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A few months ago, Winslow Houndstooth put together the damnedest crew of outlaws, assassins, cons, and saboteurs on either side of the Harriet for a history-changing caper. Together they conspired to blow the dam that choked the Mississippi and funnel the hordes of feral hippos contained within downriver, to finally give America back its greatest waterway.
Songs are sung of their exploits, many with a haunting refrain: “And not a soul escaped alive.”
In the aftermath of the Harriet catastrophe, that crew has scattered to the winds. Some hunt the missing lovers they refuse to believe have died. Others band together to protect a precious infant and a peaceful future. All of them struggle with who they’ve become after a long life of theft, murder, deception, and general disinterest in the strictures of the law.
Back in June, I reviewed River of Teeth, the debut novella from Sarah Gailey; this review of the sequel will inevitably contain SPOILERS for the previous installment in the series.
Taste of Marrow is Hippopeople 2: This Time It’s Personal. Whereas River of Teeth was very much a heist novel with hippos, motivated largely by greed albeit with a personal grudge in there providing an underlying motivation and narrative for Houndstooth, this time, Gailey has given us a book that is purely about the personal, for every character; the intensity and darkness are turned up a few notches from the first novella, and it shows throughout the whole piece.
There are two plots to Taste of Marrow, coming together as the novel progresses and innately linked; the first is of Adelia and Hero, who believe Houndstooth and Archie dead in the events at the dam at the close of River of Teeth, caring for Ysabel, Adelia’s baby. The second is Houndstooth and Archie, knowing Adelia is alive and believing she somehow abducted Hero, obsessively searching for them. Arguably, this novella is about love, and the lengths people will go to for it; the literal insanity that Houndstooth’s obsession with finding Hero drives him to, and the extreme risks to which Adelia will go for Ysabel – right up to self-sacrifice, never losing sight of the centrality of the welfare of her baby. Contrasting that are Hero’s attempts to deal with their grief at the (supposed) death of Houndstooth, and Archie’s much more pragmatic love of US Marshal Carter; the four different loves drive the novella completely, and Gailey paints each of them sympathetically, although her greatest affection clearly lies with Archie herself.
The way Gailey carries off this complex two-strand plot is a little less solid. Taste of Marrow doesn’t really explain why months have passed (enough, after all, for Adelia to give birth and Ysabel to grow somewhat) since the events of River of Teeth while much of its cast has remained in, essentially, stasis; nor does she give much thought to how the events which push this second work into motion actually, practically speaking, come about. But once those are overlooked, this is a fast-paced dual-strand novella; the alternating chapters of Taste of Marrow leave the reader on permanent cliffhangers and work to increase and boost the tension, and the way the narratives mirror each other is craftily and well done.
It’s also worth noting that this is almost a more visceral novella than the previous one in the series; while both are sometimes described as horror because of the violence of the hippopotami, Taste of Marrow is actually more brutal in its violence, with two rather explicit torture scenes (by the protagonists). These fit with the plot and with the characters, but Gailey really layers and lingers more on the violence and blood here than in scenes of more general carnage, an interesting choice.
Despite a rough start, then, Taste of Marrow is a fantastic book with a really solid emotional core; Gailey has definitely gone in a darker direction for this book, but she’s made that work.
Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey is a friend. This review was based on an ARC of the novel provided, on request, by the publisher. Taste of Marrow will be released on September 12th.
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Having stumbled onto a plot within his homeland of Jamaica, former espionage agent, Desmond Coke, finds himself caught between warring religious and political factions, all vying for control of a mysterious boy named Lij Tafari. Wanting the boy to have a chance to live a free life, Desmond assumes responsibility for him and they flee. But a dogged enemy agent remains ever on their heels, desperate to obtain the secrets held within Lij for her employer alone.
Assassins, intrigue, and steammen stand between Desmond and Lij as they search for a place to call home in a North America that could have been.
Alternate history tends to focus in on a couple of lynchpins; the American Revolution, the Second World War, the collapse of the Roman Empire. It’s rarer to see an alternate history that doesn’t make its point(s) of divergence explicit, or that so strangely combines the alternative and the historical in its worldbuilding, as Buffalo Soldier.
Broaddus’ worldbuilding is key to the novella, after all. Set in a steampunk present where the British Empire, under the name Albion, never lost the North American colonies, but where Jamaica became a major world power and where Native American tribes successfully resisted British occupation beyond the original thirteen colonies, Buffalo Soldier has a lot of history and politics to convey. It’s unfortunate that most of this is done in the form of three separate infodumps; they’re very much “Here is the history of this world”, not so much from the point of view of a particular people on a set of events as simply the events themselves, since the infodumps don’t overlap.
This approach also infects the narrative of the novel in other ways; Buffalo Soldier repeatedly has clunky moments where things which are implied are then spelled out a line later, as if Broaddus doesn’t trust the reader to make the leap, or where things are restated repeatedly just to ensure they’re noticed. This isn’t helped by a narrative chronology that isn’t ever very clear: while the plot is strictly linear, how long certain things take is never made explicit, and the whole stretch of time over which the backstory to the plot and the plot itself, let alone the points at which it jumps in time, is terribly murky.
That plot is a relatively simple one, though Broaddus does make its political implications clear. Buffalo Soldier is a novella about colonialism, about power, about international relations, and about a peculiarly Anglophone approach to control; but it tells this story through a mix of industrial espionage, mutual suspicion, and Desmond’s quest to save Lij. The writing is at its best in action scenes; they have a blunt immediacy, and a really gripping sense of speed and violence, that grabs the mind, along with a quality that makes the reader feel it might have been written for the screen.
Where Buffalo Soldier really saves itself is with its characters. Broaddus gives us a very compact cast; Desmond, Lij, Cayt, and later Inteus and Kajika. Each of them is very distinct, and comes from a different cultural background, whether free Jamaica, Albion, or the Seminole. Desmond is our main character, and his whole narrative arc is really well conveyed, with his mix of internal moral turmoil, mixed feelings about what he’s doing, and sense of his lost home; Broaddus conveys both his angst and his need to push through it to protect Lij excellently. Lij’s own characterisation as someone with what we’d now probably describe as autism is a really sensitive, intelligent piece of writing that never lays the point on too thick but also doesn’t back down from that part of his character.
Buffalo Soldiers has a lot of interesting ideas, but Broaddus really needed a bigger canvas to lay them all out, rather than condensing them into a novella, and a smoother hand at setting up his world. Fantastic characters and great action scenes aren’t enough to hang a novella on when what comes between those scenes is so uneven.
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In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.
Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.
This was a terrible plan.
Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.
I’ve been excited about River of Teeth for a long time; not only is Sarah Gailey a great writer and a good friend, but this is a Western story about (the almost historical real phenomenon of) hippopotamus ranching. A novella… about hippopotamus ranching in the American South. If that concept isn’t enough to make you curious, I’m not sure what would be, honestly. There is one spoiler in this review, in white text after the disclaimer.
River of Teeth is an intense little novella. Essentially, it’s a caper story; Houndstooth is hired to get the feral hippos out of the Mississippi delta, and has to assemble a crew to do so. The start of the novella is the assembly of the crew and the coming together of the plan; it’s from there that Gailey throws in curveballs, ups the stakes, and really drives home the intensity of the plot outside the amazing sexual tension she brings to her writing. The plot gets ever twistier and darker, as Gailey introduces the true danger of the feral hippos in the bluntest way possible, and rather shockingly; and as Houndstooth’s past and present crash together in horrifying ways. River of Teeth simultaneously feels half its length, it’s that much of a quick read pulling one through every page, and twice it’s length, for the emotional intensity.
That emotional intensity is in part induced by the characters. River of Teeth is one of the most diverse books I’ve ever read; it has a core cast of six, of whom only two are white men, one is a nonbinary person of colour, and almost all of whom have queer sexualities, at least in my reading. Every character is fully formed and has a long-standing set of relationships with the other characters; River of Teeth is a bit of a novella of getting the gang back together, but Gailey handles that really well, and the idea of the past of the gang is one that she uses, rather than just applying for sentiment. It’s through these that Gailey injects a thread of humour into the novella; Houndstooth’s tendency to take himself too seriously, Hero’s gentle smiling in the face of… almost everything, Archie’s brilliant sly wit, all cut the tension to bearable levels while still not pretending it isn’t there. Even Cal’s sullen bastardry adds a kind of humour to River of Teeth, because Gailey empathises with him, even if he is still obviously a bastard; this novella has a lot of feeling and heart to it.
River of Teeth has one one romantic relationship, between Houndstooth, our protagonist, and Hero, the nonbinary person of colour; their romance is beautiful and slow-burn and not at all subtle, with Gailey really leaning into it and pursuing it as a wonderfully gentle, mutually pleasurable romantic entanglement. It’s a really sweet thing to read, a man and an enby in a happy relationship together that isn’t judged by anyone else in the book – part of the alternateness of Gailey’s alternate history is a lack of stigma against queer people (and indeed, no racism) – and one that is all too rare.
River of Teeth is one of those books that reads like one is coming home, really; much as the terrifying feral hippos aren’t something I’d want to encounter, Gailey’s vision of an alternate-history United States is one I’d love to live in. Especially if I got to meet Houndstooth and Hero. I really, really strongly recommend this one to you all!
Disclaimer: Sarah Gailey is a friend. Tor.com, the publisher of this novella, sent me a squishy hippo stress toy as promotional material for the novella, although I purchased the novella myself. (Also, if any of you read this and write or find fanfic about Hero and Houndstooth… please send it my way, I love them so much.)
SPOILER: At one point, Hero appears to have been killed. I almost put the book down at that point, despite how much I had until then enjoyed it, feeling almost betrayed. While they are wounded, Gailey very actively does not kill off her nonbinary character.
If you found this review useful, please support my ability to write by contributing to my Patreon.
Éire is one of the most powerful empires in the world. The Anglian Dependencies are a dusty backwater filled with resentful colonial subjects, Europe is a disjointed mess, and many look to Éire for stability and peace. In a series of braided stories, Beth Bernobich has created a tale about the brilliant Éireann scientists who have already bent the laws of nature for Man’s benefit. And who now are striving to conquer the nature of time.
The Golden Octopus: Áine Lasairíona Devereaux, the young Queen of Éire, balances Court politics while pursing the Crown’s goals of furthering scientific discovery. When those discoveries lead to the death and madness of those she loves, Áine must choose between her heart and her duty to her kingdom.
A Flight of Numbers Fantastique Strange: Síomón Madóc is desperately trying to discover who is killing the brightest of Éire’s mathematicians. The key to saving lives lies in the future…and Síomón must figure out a way to get there.
Ars Memoriae: Éireann spymaster Aidrean Ó Deághaidh goes to the kingdom of Montenegro to investigate rumors of great unrest. But Ó Deághaidh is tormented by visions of a different timeline and suspects that someone in his own government is playing a double game….
The Time Roads: Éire stands on the brink of the modern age, but old troubles still plague the kingdom. An encounter with a mysterious stranger near death holds the clue to both the past and the future of the nation.
The Time Roads is part-novel, part-collection. Its four stories – varying in length from long short story through to average novella – could each be read in isolation, in theory, but the way Bernobich links them and makes each rely on the events of the others means one would get a lot less out of the book, and this review will therefore be treating the whole rather than the individual parts.
It’s a whole that works rather well. Bernobich’s alternate history isn’t actually interested in how it is alternate history, only in how the present of the world – a turn of the century present, granted – works; we’re not treated to long historical digressions on when the world of The Time Roads departed from the world we live in, to stories of how Éire not only broke free from but came to rule Anglia, how the whole face of Europe and the world is changed from that we know. Instead, this is all just taken for granted, revealed piecemeal as and when it becomes necessary without any infodumping. It’s an interesting handling, especially since the period is such a contentious one historically speaking; to release a book which goes right up to alternate-1943, and has stories specifically focused on alternate-1914, is a bold move this year.
It’s also bold to treat the Anglian Dominions the way Bernobich does; but not necessarily a good one – The Time Roads never really challenges whether Éireann rule over the Anglian territories is benevolent, rather than simply unjustified, and thus fails to really engage with some of the issues it raises. Any novel inverting the power involved in the history of Anglo-Irish relations should not simply valourise the Irish it empowers, and The Time Roads does exactly that; it feels like the worst kind of British self-delusion about our treatment of the Irish and Northern Irish populations over the centuries we have ruled there, especially when the Anglians start committing terrorist attacks in a seemingly unprovoked manner.
Of course, The Time Roads is not really concerned with this, which is part of why the problem arises. Instead, it is concerned more with playing with the idea of time and time-travel as tools and weaponry. Hence, the stories have an internal chronology that is absolutely rigid despite subsequent events, in some cases, stopping previous stories from having happened by the time of later stories; keeping clear what happened and what was subsequently erased from history is a challenge the reader must grapple with as much as the characters, and it works extraordinarily well at conveying some of the complexities and paradoxes of time travel, while remaining an incredibly readable novel.
The Time Roads‘ biggest strength is its characters. They are all interestingly human, from the royal Áine, concerned with status and the safety of her people (an almost dully ideal monarch in the first story, more interesting but still rather frustratingly idealised by the end of the collection) and trying to do what she believes is right through to the scientifically-focused Síomón Madóc and his sister Gwen, who have little care for the outside world other than a refusal to see their ideas weaponised. Each character is interestingly painted with their own idiosyncracies and desires, but the best of the set is Aidrean Ó Deághaidh, also the only character to play a major role in every story; conflicted about his country and ideals, driven but not always confident, Aidrean is the most relatable character because he is the most human, and seeing his development is fascinating.
In the end, The Time Roads works for me because it is written compellingly and does some fascinating things with character; but Bernobich also fails in some pretty spectacular ways, not least of which is her failure to engage with colonial politics while attempting to portray them. Tread warily!
DoI: Review based a copy of the novel solicited from the publisher, Tor Books.
Three-Body Problem is the first chance for English-speaking readers to experience this multiple award winning phenomenon from China’s most beloved science fiction author, Liu Cixin.
Set against the backdrop of China’s Cultural Revolution, a secret military project sends signals into space to establish contact with aliens. An alien civilization on the brink of destruction captures the signal and plans to invade Earth. Meanwhile, on Earth, different camps start forming, planning to either welcome the superior beings and help them take over a world seen as corrupt, or to fight against the invasion. The result is a science fiction masterpiece of enormous scope and vision.
Liu Cixin is a phenomenon in China, but somehow, hasn’t reached the Anglosphere in translation… until now. The Three-Body Problem is Tor’s attempt to change this, with the aid of the award-winning short story writer Ken Liu in the role of translator. When a multiawardwinning author’s work is transmitted through the efforts of another, what kind of novel results?
Well, the first thing to comment on, perhaps, is the translation. Inevitably, The Three-Body Problem loses a little in translation, as all works taken from their original language do; but in this case it feels almost intentional, in a very interesting way – like Ken Liu is leaving Liu Cixin’s work as much as it was in Chinese as possible, rather than replacing idioms with English ones, reworking puns to work in English, or changing cultural references. Indeed, Ken Liu provides 42 footnotes across the course of the novel to explain translation choices and cultural references rather than simplifying or eliding them, which really keeps clear that this is a translation, rather than the smoothness of some works which attempt to wholly convert their original text into English, culturally and idiomatically.
Liu Cixin’s novel is a fascinating one, culturally, though. While being centred on Chinese culture, Chinese characters, and Chinese history, there is also a very Western sensibility to it in one particular respect; The Three-Body Problem feels like something incredibly steeped in the science fiction of the so-called Golden Age. In terms of style, of characters, of plot, Golden Age SF sensibilities pervade the novel; indeed, one of the protagonists,Ye Wenjie, feels like Asimov’s Susan Calvin in her emotionless disconnection from the human race and her base rationality. Liu Cixin also shares the problem-centric narrative of an Asimovian story; Three-Body Problem is focused very heavily on the solution to a mathematical problem and on the proper response to extraterrestrial communication.
This should make the book feel dated but somehow, through more interesting characterisation than Asimov especially ever managed, Liu Cixin keeps Three-Body Problem feeling like modern-day Golden Age SF; Wang Miao especially is a rounded character, driven by the rational problem and the desire for a solution to it but also with human feelings – panic, amusement, fear, shock, and so on. He grounds the novel in a way Ye Wenjie never could; that is, he grounds the novel with a character with whom the reader can easily empathise, rather one who seems almost totally closed off from human connection. It’s an interesting contrast to see, especially as Liu Cixin then subverts that at the close of the novel by revealing another side of Ye Wenjie, a more sentimental side, that The Three-Body Problem has largely concealed. That isn’t to say charicature doesn’t enter into The Three-Body Problem; the rogue, disrespectful police officer appears to be a cultural universal, given the character of Da Shi, who would fit right in with the protagonists of Dirty Harry, Luther and Life On Mars.
As far as plot goes, this is perhaps the strongest and also the weakest area of The Three-Body Problem. In some ways, Wang Miao’s simultaneous investigation of the Frontiers of Science, implicated in a series of suicides by scientists, and his playing of the game Three Body, are rather obviously linked and formulaic, with elements of surprise managing to shift things up but being comparatively minor, and things that seem to be intended to be reveals or twists failing to surprise. The nonlinearity of the plot fails to actually keep surprises back, although it does avoid giving too much away, but still, it seems a rather straightforward novel. On the other hand, Liu Cixin’s playing with narrative, with chronology, with stories within stories and the importance of stories all make the plot more interesting, and his approach to linking the different subplots and elements in The Three-Body Problem works really very well.
The Three-Body Problem, then, feels like a combination of the best bits of the Golden Age combined with modern sensibilities; it’s a tremendous work on the part of Liu Cixin, and an amazing achievement of Ken Liu’s translation to have captured so well the *feel* of the novel (or at least, to have seemed to have done so!)
DoI: Review based on an ARC requested from the publisher, Tor Books. The Three-Body Problem is released in North America on November 11th.
In Nina Allan’s re-imagining of the Arachne myth, Layla, a weaver of extraordinary talent, leaves home to make her own way in life.
She heads to Atoll City in a modern alternate Greece, attracting the interest of an old lady along the way. The old lady informs Layla that she knew her mother, and of the gift the woman once possessed.
A gift that brought tragedy on Layla’s family.
A gift that Layla too possesses.
As a Classicist with a particular fascination with reception studies, all this novella needed to do to get my interest was have the phrase “re-imagining of the Arachne myth” on the back; I hadn’t read the blurb above until I searched for a proper blurb to go with this review, since Spin-the-publication only has critical praise on the back. Of course, that might be because no blurb could really do this little piece of beauty justice…
The centre of Spin is its aesthetic. I’m not used to visualising fiction intensely – falling into its world, yes, but falling into its colours less so; but Nina Allan slowly weaves her colourful, fully-throated beautiful and incredibly visual world around the reader slowly and clearly, with an undeniable and absolute power. The use and importance of colour is emphasised throughout but also subtly layered into the story; colour sets tone, atmosphere, scene, even character, and the vividness of Allan’s writing really makes that work. From the “lacquered craquelle green” of thorns to “dark skin lustrous as teak” this is an intensely visual piece of writing.
It also packs in an awful lot of character. Spin is eighty-odd pages, but into that slight length is packed more character and humanity than many novels; Allan handles, with a deft touch, Layla’s maturity and her growing understanding of herself and her role in the world; the development of her character from child to adult; and the sympathetic approach to her very definite, set materialistic worldview. That, of course, doesn’t mean Allan endorses that view, and indeed she undermines it, both through other characters – Alcander Crawe and Thanick Acampos especially – but also through the narrative itself; and in challenging Layla, Allan develops the rest of her characters into fully rounded beings, flaws and all, in the most interesting way.
Spin also holds the distinction of being set in an alternate-present(?) Greece; Carthage appears to have existed within a century of iPads, Rome to have fallen not within living memory but certainly not a millenium and a half ago, sibylls have existed and been outlawed in living memory, and more. The handling of this is really subtle, and grows as the novella continues; casual references build up into a more and more complete image of the Mediterranean world Allan has invented for Spin, and it’s a fascinating one, with the gods still the major religion and Christianity still only at cult status. As with Sophia McDougall’s Romanitas, there’s clearly a lot of thought about the alternate history of the world that’s not made it into the text, and that’s a wonderful thing.
Where Allan falls down is with her plot. Spin is sold as an Arachne-myth, but doesn’t quite do that; nor does it actually deliver a real plot, per se. Instead, we have a character study at a series of snapshots; events don’t quite join up, the chronology is unclear, certainly the timings of many of the events don’t seem to map onto each other. Treating this as a myth, of course, helps in many of these regards, as we don’t expect it of myth, but Spin is a little too grounded, a little too engaged with modern narratologies, to be a myth; so it hits some serious bumps for a reader, especially when read in a concentrated way.
In sum, Spin isn’t flawless – the plot is thin and rocky at best – but it is a beautiful piece of writing, both evocative and intensely coloured. I recommend it as a brilliant piece of character-writing.