Kelly Barnhill, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill 978-1-61620-797-7, $24.95, 282pp, hc) February 2018. Cover by Sarah J. Coleman.
There’s always something worth savoring in the nine stories in this collection, the author’s first. Recurring images and themes – insects, animals, beauty, love and death, women, and transformation – linger after reading. “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch” tells of a widow who gets involved with a sasquatch and the local priest trying to deal with his parishioners’ reactions. “Open the Door and the Light Pours Through” is a dreamily odd ghost story involving a husband and wife separated during war. The title story is a fascinating set of brief portraits of some appalling women, while “Notes on the Death of Ronia Drake” is a surprisingly satisfying twisted fairy tale. The prize of this powerful collection, though, is the novella “The Unlicensed Magician” which mixes wonderfully broad satire with Orwellian dystopia and irrepressible magic and joy. The sense of the unreal gives the stories enough of a similarity in tone that I don’t recommend trying to read them all at once, but they’re definitely worth dipping into and savoring one at a time.
Steven Brust, Good Guys (Tor 978-0-7653-9637-2, $25.99, 316pp, hc) March 2018.
Figuring out who the good guys are lies at the heart of this offbeat fantasy thriller. Donovan Longfellow wanted to be a PI, but things happened; being black and getting shot by the “PO-lice” for jaywalking led to him being brought back from near death by the Foundation, who recruited him as one of their agents. His mission is to help keep magic out of the public’s awareness, with the help of the deadly Susan (AKA Hippie Chick) and new teammate Marci, a sorcerer. They investigate a peculiar murder where the victim turns out to have been a sorcerer with the Mystici, a group that doesn’t believe magic users should be subject to rules. The reader knows from the start that the killer is someone with an agenda, and once a second body turns up Longfellow and his crew start to realize someone’s after Mystici – and may have help from inside the Foundation. Brust’s in didactic mode here, much as in the Incrementalists series, with lots of little asides on issues like torture (“doesn’t work”) and amusing jabs at things like American ignorance of foreign ways. The core of the novel, though, lies in the more disturbing ethics of magic, looking at reasons for keeping it secret vs. using it to help people – and those like the Mystici who make such services available only to the very wealthy. Longfellow’s irreverent tone helps keep things from getting too heavy, though I found his use of “PO-lice” annoying and somewhat problematic. Fortunately, plenty of action keeps the story moving even as the moral conflicts and body count rise, for a good read.
MaryJanice Davidson, Deja New (Berkley 978-0-425-27041-7, $15.00, 298pp, tp) November 2017. Cover by Blake Morrow.
I find myself warming up more to the Insighter series with this second novel, which has more of a goofy, snarky tone than the first, which, admittedly, had its wacky moments. The first book established this world where almost everyone has past lives and can be helped to deal with them by Insighters, who have a special talent for seeing those lives. Deja Who focused on ex-child-actress Leah Nazir, a powerful Insighter who helps others with past-life problems, but is not able to deal with her own narcissistic actress mother. Now Leah and her fiancé Archer Drake are going to stay with his family, and the story centers on his cousin Angela. When Angela was 13, her father was murdered and his no-good brother took the blame. That left her in charge of a chaotic household of two brothers, two male cousins, and her grief-stricken mother. Now 25, Angela, an Insighter of limited talent herself, is a huge fan of Leah’s work as an Insighter, and hopes she’ll help figure out who really killed her father. She even has a new police detective willing to put up with her obsession – and somehow she finds even his socks sexy. The family bickering manages to be touching even as it gets deliciously over-the-top, and Angela’s oddball romance is fun. Intriguing bits of history relating to various characters’ past lives also add to the puzzle of what’s really going on – it’s more interesting than the actual murder mystery, which fizzles a bit in the end.
Carolyn F. Cushman, Senior Editor, has worked for Locus since 1985, the longest of any of the current staff, and handles our in-house books database, writes our New and Notable section, and does the monthly Books Received column. She is a graduate of Western Washington University with a degree in English. She published a fantasy novel, Witch and Wombat, in 1994.
This review and more like it in the February 2018 issue of Locus.