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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

In Other Lands, by Sarah Rees Brennan, Big Mouth House, 2017, $19.95, hc.

The Black Tides of Heaven, by JY Yang, Tor.com, October 2017, $15.99, tpb.

The Red Threads of Fortune, by JY Yang, Tor.com, October 2017, $15.99, tpb.

Snow & Rose, by Emily Winfield Martin, Random House Books for Young Readers, 2017, $17.99, hc.

Vallista, by Steven Brust, Tor Books, October 2017, $25.99, hc.

 

In Other Lands started life as a web serialization, writes the author, "at a time when I badly needed to rediscover the joy of writing."

As an aside, this need is a very real thing. It is way, way too easy to get caught up in the elements of writing-as-career that have very little to do with the actual writing itself, and far more to do with the marketing, publicity, and recognition. All of these things are necessary to a greater or lesser degree—but none of these things are the actual book. None of these things are the writing itself—it's what's done when the writing (and revising) is finished. And if there is no joy, the actual writing can grind to a slow, messy halt, and in the worst case, there's no book with which to do all the other things. Ahem. Digression over.

In other words, Rees Brennan wrote this without thinking about how she would market it, about which publisher would be right for it, about whether or not it would sell enough to justify publisher interest—and therefore continuing her career. She wrote it because she wanted to write it. I did not read it on her website, because I live under rocks and only come up for sunlight when lack of Vitamin D threatens to kill me, and I did not know she was writing it.

As a result, all I know of the novel—which started life as a "short" story, and boy do I feel that pain—is contained within the physical book itself. Rees Brennan didn't attempt to sell the book—an editor contacted her with an offer to publish it. (And grateful shout-out to Kelly Link for being that publisher/editor.)

So, all that out of the way, I loved this book. I loved it. But early on I wanted to smack Elliott, the fourteen-year-old boy who is chosen, from our world, to go to the Borderlands because he can see magic. And I might have stopped reading, had I not distinctly heard (not making this up, I swear) a voiceover saying: Once there was a boy named Eustace Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.

This is a magical school book, sort of. It's episodic in a fashion; it follows Elliott through the equivalent of high school—with monsters and elves—as he finds a place for himself because he does, in often the most awkward, prickly way possible, find himself. He's not a particularly kind person—but he doesn't attempt to sell himself as kind. He knows he's not. He knows he's not one of the lucky or the special or the well-favored. He knows that the world is basically one big ball of rejection, and he has enough of a spine that he's going to reject the world first.

In other words, he's a real teenager, with the insecurities and the inability to see how they play out even when the reader can. Rees Brennan is doing a bunch of things—some hysterically funny, until they're not—in this novel. There are non-human characters. The elves in the other lands are entirely gender-flipped. It's the women who do the fighting, the women who go to war, and the men who are expected to be virginal and pure and gentle (there is a hysterical scene in which the elven fighter is explaining women and sexual urges to Elliott, who is raptly interested, and Luke, who is emphatically not).

And there are relationships. There is love, longing, desire. There is disaster because of cultural differences, different expectations, and entirely different dreams of love and belonging. And there's heartbreak for a variety of different reasons, because Rees Brennan understands, on some base level, that humor and pain are close cousins, and she is a master of humor.

If even the whiff of political correctness makes you throw a book across a room in rage, this book is probably not for you. But if you want an inclusive book about an awkward young person learning—with difficulty—how to be kind, if you want an inclusive book that will make you weep tears of laughter while you're trying to read the hysterically funny things out loud to your unsuspecting spouse, this book is for you.

Did I mention that I loved this book?

 

*   *   *

 

JY Yang's two books are long novellas, published by Tor.com. The Black Tides of Heaven is the first of the two, and yes, they have to be read in order.

Unlike Rees Brennan, Yang is not a master of over-the-top hysterical humor. Yang's not over-the-top about anything. If Rees Brennan is a glorious shout, Yang is a quiet whisper—but whispers have power.

Yang's duology opens with an elderly abbot climbing the eight hundred steps to the Great High Palace to meet with the Protector who rules these lands. He has come to speak to the Protector because the Protector owes the monastery a large debt, and debts of this nature cannot simply be cast aside.

But the Protector is wily—she would have to be—and she fulfills the terms of that debt while utterly destroying the spirit. She has promised the monastery one of her children, and Head Abbot Sung has reason to expect that Sonami will be that child; Sonami wishes to join the monastery, and Head Abbot Sung desires a successor.

Sonami, however, has value to her mother, and the Head Abbot is offered, instead, an infant. Or rather, two. Twins, Mokoya and Akeha. Because the monastery has no way of dealing with infants, the Head Abbot agrees that they will be raised by the Protector, and sent to the monastery when they are six. They are not children that the Protector values; they were conceived and born entirely to fulfill her obligations, and to confound the Head Abbot's hopes.

And so the twins come to the Head Abbot at the age of six. Akeha is defiant, angry, silent; Mokoya is much more emotional. Neither have any desire to live in the monastery; neither wishes to be separated from Sonami, their sister and the person who raised them and kept them safe. But they are left at the monastery regardless. They have each other. They only have each other.

As the twins learn to manipulate the slack, to become Yang's version of magic-users, they discover Mokoya is special. The twin has the gift of prophecy; their dreams are true dreams. The gift of prophecy is of far more value to the Protector than the debt the twins were born to fulfill; she promised the monastery only one child—and the monastery will still have Akeha. She therefore demands the return of Mokoya.

The Head Abbot understands that the twins cannot be separated without irreparable emotional damage, and he releases Akeha as well. The monastery years are formative for both, and the palace of the Protectorate is no longer home. But they have each other. They only have each other.

What I loved best about Yang's book is the quiet, the interiority, the things implied by each sentence, the tone that creates a world. It feels exquisitely detailed, but the sense of detail is not accomplished with extra words; there are no extra words. The world is interesting, the glimpses fascinating. But it's family complications that form the core of The Black Tides of Heaven. Mother issues. Sibling issues. The coming of age that is far more awkward, far more threatening, when it means differentiation from, separation from, the person who has been your entire life and your sense of both safety and home.

The fact that this occurs with the stirring of rebellion, with the advent of a technology that does not rely on the ability to parse and use the magic that separates the powerful from the poor, makes the cost and consequence more intense, more real.

I really liked this book.

 

*   *   *

 

I loved The Red Threads of Fortune, but you can't get to it without the first volume. If the first volume is Akeha's book, the second is Mokoya's, but Mokoya's book doesn't work if you haven't read the end of The Black Tides of Heaven, because the entire story rests upon the conclusion of the first volume. And it is very hard to discuss the end of that book in this column because, while reviews require some plot synopsis, spoiling the end of a book is terrible form.

I will say this, though: The Red Threads of Fortune is a novel about grief, about loss, about the walls that are built by and of our pain; it's a novel about seeing those walls, and eventually finding a door that might—just might—lead out of the self-built prison. It takes place in the Protectorate, but at its outer edges, and it is almost entirely Mokoya's story.

It feels less episodic than the first volume, because the first volume establishes the twins as children at different ages; The Red Threads of Fortune is a continuous story from beginning to end. The delicacy of prose, of implied world, is just as strong in the second book, as are the ramifications and shadows of family.

Yang's writing is quiet, but it is the quiet of strength. It doesn't need to shout to be heard. I would love to see more work set in the Protectorate.

 

*   *   *

 

Snow & Rose is a YA, a young adult book. Or rather, it's what I thought was a YA when I picked it up. I was wrong; it's a middle reader. The reason I picked it up is the fairy tale on which it's based: Snow White and Rose Red. My sister and I, as children, loved that one because it had two princesses, one for each of us.

It's very much a modern fairy tale retelling, and the younger me, the inner child all but buried by decades of experience and responsibilities, adored it. It is an enormously gentle book, and if it lacks the edges of some modern retellings, it adds details and a quiet reality, grounding the story in the people about whom it is told.

Rose is the older of the two sisters; Snow the younger.

Set adrift by the disappearance—without explanation—of their father, they now live in a small cottage outside of town, having been forced from the mansion in which their family once lived. All of Rose's memories of their father are warm, but she has finally accepted that he's gone. He will not be coming back. This is the life they will live, now. Snow, however, is waiting for their father to return, and Rose doesn't have the heart to argue with her younger sister.

Nor does their mother, and their mother is almost lost to grief.

In many modern stories, the mother is a cipher. In Martin's hands, she's not. Although she is not the main character, we're offered glimpses of what she might have been like before that loss and grief destroyed her life. She is struggling to hold things together, and in one scene, she manages to almost be the person she was before their lives were destroyed, which, conversely, is heart-breaking to the parent in me, although I'm certain the intended audience won't quite see it the same way.

I like the small touches that ground the book. It's a quiet story, and if my kids were younger, I would read it to them.

 

*   *   *

 

Vallista is not a quiet book. It's not a slow book. It's Brust writing Vlad, with a side of Devera, and it's exactly what I wanted from a Vlad Taltos book. It's not what I expected going in, but Brust is a master of writing a book that I didn't know I wanted until I started reading.

More than any other book that features Vlad, this one makes utterly clear that if there's a giant red button that says DO NOT PRESS in every language known to us, Vlad is the guy who says, "what does this do?" and presses it. Vlad is cunning in a fashion—he's had to be to survive—but he's not otherwise a heavy thinker; he doesn't spend a lot of time in idle contemplation.

Or he doesn't when he has any other choice. And that choice, sadly for Vlad, belongs in a different book.

In Vallista, Devera shows up—as she sometimes does—to ask for his help. And while he's naturally suspicious, the possibility that she will turn into a crying waterspout is enough to get Vlad moving. Does she tell him what she wants him to do? Well, no. But he follows her all the way through Adrilankha and out of the city, to an imposing building that he's never seen before. He follows her to the front doors, opens them, and enters.

Devera then disappears, which is not helpful, because entrance seems to be a one-time thing, or exiting seems to be a zero-time thing; the doors won't open again. While Vlad is waiting, he meets a woman, Tethia, who claims she's dead. She speaks of the creation of the platform, and then like Devera, she disappears.

The building is called Precipice Manor.

Vlad doesn't think much of the name, but Vlad doesn't think much of pointless pretension, which, given his various friends—or allies—shows a dogged determination on his part.

Precipice Manor is not deserted. It is occupied by an elderly Draegaran sorcerer and his very few servants, one of whom attempts to show Vlad out. Out, however, doesn't work, and Vlad is left to his own devices and asked to remain in the guest room into which he's put. Which is not Vlad. Vlad wants the lay of the land, in case things go south.

What he quickly discovers is that he doesn't even know where south is. The halls don't work as normal halls; going left puts him at the room on his right. Or at a room that should probably be beneath his feet. Or on the edge of a cliff. Nothing about Precipice Manor makes any sense. But Devera is trapped here, somewhere, and he's not leaving without her. Well, actually, he's not leaving, regardless.

This is the Brustian version of a locked room mystery, absent the more traditional corpse, police, and suspects, but to balance that out, there's a manor that doesn't really appear to exist in a single dimension, sorcerers, the paths of the dead, goddesses, and ghosts. Vlad is not a great detective. But he's dogged, persistent, and naturally a bit curious when he has nothing more productive to do, like, say, survive the people trying to kill him.

Brust's killer wit is on full blast here. Vallista is pure Brust at his peak. And for those who read these books looking for hints of the over-arching plot strands that form the background for the entire series, the background elements that show greater forces than Vlad at work—or perhaps greater minds—there's more than enough to chew on (and no, I'm not going to discuss what they actually are, but trust me, they're there).

If you like Vlad, you've probably already bought the book.

If you don't (yet), this isn't the place to start—but if you do start here, you're not likely to be entirely lost. This is the fifteenth Vlad Taltos novel, but Brust has always managed to make the heart of each novel discrete and approachable. There's more resonance if you know the details, but the bones of the book make sense regardless.

Start with Jhereg. I might actually start with Jhereg again, because Vallista has reminded me of the distinct lack of Brust in my reading life.

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