Sunday, February 10, 2019

Ashes of Honor, by Seanan McGuire

This is the sixth book in Seanan McGuire's "October Daye" urban fantasy series, set in and around San Francisco, and the series just keeps getting better with each book. The main character, October (or Toby), was introduced in the first book (Rosemary and Rue) as a changeling, born to a fae mother from whom she inherited certain abilities that help her work as a private detective in the fae communities. In this book, she is hired by a fae father, who has just learned about his own changeling child, Chelsea, a daughter who inherited his powers of teleportation. Her human mother thinks the fae have kidnapped her child, and she is threatening to reveal their existence to the human world, which will threaten the survival of all the fae. Chelsea doesn't know how to control her powers, and she is breaking through barriers between fae worlds, opening doors that must be closed. Toby has to track her down before she weakens those barriers to the point that worlds begin to collapse. She must also offer Chelsea what all changelings face as children or adolescents: the Choice between the human world and the fae. If she chooses the fae world, she will be separated forever from her human parent. This was the Choice that Toby made, and her fae mother has never forgiven the loss of her husband, Toby's father.

As a changeling herself, Toby understands Chelsea in a way that the pureblood fae never can. Not only did she face the Choice, but so did her own daughter Gillian, who chose the human world of her father. Toby's experiences with lost children and changelings often draw her to these kinds of cases.

This is a series that really needs to be read in order. There is a deep backstory to Toby, one that she is still figuring out. Ms. McGuire is good however at brief reminders of things that happened in previous books, without letting them distract from the current action. The stories are interesting in and of themselves, as Toby works out the different cases. Beyond that, there are three things that captivate me in the stories. The first is Toby herself. She is smart and snarky, but also scarred by her past, by the loss of her child and partner, and by the very complicated relationship with her mother Amadine, one of the most powerful of the fae but one of the least stable. We have gradually learned more about Amadine, but I get the feeling there are more secrets to be revealed.

The second is the family that Toby has built, starting with her liege lord and father figure Sylvester, Duke of Shadowed Hills. (The first book opens with Toby trying to find his wife and daughter, who have been kidnapped.) Then there is May, once the Fetch sent to foretell her upcoming death, now her sister and roommate. They share a house with Quentin, a fosterling at Sylvester's court who is Toby's squire. Toby doesn't know who his parents are, but they don't seem to mind that working with her has already gotten Quentin shot, or that he has had to break her out of (fae) prison. Sylvester assures her that they think her training will best prepare him for the modern worlds. Quentin's best friend Raj hangs around with them a lot. He is a Cait Sidhe, heir to the throne of the local Court of Cats. The king, his uncle Tybalt, has rescued Toby more than once, for reasons that she can't quite understand. (Ms. McGuire is also good at explaining the different races of fae, and keeping them clear in my mind at least, again without overwhelming). One of my favorite characters is The Luidaeg, an immensely powerful fae known and feared as "the sea witch." She and Toby have become friends over the course of the stories, as she has helped with Toby's cases, though her assistance comes at a high price - and not in money.

The third is the politics of a fae world where the Elders - Oberon, Titiania, and Maeve - have withdrawn, leaving their children vulnerable among the humans, but sometimes unable to live in peace among themselves. Fae society is organized along feudal lines. Duke Sylvester is Toby's liege, but they are both subjects of the Queen of Mists, who dislikes them both. At one point Toby herself inherited a territory and became a Countess in her own right, which infuriated the Queen. She later gave up the title (with relief) in part to prevent a war. There are alliances between different groups of the fae, and conflicts of course as well, which Toby must deal with as she works through the different cases she takes on.

I find these books so rich and satisfying that I have been taking a break between them, rather than rushing through the series as I often do. However, Ashes of Honor brought some very interesting developments, and left a couple of questions open, so I have moved straight on to the next, Chimes at Midnight.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

A new series from Ovidia Yu, finally available in the U.S.


I was thinking the other day that I haven't seen a new book from Ovidia Yu in a while. When I checked her website, I found a new "Aunty Lee" story, Meddling and Murder. But I also learned that she has a new series, the first two books of which are finally available in the U.S. The summary of the first, The Frangipani Tree Mystery, sent me immediately in search of a copy:
    1936 in the Crown Colony of Singapore, and the British abdication crisis and rising Japanese threat seem very far away. When the Irish nanny looking after Acting Governor Palin's daughter dies suddenly and mysteriously, mission school-educated local girl Su Lin - an aspiring journalist trying to escape an arranged marriage - is invited to take her place.
    But then another murder occurs at the residence and it seems very likely that a killer is stalking the corridors of Government House. It now takes all Su Lin's skills and intelligence to help British-born Chief Inspector Thomas Le Froy solve the murders - and escape with her own life.
Su Lin narrates most of the story, with occasional comments that show she is looking back at the events. "I was to come to know the bungalow on Frangipani Hill very well, but on that long-ago first day I was young and awestruck..." Brief sections also follow Chief Inspector Le Froy, told in the third person, presenting events and conversations that Su Lin learns about later.

I found Su Lin an interesting and sympathetic character straight from the first page, where she is caught between her formidable English mentor (who wants her to take a job with Le Froy) and her very traditional uncle (who has arranged three possible marriages for her).
Knowing Miss Nessa had a soft spot for me, I had asked her to help me find a job. I could not tell her that I longed to be independent like her, and see the world beyond Singapore, so I might have exaggerated my fear of being married off now my schooldays were over. In truth, [my grandmother] Ah Ma might have kept me at home with her to recoup the investment she had made in sending me to learn English reading and writing at the Mission School. I had been considered 'bad luck' since my parents had died from typhoid, and childhood polio had left me with a limp. It had seemed unlikely my family would ever be able to marry me off, but since I was the only child of Ah Ma's favourite son, she had decided to educate rather than sell me. My grandmother's moneylending and black-market businesses had made her rich in the continuing Depression, and she could afford to keep me at home to translate for her, run errands and monitor the household accounts. But grateful though I was to her, the school run by the Mission Centre had opened my eyes to a whole world of possibilities. I wanted more than a lifetime of toil under my grandmother or a mother-in-law. If I was to escape domestic captivity, I would need my own money, which was why I had to find a paying job. (It would have been easier if I had been an English woman rather than a Chinese girl, but I didn't worry about what I couldn't change.)
Su Lin's goal is a career in journalism, inspired by the character Henrietta Stackpole in Henry James' Portrait of a Lady, "whom I had found far more interesting than the book's heroine." She takes the position with the Palins in part out of compassion for their daughter Deborah, at seventeen only a year older than Su Lin, but due to brain damage from an illness mentally a child of seven or so. But Su Lin is also motivated by curiosity, to know what happened to the dead woman, Charity Byrne, an orphan like Su Lin but with no other family. Inspector Le Froy, "known for his willingness to work with - and against - men of any race, language or religion," does discriminate against women. "In the newspapers he had been quoted as saying that the police force would never employ female officers because it was impossible to work with irrational persons." It's lovely to see his prejudices breaking down in the face of Su Lin's intelligence, competence, and compassion. "It was his first inkling of how tough a practical female can be."

There is so much to enjoy in this story, both the setting and the fascinating mix of peoples. Su Lin's best friend from school is Parshanti, whose British mother and Indian father put the family in a complicated, uneasy place in the community. Like Su Lin, Parshanti's options are limited now that her schooling is ended. Her father, a doctor, has trouble finding patients so he works with the police on forensics. Perhaps she will end up helping Su Lin in the cases to come!

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Black God's Drums, by P. Djèjí Clark

This novella, the story of a 13-year-old orphan named Creeper living on the streets of New Orleans, just blew me away. To start with, it's 1884, and the American Civil War has paused (after eight years) with an armistice that divided the country and left slavery in the South. I do love alternate-world history, though I prefer ones where the Confederacy died the death it deserved. However New Orleans, as Creeper tells us,
"been free now going on more than two decades - ever since the slave uprising in that first year of the war. Caught the Confederates by surprise. They got so scared, they let the Free Coloured militias join up to help put it down. Only the militias switched over to the slaves and both of them took the city."
And in this world, airships have been developed, for which New Orleans has become a major port, a neutral and open one. When we first meet Creeper, she is settled in the hideaway she has established at the airship docks, where she can scout out "folks too careless with their purses, luggage, and anything else for the taking. Because in New Orleans, you can't survive on just dreams."

Creeper also prefers to be high up over the city. Her mother, who died from yellow fever, told her that she "was Oya's child - the goddess of storms, life, death and rebirth, who came over with her great-grandmaman from Lafrik..." Creeper, named Jacqueline at birth, can feel Oya in her mind, hear her voice, sometimes warning of dangers or calling her to some action.

When Creeper overhears a group of men plotting to kidnap a Haitian scientist due to arrive on an airship, who will be bringing "the Black God's Drums," she knows she has found something "Bigger than any marks I was going to pinch tonight . . .that's gonna be valuable to somebody. I just need to figure out who'll pay the highest price." What Creeper wants, more than money, is a place on an airship, to join a crew - and she has her heart set on a particular ship, the successful smuggler Captain Ann-Marie St. Augustine's Midnight Robber. What she doesn't know until she meets the Captain is that the woman also carries a goddess's touch, Oshun, "The Bright Lady! Mistress of Rivers! Oya's sister-wife!" Creeper tells us "The magic of those old Afrikin gods is part of this city, ma maman used to say, buried in its bones and roots with the slaves that built it, making the ground and air and waterways sacred land."

P. Djèjí Clark packs so much action and excitement into his story, which takes place in the days before Mardi Gras (called "Maddi grà" here). I was particularly tickled by Creeper and Captain's visit to the convent of the Sacred Family, a gloss on the Sisters of the Holy Family, founded by Henriette de Lille in New Orleans as the first congregation for African American women in the United States (barred by racism from entering white orders). Sisters Eunice and Agnès who agree to help them are hilarious, but they are much more than comic relief, with more than one trick up the sleeves of their habits. As Creeper says, "Everyone knows the sisters help smuggle in runaways from the Confederacy." Those still enslaved are kept docile and helpless with chemical warfare, a gas called drapeto - a particularly chilling touch in the story.

I enjoyed this story so much. I loved the magic, and the technology, and the triumph of freedom in New Orleans (and Haiti). I hope there will be more of Creeper's adventures to come, especially if she talks her way on to that airship.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

A Thousand Beginnings and Endings, edited by Ellen Oh and Elsie Chapman

    For one of us, it was the first book a librarian gave to her when she finally summoned up the courage to ask for a book recommendation - The Pink Fairy Book, by Andrew Lang. For the other, it was the one book she ever stole from her elementary school library - a book on mythology. (Not that it was okay to steal the book, but she will finally admit to it now, more than thirty years later, with the school shut down for good, and said thief living on the other side of the world from her hometown.)
    We both went on to devour other mythologies: Greek and Norse, from Ares to Danae to Thor to Odin. We fell in love with all those myths about powerful gods being vulnerable, about humans becoming heroes. Such stories taught us about mythology, about the beauty of folktales and legends, and about how stories of gods and goddesses are also stories about the human heart.
    But we never found similar compilations that were distinctly Asian. And so many times when we found Asian stories, they were ones retold by non-Asians that never felt quite right. They were always missing something. The stories felt superficial at best and at worst, quite hurtful. We longed for nuance and subtlety and layers, the embedded truths about culture that - more often than not - can only come from within.
    That's why this anthology is important to us. Here, diasporic Asians reimagine their favorite Asian myths and legends from their own viewpoints. We would have been overjoyed to have found this anthology, filled with characters with skin and hair and names like ours, in our beloved libraries. It's the book that was missing in our lives for far too long. ("From the Editors")
I loved mythology and folktales as a child. Looking back, I read mostly Greek and Roman mythology, and European-centered folktales. It is only recently that I have begun to diversify my own reading in those areas. When I saw this book listed in a Book Riot post, I was happy to find that my library had a copy.

Most of the authors in the collection are new to me, except for Aliette de Bodard (I have collected a couple of her ebooks but not yet read them). Some of their stories bring myths or folk tales into a modern setting, like E.C. Myers "The Land of Morning Calm," which translates the epic Korean myth the Chasa Bonpuli into an on-line gaming world; or Alyssa Wong's "Olivia's Tables," which brings the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival to a small town in Arizona (including the ghosts of Chinese immigrants brought in for mining work). Others take place in the mythical past, such as Rahul Kanakia's "Spear Carrier," where a young person is transported back to the epic battle that ends India's classic the Mahabharata (without ever quite understanding what they are doing there). Each story includes a note from the author, explaining the context and the background for the story she has chosen.

Some of the stories feel complete in themselves. With others, I was left wanting to know more, what happened next. "Olivia's Tables" is one of those, and also my favorite story, "Girls Who Twirl and Other Dangers," by Preeti Chhibber. It's set at a community celebration of Navratri, a Hindu holiday that I hadn't learned about before, one the author explains "represents a few different myths in Hinduism," but "at its core, Navratri is always about good defeating evil."

The stories were as new to me as the authors, though I have recently learned about kitsune, the Japanese fox ghosts. The collection included the first story I have read by a Filipino author, Melissa de la Cruz. There is a handy "Author Biographies" section at the end of the book, which lists their other books.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

When it comes to tides, I'm all at sea

Inspired by Gladys Mitchell, I picked up The Floating Admiral from the TBR shelves. This is the first collaboration by members of the Detection Club, published in 1931. I had expected it to be a spoof, but it's a serious work, and one I'm enjoying very much. There are twelve chapters, each written by a different author, many of whom I've met in Martin Edwards' short story compilations. Dorothy L. Sayers explained how the idea of the collaborative story came to be in an Introduction, and she also explained how it was written.
Except in the case of Mr. Chesterton's picturesque Prologue, which was written last, each contributor tackled the mystery presented to him in the preceding chapters without having the slightest idea what solution or solutions the previous authors had in mind. Two rules only were imposed. Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view - that is, he must not introduce new complications merely "to make it more difficult." He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution to the mystery. These solutions are printed at the end of the book for the benefit of the curious reader.
In her Introduction Sayers also gives some of the oath that members of the club take at their initiation, regarding their work. I think their rules are good ones!
The author pledges himself to play the game with the public and with his fellow-authors. His detectives must detect by their wits, without the help of accident or coincidence; he must not invent impossible death-rays and poisons to produce solutions which no living person could expect; he must write as good English as he can. . . If here is any serious aim behind the avowedly frivolous organisation of the Detection Club, it is to keep the detective story up to the highest standard that its nature permits, and to free it from the bad legacy of sensationalism, clap-trap and jargon with which it was unhappily burdened in the past.
Considering the round-robin way this book was written, I find it a very cohesive story. Without the authors' names at the head of each chapter, I would never have guessed there were twelve writers. There are no real shifts in tone, and I couldn't have picked out the chapters written by Dorothy Sayers or Agatha Christie from the rest. The Floating Admiral of the title, Admiral Penistone, is found dead and drifting in a boat on the River Whyn, early one morning. He was stabbed to death sometime the previous night, after dining with his niece at a local vicar's home. Inspector Rudge from Whynmouth is called to take the case. I was happily following his investigation, until the question of the River came up. It's a tidal river, which may be a factor in when and where the Admiral's body was discovered. But I was reminded again how little I understand tides, and how little the explanations in books help, even when made to people as confused as I am. (And there's a whole chapter titled "Bright Thoughts on Tides.")
    "You want to know about the tides in the river?" [Neddy Ware, who found the body] replied, in answer to the Inspector's explanation of the cause of his visit. "Why, they're simple enough, so long as you remember that it's high water, Full and Change, at Whynmouth at seven o'clock."
    Rudge laughed. "I haven't a doubt it's simple enough to you," he said. "Personally, I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about. What on earth do you mean by high water, Full and Change?"
    "Why, merely that it's high water at Whynmouth at seven o'clock nearabouts, on the days when the moon is full or new," replied Ware. "Now, take this morning's tide, for instance. To-day's Wednesday, the 10th. It was new moon on Monday, that's to say it was high water at Whynmouth at seven on Monday evening. It would be about eight yesterday evening and half-past this morning. You can allow about six hours between high and low water, making it low water at half-past two this morning. The tide up here begins to flow half to three-quarters of an hour after low water at Whynmouth, or say soon after three. And that's when I went out fishing."
Maybe it's the math involved that throws me, as much as the science. As soon as I see "neeps" or "springs," I know I'm lost, even when (as here) the timetable is crucial to the mystery.

I'm glad to find this book so enjoyable, since last year I read about three more collaborations in Martin Edwards' The Golden Age of Murder, and rushed to order them. They're still on the TBR stacks. Ask a Policeman has the authors swapping characters, writing each other's detectives. In The Anatomy of Murder, the fiction writers take on real-life cases. And in Six Against the Yard, the authors match wits against an actual policeman, a Superintendent from Scotland Yard. Dorothy L. Sayers joined in each of these, but the last is the only one to include Margery Allingham.

Edited to add: I should have noted that Orientalism that runs through the book, starting with G.K. Chesterton's Prologue, set in Hong Kong. It unfortunately includes derogatory references to the Chinese, as well as the usual casual use of the N-word.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Glamour in Glass, by Mary Robinette Kowal

This is the second book in Mary Robinette Kowal's "Glamour" series. Murder by the Book sold the series to me as "Jane Austen with magic." I'm usually a little leery of Austen pastiche, but after reading The Calculating Stars I was very ready to try her other books.

The first in the series, Shades of Milk and Honey, hits all the right Austen notes. It is the story of Jane Ellsworth, as the back cover blurb says,
a woman ahead of her time in a world where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality. But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester's society are not that different. The lives of Jane and her sister Melody still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
(Melody does not feel like a Regency-era name to me. I didn't find it listed in Maggie Lane's Jane Austen and Names.)

Jane and Melody live with their parents, a couple who reminded me more than a little of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet. Melody is the beauty of the family, while Jane is the more skilled at glamour, which (as Ms. Kowal explains in a helpful Glossary) "is a magic that can be worked by either men or women. It allows them to create illusions of light, scent and sound." It usually has to be tied to something in the physical world, which limits its applications. It also takes a toll on the person casting the glamour.

I think I was expecting a more active and more exciting magic in the story. I found the first book a bit slow, though it came to an exciting conclusion. I enjoyed this second book more. Jane is married to a fellow glamourist, and after completing a commission for the Prince Regent, they travel to a village in Belgium, where Jane's husband Vincent once studied. He is working on a particular type of glamour, the sphere obscurie, "a bubble of magic to make the person inside invisible." He hopes to find a way to make the glamour portable, tied to a physical object that a person can carry around. Jane, who worked with him on the Prince Regent's commission in London, wants to make their marriage a partnership in work and in love. As they adjust to their marriage and their shared interest in glamour, she realizes that Vincent is hiding something from her, locked away in his traveling desk. When she becomes pregnant and is forced to stop working with the glamour, the distance between them grows. Meanwhile, signs of support for the exiled Napoleon are popping up. As an Englishwoman abroad, Jane meets hostility, adding to her sense of isolation. But when Vincent suggests she return to England, she refuses, even as rumors of Napoleon's return begin to spread.

At one point, I had to Google the timeline of the Napoleonic Wars, to see where Jane and Vincent's adventures fit in. (Ms. Kowal explains in an afterword where she altered the timeline to fit her story.) I found that part of the story exciting and interesting, and Jane proved to be quite the heroine. But I also enjoyed the quieter parts of the story, as their relationship deepens and they work together on glamour. I admired Jane's determination to be a partner, to use and strengthen her talents, not to be constrained by the expected roles of women of her class. There are three more books in the series, and I'm looking forward to more adventures with Jane.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

"A Very British Murder" and Gladys Mitchell

Last night I watched all three episodes of Lucy Worsley's "A Very British Murder" - a decision I started to regret all alone in a quiet dark house, with three cats staring off in the direction of the hallway.

The first episode looked at how, beginning in the Regency period, the British public became fascinated with accounts of murder, starting with the "Ratcliffe Highway Murders" in 1811. I was familiar with that case from P.D. James's The Maul and the Pear Tree, written with T.A. Critchley. Dr. Worsley argues that the proliferation of inexpensive publications including newspapers, combined with rising literacy rates, created an audience for stories particularly of murder. She talks about the rise of "murder tourism" and the collection of souvenirs. I was tickled to see a china keepsake replica of one murder site, the "Red Barn" case in 1827. A similar china memento plays an important part in Margery Allingham's The China Governess.

The second episode focused on Victorian crimes and the rise of both fictional and real-life detectives. I am most familiar with the Constance Kent case, through reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher. Dr. Worsley interviewed Kate Summerscale about the case, and also included a picture of Mr. Whicher. I thought she focused a bit too much on Charles Dickens and his interest in detective work, even if it meant interviewing Simon Callow.

In the third episode, Dr. Worsley turned to fictional detectives and the crimes they investigate, particularly in the "Golden Age" of crime between the wars. I expected that Agatha Christie would have a prominent place, but I was pleasantly surprised to find Dr. Worsley prefers Dorothy L. Sayers' books and thinks Harriet Vane an amazing character (as she is). I particularly enjoyed the segment where she met Simon Brett to discuss the Detection Club that Sayers and Christie founded with other authors. It even included "Eric," the skull on which new members have taken their oaths back to Sayers' day. But the episode ended with Graham Greene, ignoring all the other wonderful authors of the Golden Age.

The British Library reprints and Martin Edwards' books have introduced me to so many of those authors. After I finished watching, I went browsing through the TBR shelves to find one of them. I settled on When Last I Died, by Gladys Mitchell. I came across this on the library sale shelves a couple of months ago, in a Hogarth Press edition. Mitchell, a member of the Detection Club, taught English and history while also producing over 70 crime novels. The central character in most of them is Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a psychologist. In When Last I Died, from 1941, she has been called in as a consultant as a boys' reform school. Two of the boys have run away.
    Her own methods with the boys were characteristic. She thought they needed stimulating, and applied psychological treatment, to their astonishment and her own amusement. She discovered very soon that they were afraid of her. One even went so far as to ask whether she was there to pick out the "mentals."
    "We are all 'mentals,' my poor child," she remarked.
    Nevertheless, at the end of two days she could tell the Warden where to lay hands upon his missing boys, for it was common knowledge where and how they had gone, and this common knowledge she soon shared.
The Warden, while grateful, informs her that two other boys had previously disappeared and never been found. I expected Mrs. Bradley to start looking into that. Instead, she asks the Warden if she can rent a house and have boys to stay with her, as a break from the school (and for the staff). He refuses. She takes a house by the sea anyway, and invites her seven-year-old grandson Derek to stay with her. Mrs. Bradley knows that there have been some recent deaths in the house, but she is unprepared for Derek's question one night: "Gran, what lady was murdered in this house?" Derek also tells her that the house is haunted by the victim's ghost. He has been talking to the postmistress, Peggy Peeples. Mrs. Bradley asks her about it the next day. Peggy's response is a perfect tangle:
"It was never brought in as murder, that wasn't. Oh, no! It's only people's wickedness to talk the way they do, but of course she did come in for the money, Miss Bella did, and then she was tried for murdering her cousin, and that set people off again. But the poor thing committed suicide in the end - drowned herself, so I heard - and some thought it was remorse that made her do it. But all that talk about her aunt, there was nothing so far as we knew, though they do say no smoke without fire."
Now we'll see if Mrs. Bradley is drawn into investigating the murder of Miss Bella's Aunt Flora, or the earlier disappearance of the two boys - or maybe both. I am quite taken with her already, both as a psychologist and a grandmother. I think Gladys Mitchell could be very bad for my TBR resolution, even if all 70 of her books are no longer in print.

(I've already started my 2019 TBR list. Yesterday I found a pristine Penguin edition of Anna Katherine Green's The Leavenworth Case on the library sale shelves. This 1878 novel is considered "the mother of the detective novel," as the back cover puts it. I have an ebook version but was happy to find such a good copy for only $1.)