Chilly weather makes it the perfect time to curl up with a good book. Here are three recent reads I’ve loved. Hopefully you’ll love them, too. (Warning, spoilers ahead.)
My first exposure to Ghost Talkers by Mary Robinette Kowal was hearing her read an excerpt at World Fantasy, back when it was still a work in progress. I was immediately hooked and wanted more. The core concept of the book was just so cool: a group of mediums works with the British Army during WWI, collecting and relaying intelligence from soldiers killed in battle. Kowal takes the story far beyond a cool concept, however. There is an immediate sense of the emotional and physical toll communicating with the dead takes on the mediums, not to mention the horrors of war itself. Kowal doesn’t shy away from the violence, and she immediately makes the impact of war personal. Her protagonist, Ginger Stuyvesant, is one of the few Americans involved in the war before America’s official entry into the conflict. Her fiancee, Ben Harford, is killed early on, remaining with Ginger as a ghost, determined to uncover the traitor in the British ranks before he can move on. Kowal shows us Ginger and Ben’s loving and playful relationship, and almost immediately pulls the rug out from under the reader’s feet by killing Ben. Having him return as a ghost never feels like a cheat. Loss is threaded through his ongoing presence; the longer he remains on the mortal plane, the more he forgets of himself, bits of his personality drifting away, burning up more quickly when manifests himself as a poltergeist to protect those around him. Kowal makes the reader care for every one of her characters – Helen, the medium working with Ginger who comes up with the method of binding soldiers so they’ll report in as ghosts, Lady Penfold, Ginger’s aunt and founder of the Spirit Corp program, Pvt. Merrow, Ben’s assistant, and the men and women of Ginger’s circle who help keep her grounded as she communicates with the dead. The novel is part war narrative, particularly focusing on the roles of women, frequently overlooked in the dominant cultural narrative of war. It’s also part murder mystery, love story, and ghost story. Kowal slips in bits of humor as well, with the banter between Ginger and Ben, as well as references to Doctor Who. It’s a wonderful novel, with elements to appeal to fans of historical fiction, speculative fiction, and romance.
Cloudbound is the follow-up to Fran Wilde’s brilliant and award-winning Updraft. It continues the story of the city of living bone, showing the fraying edges of that city in the wake of the Spire’s collapse and the removal of the Singers from power. While Kirit is still close to the heart of the story, in Cloudbound, events are told from the point of view of Nat, Kirit’s best friend. This is a brilliant choice on Wilde’s point, allowing her to show the city from a different angle – literally, from the new areas explored, and figuratively, filtered through Nat’s perspective. Since the Spire’s collapse, there’s been a struggle to fill the power vacuum left by the Singers removal from power. Nat is a newly-minted Counselor, struggling to do the best for the people he represents, and his family – his mother Elna, his partners Ceetcee and Beliak, and the child they’re expecting. Nat’s heart comes through in every decision he makes, as does his inexperience in the world of politics. The web around him is tangled enough that he cannot see through to the end of every thread, but that never stops him from trying, or from fighting for those he loves. His point of view is contrasted perfectly with Kirit, who has been hardened by her experiences in the Spire. She’s come out the other side quicker to judgement, to action, and more war-like. There’s tension between the characters, and tension in the world itself. The crumbling city is a clock ticking down in the background, a constant reminder of how wrong things have gone, and how much worse they can get. As in Updraft, the descriptions in Cloudbound are gorgeous, and the action sequences stunning – whether fighting, flying, falling, or simply exploring, the details are beautifully wrought and visceral. As fantastic as the world is, it feels real, as do the characters. The novel ends with another world-altering event for the characters, their lives once again upended as secrets are revealed, and the danger level ramped-up. I’m already looking forward to the next installment in the Bone Universe series, which is due out next year.
Hammers on Bone is a novella from Cassandra Khaw, whose short fiction I greatly admire. John Persons is a private detective approached by a young boy who wants to hire him to kill his stepfather in order to protect his younger brother. From the start, it’s quite clear there is something strange about the boy, the stepfather, and Persons himself. There’s a ghost yammering in John Person’s head, likely the real John Persons, as the being calling itself John Persons now is anything but a person. Lovecraftian horror and Noir fiction seem made for each other, and Khaw blends them effortlessly here into a slick and stylish whole that drips with atmosphere. I’m a sucker for both the Lovecraftian and Noir genres, and this novella was everything I hoped it would be. I’m hesitant to say too much or give too much away, especially since at novella length, Hammers on Bone is a quick read. I recommend diving in and devouring it all in one delicious and darkness-tinged bite. If you’re a fan of the hard-bitten detective genre, or weird horror, this is absolutely the book for you. I’m delighted by the fact that Khaw has a second novella forthcoming from Tor, which sounds every bit as wonderful – a sentient, living city losing its mind. What more do you need to know? I’m eagerly awaiting the release of In the Living City.
And because there’s no such thing as too many books, I’d love to know what you’ve been reading this Fall? What have you loved? What do I need to add to my already precarious and teetering TBR pile?