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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

What I'm Reading: The Bird King [Star] and The Very Best of Caitlin Kiernan

The January 1 issue of Booklist featured 2 reviews by me. The first is one of the BEST books I have read in a long time. The second, is a solid collection by one of the best speculative fiction writers of our era. Read on....

The Bird King.

Wilson, G. Willow (author).

Feb. 2019. 440p. Grove, $26 (9780802129031); e-book (9780802146847)
First published January 1, 2019 (Booklist).

With her latest novel, Wilson [Alif the Unseen] has written a historical fantasy set during the apex of the violence, bigotry, and hysteria of the Spanish Inquisition, but it is also a book for our current, troubling times. Fatima is a young concubine in the court of the last Muslim Sultan in Spain. She has lived a life of wealth and prosperity, but it has been at the cost of her freedom. When her one true friend Hassan, a royal mapmaker whose deft hand can draw maps that bend reality, is about to be sacrificed by the Sultan in order to satisfy the Inquisitors, Fatima risks everything to escape with him. With the help of various Jinni and unlikely allies, Fatima and Hassan go on a journey that tests their endurance and their faith. This is a novel that thoughtfully contemplates the meaning of concepts like love, power, religion, and freedom, it asks the reader to question their own beliefs, stories, and traditions, and challenges all to listen to and accept each other as people, not as holders of a specific ideology. But even while exploring all of these heavy issues, this is also a fun, immersive, fantastical adventure that moves at a brisk pace, sweeping the reader through lush settings, across dangerous terrain, through exciting battles big and small, and eventually out on the open sea. It is in equal turns exhilarating, heart wrenching, joyous, and ultimately, life affirming. Fatima is a young woman who doesn’t belong anywhere, but refuses to accept her dismal fate, takes control of her life, and creates her own family and a true home. Obvious comparisons can be made to Chakraborty’s City of Brass and Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni but don’t forget about Novik’s Uprooted also.

YA/Mature Readers: Teen readers of historical fantasy will love this, though there is one near-rape scene.

Further Appeal: This was a completely absorbing read, and it had something for everyone. It is equal parts historical, adventure and fantasy. The characters- especially Fatima and Hassan-- were excellently drawn. The history, religion, gender, gay rights, immigration, and class issues are thoughtfully contemplated without sacrificing the adventure. That was astounding to me as I read it. I would be caught up in the plot and when I took a break, I couldn't stop thinking about the themes and issues Wilson was injecting into such a fun read.

Wilson's writing is lyrical, lush and cinematic. Her descriptions captivate and enthrall. There are action sequences, daring escapes, dangerous fights, magical creatures, and the last third [including the ending] is inspiring.

I also didn't have much time to address this in the review, but there is a folklore theme, a recurring story of "The Bird King," but it also leads to a larger conversation about people. the stories they tell, and their similarities across cultures. 

The ending is resolved but slightly open, in that it leaves you thinking not in that you don't know what happens.

This is a book that can be read and enjoyed for its historical aspects, but it also has A LOT to say about today. It is a must read that will be enjoyed by a wide range of readers.

Three Words That Describe This Book: lush, thought provoking, strong female protagonist

Readalikes: I listed three above and if you use the links there in the review, they lead to even more. I would highly suggest you start with Novik even though it is the only suggestion without a Middle East theme. Her work is the most similar in terms of the overall appeal-- from writing style to themes.

The Very Best of Caitlín R. Kiernan.

Kiernan, Caitlín R. (author).

Feb. 2019. 448p. Tachyon, paper, $17.95 (9781616963026); e-book, $9.99 (9781616963033)First published January 1, 2019 (Booklist).

Kiernan is among the most critically acclaimed authors of dark fantasy and horror alive today, but precisely because her work has always pushed at the boundaries of genre fiction, presenting weird, dark, and unsettling tales that are non-linear, grotesque, and disorienting, mainstream success has eluded her. This collection, the newest of many that have tried to compile the best short fiction from over 250 of Kiernan stories, focuses on the harder to find short works, those that were only published in long sold out, limited editions. The result is a volume that presents a mere snapshot of her genius, showcasing how she plays with gender, creates tension that progresses to the level of nightmare, and crafts a story where beginnings and endings don’t matter, rather it is about the characters, their struggle, and really humanity itself. Yet despite the darkness at each story’s core, there is also beauty in these lyrical compelling, and intriguing tales that are nearly impossible to stop reading. Fans may have read some of these stories before, but many readers who have more recently been introduced to works of writers with more mainstream attention like Carmen Maria Machado, Jeff VanderMeer, or China Mieville, will be glad to find this volume on your shelves so that they can discover a writer who inspired them all.

Further Appeal: Since this was a story collection and honestly, the stories were all so different that focusing on summaries a few wasn't helpful in a review, I focused heavily on the overall appeal of Kiernan above.

This is a great read for anyone who enjoys speculative fiction that is hard to define, where the storytelling is not linear, the language beautiful even when describing awful things, and the tone dark and tense, but where the characters are key.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character-centered, fluid story telling, atmospheric

Readalikes: I mentioned three of the best writers of weird fiction today and I have links to other places here on the blog where you can find more suggestions of readalikes.

Also, the Shirley Jackson award nominee list [an award Kiernan has been nominated for and won many times] is another place to look for readalikes.

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