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Fearsome Magics ed. Jonathan Strahan

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From sorcerous bridges that link worlds to the simple traditions of country folk; from the mysterious natures of twins to the dangerous powers of obligation and contract. Laden with perils for both the adventurous and the unsuspecting, magic is ultimately a contradiction: endlessly powerful but never without consequence, and rigidly defined by rules of its own making.

Award-winning Jonathan Strahan brings together some of the most exciting and popular writers working in fantasy today to dig into that contradiction, and present you with the strange, the daunting, the mathematical, the unpredictable, the deceptive and above all the fearsome world of magic.
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Fearsome Magics is the second New Solaris Book of Fantasy, following Fearsome Journeys. It’s a significantly more varied volume, themed around magic in stories, and Strahan has brought stories from a variety of different milieus to bear on the theme.

Fearsome Magics is a much broader anthology but also a rather less diverse one; eight of the fourteen authors are women, although every author is white. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a wide variety of settings here; Strahan has selected stories that invoke the American heartland, secondary worlds, and past times of stage magic. This is an anthology whose scope includes the magic-permeated setting of K J Parker’s ‘Safe House’, a brilliantly told story whose twist is obvious in retrospect and neatly set up, albeit perhaps with a little too much pleasure taken in the glib voice of its narrator; and Ellen Klages’ magicless setting (stage magic aside) in ‘Hey, Presto!’, a beautiful family tale of a father and daughter building a relationship around dedication and effort. The scope of those two really sums up the breadth of the anthology; from the epic creation of a secondary world with history, politics, cultural differences and more, to the telling of a tale in what is very reminiscent of late-Victorian England; from a male agent sent on a covert mission because of his magical prowess to a studious young girl reconnecting with her father; from a story that is glib, funny and wry to a story that is heartfelt and beautiful.

Perhaps the best story in the collection is the least concerned with magic; Isobelle Carmody’s ‘Grigori’s Solution’ is a very quiet apocalypse story, in which a mathematical formula has brought about the end of the universe. Told from the first-person perspective of a journalist, the story is reminiscent of Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle in the chaos caused by the end of the world and the interest in the consequences of that, but whereas Vonnegut is also interested in what leads up to that, Carmody is more interested in the quiet individual stories, the personal responses to the end of the world; she takes the reader through the five stages of grief for the world as it slowly vanishes into the blackness, without ever really being interested in how it has happened or what caused it. The use of a single viewpoint telling the stories of many different people works brilliantly, and the conceit of a reporter writing an article that will never be read is extremely well carried off.

The other stand-out stories are about death, in various ways; ‘Aberration’ is Genevieve Valentine’s take on immortality and time-travel, and a painful look at what being rootless and witnessing vast amounts of death would mean. It’s a strange, weird story partially told in second-person glimpses; and is about roots, and homes, and the importance of a full stop at the end of a sentence. ‘Ice in the Bedroom’, on the other hand, is a very personal look at the other side; the griever left behind by the deceased, and the process of grief. Making concrete the process of grieving is an interesting technique, and Shearman’s blurring of the lines between dream and reality is incredibly well done and profoundly moving.

Unfortunately, most of the stories aren’t up to that standard. Tony Ballantyne’s ‘Dream London Hospital’, for instance, is a messy story, without clear framework or plot; while perhaps making more sense in the context of his novel Dream London, shorn of that Ballantyne has written a sort of strange, impossible half-world of dreams and, like listening to the dreams of others people, reading about them tends not to make much sense; this story certainly doesn’t buck that trend.

In a differently messy way, Kaaron Warren’s ‘The Nursery Corner’ is a story that really only needs a few pages to be told, but is instead drawn out in an attempt to add extra depth and pathos in an entirely unsuccessful way; it takes what would be a creepy horror concept and renders it overdone. Christopher Rowe’s ‘The Dun Letter’, meanwhile, opens the collection on a fairytale-changeling story; unfortunately, it’s one that can’t decide what it wants to be, quite, between a story of a girl abandoned and looking after her grandmother and a mockery of typical portal fantasy, and ends up somewhere in between, being neither and achieving very little.

After the incredibly high standards of Fearsome Journeys, I expected Fearsome Magics to continue the strong showing; unfortunately, Strahan’s second foray into the New Solaris Books of Fantasy simply doesn’t live up to the standards set by the first, despite some outstanding stories.

Persona by Genevieve Valentine

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In a world where diplomacy has become celebrity, a young ambassador survives an assassination attempt and must join with an undercover paparazzo in a race to save her life, spin the story, and secure the future of her young country in this near-future political thriller from the acclaimed author of Mechanique and The Girls at Kingfisher Club.

When Suyana, Face of the United Amazonia Rainforest Confederation, is secretly meeting Ethan of the United States for a date that can solidify a relationship for the struggling UARC, the last thing she expected was an assassination attempt. Daniel, a teen runaway turned paparazzi out for his big break, witnesses the first shot hit Suyana, and before he can think about it, he jumps into the fray, telling himself it’s not altruism, it’s the scoop. Now Suyana and Daniel are on the run—and if they don’t keep one step ahead, they’ll lose it all.
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Persona is one of the first titles to come out of Simon & Schuster’s new genre fiction imprint SAGA Press, and shows how high Joe Monti is aiming: Genevieve Valentine’s previous novels have been hugely, and rightly, acclaimed. Persona also shows how multi-talented Valentine is as a writer; Mechanique was post-apocalyptic steampunk fantasy, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club a Roaring Twenties fairytale retelling without any magic, and Dream Houses a claustrophobic far-future psychological study.

Persona, on the other hand, is a near-future political thriller and critique of modern celebrity culture. It’s a rather subtle novel on some levels, but in its allegorical approach Valentine is one of the more heavy-handed writers out there; alongside, say, Christopher Brookmyre’s more overtly political works (such as his Parlabane books). It takes universal surveillance, the centring of the celebrity-personality in politics (in the US, see Bush’s faux-folksy ways or the cult of Obama; in the UK, see Tony Blair or the attacks against Miliband on grounds of personal presentation), the technological war between celebrities and paparazzi, the increasing importance of SpAds, and more elements of modern politics and popular culture and wraps them up together in a fascinating near-future remodelling of how world politics could work. How we get there from here isn’t discussed in Persona, and Valentine doesn’t seem interested in the questions of either how Faces come to be or how the United Nations becomes the key political player on local, national and international levels. Rather, we’re simply told this is how it is, and indeed have to work out how the world functioned, rather than having it explained to us, and even at the close of the novel that functioning doesn’t appear to be entirely clear.

This is unfortunate, but does not make Persona as a whole fail; instead, Valentine’s novel focuses on Suyana attempting to keep herself alive, trying to work out who has put a hit on her, and turning the tables on whoever that is. If that sounds like a straightforward plot for a thriller, rather than a framework in which to examine closely various aspects of the combination of celebrity culture with politics, you would be right; Valentine’s complex setting is rather placed on the backburner as we watch Suyana try to win her way, and while flashes of it come up at times, they are elements that wouldn’t be out of place in a contemporary thriller, such as the diplomat having homosexual affairs (in private, in order to not embarass her nation) or the carefully orchestrated relationships carried on in public and, indeed, in private that have no feelings behind them. Daniel’s storyline doesn’t add anything to this; Persona uses him to interrogate the motives of the paparazzi, but ends up actually largely being a little trite and glib about him, instead of complex or as interesting as one might hope.

For all that, what Persona does, it does very well. It is exciting, fast-moving, full of twists and turns some of which are obvious and others of which are rather more subtle; but Valentine’s amazingly versatile writing style fits itself, here, perfectly to the thriller mode, keeping the story moving, avoiding being bogged down in detail while still painting a very vivid portrayal, for instance, of trendy dive bars and undercover paparazzi operations. Persona keeps moving fast, letting up on occasion but only to allow a human moment or two between the fast-moving fleeing and constant reaction of our protagonists; only as the novel draws to its close does anyone become truly active rather than reactive, much as their histories, we know, are active.

Persona will disappoint anyone going in for detailed or subtle critique of society and politics, but as a near-future thriller with some socio-political commentary in it, Valentine delivers tremendous value for money.

Dream Houses by Genevieve Valentine

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It takes a certain type to crew a ship that drops you seven years at a time into the Deep. Kite-class cargo ships like Menkalinan get burned-out veterans, techs who’ve been warned off-planet, medics who weren’t much good on the ground. The Gliese-D run isn’t quite the end of the line, but it’s getting there. No cachet, no rewards, no future; their trading posts get Kites full of cargo that the crew never ask questions about, because if it’s headed for Gliese-D, it’s probably something nobody wanted.

A year into the Deep, Amadis Reyes wakes up. Menkalinan is sounding the alarm; something’s wrong. The rest of the crew are dead.

That’s not even what’s wrong.
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Genevieve Valentine’s Capclave 2014 offering, Dream Houses is a limited-run printed volume; despite a whimsical-seeming cover and title, the tagline for the novella gives a clearer impression of the kind of story it is: a sort of isolation in space, disaster tale in the tradition of Joanna Russ’ We Who Are About To….

The key difference is that Valentine’s protagonist is in total isolation on the cargo ship she is awoken on; the only person to survive an unknown disaster that killed the rest of the crew. The story of Dream Houses intersperses her strained relationship with her brother with the present time as she slowly succumbs to the inevitable madness brought about by isolation for years on end; this is a dark tale that revels in its darkness, a story that uses isolation to get into the head of its protagonist and really dig around there.

The twist on this is that there is a companion for Amadis, in the form of Menkalinan’s on-board AI; the way Valentine plays with the relationship between human and machine intelligences – their different understandings of the world, perspectives, and constraints – is a fascinating thing to see as it develops across the course of Dream Houses; watching the relationship change and change again, as revelation after revelation comes out, and as time passes, is beautiful to watch as it keeps shifting the story beneath one, changing the parameters subtly and less subtly with an incredibly deft hand that really conveys the tragedy and humanity of our characters.

The other strand of the story, the relationship between Amadis and her brother, is a similarly slippery one; Dream Houses jumps around in that relationship rather than taking a strict chronological approach, and again slowly unfolds the layers of the relationship back to a core defining event. As it does so it changes our perception of Amadis and her brother, each time altering how sympathetic we are to each of them, changing our understanding of their character, and completely rewriting what had gone before in a really simple yet effective way.

Dream Houses, then, is a complex and beautiful novella of interlocking parts, and Genevieve Valentine has created a really wonderful science fiction character study here.

The Girls at the Kingfisher Club by Genevieve Valentine

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The Hamilton sisters weren’t supposed to exist. Joseph Hamilton wanted a male heir, and his wife did her best. But in the end, he was disappointed, left with no son, no wife, and twelve girls, whom he kept secluded in the upper rooms of his Fifth Avenue town house and raised with only the scantiest knowledge of the outside world.

Jo, the firstborn, “The General” to her eleven sisters, is the nearest thing they have to a mother. She is the one who taught them how to dance, the one who gives the signal each night, as they slip out of the confines of their home and escape to Manhattan’s underground speakeasies. Together they elude their distant and controlling father, until he announces his plans to marry them off.

As their father handpicks the suitors he deems eligible, the girls continue to do what they have always done: dance. From the Salon Renaud to the Swan and, finally, the Kingfisher, the club they would call home. They dance until the night it is raided, and Jo finds herself confronted by a bootlegger from her past. As old mistakes and the demands of her father and eleven sisters bear down on her, Jo must determine who she can trust, and how much she is willing to risk on her own.
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After the weird, postapocalyptic, dark world that Genevieve Valentine gave us in Mechanique, it is perhaps fitting that she has turned her gave to the altogether different world of Prohibition-era New York; to both she has brought a sense of magic, a fairytale quality, especially appropriate in this retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princess .

That is not, of course, to say that her worldbuilding is bad; no, quite the opposite. The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is a beautiful recreation of late-1920s New York; the underground libertinism (one particularly underground club has mixed-race and homosexual couples!), the casual corruption, the sense of freedom and escape, the repression of women and their rebellion against it, and the seamy underbelly. Valentine’s New York lives and breathes, just as its inhabitants do; this isn’t gleaming skyscrapers, it’s the speakeasies, the clubs, dodging cops and catching cabs.

The characters are equally vivid. With a novel featuring at a minimum thirteen major characters, and in reality probably closer to the region of twenty, all of whom have to be believable if not sympathetic, Valentine has taken the decision to largely focus on Jo; it is through the General’s eyes that The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is mostly scene, although key moments jump to show us the actions of all twelve in a brilliant piece of writing. Every single character, likable or otherwise, clearly has an interior life, has motivations, is in fact human; even Jo’s detested father is humanised by the end of the novel. Switching perspectives also has the advantage of showing us Jo from other perspectives; in her own mind, she’s apart from the other girls but helping them, keeping them safe, while they see things rather differently. Valentine manages to balance these competing realities throughout the book, never tipping one way or the other; Jo isn’t a flawless hero, she’s just another person doing the best she can.

That “best” is what The Girls at the Kingfisher Club is all about. The first half sets the scene for the second, achronologically introducing us to the girls, showing how the sisters’ rebellion grew while also showing us the effect of the twelve as a unit; both domestically and in the clubs, the interactions between the girls and their audiences set the stage for later events beautifully. Indeed, Valentine’s narrative control is on full display here; despite multiple characters, multiple timelines and the need to set all her cards up, The Girls at the Kingfisher Club feels smooth throughout, the pacing and style always appropriate to the moment and blending seamlessly with what preceded and what follows it. That’s one of its great strengths; Valentine has a beautiful, gentle style that really pulls the reader in and hypnotises one, so that one can spend a whole day reading the book and not even realise it until the last page is turned.

Oh, and as intimated above, it’s a queer book; this is made beautifully little of, as Valentine drops in the homosexual couples dancing as just a fact of an underground club, and Rose’s lesbianism as no different to any of the preferences in men of the other characters; The Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows so little interest in treating queerness differently that is just blends into the background of the novel in a truly beautiful way.

If Mechanique was an amazing debut novel for Valentine to burst onto the scene with, then Girls at the Kingfisher Club shows that it was no fresher fluke; this sophomore novel gets right everything Mechanique did, and then does it better. Read it. Read it now.
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