Wednesday, May 3, 2023

Nanoreviews: Unraveller, The Mimicking of Known Successes, Tread of Angels

Unraveller by Frances Hardinge [Macmillan Children's (UK)/Amulet (US)]

Clara's review of Unraveller already covers most of what makes this book so great: Frances Hardinge always brings intriguing magic and thoughtful moral complexity to her particular brand of YA, and her latest is no exception. Set in a world where humans live alongside the otherworldy denizens of the Wilds, Unraveller focuses on Kellan, a boy from a community of weavers who has been cast out after gaining the uncontrollable ability to unravel both fabric and curses, and Nettle, a formerly cursed girl, as they travel the country of Raddith unravelling the various curses that its inhabitants have placed on each other - ranging from mildly inconvenient to the truly horrible. The curses themselves are gifted by the Little Brothers, spider-like fae inhabitants of Raddith who also take a keen interest in ensuring its technology doesn't develop too extensively. When someone is given a "curse egg", they have the ability to lay a curse on someone they feel has wronged them, but the punishment for even having a curse egg - let alone using it - is extremely steep, even before the emotional cost and stigmatisation for the curser is taken into account.

We follow Kellan and Nettle as they try to discover the source of a curse on Kellan, which appears to be making his abilities stronger and more unpredictable. Along the way, Hardinge sketches out the various impacts that living with this particular brand of otherworldly justice has had on Raddith's society, and what, if anything, can be repaired after a curse has come to pass. As tales of fae morality being imposed on humans go, this is a seriously good one, and Kellan and Nettle's mildly prickly friendship forms a wonderful core around which the rest of the narrative unfolds. If you haven't read any Hardinge before, this is a great place to start.

The Mimicking of Known Successes by Malka Older [Tor dot com Publishing, 2023]

It feels appropriate to be talking about this book (again, following one of my Nerds of a Feather colleagues, this time Arturo) at a point when many of the genre fans I know are grappling with the definitions and purpose of "cosy" fiction. Perhaps this will become an essay for another time, if this fan ever gets her proverbial shit together. The Mimicking of Known Successes, billed as cosy Holmesian fiction, divides much of its time between university campuses and windswept train platforms and comfy carriages, but perhaps not in the location you'd expect: this is the human settlement on Jupiter, to which the survivors of humanity fled after Earth became uninhabitable, with habitats floating in the, uh, clouds of our biggest planetary neighbour and connected by a planet-spanning train network. We follow Mossa, an investigator looking for a missing academic, and her ex-girlfriend and classical geographer Pleiti, who Mossa approaches to help with the investigation into her colleague. Together, the two uncover a deeper conspiracy surrounding this disappearance, with implications for Earth's future and the people who get to decide on it.

Part of the cosiness here is aesthetic: Older does a fantastic job of creating a colony that seems comfortable and interesting and dynamic, even as we see characters grapple with the historic loss of Earth and the limitations of their current home. The novella opens in a remote settlement at the end of the railway line which Mossa refers to as a "piece of grit", but it's a piece of grit with a surprisingly nice pub and pleasant residents, not some desperate, impoverished outpost. People are doing OK for themselves, and for each other, on Jupiter, even if some are more OK than others, and it makes for a very different atmosphere than the gritty "everyone is one step away from a cold, unpleasant death" aesthetic that pervades most colonisation stories.

Beyond that, though, The Mimicking of Known Successes provides a perfect mix of personal stakes with wider implications for humanity's future, with Pleiti and Mossa rekindling their relationship and grappling with what this case means for their respective careers while also piecing together the answer to the mystery, and its full stakes. At the heart of those stakes is the academic debate for Earth's future, which is introduced to us as an interdepartmental war between different geography disciplines (finally, geography gets the respect and centrality it deserves!), and effectively revolves whether recolonisation of Earth should take place with full understanding of Earth's former ecosystem and its recreation, or whether humanity should be trying to build something new and adjust as they go along. I would read an entire Mars Trilogy-style doorstopper featuring characters arguing about the ins and outs of terraforming along these lines, but here it's just one strand in a much shorter narrative. Moreover, it's inextricably tied to Pleiti's position as a classicist (the "understand everything first" position) working in an academic institution alongside colleagues who, for various reasons (such as "being men") do not give her views the respect she feels they deserve.

Mimicking of Known Successes has a great ending to its mystery and its romance, but it also leaves the door open for more stories in this world - which we are getting! I, for one, am very excited.

Tread of Angels by Rebecca Roanhorse [Saga (US)/Solaris (UK) 2022]

I haven't seen as much about this Weird Western as I'd expect given that it's Rebecca frickin' Roanhorse, but if you're looking for a diverting adventure into a frontier town of angels and demons (hey, "angels and demons" is a bingo square for Reddit's r/fantasy bingo this year!) you could do much worse than this novella. The setting here is a mining town where the ostracised "Fallen", descendants of rebel angels are put to work mining Divinity (created from the body of Abaddon, because what else would it be) under the watch of the virtuous "Elect". Celeste is a Fallen, but she has been raised by her Elect father and only recently reunited with her sister Mariel, who spent her childhood with the pair's mother. Now Celeste is trying to keep her head down, but when Mariel is accused of murdering one of the settlement's leaders, her sister is given just 24 hours to prove her innocent, aided only by her demon ex-lover Abraxas.

Standing between Celeste and her sister's freedom are an entire town's worth of deep secrets, not least those of her own sister, and most of the action here is about one woman coming up against an entire system which is stacked against her, not least because of the baked-in presumption of moral goodness in the angelic Elect (their leaders are literally called Virtues!) and the stigma against the Fallen. The adventure here is firmly in "satisfyingly tropey" territory, and while the end result is a story that didn't make a huge lasting impression on me, it's certainly an enjoyable read, with depths of worldbuilding that would lend themselves to further stories in this setting. 

POSTED BY: Adri Joy, Nerds of a Feather senior editor, dog owner, aspiring mermaid, having an increasingly weird time about her own biography