautiful undertones about the way these stories, like the maps, have power. The strength of myth, the imagined becoming real. This is how Nix has defined her world—her metaphors come from stories and sailing. Heilig never explores these themes directly, but they’re so clearly embedded into the prose and the storytelling that they shine through like a watermark in a map held up to the light.

I read the entire book in one day. The narrative moves swiftly throughout, but the tension gets cranked up significantly at the end, and the final chapters are atypically action-packed, which feels a bit out of step with the rest of the book yet provides many rewarding payoffs to little setups I didn’t even realize were setups. While it’s satisfying as a standalone, it leaves plenty of room for a sequel, and I’m ready to sail through time again.

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Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel

Sunil Patel is a Bay Area fiction writer and playwright who has written about everything from ghostly cows to talking beer. His plays have been performed at San Francisco Theater Pub and San Francisco Olympians Festival, and his fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Fireside Magazine, Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show, Flash Fiction Online, The Book Smugglers, Fantastic Stories of the Imagination, and Asimov’s Science Fiction. His favorite things to consume include nachos, milkshakes, and narrative. Find out more at ghostwritingcow.com, where you can watch his plays, or follow him @ghostwritingcow. His Twitter has been described as “engaging,” “exclamatory,” and “crispy, crunchy, peanut buttery.”