It just so happens that three of my recent reads all deal with hidden worlds, the idea of seeing and choosing not to see, and the ways in which people themselves can be invisible. On top of that, I thoroughly enjoyed all three books, and that seemed like as good an excuse as any to group them together and talk about them here. Warning: Spoilers Ahead!
Kat Howard’s debut novel, Roses and Rot, centers on two sisters Imogen and Marin. An author and a dancer respectively, they are accepted into an exclusive residency program at Melete, an artists’ colony that transforms the lives of those lucky enough to attend. The stakes for Imogen and Marin are more than just the promise of success. Even as adults, the sisters are still trying to escape their abusive mother, and Marin in particular sees Melete – and the opportunities it provides – as a way to ensure that neither sister will ever deal with her again. The hidden world in this case is Faerie. An initial sense of too good to be true, coupled with a vague unease, grows to the reveal that Melete’s true patrons are the Fae, and those who gain the greatest rewards from their time there are those who give themselves to Faerie for seven years as tithe. Howard also plays with the idea of glamour and perception, but there’s a secondary layer of hidden-ness as well. As victims of abuse, Imogen and Marin are invisible. Even though they bear scars, both physical and emotional, they’ve never told anyone about their mother. Like so many victims of abuse, they feared not being believed, or that speaking out would cause their mother to do even worse things to them. Abuse, and the darker side of humanity, is something many would rather not see and so we look away, pretend it isn’t there. Marin and Imogen’s situation also speaks to the authority adults have over children to convince them they are powerless. It’s a theme that comes up often in fairy tales, as does the reversal of that power, and Howard works with both throughout her novel. Imogen’s specialty is fairy tales. The project she intends to tackle during her residency is a novel that weaves together various well-known stories to tell a larger story, with the fairy tales she picks inevitably echoing themes of sisters, mothers, loss, and sacrifice. The passages of Imogen’s re-working of fairy tales that Howard scatters throughout the Roses and Rot are some of the most lovely and heartbreaking in the novel. Through Imogen’s eyes, we get at the heart of Roses and Rot – that stories have power. Fairy tales, as some of the earliest narratives we’re given as children, are a way to codify and make sense of the world. They are a way to reveal what is hidden. Stories do not have to be objectively “real” to be true, but of course, because Roses and Rot is a fantasy novel, the stories are real as well as true. The novel is told from Imogen’s point of view, but all the characters are fully drawn, making the choices Imogen faces even harder because it’s so easy to see things from Marin’s point of view. The prose is lush and gorgeous, but Howard doesn’t shy away from the dark side of faerie, or humanity either. Ultimately, it’s a story about family, their love for each other, the ways they can hurt each other, fail to understand each other, and grind up against each other’s sharp edges. As in fairy tales, the path worth taking is rarely the easy one, and rewards never come without a cost.
Alif the Unseen by G. Willow Wilson deals with both the hidden world of the jinn, and the hidden world of grey hat hackers. Alif is one such hacker, willing to work for anyone who will pay him – from pornographers to extremists, revolutionaries to major corporations. At the novel’s opening, Alif seems to be deliberately unlikable. He’s self-centered, impatient, and rarely thinks of anyone but himself. At the same time, he manages to be a sympathetic character, which isn’t an easy trick to pull off. The people surrounding him – his neighbor and childhood friend Dina, Vikram the Vampire, Sheikh Bilal – are such compelling characters that because they care about Alif, the reader does, too. All the trouble in the novel begins when Intisar, the wealthy girl Alif loves, reveals she’s agreed to an arranged marriage. Alif goes slightly off the deep end and sends her a rather unsavory ‘gift’, evidence of their sexual relations, which could ruin her. She returns a mysterious ‘gift’ of her own – a book of tales called the Thousand and One Days – along with making it clear she never wants to see him again. Out of spite, Alif takes it literally. He writes a computer program to erase himself from her sight, a bot that uses language patterns, keystrokes, and other indicators to pick her out no matter what name, IP, or email address she uses and block her from seeing him. The program works a little too well, even though Alif doesn’t entirely understand why it works at all, drawing the attention of a powerful individual known as The Hand, who has been trying to shut down Alif and his hacker community for quite a while. The Hand, it just so happens, is also the man Intisar is set to marry. On top of all that, the Hand is after the Thousand and One Days. Alif and Dina go on the run, discovering the hidden world of the jinn to be very real, and the tales of the Thousand and One Days to be more than stories after all. As the novel’s title indicates, invisibility, seeing, and being hidden play a major role in the story. Alif and the other hackers hide behind screen names to protect themselves and their work. The world of the jinn is invisible to most humans until they learn to see it. Dina chooses to wear a veil for religious reasons, and as a way of protecting herself. The Thousand and One Days contains hidden meanings in each of its stories. Invisible code has a major impact on the characters and their world. In addition to literal unseen things, Wilson weaves more metaphorical interpretations of unseeing through the story as well. Alif spends a great deal of the novel refusing and/or unable to see Dina because of his own prejudices against her religious choices, and the sort of person he believes her to be. Just as he has to learn to see the world of the jinn, he has to learn to see her, and the others around him, leading to his growth as a character. On a larger scale, revolution and uprising are key to the plot, with the overlooked and ignored classes of society forcing themselves into the public eye and refusing to let the world ignore them anymore. Wilson doesn’t shy away from the uglier things in life – imprisonment, torture, murder – but she infuses the book with wonder and beauty as well with the jinn and their unseen world. All the elements come together beautifully, making Alif the Unseen a wonderful read.
The Star-Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi tells the story of Maya, one of the many daughters of the Raja, but shunned by most of the women in the harem due to the ill-fortune assigned to her by the stars at her birth. Maya’s horoscope promises that she will be wedded to death and destruction and as such, she is looked down on, avoided, bullied, and blamed for any bad luck that occurs. Her father declares she will be married, allowing her to choose a husband from one of several politically advantageous matches, however it is soon revealed he doesn’t expect her to go through with it. Instead, he expects her to drink poison, sacrificing herself and preventing a war. Imprisoned, and seeing no other options, Maya nearly agrees, but at the last moment, a mysterious hooded man appears, saying he can save her and give her a whole world to rule if she only trusts him. She hastily throws the marriage garland at him, choosing him as her husband, and he spirits her away to Akaran, a hidden realm between worlds. At first, Amar refuses to show Maya his face. He asks again for her trust, telling her all will be revealed at the next new moon. In the meantime, he will help her develop her powers, she will rule equally with him, and nothing will be denied to her. Except for the fact that the world they rule appears devoid of people, the palace is full of locked doors and whispering voices, and Maya has the feeling of being constantly watched. Many classic elements of fairy tales and myth are at play here – the lover who won’t reveal his face, the locked door the bride must never open. Roughly midway through, the novel takes a sharp left turn, the story and its expected path completely upended to become something else. Akaran is revealed to be the realm of the dead, and Amar the lord of death himself. Already distrustful of Amar because of all his secrets, Maya allows herself to be convinced by a woman claiming to be her best friend from another life she can’t remember, but sees glimpses of in a room full of bottled memories, to betray her husband. Maya steals the noose Amar carries, the source of his power, and the world crumbles around her. She is exiled, realizing too late that Amar is indeed her true love; in the life she barely remembers, she betrayed him, abandoned him, and forced herself to reincarnate. Now, she must find Amar, and restore his power, thus restoring the balance between life and death. The second half of the novel is a quest story, again with classic elements from myth and fairy tale – retrieving a lost love from an evil influence, hidden identities, and supernatural companions. In this case, Maya’s companion is an undead demon horse with a penchant for eating human flesh, and she is one of the most delightful talking animal sidekicks ever to accompany a hero. Like Roses and Rot, and Alif the Unseen, the theme of the hidden in The Star-Touched Queen operates on multiple levels. There is the hidden world of the dead, as well as Maya’s true identity, hidden from herself and leading to a journey of self-discovery. There is also the idea of trust earned versus trust given, and Maya learning to see those around her more clearly as she grows as a character. The prose throughout is lush and gorgeous and absolutely breathtaking. A Crown of Wishes, focusing on Maya’s sister Gauri, is available for pre-order now, and due out in March 2017. I’m already eagerly anticipating it.