Book Review: THE IMMORTALISTS by Chloe Benjamin

“The impossibility of moving beyond loss, faced against the likelihood you will: it’s as absurd, as seemingly miraculous, as survival always is.”

This book was near perfection.

In New York City in 1969, four siblings visit a mysterious woman who tells them the dates they will die. The rest of the book shows us how each of them chooses to live their lives in light of what they were told.

Was it just a scam? Could it be true? What if the dates of their deaths have been altered by the knowledge itself?

“Varya has had enough therapy to know she’s telling herself stories. She knows her faith-that rituals have power, that thoughts can change outcomes or ward off misfortune-is a magic trick: fiction, perhaps, but necessary for survival. And yet, and yet: Is it a story if you believe it?”

Loss is a big theme in this book, as well as the indomitable ties of family, and the difference between living and merely surviving. It’s not exactly an uplifting story, but it is often pure magic in the telling. We’re transported to San Francisco in the 1970s, where many people first felt it was okay to be gay; to magic shows that don’t aim only to create illusions, but to reveal truth; to labs where primates are used for research on aging; to family gatherings both joyous and fraught with tension, and more.

I adored so many of these characters. Simon and Klara’s parts of the book were my favorites, but Daniel and Varya’s were wonderful in their own ways. Raj and Ruby are lovely, too, and of course we can’t forget Gertie (“After everything I gave you: education, opportunity-modernity! How could you turn out like me?”)

It is worth it to note that, other than the possibility of the fantastical in a woman who may be able to see when you will die, this book is largely literary fiction, with its focus on family dynamics and loss.

Some lines remind me of the exact thoughts I had when my own sister passed away.

“She’d lost both him and herself, the person she was in relation to him. She had lost time, too, whole chunks of life that only [he] had witnessed…”

But the story does bring us ultimately to the fringes where grief meets healing.

“For so long, she stifled these memories. But now, when she calls them up in these sensory ways, so that they feel more like people than ghosts, something unexpected happens. Some of the lights inside her-the neighborhood that went dark years ago-turn on.”

I’ve included so many quotes in this review because the writing was just so exquisite and hard-hitting. I think I may now be an official Chloe Benjamin fan girl, and will make a point to read more of her work. And, because I can’t resist (and at risk of telling you nearly the whole darn story), I’ll end this review with yet more quotes from The Immortalistthat really spoke to me:

“His death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary-to the fact that thoughts have wings.”

 

“They began together: before any of them were people, they were eggs, four out of their mother’s millions. Astonishing, that they could diverge so dramatically in their temperaments, their fatal flaws-like strangers caught for seconds in the same elevator.”

 

“There were times he thought of his siblings and felt love sing from him like a shofar, rich with joy and agony and eternal recognition: those three made from the same star stuff as he, those he’d known from the beginning of the beginning. But when he was with them, the smallest infraction made him irreversibly resentful.”

 

“What will Klara tell her, with frantic and unheard insistence? To [her daughter], Klara’s past will seem like a story, Saul and Simon no more than her mother’s ghosts.”

 

“…Daniel couldn’t understand why they didn’t feel what he had: the regret of separation and bliss of being returned. He waited. After all, what could he say? Don’t drift too far. You’ll miss us. But as the years passed and they did not, he became wounded and despairing, then bitter.”

 

“[Her guilt] shrank…when she was hungry, which she so often was-there were times when she felt light enough to drift toward the sky, light enough to drift toward her siblings.”

 

“‘I was afraid,’ she says. ‘Of all the things that can go wrong when people are attached to each other.'”

In case you couldn’t tell, I really loved this book!

Advertisements

Book Review: AN UNKINDNESS OF GHOSTS by Rivers Solomon

 

 

Odd-mannered, obsessive, withdrawn, Aster has little to offer folks in the way of rebuttal when they call her ogre and freak. She’s used to the names; she only wishes there was more truth to them. If she were truly a monster, as they accuse, she’d be powerful enough to tear down the walls around her until nothing remained of her world, save for stories told around the cookfire.

Aster lives in the low-deck slums of the HSS Matilda, a space vessel organized much like the antebellum South. For generations, the Matilda has ferried the last of humanity to a mythical Promised Land. On its way, the ship’s leaders have imposed harsh moral restrictions and deep indignities on dark-skinned sharecroppers like Aster, who they consider to be less than human.

When the autopsy of Matilda‘s sovereign reveals a surprising link between his death and her mother’s suicide some quarter-century before, Aster retraces her mother’s footsteps. Embroiled in a grudge with a brutal overseer and sowing the seeds of civil war, Aster learns there may be a way off the ship if she’s willing to fight for it.

 

“All that was left were the taunts, and the crack of Scar’s knee, and the past swooping in, an unkindness of ghosts. Her old life had possessed her, strengthening her, but like everything else, used her up and then was done.”

Well I thought this book was pretty great!

The setting is one thing that didn’t work all that well for me, as I never could grasp the details of the spaceship Matilda – its size and layout, the population aboard, how it sustained…well, everything. It runs on autopilot and (almost) no one is paying attention to its trajectory. We also never know how exactly it came to be that a society capable of launching a generation ship into space and sustaining its population for centuries had also managed to backtrack to the point of organizing society in a way just like that of the antebellum South.

But I was able to look past that and very much enjoyed the story set within those parameters. Aster, a black intersex autistic alchematician, is such a great character. Taking everything at face value, her authenticity is a delight. Her relationship with the Surgeon/the Hands of the Heavens/the queer ascetic bastard child of the former Sovereign and one of the black lowdeckers, is nothing short of wonderful. The plot of this story revolves around Aster following the clues left behind by the mother who died shortly after birthing her, the mechanic who may have found a way to leave Matilda behind and make it to a better world.

“A scientist, Aster had learned something Giselle had not: decoding the past was like decoding the physical world. The best that could be hoped for was a working model. A reasonable approximation. That was to say, no matter what Aster learned of Lune, there was no piecing together the full mystery of her life. There was no hearing her laugh or feeling her embrace. A ghost was not a person.”

This book was troubling to read at times, as it deals with abuses of nearly every kind. I actually choked up when Aster broke down, saying, ‘”Nobody is allowed to touch me. Nobody’s allowed to call me names. I’m alive,” she sobbed out. “I’m alive.”‘ This in reference to her recent line of thinking about every living thing being owed the same basic respect.

“People like this guard tried so hard to make Aster feel lesser, but some days, like today, it didn’t work, because she saw clearly how superior she was.”

If you can suspend disbelief about the details of the setting, and you can stomach the non-gratuitous but plentiful scenes of violence and implied sexual assault, I recommend taking this journey with Aster. You might be surprised at where you wind up.

Book Review: IRON GOLD by Pierce Brown

Iron Gold

A decade ago, Darrow was the hero of the revolution he believed would break the chains of the Society. But the Rising has shattered everything: Instead of peace and freedom, it has brought endless war. Now he must risk everything he has fought for on one last desperate mission. Darrow still believes he can save everyone, but can he save himself?

And throughout the worlds, other destinies entwine with Darrow’s to change his fate forever:

A young Red girl flees tragedy in her refugee camp and achieves for herself a new life she could never have imagined.

An ex-soldier broken by grief is forced to steal the most valuable thing in the galaxy—or pay with his life.

And Lysander au Lune, the heir in exile to the sovereign, wanders the stars with his mentor, Cassius, haunted by the loss of the world that Darrow transformed, and dreaming of what will rise from its ashes.

Red Rising was the story of the end of one universe, and Iron Gold is the story of the creation of a new one. Witness the beginning of a stunning new saga of tragedy and triumph from masterly New York Times bestselling author Pierce Brown.

A thrilling and action-packed book that sets us up for a new branch of Red Rising story to tell.

Brown does a good job at the multiple-narrator thing, the POV switching with each chapter. We follow along with Darrow, Lysander au Lune (grandson of the Sovereign whose regime was toppled in the revolution), Lyria of Lagalos (a Red released from the mines when the Society crumbled at Mustang and Darrow’s feet), and Ephraim ti Horn (a Gray thief who was once engaged to marry a character familiar to readers of Morning Star). We see more of those we’ve come to know in the previous three books, such as Sevro, Victra, Sefi, Cassius, and the wonderful character of Romulus au Raa.

They planted us in stones, watered us with pain, and now marvel how we have thorns.

I’ve seen the writing in this book compared to that of George R.R. Martin in ASOIAF, but I take one exception to that – our heroes fall on hard times here, and yes, it sets us up for the new trilogy, but what Martin does differently that works so well is to throw the protagonists a bone every once in a while as well. Sure, he usually lifts them up just so they can crash down all the harder, but here we didn’t even get those instances to feel good about the way things were going for once. The more to invest you in reading on in the series, I suppose, but I think Martin’s method is more effective.

Still, Brown knows how to spin an exciting tale. In addition to his storytelling, he has a beautiful way with words.

Love is the stars, and its light carries on long after death.

If you were a fan of the original Red Rising trilogy, I fail to see how you could be disappointed with Iron Gold.

Book Review: THE GIRL IN THE TOWER by Katherine Arden

The Girl in the Tower.jpg

The magical adventure begun in The Bear and the Nightingale continues as brave Vasya, now a young woman, is forced to choose between marriage or life in a convent and instead flees her home—but soon finds herself called upon to help defend the city of Moscow when it comes under siege.

Orphaned and cast out as a witch by her village, Vasya’s options are few: resign herself to life in a convent, or allow her older sister to make her a match with a Moscovite prince. Both doom her to life in a tower, cut off from the vast world she longs to explore. So instead she chooses adventure, disguising herself as a boy and riding her horse into the woods. When a battle with some bandits who have been terrorizing the countryside earns her the admiration of the Grand Prince of Moscow, she must carefully guard the secret of her gender to remain in his good graces—even as she realizes his kingdom is under threat from mysterious forces only she will be able to stop.

The Girl in the Tower 02

When I read the first book in the Winternight trilogy, I found it to be a good dark fantasy story based on fun and interesting bits of Russian folklore. It was exciting, it was spooky at times. Vasya was a great heroine who was easy to root for.

Book 2, in comparison, was a bit of a letdown for me.

The setting and atmosphere in this book were just as great as they were in its predecessor. The members of Russian folklore continue to make enchanting appearances across the snowy landscape and politics of a medieval Russian winter. We have spirits both helpful and mischievous, mystical horses, warnings imparted by vengeful ghosts, and a sorcerer who has found a way to cheat Death.

The Girl in the Tower 03

On the other hand, the biggest disappointment here was the character of Vasya. Her development in this installment is more of a regression. She tries to experience a freedom not readily available to women in her time, but winds up almost dying several times in the attempt, and being saved time and again by the male potential love interest. Why can she not save herself just once, after being such a strong character with a great sense of agency in book 1?

Speaking of love, I found the romance aspects in this story lukewarm at best. An unconventional, clever country girl labeled a witch and a frost-demon? I could ship that so hard! But their encounters here are rather lacking in any sort of exciting tension. As this is Young Adult historical fiction I certainly wasn’t expecting smut, but the romance is missing much of a spark at all.

There was still enough for me to enjoy in this book that I plan on reading the next in the trilogy, but I will keep my fingers crossed that Vasya’s character arc improves, and the romance heats up (I’m hoping that’s not too much to ask of the winter king!)

 

Book Review: JADE CITY by Fonda Lee

jade city


Magical jade—mined, traded, stolen, and killed for—is the lifeblood of the island of Kekon. For centuries, honorable Green Bone warriors like the Kaul family have used it to enhance their abilities and defend the island from foreign invasion.

Now the war is over and a new generation of Kauls vies for control of Kekon’s bustling capital city. They care about nothing but protecting their own, cornering the jade market, and defending the districts under their protection. Ancient tradition has little place in this rapidly changing nation.

When a powerful new drug emerges that lets anyone—even foreigners—wield jade, the simmering tension between the Kauls and the rival Ayt family erupts into open violence. The outcome of this clan war will determine the fate of all Green Bones—from their grandest patriarch to the lowliest motorcycle runner on the streets—and of Kekon itself.

Jade City begins an epic tale of family, honor, and those who live and die by the ancient laws of jade and blood.

 

Color me impressed with my first encounter with Fonda Lee’s writing!

In Jade City, Lee does an incredible job creating a world that is wholly believable. She manages to flesh out the geography, culture, politics, commerce, international relations and religion of Kekon and its surrounds, without ever resorting to infodumping.

Jade City 02

Then she adds a dash of magic. In this world, jade can be used to amplify a person’s energy, focusing it into superhuman powers. Green Bone warriors train in martial arts with a twist, incorporating feats of Lightness, Strength, Deflection, Channeling and Perception. The result looked in my mind a bit like the fighting seen in such films as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Against this lush backdrop Lee has painted for us is what is essentially a gangster family saga, with lots of East Asian influence. The Clan of No Peak is led by the Kaul family, while the Mountain Clan answers to a ruthless woman named Ayt Mada. Each group takes tribute from areas of the city of Janloon that it considers its own territory, in exchange for protection and endorsement. Each controls a significant portion of the nation’s most valuable commodity of jade. The characters on all sides of the conflict are pretty great, which is not to say they’re all good people.

Jade City 03

The most compelling relationships for me were the ones among the Kaul siblings. Lan, Hilo and Shae are as different as can be, but family still holds an implacable bond to the Kekonese, no matter how one might try to escape it.

“Screw you, Hilo,” she snapped. “I can kill my ex-boyfriends myself.”

If forced to come up with something I didn’t appreciate about this book, the only thing I can think of is my confusion over the apparent lack of cell phones. By all appearances Janloon is a modern place, with luxury vehicles and airports – but every time they use a phone, they need to first locate a landline, even when contacting one another with new developments can literally be a matter of life and death. This is as far as can be from a big deal for me, but it did pull me from the story long enough to stop and wonder.

Jade City is an adult fantasy novel with a bit of sex and a fair share of violence. It is the first installment of a planned trilogy, and tells of what amounts to the opening salvo in a larger war to come. I look forward to finding out what happens next with the clans of Kekon.

“All he knew now was that remorse had a natural limit. After a certain amount of time, it finished eating a person hollow and had to alchemize into anger that could be turned outward lest it consume its host entirely.”

Book Review: STRANGE THE DREAMER by Laini Taylor

From the author of the Daughter of Smoke & Bone trilogy comes the first in a new duology.

The dream chooses the dreamer, not the other way around—and Lazlo Strange, war orphan and junior librarian, has always feared that his dream chose poorly. Since he was five years old he’s been obsessed with the mythic lost city of Weep, but it would take someone bolder than he to cross half the world in search of it. Then a stunning opportunity presents itself, in the person of a hero called the Godslayer and a band of legendary warriors, and he has to seize his chance or lose his dream forever.

What happened in Weep two hundred years ago to cut it off from the rest of the world? What exactly did the Godslayer slay that went by the name of god? And what is the mysterious problem he now seeks help in solving?

The answers await in Weep, but so do more mysteries—including the blue-skinned goddess who appears in Lazlo’s dreams. How did he dream her before he knew she existed? And if all the gods are dead, why does she seem so real?

Welcome to Weep.

What a fun and magical ride this was!

We have librarians and warriors, gifts both dark and magical, gods both terrible and beautiful, and, of course, dreams. Wrapped inside this fascinating story, within swaths of lovely imagery, is a message about discrimination and forgiveness.

I thought Taylor did an amazing job at world-building, with Zosma and Weep and everything in between. I found Lazlo (junior librarian, orphaned and raised by an austere order of monks) to be an extremely likable and relatable protagonist, and his chapters were just as interesting as those of Sarai, the Godspawn girl trapped in a floating citadel.

There is a romance in these pages, but as a YA book, it manages to be just steamy enough without crossing into mature content.

Normally I really despise it when I read a book thinking it’s going to be a standalone novel, just to find out at the end that it’s not. This is the case here, but for some reason, it didn’t really bother me. Maybe because our characters have found ways to deal with this book’s main conflict, with plenty of story left to tell featuring the new conflict introduced with the cliffhanger ending. Rather than being annoyed, I am satisfied with this book and very much look forward to reading it’s sequel!

Book Review: HISTORY OF WOLVES by Emily Fridlund

 

Linda’s childhood could be described at best as nontraditional, at worst as isolating and lonely. In her fifteenth year she meets little Paul Gardner and his parents, and everything changes.

The reader knows from the very start that something tragic is going to happen, without knowing exactly what. What unfolds is a moving tale that “confronts the life-and-death consequences of the things people do—and fail to do—for the people they love”.

In the beginning I did find myself wondering, What is the point of this part of the story? Or that one? (i.e. Mr. Grierson, Lily). But the purpose of each thread is revealed by the second half, which then goes on to wring your heart out for the remainder of the book. Overall I found it to be an ensnaring piece of literary fiction about searching for your place in the world, about guilt, about “the difference between what you want to believe and what you do,” “between what you think and what you end up doing.”

“I’ve found that some people who’ve done something bad will just go ahead and condemn everyone else around them to avoid feeling shitty themselves. As if that even works. Other types of people, and I’m not saying you’re this, necessarily, but I’m just putting it out there, will defend people like me on principle because when their turns come around, they want that so badly for themselves.”

A well-written story that is tragic but irrefutably powerful.

 

Interlude

I recently read A Court of Wings and Ruin by Sarah J. Maas. My good friend Court saw the cover and remarked, “Hey, that book is about me!” You know, since his name is in the title. I agreed, saying it was a biography about him. “You know, not so much with the wings, but a whole lot of ruin.” In response to which he quipped, “Little Wings, Big Ruin.”

I’m sharing this just because it makes me giggle, and maybe you’ll giggle too. “Little Wings, Big Ruin: The Memoirs of Court Chapman*”.

*To protect his identity, I have changed his name. You know, just his last name. Obviously I didn’t change his first name, or else this entire anecdote wouldn’t make any sense. I mean, I’m not a total liar-geez, guys, back off!

Book Review: LINCOLN IN THE BARDO by George Saunders

lincolninthebardo

“He came out of nothingness, took form, was loved, was always bound to return to nothingness.

Only I did not think it would be so soon.

Or that he would precede us.

Two passing temporarinesses developed feelings for one another.

Two puffs of smoke became mutually fond.

I mistook him for a solidity, and now must pay.”

This book was truly something amazing! Not your average read, but rather something to be experienced.

Be warned: the format of this book definitely took some getting used to. A multitude of narrators pitch in to tell the story, often for just one line at a time before switching to the next character. Interspersed within this structure are lines from Abraham Lincoln biographies and actual correspondence by his contemporaries. At the beginning I did ask myself, “Can I get past the unusual style?” The answer was very quickly revealed to be a yes, and I am so glad for it!

At the core of the story: when President Lincoln’s son Willie dies of typhoid fever he finds himself in the bardo, a place where according to Tibetan tradition we go after dying but before moving on to the next life. The colorful cast of characters young Willie encounters here all have their own reasons for not wanting to let go of the lives they knew (revenge, unfulfilled desires, etc). Many of them deny the truth of their condition even to themselves, instead choosing to believe that what they are experiencing is akin to an illness. The distasteful things they leave each night to rise up and move about are simply their “sick-forms”, left in isolation in “sick boxes” as a form of treatment. These characters offer up much absurdity and hilarity in equal measure.

willie-lincoln
William Wallace Lincoln
oak hill
Oak Hill Cemetery, the book’s setting – I don’t know why these captions won’t show up aligned in the center…

Histories report that the elder Lincoln went for a prolonged visit in the dead of night to the cemetery where his son was temporarily interred in a borrowed tomb. This story takes place over the course of that night. Though the way the story is told is so very amusing at times, it contains many moments that can be sad or touching, but also hopeful moments.

“All over now. He is either in joy or nothingness.

(So why grieve?

The worst of it, for him, is over.)

Because I loved him so and am in the habit of loving him and that love must take the form of fussing and worrying and doing.

Only there is nothing left to do.”

Besides what he felt over the loss of his child, this book also takes a look at what Lincoln may have thought about the war his country was embroiled in while he was at its helm, and those who blamed him for the deaths of so many American soldiers on both sides. There is no shortage of good lines on the subject of grief here. A few I appreciated:

“Everything nonsense now. Those mourners came up. Hands extended. Sons intact. Wearing on their faces enforced sadness-masks to hide any sign of their happiness, which-which went on. They could not hide how alive they yet were with it, with the happiness at the potential of their still-living sons. Until lately I was one of them. Strolling whistling through the slaughterhouse, averting my eyes from the carnage, able to laugh and dream and hope because it had not yet happened to me.

To us.

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we a bring baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby must also depart. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.”

And one last bit about the nation that may offer a bit of hope:

“Across the sea fat kings watched and were gleeful, that something begun so well had now gone off the rails (as down South similar kings watched) and if it went off the rails, so went the whole kit, forever, and if someone ever thought to start it up again, it would be said (and said truly): The rabble cannot manage itself.

Well, the rabble could. The rabble would.”

 

The icing on the cake: it turns out this author teaches at Syracuse University. I hail from Syracuse myself, and the hospital I work at is basically across the street from the University. I stop at the local Starbucks every morning on my way in to work, and now I wonder if maybe I’ll cross paths with him there someday 🙂