Monday, February 17, 2020

Nanoreviews: Moontangled, Into Bones like Oil, Silver in the Wood

Silver in the Wood cover art and design by David Curtis; Moontangled Cover Design by Ravven; Into Bones Like Oil Cover Art by S. Hadi Hasan
Moontangled by Stephanie Burgis [Five Fathoms Press, 2020]

Moontangled marks the fourth novella in total, and the second "side" novella, of Burgis' Harwood Spellbook series, an alt-historical regency in which women have political power, men can train as magicians, and everyone in the orbit of one Cassandra Harwood is learning there's plenty more they can do outside of those rules, even if it's not always the future they originally had in mind. Even more so than its predecessors, Moontangled is best consumed once you're familiar with the rest of the series: this is a tale that benefits from prior knowledge of Burgis' version of the fae, and of the specific history and bargains struck with the supernatural entities here. It also helps to already be familiar with Miss Fennell and Miss Banks, the recurring characters whose secret romance takes centre stage here. For Juliana Banks, self-fulfilment has always been a challenging prospect, with her interest in learning magic stymied by the lack of training available for women. For Catherine Fennell, the career that she wants had previously felt more in reach, with an Aunt grooming her to take over her seat in the ruling Bouddicate on her retirement, but part of the requirements for a political career is a marriage to a powerful magic user and, because only men have previously been trained in magic, a heterosexual marriage is still expected as the only path for advancement. Now that Juliana is being trained at the Harwood Academy, things should ideally be looking up for our queer lady protagonists, but events at the end of Thornbound have left Catherine in a significantly more precarious political position, once again throwing their future as a lesbian power couple into doubt. Throw a grand party into the mix, and an reunion for Catherine and Juliana which ticks every box for hopeless miscommunication, and you have all the ingredients for a single magical night of relationship magic, as the pair figure out what's important to them while also trying not to be kidnapped forever by the barely-tolerant fae guardian of the neighbouring forest.

All of Burgis' characters exist in some degree of opposition with the more egalitarian but restrictive roles set out for them, and the spaces in which the novellas play out underscore that sense of distance from the establishment, while playing up the close presence of various supernatural threats that rather overshadow the characters' initial concerns about their status and political futures. That the protagonists of these books remain believable in their desires, interests and motivations, even as the machinations of that side are kept at arm's length, is one of the big successes of the series, and the fae interference in Moontangled offers an unexpected angle of support to Juliana and Catherine's activities (and, eventually, reconciliation). I would love to know a little bit more about the Bouddicates one day, particularly as the quirks in the series' setup means we spend a lot more time watching women overcoming societal gender imbalances without seeing much about the restrictions and assumptions made about men as a result of this matriarchal system, but I'm equally happy to follow this series wherever it unfolds.

8/10

Into Bones like Oil by Kaaron Warren [Meerkat Press, 2019]

Content Warning: Child Death, Implied Child Abuse

Dana is the latest in a long line of washed up, damaged and out-of-luck residents who have moved into The Angelsea, a grim beachside boarding house, following the dissolution of her marriage and the loss of her two daughters. Grief stricken and unable to sleep due to her fear of being haunted by her daughters and blamed for their deaths, Dana quickly discovers that the house isn't quite what it first seems: there's rather a lot of ghosts around, for one thing, and the owner accepts payment not just in cash but in drug-induced sleep that allows the ghosts to speak through the residents. Dana's complex past unfolds alongside her first week at the Angelsea, as she becomes involved in the hunt for lost treasure, gets to know some of the residents and the circumstances that brought them to the place, and eventually begins to challenge and confront her own ghosts, even as it becomes clear that it won't be the ones she expects to hear from.

This is the second work I've read from Warren after her deeply unsettling contribution to the Creatures anthology, and while Into Bones Like Oil certainly maintains the creepiness and claustrophobia of that novelette, it feels like there's more to grip onto here, as the narrative weaves through the different facets of Angelsea's past and present, and Dana's own somewhat unreliable perspective on her own past. The gothic atmosphere here is pitch perfect, down to Dana's location in the house's old foyer (now partially sunk and in the back of the house) from which the ghosts come and go, but she cannot; and the grounding of what could quickly become a too-stereotypical otherworldly space by providing mundane details on the bathroom signs and breakfast menus, all of which make it clear that this is somewhere that people make the best of. Its main narrative is, as you'd expect from the content, pretty unpleasant and hard to read at points, but there's a sense of hope and connection that finds its way through even the awfulness of some of the Angelsea's personalities. A difficult novella, but one that's worth engaging with.

Rating: 8/10

Silver in the Wood by Emily Tesh [Tor.com Publishing, 2019]

Fun fact: I read this almost back to back with Susan Cooper's Silver on the Tree, and now I constantly struggle to remember which title belongs to the culmination of the 5-book children's series and which is the first in Emily Tesh's SCKA-nominated novella duology about ancient wood magic, love, and redemption. It's definitely the latter I'm interested in talking about today: the story of Tobias Finch, once an ordinary man in love with a scoundrel, but now, hundreds of years later, a spirit magically attached to his forest, who spends his days maintaining the peace, hanging out with dryads, and maintaining a rustic lifestyle with his cat in a forgotten cottage in the middle of the wood. All is quietly boring and lowkey terrible until Henry Silver, the new owner of the land on which the forest sits, comes across Tobias' cottage in the middle of a rainstorm, and (with a narrowly avoided "only one bed" scene) starts a connection between the two that is fuelled by Silver's interest in the supernatural elements of the wood, and the darker parts of its history. Tobias, of course, has a personal connection, being hundreds of years old and a supernatural entity, and as Silver gets drawn in beyond what he expected, some old scores emerge to be resettled.

It's a fun novella, especially when it takes a turn in the second part and we meet Henry Silver's disapproving battleaxe of an aunt, who turns out to be a far more competent monster hunter than Henry himself, and while it felt like there was more to explore in the wood itself than we ultimately got to see, the relationships - especially the central connection between Silver and Tobias, which avoids any outright creepiness that might be brought on by their rather significant age gap - are entertaining and the climax, while slightly confusing and bittersweet, definitely held my interest. The sequel to this one is out later this year and I'm intrigued to see where my new favourite forest couple end up next.

Rating: 7/10

Posted by: Adri, Nerds of a Feather co-editor, is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke. Find her on Twitter at @adrijjy.

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