Pub Day Repost: No Country for Old Gnomes by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne is a very foine booke that surpässes the original while showing full respect to the umlaut

I’ve tweaked and retweaked this to the point that I can’t read it any more. Hope it’s mostly coherent.

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Series: The Tales of Pell, Book #2

eARC, 352 pg.
Del Rey, 2019
Read: March 9 – 12, 2019

As much as I loved 2018’s Kill the Farm Boy — and talked about it everywhere and repeatedly — I wasn’t sure how much I really wanted to pick up the sequel. There’s no way it would be as good, the humor would be a little stale, and the whole approach wouldn’t seem as novel. Still, I knew curiosity would get the better of me — and it’d still have its moments. Also, I’m not at the point where I can live in a world with a Kevin Hearne book in print that I haven’t read.

I was so, so wrong. Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?”

So this book happens in different corner of the kingdom than Farm Boy did. The Skylar is a choice piece of the land that is home to two diminutive races — halflings and gnomes. Gnomes want to live in their nice little homes, tinker with their little projects and inventions, and wear brightly colored cardigans (well, there was one gnome who wanted to wear a black cardigan, but let’s leave that aside for now). The halflings have found their government hijacked by criminals and those particular halflings are waging a war of sorts on the gnomes, driving them from their homes for unknown reasons. Driven by desperation, two of these displaced gnomes are part of our questing party here. A halfling — committed to (some may say obsessed with) the law that is being ignored by his people is another member of the party.

These three join themselves to an ovitaur named Agape — an ovitaur is like a faun, but is humanoid with sheep characteristics (feet, legs, ears, etc). She’s the last of a long family line serving as teh guardians of a rare treasure, and needs guidance. A gryphon, named Gerd, outcast from his people has been accompanying the halfling for some time, but is devoted to protecting Agape now. The last member of the party is a dwarf named Båggi Biins. Båggi is on his Meadschpringå — a time when young dwarves leave their homes to purge the violence from themselves so they can return to their homes to pursue an ascetic life of creativity. He joins the others certain that journeying with them, protecting them along their way will provide all the outlet required to use his violence in a noble cause.

Their quest? To go to the Great Library, where the founding documents of the gnomeric and halfling civilizations are located — which should prove invaluable to re-establish the peace and help the two societies get along. Agape should find resources to direct her in her guardianship, and hopefully provide Gerd with the proof that he broke no laws of the gryphons.

The fact that most people on Pell consider the Great Library to be a myth shouldn’t be taken as an argument against this quest. What better place than a possibly mythical library to provide the answers they seek?

While these characters are on their quest, working for peace — the king and his advisor are trying to solve the problems between the halflings and gnomes in a more direct approach. We also see (briefly in most cases) other characters from Farm Boy. We see just enough to know how things are going for them some months later — and on the whole, it’s just as you’d hoped/expected it to be for them. It is not essential to have read the previous volume to get 95% of this book. It’s safe to hand this one off to family, friends and coworkers who are wondering what you’re cackling about without making them do homework first.

Along the way, these characters meet a cult of cabbage worshipers, who have the ability to read prophecies in the vegetables; some very frightening mermaids (that look nothing like anything anyone expects); a very Tom Bombadil-esque character (and a few other Tolkien-inspired jokes). As in Farm Boy, the authors manage to use these ideas as sources of comedy and to propel the plot along in meaningful ways. Similarly, they use racial and personal characteristics of the characters to play with, play against and mock genre standards. But almost none of the characters are mere jokes, they’re well-developed characters that happen to be able to comedic. This is not an easy balance to achieve — and Hearne and Dawson are almost flawless on this front.

For example, gryphons are convinced that they perceive greater nuance and details in colors, sounds, tastes and the like and adjust their pronunciation of words via capital letters, umlauts and extra syllables. Gerd’s dialogue is littered with these. It starts off as a joke that just won’t stop, and instead of it getting tired or annoying (which I assumed it would), it becomes just part of the way that Gerd talks. His own particular dialect, that occasionally will strike you as amusing — maybe even just funny occasionally. I wouldn’t say it’s because the authors show restraint with it, employing it just when needed to keep it funny. Quite the reverse, they seemingly take the approach of drowning you in the joke, figuring that it’ll be funny often enough to justify it.

If you’re like me, you have a tendency to skip chapter titles. Doing so with The Tales of Pell would be a mistake. The titles are long, fitting, and insanely goofy. The only thing better are the chapter epigraphs I imagine the drafts going back and forth between the authors, each trying to top the other with the next chapter title/epigraph. And generally succeeding.

These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy — as is right, because they are funny. But as anyone who’s read other works by Dawson and Hearne know, they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss — and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

In case I haven’t made it clear here, Dawson and Hearne knocked it out of the park here. I thought Kill the Farm Boy was outstanding, and No Country for Old Gnomes surpassed it on every front. I don’t expect that the third volume of The Tales of Pell will continue this trend — but I’m more than open to being proven wrong next year. But for 2019? I’m just going to revel in the goodness — the laughs, the pathos, the excitement — brought by this adventure and the wonderful cast of characters. Get your hands on this one.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, I really appreciate it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

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Pub Day Repost: Breaking the Lore by Andy Redsmith: A Funny, Fresh Take on a Police-filled Portal Fantasy

Breaking the LoreBreaking the Lore

by Andy Redsmith
Series: Inspector Paris Mystery, #1

eARC, 321 pg.
Canelo, 2019
Read: April 3 – 5, 2019

Inspector Nick Paris is your all too typical cynical, bitter, hard-drinking, chain-smoking police detective, and his world is being rocked. The latest corpse he’s been brought out to see and investigate the circumstances around the death is that of a fairy. The tiny, impossibly good looking, humanoid with wings kind of fairy. While still trying to wrap his mind around how that was possible, a crow (named Malbus) flies into his house demanding, demanding a smoke and talking to him about the murdered fairy. Not long after this, he’s visited by an elf and a rock troll (Tergil and Rocky).

And that’s just Day One of his new reality.

Essentially, there’s a connection between our world and the world of all these magical beings — a portal of sorts that those who desire to can travel between the two (or people and animals can stumble through unintentionally). For all sorts of great reasons, the magical creatures/folk kept their existence from humanity — and let what humans know fade into myth and legend. But something’s happened in their world, and those who are over here have to come seeking help (in terms of political asylum) and possibly even letting humanity in on what’s going on around them.

This is a little beyond Paris’ typical caseload, but he and his Superintendent, a no-nonsense woman named Thorpe, respond very well to these new challenges — dragging other officers and even the army along with them. They are obviously relying on the advice and guidance of the magical creatures — Tergil in particular (although Malbus makes sure his input is heard, too). They also recruit a local supernatural expert — Cassandra, a self-styled witch that no one in the police would’ve given any credence to if not for this new reality.

As fun as Paris, Tergil and Malbus are, Cassandra is a delight. She’s wise, insightful, and has a fantastic sense of humor — she might be harder for Paris to cope with than fairies, dwarves, and trolls. I shouldn’t forget Paris’ Sergeant Bonetti — he’s loyal, strong, brave and probably not as mentally quick as he should be. He’s also the target of near-constant mockery from his superior. I’m not sure why he puts up with the abuse, but I found myself laughing at it. When the fate of multiple worlds is on the line, it’s these few who will stand strong in Manchester, England to keep everyone safe.

I can think of as many reasons that this is a lousy comparison to make as I can to make it — but throughout Breaking the Lore I kept thinking about Chrys Cymri’s Penny White books. There’ll be a big overlap in the Venn diagram of Fans of Penny White and Fans of Inspector Paris. I’m sure there are other comparisons that are as apt, or more so — but this is the one that I kept coming back to for some reason.

I had so much fun reading this book, Redsmith has a way with words that makes me think it really doesn’t matter what story he decided to tell — I’d want to read it. He was able to express the seriousness of the situation, while never stopping (either narratively or through the characters) the quips, jokes and sense of fun. There’s an infectious charm to the prose and characters that easily overcomes whatever drawbacks the novel has. I’m not saying this is a novel filled with problems, it’s just that I woudn’t care about most of them thanks to the voice.

Now, Redsmith’s wit does have an Achilles’ heel — puns. Redsmith is an inveterate punster, and will hit you with them when you least expect it. Now me? I love a good pun — and I hate them at the same time. Maybe you know what I mean. I cackled at pretty much all of them (frequently audibly), but I hated both myself and Redsmith for it. You know those, Pearls Before Swine strips where Rat beats up Stephan Pastis because of the very carefully constructed pun? Yeah, this book is a series of those moments (but he rarely gives the setup Pastis does, usually it’s a quick sucker punch).

There are many other points I’d intended to make, but I think I’ve gone on long enough. This novel is silly, goofy, intelligent, charming — with a fresh take on a great idea. You’ll find yourself enjoying Paris, Cassandra, Malbus, Tergil and the rest. I can see a few different ways that Redsmith takes Book Two, and I’m looking forward to seeing which one he picks (probably none of my ideas). But before that happens, I’m just going to relish the fun that Breaking the Lore was and encourage you all to go buy and read it for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Canelo via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

Breaking the Lore by Andy Redsmith: A Funny, Fresh Take on a Police-filled Portal Fantasy

Breaking the LoreBreaking the Lore

by Andy Redsmith
Series: Inspector Paris Mystery, #1

eARC, 321 pg.
Canelo, 2019

Read: April 3 – 5, 2019


Inspector Nick Paris is your all too typical cynical, bitter, hard-drinking, chain-smoking police detective, and his world is being rocked. The latest corpse he’s been brought out to see and investigate the circumstances around the death is that of a fairy. The tiny, impossibly good looking, humanoid with wings kind of fairy. While still trying to wrap his mind around how that was possible, a crow (named Malbus) flies into his house demanding, demanding a smoke and talking to him about the murdered fairy. Not long after this, he’s visited by an elf and a rock troll (Tergil and Rocky).

And that’s just Day One of his new reality.

Essentially, there’s a connection between our world and the world of all these magical beings — a portal of sorts that those who desire to can travel between the two (or people and animals can stumble through unintentionally). For all sorts of great reasons, the magical creatures/folk kept their existence from humanity — and let what humans know fade into myth and legend. But something’s happened in their world, and those who are over here have to come seeking help (in terms of political asylum) and possibly even letting humanity in on what’s going on around them.

This is a little beyond Paris’ typical caseload, but he and his Superintendent, a no-nonsense woman named Thorpe, respond very well to these new challenges — dragging other officers and even the army along with them. They are obviously relying on the advice and guidance of the magical creatures — Tergil in particular (although Malbus makes sure his input is heard, too). They also recruit a local supernatural expert — Cassandra, a self-styled witch that no one in the police would’ve given any credence to if not for this new reality.

As fun as Paris, Tergil and Malbus are, Cassandra is a delight. She’s wise, insightful, and has a fantastic sense of humor — she might be harder for Paris to cope with than fairies, dwarves, and trolls. I shouldn’t forget Paris’ Sergeant Bonetti — he’s loyal, strong, brave and probably not as mentally quick as he should be. He’s also the target of near-constant mockery from his superior. I’m not sure why he puts up with the abuse, but I found myself laughing at it. When the fate of multiple worlds is on the line, it’s these few who will stand strong in Manchester, England to keep everyone safe.

I can think of as many reasons that this is a lousy comparison to make as I can to make it — but throughout Breaking the Lore I kept thinking about Chrys Cymri’s Penny White books. There’ll be a big overlap in the Venn diagram of Fans of Penny White and Fans of Inspector Paris. I’m sure there are other comparisons that are as apt, or more so — but this is the one that I kept coming back to for some reason.

I had so much fun reading this book, Redsmith has a way with words that makes me think it really doesn’t matter what story he decided to tell — I’d want to read it. He was able to express the seriousness of the situation, while never stopping (either narratively or through the characters) the quips, jokes and sense of fun. There’s an infectious charm to the prose and characters that easily overcomes whatever drawbacks the novel has. I’m not saying this is a novel filled with problems, it’s just that I woudn’t care about most of them thanks to the voice.

Now, Redsmith’s wit does have an Achilles’ heel — puns. Redsmith is an inveterate punster, and will hit you with them when you least expect it. Now me? I love a good pun — and I hate them at the same time. Maybe you know what I mean. I cackled at pretty much all of them (frequently audibly), but I hated both myself and Redsmith for it. You know those, Pearls Before Swine strips where Rat beats up Stephan Pastis because of the very carefully constructed pun? Yeah, this book is a series of those moments (but he rarely gives the setup Pastis does, usually it’s a quick sucker punch).

There are many other points I’d intended to make, but I think I’ve gone on long enough. This novel is silly, goofy, intelligent, charming — with a fresh take on a great idea. You’ll find yourself enjoying Paris, Cassandra, Malbus, Tergil and the rest. I can see a few different ways that Redsmith takes Book Two, and I’m looking forward to seeing which one he picks (probably none of my ideas). But before that happens, I’m just going to relish the fun that Breaking the Lore was and encourage you all to go buy and read it for yourself.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Canelo via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this.

—–

4 Stars

No Country for Old Gnomes by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne is a very foine booke that surpässes the original while showing full respect to the umlaut

I’ve tweaked and retweaked this to the point that I can’t read it any more. Hope it’s mostly coherent.

No Country for Old GnomesNo Country for Old Gnomes

by Delilah S. Dawson and Kevin Hearne
Series: The Tales of Pell, Book #2

eARC, 352 pg.
Del Rey, 2019

Read: March 9 – 12, 2019


As much as I loved 2018’s Kill the Farm Boy — and talked about it everywhere and repeatedly — I wasn’t sure how much I really wanted to pick up the sequel. There’s no way it would be as good, the humor would be a little stale, and the whole approach wouldn’t seem as novel. Still, I knew curiosity would get the better of me — and it’d still have its moments. Also, I’m not at the point where I can live in a world with a Kevin Hearne book in print that I haven’t read.

I was so, so wrong. Having established their off-kilter world, strong voice, and approach to the stories of Pell, Dawson and Hearne have come back to play in it. The result is superior in every way that I can think of. I lost track of how many times I said to myself while reading something along the lines of, “how did they improve things this much?”

So this book happens in different corner of the kingdom than Farm Boy did. The Skylar is a choice piece of the land that is home to two diminutive races — halflings and gnomes. Gnomes want to live in their nice little homes, tinker with their little projects and inventions, and wear brightly colored cardigans (well, there was one gnome who wanted to wear a black cardigan, but let’s leave that aside for now). The halflings have found their government hijacked by criminals and those particular halflings are waging a war of sorts on the gnomes, driving them from their homes for unknown reasons. Driven by desperation, two of these displaced gnomes are part of our questing party here. A halfling — committed to (some may say obsessed with) the law that is being ignored by his people is another member of the party.

These three join themselves to an ovitaur named Agape — an ovitaur is like a faun, but is humanoid with sheep characteristics (feet, legs, ears, etc). She’s the last of a long family line serving as teh guardians of a rare treasure, and needs guidance. A gryphon, named Gerd, outcast from his people has been accompanying the halfling for some time, but is devoted to protecting Agape now. The last member of the party is a dwarf named Båggi Biins. Båggi is on his Meadschpringå — a time when young dwarves leave their homes to purge the violence from themselves so they can return to their homes to pursue an ascetic life of creativity. He joins the others certain that journeying with them, protecting them along their way will provide all the outlet required to use his violence in a noble cause.

Their quest? To go to the Great Library, where the founding documents of the gnomeric and halfling civilizations are located — which should prove invaluable to re-establish the peace and help the two societies get along. Agape should find resources to direct her in her guardianship, and hopefully provide Gerd with the proof that he broke no laws of the gryphons.

The fact that most people on Pell consider the Great Library to be a myth shouldn’t be taken as an argument against this quest. What better place than a possibly mythical library to provide the answers they seek?

While these characters are on their quest, working for peace — the king and his advisor are trying to solve the problems between the halflings and gnomes in a more direct approach. We also see (briefly in most cases) other characters from Farm Boy. We see just enough to know how things are going for them some months later — and on the whole, it’s just as you’d hoped/expected it to be for them. It is not essential to have read the previous volume to get 95% of this book. It’s safe to hand this one off to family, friends and coworkers who are wondering what you’re cackling about without making them do homework first.

Along the way, these characters meet a cult of cabbage worshipers, who have the ability to read prophecies in the vegetables; some very frightening mermaids (that look nothing like anything anyone expects); a very Tom Bombadil-esque character (and a few other Tolkien-inspired jokes). As in Farm Boy, the authors manage to use these ideas as sources of comedy and to propel the plot along in meaningful ways. Similarly, they use racial and personal characteristics of the characters to play with, play against and mock genre standards. But almost none of the characters are mere jokes, they’re well-developed characters that happen to be able to comedic. This is not an easy balance to achieve — and Hearne and Dawson are almost flawless on this front.

For example, gryphons are convinced that they perceive greater nuance and details in colors, sounds, tastes and the like and adjust their pronunciation of words via capital letters, umlauts and extra syllables. Gerd’s dialogue is littered with these. It starts off as a joke that just won’t stop, and instead of it getting tired or annoying (which I assumed it would), it becomes just part of the way that Gerd talks. His own particular dialect, that occasionally will strike you as amusing — maybe even just funny occasionally. I wouldn’t say it’s because the authors show restraint with it, employing it just when needed to keep it funny. Quite the reverse, they seemingly take the approach of drowning you in the joke, figuring that it’ll be funny often enough to justify it.

If you’re like me, you have a tendency to skip chapter titles. Doing so with The Tales of Pell would be a mistake. The titles are long, fitting, and insanely goofy. The only thing better are the chapter epigraphs I imagine the drafts going back and forth between the authors, each trying to top the other with the next chapter title/epigraph. And generally succeeding.

These books are noted (as I’ve focused on) for their comedy — as is right, because they are funny. But as anyone who’s read other works by Dawson and Hearne know, they’re about a lot more than comedy. The battle scenes are exciting. The emotional themes and reactions are genuine and unforced. And tragedy hits hard. It’s easy to forget in the middle of inspiring moments or humorous aftermaths of battle that these kind of novels involve death and other forms of loss — and when you do forget, you are open to getting your heart punched.

In case I haven’t made it clear here, Dawson and Hearne knocked it out of the park here. I thought Kill the Farm Boy was outstanding, and No Country for Old Gnomes surpassed it on every front. I don’t expect that the third volume of The Tales of Pell will continue this trend — but I’m more than open to being proven wrong next year. But for 2019? I’m just going to revel in the goodness — the laughs, the pathos, the excitement — brought by this adventure and the wonderful cast of characters. Get your hands on this one.

Disclaimer: I received this eARC from Random House Publishing Group – Ballantine via NetGalley in exchange for this post — thanks to both for this, I really appreciate it.

—–

4 1/2 Stars

A Few Quick Questions With…Sarah Chorn

So I just posted my thoughts about Seraphina’s Lament and now we get to hear from the author herself, Sarah Chorn. By the way, if you haven’t checked out her blog, Bookworm Blues, you should fix that. But before you do, read this. Chorn knocks it out of the park here.

I don’t know how to ask about Seraphina’s Lament short of handing you a dozen and a half spoiler-ific questions. And, boy howdy, do I have questions. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t touch on the book too much – would you care to start things off with an elevator pitch?
I pretty much fail at elevator pitches. Here goes nothing. Seraphina’s Lament tells the story of a group of people trying to survive in spite of the fact that the world is dying, magic is changing, there’s widespread famine, and the government sucks. They are all tragically flawed and completely unready to face what is happening to them. Basically, I take a handful of the most unprepared, wrong-for-the-job people I could possibly dream up, and just push them and push them and push them until they break and then… things get interesting.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s a pretty good pitch.

While you talk on your site about a long-standing desire to be a writer, this is your first novel after years of reviewing and editing. Was it just a matter of coming up with the “right” story, or was there something that made you decide it was time for you to give it a shot? How do you think years of reviewing shaped your novel?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve written novels before, but they are all terrible. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. This isn’t really my first book, it’s just the first one I think is ready to see the light of day. The rest will live on eternally in some dark corner of my hard drive.

It was also a matter of coming up with the right story. All the elements were there, but it took me a really, really long time to figure out how they all worked together, and build the world (this took an absolutely insane amount of research) and characters. Once I had that all sorted, the book really just burst out of me.

I think editing and reviewing has been essential to my writing process. I’ve been reviewing for about ten years now, and editing for almost three. Editing and reviewing has taught me how stories are told, how sentences flow, how to use words, add details, build a world, keep a story moving and so much more. People talk a lot about how to write a novel, and I don’t think there is any one answer. We all do it differently. I can say, my book never would have been written, at least not the way it was, if it wasn’t for all that reading and picking-apart of books I’ve done over so many years. Knowing how words work, and how stories are shaped, was crucial to my writing.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But combining a magic-filled fantasy world and a Stalin-esque character? How do you get to that? It’s brilliant, by the way, I can’t shut up about it.
Oh, I do so love my tortured Stalin-esque character. I had great fun writing him.

I do a weird thing when I can feel a story brewing in the back of my brain. I head to the library and check out just about every historical nonfiction book on the shelves that I haven’t read yet. About two years ago, this happened to be a bunch of books on Russia, the Romanov dynasty, Stalin, Lenin, and the Holodomor. Well, something in this mélange of books completely unlocked whatever was stewing in the back of my brain. Suddenly, these elements to this story I wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out just sorted themselves out.

Specifically, the Holodomor. It’s a tragic, horrible genocide that took place from 1932-1933 in Ukraine that I knew literally nothing about until I started reading books about it. In the process of reading these books, I came to the idea that sometimes events are so big, so powerful, so dramatic that they become characters in and of themselves, and so two characters in the book were born, both of whom represent the Holodomor. One, the physical aspect of it – the starvation and wasting away, and the other represented the more soulful aspect—a sort of loss of spirit and heart due to tragedy.

Eyad, my Stalin-esque dude wasn’t actually in my first draft. In fact, my first draft of this book was really dialed down on the communism and all these elements of the book. He never had a perspective. I think, if I remember right, I had some lord in a castle who never really had a face or even a name. Then, when I was getting ready to do my rewrite, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, why are all the fantasy worlds set in these medieval countries with kings? Where’s the communism? Where’s the industrialization? I read that tweet and I realized that communism was the entire aspect that was missing from this story, and I really, really needed to have someone driving the government. And you know, there aren’t many fantasy books featuring communist government systems so why not give it a go?

Insert my Stalin. Now, I humanized my dude a bit, and I took some liberties, but I really wanted to bring him to life, to show his perspective. Villains very rarely realize they are villains. Stalin was a horrible person, but he thought he was doing the right thing, and man, trying to bring that to life in Eyad was hard. There’s a scene in the book where he’s talking about grain requisition quotas and it just about killed me to write that because I’d read about it. Stalin had to know what he was doing, but he did it anyway, and in the process, he damned millions and millions of people who didn’t deserve it.

It took a ton of research to write all of this. I’ve got a series of books on Stalin on my bookshelf that clock in at a grand total of 6,000 pages, and that’s only a fraction of what I’ve read on him. Probably equally as much about communism in Russia. There aren’t as many books about the Holodomor, because the research is fairly new and it is, unfortunately, not an acknowledged tragedy to most of the world, but I read every bit I could get my hands on, and talked to some people who either survived it, or had relatives that did.

The magic itself came about because I’m personally fascinated by the idea of elemental magic, but not the kind where you point and fire shoots out of your finger. Man has been controlling fire for as long as we’ve existed. I’m fascinated in the idea of, what happens when fire controls man?

When it came to writing Seraphina’s Lament what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV!”
I was really amazed by how much research I had to do into the Holodomor, communism, and Stalin in order to write this book. I use barely a fraction of what I learned, but once I got started writing, I realized that in order to put so many things in context, I had to understand what happened before. I had to know about the things that laid the groundwork for this particular situation. For example, you can’t understand Stalin without understanding Lenin (and life in Georgia). You can’t understand Lenin until you understand elements of WWI, and Tsar Nicholas. You can’t understand Nicholas until you understand the two Tsars before him (at least). And then I had to understand how all of this impacted the average person living in this area of the world, so I ended up falling down all these really wild rabbit holes about village life in Russia, and turn-of-the-century Russian culture.

I had to do this with Ukraine, as well. In order to understand the Holodomor, you’ve got to understand the politics in Ukraine, into the relationship between the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people (which goes back well over a thousand years and is really, really interesting). I had to learn about how Ukraine is the breadbasket of that region (and the gateway to the West), with fertile soil and lush crops, and how the insertion of Stalin’s obsession with modernization fundamentally impacted life, cultures, and traditions. I had to read about land owners, and village life, and so much more.

All of these things mixed together to give me a ton of context that I could use to hopefully give events in my world a bit more grounded, well-rounded look to them.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
I have a toddler and a seven-year-old. The past five years of my life has been filled mostly with Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.

This is going to be a boring answer, but there are a lot of authors I admire and learn from, but I’m glad they’ve written the books they wrote because those books just need to exist, and I probably couldn’t have done it half as well as they did.

Lastly, I (mostly) jokingly told your publicist that I’d read the book because it was probably the best way to get that cover image out of my mind. That’s one of the most striking covers I can remember – did you have any input on that, or did your designer just hit you with it? I don’t know how to ask something coherent about it, so let me just say – what would you like to say about the cover
Pen Astridge is the bomb. Seriously. I sent her the first few chapters of my book (which I ended up rewriting in edits). She asked for some inspiration, if I had any, and I basically drew a blank. I told her something along the lines of, “basically everyone dies and it’s really dark so just death this sucker up.” I think I attached a picture of a dead tree and some skulls, too. I mean, I impressively suck at that sort of thing. Somehow, Pen took all that total crap and then handed me this book cover.

I say it in my acknowledgments, but I’ll say it here, too. Everyone should hire her. Pen is the absolute best in the business, and I am beyond lucky to have her create my cover. It was better anything I could ever imagine and exactly what the book needed.

Thanks for your time, I hope you nothing but success with Seraphina’s Lament and I hope the work on volume 2 is going well.

Seraphina’s Lament by Sarah Chorn: Beautiful, moving, and brutal. You haven’t read anything like this fantasy.

I just reread this, and it doesn’t cover everything I wanted to, but it’s approaching that length where it becomes untenable — and I really don’t have time to add the 3-5 paragraphs that I want to (and who knows what else I’d think of when I open the floodgates). It’s a good start, anyway…

Seraphina's LamentSeraphina’s Lament

by Sarah Chorn
Series: The Bloodlands, #1

eARC, 342 pg.
2019

Read: February 12 – 15, 2018


I just don’t know that I can do an adequate job describing this book — actually, I do know that I can’t do an adequate job describing this book. But I can sort of explain things enough that you might get an idea if this book is for you. Maybe.

This takes place in some sort of Fantasy World, one rich in magic — elemental magic. There are those with Fire Magic, Earth Magic, Animal magic — and so on It’s hard to tell just ow the various people use their magic — but you get an idea that the world was full of a lot of magic that just isn’t working any more. The planet seems to be dying and one of the first signs was that fewer people were showing signs of magic and those who had it couldn’t use it has they could before. That right there is a great hook for a fantasy story — but for this book, it feels like it might be the seventh or eighth most important thing to know.

There’s a little bit of chicken and egg to this situation — did the economic and political upheaval happen because of the dying magic, or is they dying magic a response to the upheaval? I don’t think the book answers the question and I think I could argue for both positions (I’ve only read the book once, and I might be forgetting the one or two lines that definitively answer this question). The dynasty that had ruled The Sunset Lands was toppled by revolutionary forces — collectivist rebels seeking to remake not just the government, but society as a whole. After the Revolution, the Premier ends up pushing the citizens into collective farms and mines to provide for the nation as a whole. This is met with resistance, counter-revolutionary movements and problems. As the world dies, as the magic that aided people in both industries fades, the situation gets worse and people are pushed to desperate actions — and things that are even beyond desperation — just to survive.

In the midst of all this we focus on a few people — one farmer who lost everything, his home, his family, his hope. Seraphina, the title character, a personal prisoner of the premier, a slave that he spends years tormenting and crippling. Her twin brother, who escaped from the premier because of Seraphina’s sacrifice. We also meet others who offer aid and succor to as many as they can — food, shelter, assistance fleeing from the government’s forces — they’re dubbed counter-revolutionaries, and while they might aspire to that, they basically just help people live a little longer. We also, of course, spend a lot of time with the Premier — who can do nothing to prevent the collapse of his world and his society, but puts all his efforts into it. Lastly, we see the sleeping gods of this world awaken to watch the approaching end. I don’t feel comfortable enough talking about the characters in any more detail than that — they will grab your heart, break your heart, inspire and frighten you.

I’ve seen a couple of reviews that use the phrase “grimdark” to describe this book. Maybe I’m being restrictive in the way I use the term, but I don’t see the book in that model. It’s a different kind of dark, if you ask me (there’s a torturer that I can imagine Abercrombie’s Glotka accusing of going too far). This novel feels like it’s a few steps beyond dystopia, when the status quo of unjust society, environmental woes, extreme poverty are looked back on by people in a sense of “remember when we still had a chance to turn things around?” One character prepares for death and thinks back on his full and happy life. My notes focused on that “happy” with an all caps, “HOW?” Yet somehow, and I wish I could give a reason for this, somehow the book never becomes burdensome to read, you’re never thinking, “I’ve got to trudge through how many pages before we can get to some resolution?” You don’t want to see more tragedy befall the characters you know, you don’t want to face another interlude where you see the horrors that other characters face, where society breaks down further, where taboos disappear like a mist. But you can’t stop reading this book, you can’t help but read on.

This comes down to the way that Chorn tells the story, the language she uses to talk about the heartbreak, the horror, the tragedy, the atrocities, everything. So often, she’d be talking about life being pain, and death being the release in ways that elevated the idea, that seemed new and revolutionary, yet so true, so familiar that you intuitively related to the sentiment. It’s not right of me to talk about this without examples — but I have an ARC, so I can’t quote from it (and even if I had a published version, I don’t know that I could’ve picked just one or two examples — I’d have had a hard time limiting myself to a dozen favorites). There’s a lyrical, poetic quality to the language. There’s a humanity that infuses every nook and cranny of this novel in a way that I can’t imagine not appealing to readers.

Before I forget, I want to talk about this cover a little bit. Is that not one of the most disturbing images you’ve seen lately? When Chorn’s publicist approached me about reading this book, I (mostly) jokingly said something about having to read this book just to get the image out of my brain — like you have to listen to an earworm all the way through to get it dislodged from your brain. It’s a perfect cover for this book.

This isn’t a perfect book — there were times I wondered if she’d gone to far with the depravity expressed by one character or another. The repeated uses of “closure” as in a character getting or needing “closure” or “moving on,” seemed out of place for this world — the same for “survivor’s guilt.” And honestly I have no problem with the conventional wisdom of a world like this having a concepts similar to those, but talking about it in the psychological language of late 20th/early 21st century seems odd to me. The Yeats allusion really struck me as unsuitable. (any of these might have been addressed in the final edits and might not appear in the final copy). None of these ruined a scene or a moment for me, but they did all cause me to take a beat and ask, “really?” It’s nothing significant, but they all felt inappropriate in this setting.

Time and time again while reading this book, I was struck by how unique, how unusual this experience was — I hadn’t felt like this since I read Darrell Drake’s A Star-Reckoner’s Lot a couple of years ago. Which doesn’t say much to most readers, because it’s a criminally unknown book. So I stretched my memory some more and came up with N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as having a similar impact on the way I thought about the story, and how unusual it feels compared to other fantasies I’ve read. The experience of reading this isn’t something I’ll forget any time soon.

Now, this is the first book of a trilogy, and I’m left totally unprepared for the second book. The middle book of a trilogy is where things are supposed to take a turn for the worse, leaving the reader wondering where the story is going to be able to take a turn for the better. I don’t see how things can get worse from this point, how there’s more chaos, more destruction, more peril possible. Which means that Chorn’s going to have to cast off traditional story structure, or pull a rabbit out of her hat (well, probably a few nests’ worth). Maybe both. I’m eager to see how she accomplishes book two.

But to focus on this book — this is a special fantasy. Beautiful, moving, and brutal. Read it.

Disclaimer: I received an ARC of this novel from the author, it didn’t impact my opinion beyond giving me something to have an opinion about..

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4 1/2 Stars
LetsReadIndie Reading Challenge

The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin: A wildly imaginative and creative MG Fantasy

The Assassination of Brangwain SpurgeThe Assassination of Brangwain Spurge

by M.T. Anderson and Eugene Yelchin


Hardcover, 523 pg.
Candlewick Press, 2018
Read: January 24 – 25, 2019

Let me start with a hat-tip to Paul at Paul’s Picks for putting this on my radar. Thanks, Paul.

For a MG book, I’m surprisingly intimidated by the prospect of trying to give a synopsis. That’s probably a clue about the book. Brangwain Spurge is an elfin historian of moderate renown — when (as far as he knows) an ancient goblin relic is found in his land, he’s dispatched to present it to the goblin’s king. No elf has survived being in — much lest returning from — goblin territories in more than a century, but the conventional wisdom is that a historian should be safe — even if he is also spying.

The goblins and elves have spent centuries fighting each other, and are in a rare season without warfare — and no one expects it to last for long. Each side distrusts the other in ways that make relations between the USA and USSR in the 1960’s seem warm and cordial. So this mission of Brangwain’s is an unexpected and welcome overture of peace. Or so many people think.

Brangwain’s host is a goblin names Werfel — who’s also a historian. Werfel is a very odd, but seemingly pleasant, person living in the midst of pretty odd, and apparently pleasant, people. Every goblin he meets goes out of their way to welcome Brangwain and try to make him feel comfortable, while celebrating elfin culture. Brangwain’s a nervous guy, who has spent most of his life (going back to childhood) being insulted, bullied and overlooked — he doesn’t really see the efforts of the goblins for what it is. Besides, he’s too busy trying not to get caught while spying on his hosts.

Now, how does this elf — who most people expect is on a suicide mission — get his information back to the elves? I’m glad you asked — this is an ingenious move by Anderson and Yelchin — while alone and resting, Brangwain uses elfin magic and imagines what he’s seen which is transmitted to a device in the office of his king’s military intelligence, that takes these transmissions and “prints” them out. These would be the illustrations that make up a significant portion of this book.

Ultimately, things go awry and Brangwain and Werfel are on the run together, trying to survive and hopefully keep the peaceful overtures alive. A friendship will rise between the two as they depend on each other and realize how much they have in common.

There’s some great commentary on the power of perspective when it comes to history. Werfel and Brangwain differ greatly in their understandings of the same event/person, wholly dependent on their backgrounds. It’s all about who writes the history — even if it’s an obscure scholar — when it comes to establishing “fact.”

A little bit more about the art. First, it’s just great. This isn’t a book directed at the picture book crowd, but the art might as well be for people who can’t read the text — it’s as much of the story telling as the text. Yelchin actually saves them a couple hundred pages telling the more dramatic portions of the story in his pictures. Interestingly enough, the events described in the narration and the events depicted in the art/Brangwain’s reports differ significantly, and part of the fun of the book is comparing them. Yelchin’s art reminds me of Jules Feiffer’s from The Phantom Tollbooth, which is possibly the biggest selling point for me. Well, except the picture of a spider-creature that makes Shelob and Aragog look tame.

It’s a fun story, a little wry, and it will appeal to grade schoolers who have an off-kilter sense of humor. I really enjoyed reading it and recommend it for middle graders and their parents/older siblings alike.

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3 Stars
2019 Library Love Challenge