Reviews, August 2015

War of Ghosts

Touch — Claire North

When 2015’s Touch begins, things are not going well for protagonist Kepler, who has just been shot twice by a complete stranger. Things are worse for Kepler’s host, Josephine Cebula, She is trapped in her own dying body; Kepler can escape into any living body within arm’s reach.

Kepler has no idea why the stranger attacked. The body-hopper does know that, for some reason, killing Josephine appeared to be as or more important than killing Kepler. Possessing the killer is easy enough, which gives Kepler the killer’s effects to rummage through for clues but that turns out to be just the first and least step on the way to finding Kepler’s real enemy.

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Outside Space and Outside Time

The Big Time — Fritz Leiber
Change War , book 1

Fritz Leiber’s 1958 Hugo winner The Big Time fits a very large setting into a very small package. The context of the novel is the Change War, which is being fought to reshape history across the universe. Narrator Greta, doppelganger of a slain American woman, has a very minor role in the war; she is an entertainer in the Place, an R&R facility tucked away in a pocket universe. Unfortunately for Greta’s life of routine, the War is about to intrude into the Place.

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A Malaysian Cornucopia

Cyberpunk: Malaysia — Zen Cho

It may seem a little odd to publish a cyberpunk anthology a quarter century after American cyberpunk devolved into an aggregation of simplistic conventions 1. But sub-genres may die in some cultural environments and thrive in others. American 2 cyberpunk may be a shambling zombie (even post-cyberpunk is pretty wheezy), but as 2015’s Cyberpunk: Malaysia proves, in Malaysian hands cyberpunk is alive and well.

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Return to Janus

Victory on Janus — Andre Norton
Janus, book 2

1965’s The Year of the Unicorn takes us back to the Witch World, across the ocean to High Hallack

Andre Norton’s 19661 Victory on Janus returns to the bleak world of 1963’s Judgment on Janus . Victory isn’t as grim a book as Judgment, but it is still nothing like upbeat.

The Ift, reborn in commandeered and transformed human bodies after millennia of extinction, are still a mere handful. Lacking numbers, their survival is due only to the fact the human colonists on Janus are largely unaware of and consequently indifferent to the alien revenants.

Or rather, were. Now the colonists are burning the vast forests around their settlements. If the Ift cannot find out why the humans are doing this, and convince them to stop, then it is only a matter of time before the Ift are cast back into unending darkness.

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Found amongst the rushes

Skye-Object 3270a — Linda Nagata
Deception Well, book 3

2010’s Skye-Object 3270a is a late addition to Nagata’s Nanotech Chronicles1. While it shares a setting with 1998’s Deception Well, this book can be read as a standalone. It is explicitly intended for a younger audience than Vast.

Despite the “object” in her name, Skye-Object isn’t a what but a who, a young woman.

Her odd name is a reminder of her history; she was found, as a toddler, in suspended animation in a starship’s lifeboat. The astronomer who first noticed it had tagged it as Sky Object 3270a. Skye’s rescuers were never able to determine the lifeboat’s origin or Skye’s original name. They were kind enough to give Skye a new home in the city of Silk.

The rescuers can make an educated guess as to why Skye’s parents cast her into the deeps of space. Unfortunately, that guess is … incomplete.

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A gardener’s tale

Bryony and Roses — T. Kingfisher

The author lurking behind the pen name T. Kingfisher is perhaps best known for routinely kicking me out of the #2 position on Livejournal. She is also a Hugo-winning author whose books are well worth sampling. Case in point: 2015’s Bryony and Roses.

When we first meet Bryony, she’s finally found something that distracts her from a recent avalanche of catastrophe:

  • her mother died;
  • her father indulged in ill-conceived schemes to marry off his three daughters, showing total indifference to their feelings in the matter;
  • he fell into debt;
  • he was murdered;
  • the sisters fled from the city into impoverished rustic seclusion.

Bryony’s current predicament is the ultimate distraction: she is freezing to death in an unexpected spring blizzard.

She is saved when she finds a manor house where no manor house was before or should be now. Inside, she finds no visible host or servants, but she does find food, warmth, and shelter from the storm.

But of course there’s a catch.

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Sixteen by Hughes

Devil or Angel & Other Stories — Matthew Hughes

I’ve reviewed Hughes here before and I will review him again in the future.

Although he is perhaps best known for his Vancian Archonate stories, those do not make up the entirety of his work. Devil or Angel & Other Stories collects sixteen of his non-Archonate stories [1], written deliberately in what the cover calls “old-style.” Which is to say that it would not come as a surprise to find that these stories had been published in such magazines of yore as Unknown, Galaxy, or even the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Except that they weren’t [2].

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Not the secondary world fantasy you’re expecting

The Northern Girl — Elizabeth A. Lynn
Chronicles of Tornor, book 3

Elizabeth A. Lynn’s 1980’s The Northern Girl, is the third book in the Chronicles of Tornor. As was the custom of those ancient days, the book works as a standalone. While reading the first two books would provide interesting context for this work, you don’t need to have read those books to understand this one. As I recall, the first two were good but this one is the longest and most ambitious of the three. It’s also not your bog-standard secondary world fantasy.

Half-a-millennium after its founding, Kendra-on-the-Delta is arguably the greatest of the cities of Arun, the land stretching from the Grey Hills to the ocean. To date, Arun has been not so much a nation or kingdom as a collection of loosely allied city-states and holdings. Now, thanks to the ambitions of a few ambitious men, all that may be about to change.

But that’s not what the book is really about.

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From the country that gave us Iain Banks, Ian Rankin and Ian MacLean

One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night — Christopher Brookmyre

I got inexplicably not named Ia(i)n Christopher Brookmyre’s 1999 standalone novel One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night for my 40 birthday many years ago; it seems like yesterday!

William Conner is a career soldier turned mercenary turned, finally, criminal and goon wrangler for Dawson, whose current scheme requires a small band of hard bastards. Called in at the last moment, Conner has assembled a small army on the coast of Scotland near the unremarkable town of Auchelea.

It’s not the town that has soldier-for-hire Dawson’s attention. It’s the oil platform converted into a lavish holiday resort floating offshore of Auchelea. Though not quite finished, the resort is said to be playing host to a group of wealthy venture capitalists, who would be well worth the gang’s time to kidnap.

The idea that they are all billionaire entrepreneurs would be a hell of a surprise to the former students of Auchelea’s St. Michael’s high school, the people who are actually using the converted platform/resort for their school reunion.

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Whatever Happened to the Solar Queen?

Postmarked the Stars — Andre Norton
Solar Queen, book 4

Although a decade passed for Norton’s fans between the third Solar Queen novel (1959’s Voodoo Planet) and the fourth (1969’s Postmarked the Stars), for protagonist Dane Thorson, the events of this book Postmarked the Stars, follow right on the heels of the earlier three.

Dane’s appointment as temporary cargo chief on the Solar Queen, replacing a superior on holiday, seems like it should be a good thing. All it does is paint a great big target on poor Dane. Ne’er do wells are plotting to use the ship for nefarious purposes. This becomes obvious when Dane, having set out to pick up a parcel for transport, wakes up from a drugged stupor in an unfamiliar room. When he staggers back to the Solar Queen, he finds that he has been replaced by a look-alike.

Temporarily. The look-alike in fact was in such terrible health he had no business trying to travel; he dies of an unexpected heart condition even before Dane gets back to the Solar Queen. There’s no way to ask him what he was up to. But that’s OK; the results of the doppleganger’s shenanigans are revealed in short order.

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“It’s about soldiers,” he said. “They fight, then they have sex, then they do drugs, then they fight some more.”

War Games — Karl Hansen
Hybrid Wars, book 1

It’s a good thing that the title for this review series is Military Speculative Fiction That Doesn’t Suck and not, say, Military Speculative Fiction That is an Exemplar of All That is Good in Fiction. I’m not sure that I would say that Karl Hansen’s 1981 War Games is good. That may be too positive a word for this enthusiastically nihilistic war story. The book has definite points of interest—but I am not 100% sure I would call it good.

But it sure is energetic.

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A Spy Abroad

The Drowning City — Amanda Downum
The Necromancer Chronicles, book 1

Amanda Downum’s 2009 debut novel The Drowning City, first of the Necromancer Chronicles, takes us to the exotic city of Symir, a city balanced between ocean, river, and volcano. As the city’s sobriquet “The Drowning City” suggests, water has a slight edge over fire at present. To necromancer Isyllt Iskaldur, who has spent three weeks sailing from her homeland of Selafai, the Drowning City is exciting and novel. Most importantly it’s a potentially useful catspaw in the ongoing struggle between Selafai and the Assari Empire.

For the people who live in Symir, the city isn’t exotic at all. It’s home. And as convenient as it would be for Isyllt and her spymaster boss if the Symirians were willing to become naive pawns in the Selafian plots, the Symirians have their own complex relationships with the Empire of which they are a reluctant part. They have no intention of playing along with Isyllt’s cunning plans.

In fact, the locals have their own cunning plans and Isyllt will be doing quite well to survive contact with them.

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Not with a whimper but a bang

The Fifth Season — N. K. Jemisin
The Broken Earth, book 1

The unfortunates in 2015’s The Fifth Season live on a world almost as active as Jupiter’s moon Io, a world constantly rattled by tremours and reshaped by volcanoes, a world where geological and historical timescales are the same.

Embracing whimsical gallows humour, they call their single landmass “The Stillness”.

Any particular community on this world can be certain that, in time, it will be wiped out by earthquake, tsunami, acid rain, or abrupt climate change. Humanity as a whole survives on the Stillness because until now, no calamity massive enough to kill absolutely every human has happened.

Thanks to the forward-thinking social policies of the Sanze Empire, humanity’s run of luck is about to end.

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Look out, Telzey Amberdon and Paul Maud’Dib! Here comes Mary!

Mind of My Mind — Octavia E. Butler
Patternist, book 2

1977’s Mind of My Mind, second in Octavia E. Butler’s Patternist series [1], is Butler’s take on classic Science Fiction themes: an examination of a world where mental powers are real rather than the delusions of the confused, the bewildered, and the fans of Analog.

Like Telzey Amberdon and Paul Maud’Dib, Mary is a Campbellian superhuman. Born to a latent telepath and another psychic, Mary has potential mental powers that could dwarf anything ever seen on the Earth of the late 20 century!

Too bad she’s property. Or, possibly, food.

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Behind the Mask

Soon I Will Be Invincible — Austin Grossman

“I’m the smartest man in the world. Once I wore a cape in public, and fought battles against men who could fly, who had metal skin, who could kill you with their eyes. I fought CoreFire to a standstill, and the Super Squadron, and the Champions. Now I have to shuffle through a cafeteria line with men who tried to pass bad checks. Now I have to wonder if there will be chocolate milk in the dispenser. And whether the smartest man in the world has done the smartest thing he could do with his life.”

No, he hasn’t. And thanks to Malign Hypercognition Syndrome, Doctor Impossible won’t. Probably can’t. When his old foe CoreFire vanishes, CoreFire’s old teammates don’t take long to decide that even though Doctor Impossible is in prison, he is the logical suspect.

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A victim’s eye view of Space Vikings

Dark Piper — Andre Norton

The good news for the poor doomed bastards on the planet Beltane in 1968’s Dark Piper is that the great interstellar war is finally over. Even better, while the world lost many of its young men to the draft, Beltane itself is such a backwater that neither side saw fit to scorch the place.

The bad news is that the war didn’t so much stop as grind to a halt after all the combatant polities suddenly collapsed. A long dark age looms, perhaps even the end of mankind’s long domination of the stars. Since Beltane was a research station that was never intended to be completely self-sufficient, the inhabitants might be able to slow the looming technological and economic decline … but they cannot hope to prevent it.

As it turns out, that won’t matter

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Lady Elaine, please remember to order your bride-sized fridge

Space Viking — H. Beam Piper
Space Viking, book 1

I will probably review all of my H. Beam Piper novels (or at least the SF ones) eventually. I have a specific reason for reviewing 1962’s Space Viking this week. A reason I will not explain until Friday. Foreshadowing! The mark of quality literature!

Speaking of foreshadowing, when Lady Elaine warns her husband-to-be Lucas, Lord Trask, Baron of Traskon that

“It’s bad luck to be called by your married name before the wedding.”

Trask should have listened. For that matter, every aristocrat on the planet Gram should have noticed just how crazy Lord Andray Dunnan was, and what a bad idea it was to allow Dunnan to assemble his own private army. Elaine and Trask in particular have good reason to be worried: through no fault of her own, Elaine plays a central role in Dunnan’s rich fantasy life. But … Dunnan is the nephew of Duke Angus, who is poised to make himself king of all Gram. Dunnan is too well-connected to be shot out of hand, so everyone tacitly tolerates his obvious craziness.

Then everything goes pear-shaped. Dunnan’s men hijack the starship Enterprise; in retrospect, the purpose for which Dunnan recruited all those mercenaries. Dunnan tries to assassinate Elaine (for rejecting him) and Trask (for winning her) before fleeing in the Enterprise. Dunnan’s mistake is to kill Elaine, but only wound Trask. While the aristocracy of Gram may not be inclined to pursue their vendetta into space, nothing will stop Trask from chasing Dunnan to the ends of the galaxy.

Chasing is easy enough. Actually finding Dunnan, on the other hand….

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This week’s discovery

Justice and Her Brothers — Virginia Hamilton
Justice Cycle, book 1

I am continually surprised at the depth and width of my ignorance. Case in point: Virginia Hamilton, an award winning author who was previously unknown to me. I got to be one of yesterday’s lucky ten thousand; now you can be too [1].

Like most adolescents, Justice Douglass—“Tice” to her parents and friends, “Pickle” to her brothers Thomas and Levi—has to deal with change. In particular, Justice finds herself resenting her mother’s late-blooming college career. Each hour her mother invests in schoolwork is an hour less for Justice and her brothers.

It eventually becomes clear that Justice is worrying about the wrong thing. She should be paying more attention to her twin brothers. Thomas and Levi are mirror twins. They may look alike, but one is right handed, one left, one is a leader, one a follower, one is a victim and one … one is a monster….

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Puckish Whimsy!

Beauty Queens — Libba Bray

Yesterday I said

I may or may not also review some of the works that made it onto the (Tiptree) Honor Lists and the Long Lists; the limiting factors are time, my puckish whimsy, and whether or not anyone sees fit to sponsor those reviews.

It turns out another factor is “James wrote this review before deciding to do the Tiptree Reviews and does not care to sit on it for a year.” Also, puckish whimsy!

It’s completely unfair to the books I review but … I must admit that how favourably I react to a book can depend a lot on the circumstances in which I encounter it. Case in point: Libba Bray’s 2011 novel Beauty Queens.

The novel opens with fifty contestants plus ancillary personnel on their way to the Miss Dream Teen beauty contest. Fear not that you will have to keep a bewildering array of names straight: the plane crashes on page three. Of the fifty contestants, thirteen [1] survive. Of their chaperons and other support personnel, none survive. A baker’s dozen of contestants are lost on a deserted island, far from help, left to their own devices, with only the wreckage of the plane and the skills they brought with them to help them survive.

Did I say “deserted island”? Make that “seemingly deserted island.”

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The First Tiptree Award Winner Review

A Woman of the Iron People — Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason’s 1991 A Woman of the Iron People was one of the two winners of the very first James Tiptree, Jr. Award. It also won the inaugural Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and came in third in the 1992 John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Even in the Before Times, when computers were coal-fired and USENET still ruled the interwebs, A Woman of the Iron People got very good word of mouth … so it has been a considerable source of irritation to me that despite decades of bookstore browsing, I had never seen a copy of the hardcover or the split paperback versions (of which more later).

Huzzah for Open Road Media, which offers a very affordably priced edition! Huzzah for my various electronic devices, which allow me to read said edition!

Despite some very impressive efforts, humanity has failed to transform Earth into an anoxic, lifeless desolation (which says a lot for Earth, given the rampant resource plunder and widespread pollution in the backstory). Moreover, a surprisingly sensible humanity has spent centuries trying to undo the damage it did in the 20th century. About a century before the book begins, humans even managed to build and then send a sub-light starship to Sigma Draconis. This sun-like star is not too far from good old Sol on a galactic scale; but it is unimaginably far on a human scale … which is why it took a starship travelling at a good fraction of the speed of light more than a century to reach its destination.

Like the sun, Sigma Draconis has an Earth-like companion world, and like Earth, that world has intelligent inhabitants. Humanity’s first interstellar voyage is also going to be its first contact with aliens.

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From the pages of Astounding and Galaxy

The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy — Katherine MacLean

I have been listening to the old radio show X Minus One . Because her stories provided the basis of several episodes, Katherine MacLean (last seen here in my review of her Missing Man) has been on my mind. Hence this review. The Diploids and Other Flights of Fancy (or as it is called in my edition,

The Diploids and 7 Other Stories), collects a number of her works from the 1950s.

By purest coincidence, I recently encountered someone who had never read MacLean’s much-anthologized “The Snowball Effect.” [1] That does not make me want to read this collection more than I already do—but it does convince me that now is a good time to review this (sadly obscure and wildly out of print) collection.

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The Sorceress’ Tale

Sorceress of the Witch World — Andre Norton
Estcarp, book 5

1968’s Sorceress of the Witch World picks up where Warlock of the Witch World left off. Kaththea is still recovering from being stripped of her magic by her brother (done to save her from a mistaken alliance with the extremely hunky forces of darkness). When she is separated from her friends by an avalanche, her magic cannot save her.

However, her magical potential can get her into more trouble….

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I’ve always had a soft spot for radio

Kitty and the Midnight Hour — Carrie Vaughn
Kitty Norville, book 1

Even by 2005, when Carrie Vaughn’s [1] Kitty and the Midnight Hour was first published, I had read a great many urban fantasies/paranormal romances (courtesy of Andrew Wheeler at Bookspan), I had read enough of these to understand that although the Kitty Norville books share many of the surface features common to the genre, the series is more than a little different under the hood.

When we first meet her, Kitty Norville is a late-night radio DJ on Denver’s radio K-NOB; she is obscure and seemingly fated to stay that way. This changes dramatically when she more or less by accident discovers a brand new niche for late-night call-in shows: the Midnight Hour becomes the show you call if you’re a werewolf, a vampire, or a vampire’s thrall, and you need to talk to someone about the unusual demands your condition imposes on you.

Kitty understands because Kitty is herself a werewolf.

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A small cornucopia

Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something — Kaoru Mori

When Yen Press sent me Emma Volume One, they also sent me 2012’s Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something. Unlike A Bride’s Story and Emma, this isn’t an installment in an ongoing series. Rather, it is a collection of Mori’s short pieces, an interesting introduction to her work if you’ve not read her before.

This will be short.

Mori provides such number of short pieces that they exceed my willingness to take this chapter by chapter. The volume is just under 210 pages and there are forty-four items listed in the table of contents. I could take them one by one, but that would result in a very long review. It has been my experience that the longer my reviews, the less likely it is that people will respond to them. As someone once said, More Words, Deeper Hole.

Mori leads with a selection of longer pieces (although if you have not noticed that the collection is to be read right to left, you may think she’s ending with longer pieces inexplicably printed in reverse). These tend to be standalone pieces, essentially short stories. The second half of the book has a selection of shorter pieces, some single page and other, like the extensive study of corsets, somewhat longer.

Although this isn’t a long collection, the number of works included means that the author can cover a fair range in terms of subject matter and tone. There’s screwball comedy, what appears to be a melancholy lesbian romance (or whatever you call it when neither person admits that’s what’s going on), something that may be intended to be to Bunny fantasies what “Hotel California” is to the American Dream, non-fiction, and more. Not bad for a book that’s not much over 200 pages.

The author also includes, where appropriate, commentary on the various pieces.

If you haven’t given Mori a try, this is a pretty good place to start. It’s not long, so you are not investing a lot of time, but the number and variety of pieces included means that a reader will get a pretty good idea of Mori’s range.

Kaoru Mori: Anything and Something is available from Yen Press.

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If not for those meddling kids

Up Against It — M. J. Locke

I like stories set in the Solar System, particularly the modern Solar System as it has been revealed since the 1960s. Or at least I tell myself I do. Paradoxically, my interest in such matters makes me a difficult audience for SF that qualifies, as I suspect this review of 2011’s Up Against It will reveal.

The Solar System of the 24 century is settled; humans live everywhere from the inner system out to the Kuiper Belt. While life in space, such as in 25 Phocaea, for example, is better than life in 24 century USA [1], that’s less a measure of the wonders of life in space and more a measure of the grimdark hellhole that is Future America [2]. Life in space is fragile; cities like 25 Phocaea’s Zekeston are dependent on imported volatiles. Very dependent.

And what happens when the supply of volatiles is suddenly interrupted?

Nothing good.

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Road trip!

How The White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back — Diana Rowland
White Trash Zombie, book 4

2014’s [1] How the White Trash Zombie Got Her Groove Back, fourth in the series, picks up after Angel Crawford has made a good start at rebuilding her new life after the calamities—flood and various wacky series arc hijinks—that swept through her town in White Trash Zombie Apocalypse. Angel even got her GED after a lot of studying and some private tutoring that helped her to deal with her dyslexia. So that’s good.

The dead friend who turns up buried in a shallow grave? The wave of kidnappings that sweeps St. Edwards Parish? The fact that Saberton, the malevolent corporation eager to exploit zombieism regardless of the cost to the zombies (and given that at one point they seemed on the verge of triggering a zombie plague, the cost to the world), seems to be back for another swing at the undead piñata? Not so good. And that’s not ever mentioning the brand new, progressive disorder with which both Angel and her spawn Philip are struggling.

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Three children and IT

A Wrinkle in Time — Madeleine L'Engle
Meg Murry, book 1

1962’s A Wrinkle in Time won a Newbery, even though it features no dying dogs or other pets and no child drowns tragically in a beloved creek. A star does explode but that happens before the book opens. The Newbery and the book’s heavy-handed Christian imagery gave the work enough of a patina of respectability that schools would stock it—even though it was pretty obviously spec-fic. Despite the official imprimatur, kids liked it enough to actually read it for pleasure. It still has a high enough profile that the net abounds in reviews.

Pity poor Meg Murry:

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“Island” is Old English for “Death Trap”

The Way We Fall — Megan Crewe
The Fallen World, book 1

Megan Crewe’s 2012 novel The Way We Fall takes us to a small Canadian island, the island that narrator Kaelyn calls home. Sixteen year old Kaelyn’s life hasn’t been all that smooth of late. Her father didn’t react particularly well to the revelation that his son Drew is gay; in fact, he moved the whole family back to the island, away from Toronto, to distance Drew from his boyfriend. Kaelyn is also saddened by a jealousy-fueled falling-out with her best friend Leo.

Two years after the quarrel, Kaelyn belatedly regrets the rupture. Her sudden epiphany about how much she misses Leo comes too late; he has left for school on the mainland. In lieu of conversations with him, Kaelyn begins addressing each of her journal entries to Leo. It’s good practice; after all, what are the odds Leo will never return to the island? Who could imagine that life as Kaelyn knows it is about to be irrevocably transformed?

Did I mention The Way We Fall is volume one in the Fallen World trilogy?

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