To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis
I’ve been wanting to read something by Connie Willis for a while now. In April I went to an exhibit of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in Seattle at the Museum of Pop Culture, and Willis was one of the female authors featured. To Say Nothing of the Dog is one of her earlier works, published in 1998. This book is aimed at people who like two very different things: Victorian comedy of manners and the paradox of time travel. I’ve said before (as in recent review All Our Wrong Todays) that sometimes the paradoxical nature of time travel makes my head spin. But if you really get into a book that raises time travel issues in all their head-scratching glory, you’ll love this book. That is, as long as you like a good dose of Victorian romantic comedy to go with it. Oh, and you like cats. Still with me? The story is about professional time travelers in the 2050’s who have to travel back to 1880 to rectify a mistake: one of the time travelers accidentally carried a cat into the future (a future where sadly, cats are now extinct). There’s no way of knowing what possible impact that could have, but it seems a fairly easy mission to go back and drop off the cat. Only of course it’s not that easy. This was a really funny book and a light read, perfect for summer.
The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
I read a ton of good reviews of this book, and found them all justified. This is Arden’s first novel and I loved it. Sometimes books based on fairy/folk tales don’t do much for me. Maybe this book was more interesting because of its Russian setting, but I think it was more that Arden develops a really interesting heroine and surrounds her with terrible challenges and great possibility. The daughter of a witch, heroine Vasya grows up with the ability to see magical creatures all around her. She befriends and helps these creatures, while her religious stepmother is terrified of them. In this book you get many of the tropes of fairy tales, like the bad stepmother, but you also get a thought-provoking conflict between religion and folk culture. Religion needs to stir people up to gain power, and it does so by trying to eliminate the people’s cultural beliefs and superstitions. I’m oversimplifying the story, but what I enjoyed most was its complexity. If you like books about magic and folk tales, you’ll love this. And even if you don’t, you may enjoy it much more than you expected to.
Roses and Rot by Kat Howard
This book is more in the modern-day fantasy vein, about two sisters who sign up for a prestigious (and mysterious) artists’ retreat. One sister’s a writer, the other a dancer. But there’s an ominous curse on this retreat, and once they’re in they may not make it out. If this book sounds a little silly to you, I’m with you. I picked it up because of its endorsement by Neil Gaiman, but mainly because it reminded me of one of my favorite Lois Duncan novels (which I read voraciously as a teen), Down a Dark Hall. As it turns out, the book resonated with me because of its emotional story about two sisters who grow up in an abusive home. The older sister leaves home in high school, but her relationship with her sister is irreparably damaged. While the story reminded me very much of my relationship with my own sister, as an objective reviewer, I have to tell you I didn’t find this to be a good book. The fantasy story was downright silly and many of the characters were superficial and annoying, and serious things were not always treated thoughtfully. The artsy-people-doing-artsy-things was also on the pretentious side. Plus, if you’re interested in fae mythology, you could do a lot better (pick up Patricia Briggs’ novels instead).