Sense of Wonder: Harnessing the power within
This month our fantasy triptych includes the story of a young woman who is too beautiful and powerful for even the most powerful men, a machine too powerful for the Wild West and a former slave whose power may destroy him.
In the world of Kristin Cashore’s Fire, every living creature has a monster analogue, distinguishable by unnatural colors and a lust for blood—particularly monster blood. Though she does not lust for blood, Fire is a human monster. Her beauty causes uncontrollable lust in weak-willed men, and through a form of telepathy she can force men to do her will—though she is understandably reluctant to do so. Her father and his puppet king destroyed their kingdom through excess and cruelty, and Fire quickly finds herself embroiled in court politics, assaulted by the king and used as a tool to interrogate spies. She faces internal conflict as she sees the manipulation of human will too similar to her father’s amoral and casual brutality, but also necessary to the defense of the kingdom. To make matters worse, she falls in love with the prince—and his daughter. Aside from sharp writing, the strength of Fire lies in Cashore’s depiction of womanhood. The author plays with traditional gender fantasy roles, giving us a strong but feminine character whose physiology generates her strengths and weaknesses, and male characters who are aggressive chauvinists and misogynists—not the asexual ideal heroes of Tolkien’s pale imitators. The enchanting prequel to Cashore’s beloved young adult novel Graceling, Fire is an excellent book for all ages—particularly young women.
Steampunk in Seattle
There are plenty of alternate Civil War novels, but none quite like Cherie Priest’s Boneshaker. In the 1860s, Leviticus Blue builds a gold-mining machine in response to a Russian contest. But something goes terribly wrong—either intentionally or by accident, we don’t quite know—and the Boneshaker destroys the banking district of Seattle and unleashes a gas that turns the living into the living dead. A wall is built around Seattle to contain the gas and the zombies. Sixteen years later, Leviticus’ widow attempts to rescue their son, Ezekiel, who has braved the wall to vindicate his universally hated father. Behind the wall, a man who may or may not be Leviticus—and who may or may not have robbed the banks—has built a kingdom of the living, and he has other plans for Ezekiel and his mother. What follows is a fantastic whirlwind tour of an alternate history and a steampunk version of The Lord of the Flies. While slightly marred by a few too many similar chase scenes, Boneshaker offers fans of both steampunk and the New Weird much to enjoy.
Fantasy pick of the month
Flesh and Fire gives us another unlikely hero. Jerzy is a slave plucked from the vineyards because he shows a talent for creating spellwines. The reader learns (as Jerzy does) that these magic wines were omnipotent until the vines were split into types by a semi-deity who ordered that vintners and governing entities be entirely independent from one another. This Command has been kept and vigorously enforced, but has led to a stagnation in the development of government and particularly the evolution of spellwines. Peace has been held for centuries, but a new malevolent and destructive power appears which no one can identify. The narrative develops slowly, but the patient reader is rewarded with the skillful unfolding of a richly developed world heavily dependent on religious interpretation—a delightful discovery especially as the novel eschews slavish imitation of Grecian mythology or thinly veiled criticism of Christianity, instead presenting a history and mythology which informs and guides the powerless and the powerful. Laura Anne Gilman also approaches the issue of slavery from an alternate viewpoint; Jerzy sees slavery as a natural and moral behavior, is unable to recognize any other option, and questions the meaning of “freedom” through an examination of what it means to be guided by a dead deity’s Commandments. Moral questions are deeply embedded in the novel, with a brilliantly limited authorial intervention, and presented through well-developed characters and first-class world-building. Since this is subtitled “Book One of The Vineart War,” we can only look forward to the sequel(s).
In alphabetical order, Sean Melican is a chemist, father, husband and writer.