Sunday, September 30, 2018

Witchmark, by C.L. Polk

This book set off my inner book evangelist. I had somehow gotten the impression that it was set in Edwardian England, but it is actually fantasy. It opens in a hospital, where Dr. Miles Singer has just gotten a memo ordering him to release sixteen of his patients by the end of the week, to make room for new admissions. Soldiers from his home country of Aeland will be returning victorious from the recently-ended war with Laneer, and many will need care. Miles, himself a veteran of the war, is concerned that the vets already under his care are experiencing fits of homicidal rage.

Then an emergency case arrives at the hospital's doors: a dying man who says his name is Nick Elliot. He tells Miles, "Help me, Starred One. I am murdered." Calling Miles "Sir Christopher," Elliot says that he was poisoned, he asks him to find his murderer, and he tells him "The soldiers . . .they deserve the truth." Miles, who has magical powers that can aid healing, sees that the man has a magical aura, a witch's aura, and before Elliot dies on the examining table, he passes power on to Miles. Watching everything from a corner of the room is the man who carried him into the hospital, who introduces himself as Tristan Hunter. When Miles realizes what Hunter has seen and heard, he panics. Accusations of witchcraft will get Miles sent to an asylum. But if he is outed as Christopher Hensley, his family will reclaim him. In the upper levels of society to which his family belongs, those with magic aren't sent to asylums, they are bound to another, who draws off the power to fuel their own. It was to escape life as a bound Secondary that Miles fled his family and changed his name, to study medicine and then join the army.

Tristan Hunter doesn't want to out Miles. He wants his help, to find out who murdered Nick Elliot and why. As a gesture of good faith, he shows Miles that he too has power, and Miles agrees to help him. Meanwhile, Miles is also trying to figure out why his veterans talk of someone inside their heads, inciting them to rage and violence. He can use his power to help them, but always at the risk of revealing himself. As the two investigations proceed, we learn more about Aeland, about Miles' world, about the war with Laneer, and about Tristan, who carries some deep secrets of his own. He and Miles form a partnership and a cautious friendship. And then Miles, forced to attend a hospital function, meets his sister Grace again. He fled his family to avoid being bound as her Secondary. Grace promises that she won't bind him against his will, but their father will not let him escape again.

I enjoyed this book so much. Miles is a very sympathetic character and also a complex one, carrying his multiple identities. He is fighting to care for his soldier patients, but he also wants the murderer of Nick Elliot brought to justice. He has spent years hiding, both his identity and his magic. He too is dealing with the effects of the war, on himself as well as his patients. It was lovely to see him slowly learn to trust Tristan, whom he finds devastatingly attractive. Their investigation becomes increasingly dangerous, linked to the highest levels of the government as well as the asylums where suspected witches are confined. It's a very timely book, concerned with the use and abuse of power. Soldiers used by the government in its war, people with magic exploited by those who with greater power - and that exploitation runs deeper than Miles can imagine. It all builds to a shattering conclusion, one that seems to beg for a sequel. I hope C.L. Polk is writing one! I would love to meet Miles and Tristan again.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

The Cloud Roads, by Martha Wells

I have been collecting recommendations for science fiction and fantasy authors lately, beyond the favorites that I read and re-read. Martha Wells' "Murderbot Diaries" have come strongly recommended, and she will be signing in a couple of weeks at my beloved Murder by the Book. She will be there with Mary Robinette Kowal, whose "Lady Astronaut" books are already on the TBR stacks.

When I checked into Martha Wells' books, I saw that she has also written other series, and one about shifters immediately caught my eye. The Cloud Roads is the first. It is the story of Moon, who as the first chapter opens "had been thrown out of a lot of groundling settlements and camps, but he hadn't expected it from the Cordans." He can pass as a "groundling," one of the many human types who inhabit the planet, and who come in a variety of forms and skin colors. But Moon has a second form that he can shift into at will, with scales, claws, a tail, and wide wings. He has to hide this form from the groundlings he lives among, because it resembles the Fell, a race of beings that attacks groundling settlements and kills all the inhabitants. Moon is himself that only survivor of an attack that killed his mother and siblings, when he was an adolescent. He has survived since by hiding his true self, earning a place among groundling groups by hard work (and sometimes a bit of trickery). But eventually something always goes wrong, someone decides he is too different, a threat, and he is driven out.

When it plays out yet again, among the Cordans, Moon is unexpectedly rescued by a being like himself, though much larger and older. From his rescuer, called Stone, he learns that he is a Raksura. Moon knows nothing about his people. They come in two types, the winged variety like Moon and Stone, also called Aeriat, and the Arbora, without wings. The Raksura live in communities called courts. Solitaries like Moon are rare, and Stone invites him to his home court, Indigo Cloud. They arrive only to discover that the court is under threat of attack from the Fell. Moon also learns to his shock that he has a special role to play in the court, one Stone recognized but chose not to tell him about.

I was drawn into this story from the first page. Moon is a very sympathetic character, an outsider in both the groundling and Raksuran worlds, simply trying to survive. We see the Raksura through his eyes, as he tries to find a place in yet another alien community, an outsider facing the same hostility he has met his whole life. At least he has Stone to support him, and he does form some alliances. But the threat of the Fell hangs over everything, threatening to bring down the court before Moon can even find his place in it.

I suppose that this series qualifies as fantasy, more than science fiction. I'm not always clear on the divide. I know it's too simplistic to say that "science fiction involves spaceships," but that's always in the back of my mind. Whichever category it falls into, I am enjoying this series very much. I already have the next books from the library, and I look forward to learning more about the Raksura and Moon's adventures with them.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Ghost stories

Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, by Seanan McGuire

Let's see if I remember how to do this.

I didn't sign up for the R.I.P. reading event this year, but these books would have been perfect for it. They are the stories of Rose Marshall, who died in a car accident on the night of her prom, on Sparrow Hill Road, in Buckley Township, Michigan, back in 1952. Over the decades that followed, Rose became a famous ghost, The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, The Girl in the Diner. Always looking like the teenager she was when she died, she is a "hitcher," a ghost looking for rides. And sometimes the people who give her rides end up dying on the road too.

Sparrow Hill Road introduces Rose and her world of the twilight, including the different types of ghosts who share it with her, and the humans who enter into it. The author calls it "a 'fix-up,' a collection of short stories strung together by a thin narrative thread." It didn't feel thin to me. I loved exploring Rose's world, learning her story, meeting the friends she has made on the road - and the enemies - and finding out why she is compelled to hitch those rides. I've heard those kind of stories before, told around a campfire or whispered in the dark. Rose's story felt so familiar, it was hard sometimes to remember that she never really lived and died.

The Girl in the Green Silk Gown is a novel, building off the stories in the first book. It is about an attempt to capture Rose, to finish off something that began back in 1952, when she was driven off the road to her death. It takes Rose out of her place in the twilight, leaving her lost and alone - and alive again. She must make her way back to death, but it's not as simple as contriving an accident. It is a bigger, more complicated story, with a twist at the end that I never saw coming. Though the ending is neat, it doesn't feel like the end of Rose's story. I hope there may be more to come.

I discovered Seanan McGuire through Twitter, but I hadn't read any of her books before I found The Girl in the Green Silk Gown on the library's new book shelves. Once I realized Sparrow Hill Road came first, I of course had to read it first. I'm looking forward to exploring her other series. Tor has a handy "where to start" page here.