Category Archives: Fiction — fantasy

How to Stop Time, by Matt Haig

howtostoptimeWhen an online book club I sometimes participate in suggested How to Stop Time, my immediate reaction on reading the blurb was, “Well, this is a book tailor-made for me!” It combines historical fiction with fantastic/sci-fi elements, as its main character has a rare condition called anageria. This is the opposite of progeria, the real-life condition where people age more quickly than normal. Tom Hazard, in this novel (one of many names he goes by), ages about fifteen times more slowly than normal people. He is one of a handful of anagerics who have been alive for hundreds of years; as the novel opens in the present day Tom is over 400 years old but looks to be in his mid-thirties. He has had to move around frequently throughout his life, since if he stays in one place longer than a few years people start to notice that he hasn’t aged and they get suspicious. In the olden days, this could mean accusations of witchcraft or other supernatural shenanigans; today it’s more likely to mean pursuit by ruthless scientists who want to study these “albatrosses” to harvest the secret of eternal youth. So Tom lives in the shadows; he has hung out with Shakespeare and F. Scott Fitzgerald in his time, and developed an impressive list of skills, but he’s been unable to maintain any long-lasting relationships, because eventually everyone he loves will be left behind.

Four hundred years later, Tom is still pining after his lost love from the early 1600s, Rose, with whom he had a daughter Marion, who is still around somewhere because she too shares Tom’s condition. The novel relates Tom’s life story in flashbacks, alternated with scenes in present-day London where he tries to blend in as a history teacher (good career choice there), continues his centuries-long search for Marion, and considers the possibility of loving again.

A lot of great fiction confronts the question of mortality, of the shortness of human life and how we can live and love knowing it will all be lost. How to Stop Time comes at this question from the opposite direction: what if you knew that youlife was virtually endless, but that all those around you were doomed to age and die? Could life, could love, still have meaning under those circumstances?

I thought How to Stop Time was a lovely and very engaging novel that handled those questions in an insightful and thoughtful way. Tom was a likable enough character that it was possible to empathize with him even though his situation is not one that any of us can relate to. Except that time does keep passing, things do keep changing, and we all, sometimes, want to stop it. So maybe we can relate after all.

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Bellevue Square, by Michael Redhill

bellevue squareBellevue Square, winner of this year’s Giller Prize (Canada’s richest literary award), is one heck of a weird book. Though the Giller Prize only goes to works that are pretty clearly “literary fiction,” Redhill’s credentials as a mystery writer (under a pen name, which turns out to be significant here) are on display as Bellevue Square opens with an intriguing hook.

A middle-aged woman who owns a bookstore, the novel’s first-person narrator Jean Mason, is told by two different customers that she has a doppelganger. Both people have seen a woman who looks exactly like her on a Toronto street not far from her bookstore. Jean befriends the second of those people before she finds out that the first has died under somewhat mysterious circumstances. But even before the quest to find and confront her double has begun to consume Jean’s life, the reader has started to notice that little details about her account of her own life are slightly off. Jean tells us that her husband is a retired police officer, having left the force after making good money in the stock market. But he still wears a uniform and seems to think he is still on the force. And a good deal of her time is spent Skyping with her sister, who has a brain tumour, yet when her husband asks her who she’s been talking to, she evades the question. She has two kids she obviously cares for, yet she is able to wander the streets and sit chatting with homeless people in a city park for hours at time, oblivious to her family’s needs in a way that any mother who’s raised actual children at once realizes is not at all believable.

In short, Jean quickly proves to be a very unreliable narrator; the idea of “double lives” operates on many levels in this book; we are quickly led to question what is and isn’t real, and who is really telling us this story. This is all great stuff and kept me turning pages quickly for the first two-thirds of the book. The thing with a great set-up like this, though, is that the writer has to have the chops to pull it off. You can’t set up a bunch of intriguing mysteries unless you’re able to wrap it up with a resolution that makes the reader go “Aha!! So that was what was happening all along!” (See my review of John Darnielle’s Universal Harvester, which, despite my deep and intense love for Darnielle and everything he does, failed on this count for me).

So, does the ending of Bellevue Square — which is as action-packed and exciting as any thriller reader could hope for — pay off? Well, different readers have different takes on that. Some are left saying “Aha!” while others are left with more of an “A … ha?” reaction. I think I was in the latter category. The book is certainly well-written and intriguing, and I didn’t expect everything to be tied up with a neat and tidy bow. But I wanted at least a few answers, and I felt I was left with far more questions. What’s real and what isn’t? At the end of Bellevue Square, we’re still not entirely sure. Which may, of course, be exactly what Redhill intended.

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The Broken Earth trilogy, by N.K. Jemisin

brokenearthI’ve been hearing about this trilogy for awhile; it’s one of the hottest fantasy series of recent years. Actually I’m not sure whether to call it fantasy or science fiction, because it has elements of both. The series takes place in a far-distant future world where the surface of the planet has become unstable and human life is frequently disrupted and destroyed by catastrophic shiftings of the earth’s surface. When the earth moves, a “fifth season” of environmental devastation can last for years, bringing untold hardship.

In the world of these books, there are also people with unique abilities to sense and even control the movements of the earth. These people are known as orogenes, but their powers are feared as much as they are respected, and they are kept under tight control, raised to believe that they are dangerous and not-quite-human. The main character of the trilogy, Essun, is an orogene. As the first book opens, a Fifth Season is just beginning as Essun finds herself the victim of a horrific act of violence.

From there, things unfold forward and backwards as we learn Essun’s origin story (orogene story!) and see how she copes with the disaster that has struck her world. This is an incredibly detailed, thoroughly developed world with a complete system of magic/science, history, and the relationships among the different people groups within the world. It’s so detailed there were times I got overwhelmed and felt like I couldn’t entirely follow what was going on … this was especially true in the second book, where the story dragged for me a little bit as I got bogged down in the detail of trying to understand this intricate world Jemisin created. However, this is entirely my shortcoming as a reader, not hers as a writer — she’s brilliant.

In the end, the deeply flawed, angry, strong heroine Essun drew me on through the story even through bits I had to skim over because I wasn’t fully following the complex plotline. This is a series about what it means to be human, about environmental devastation, about how humans treat other humans and about whether we’re worth saving as a species. It wrestles with some big issues through deeply flawed and real characters, and every lover of fantasy or science fiction should check it out.

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The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

buriedgiantThis was a strange and engrossing book which I read quickly, anxious to find out how it would all come together. I’ve seen people online complain that it’s very different from Ishiguro’s other novels, but as this is the first of his I’ve read I have no basis of comparison. I found it odd and haunting, a bit like the aftermath of reading a Neil Gaiman novel.

The Buried Giant starts out as if it’s going to be historical fiction — it’s set in post-Roman Britain, with an elderly Briton couple, Axl and Beatrice, who are going on a journey and along the way stop at a Saxon village. But it quickly becomes apparent this novel is more fantasy or fairy-tale than historical fiction. There are ogres and pixies as well as Britons and Saxons in the land; there’s a sleeping dragon; there are characters who still vividly remember King Arthur. 

Stranger than any of these is what Axl and Beatrice refer to as “the mist”: a mysterious forgetfulness that afflicts not just the two of them, but everyone in their village and most of the people they encounter along the way. It’s as though everyone in this world has a touch of amnesia: nobody can remember their own past clearly, and events from even earlier the same day become hazy and hard to grasp as soon as they’re over. Axl and Beatrice are trying to find their son, whom they barely remember — and of course, they can’t clearly remember how to find him or where he is now, either.

It seems obvious not only that this strange forgetfulness must have a magical cause and a magical cure (it does), but also that stopping it would be a good thing. Everyone wants to get their memories back, don’t they? Except that as the story unfolds, we begin to question this assumption. Memories are double-edged swords — not just for individuals like Axl and Beatrice, who wonder if their love would be as true if they could recall every quarrel they’ve ever had — but for nations. If we forgot old enemies and what they did to us, could we live at peace? Does memory inevitably lead to strife and revenge? These two threads — the personal and the broader social context — weave throughout the theme of memory as Axl and Beatrice’s quest comes to a poignant end. While this book may not be typical of Ishiguro’s work, here he beautifully integrates history, myth and fantasy to create a memorable meditation on love, loss and memory.

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The Witches of New York, by Ami McKay

witchesWhen I think about witches in history and historical fiction, I think, of course, of the Salem witch trials, and of women of that era in both Europe and the New World accused of witchcraft — often for nothing more sinister than living alone, or having a working knowledge of herbal medicine. Ami McKay’s new novel takes us into witches in a different world — 1890s New York City, where women’s ancient knowledge intersects with the fascination for spiritualism in late 19th-century New York to produce a trio of memorable women, the titular witches of New York.

Adelaide is a medium who passes on messages from the dead; she shares a storefront and living quarters with Eleanor, who practices traditional “witch” knowledge handed down from her mother. Into their lives, in response to a newspaper ad, comes young Beatrice, new to the city and looking for adventure, who turns out to have the abilit to see dead people. Together the three women face prejudice and misunderstanding and try to forge out a tiny space for witches in a rapidly modernizing world. 

I categorized this book both as historical fiction but also as fantasy, since it has elements that I would describe as a sort of urban fantasy — that is, the “witchcraft” elements of the story are real within the world of the story, so inexplicable and mysterious things do occur, and are not explained away rationally. This requires the reader to suspend disbelief, entering into the world of the story’s characters and believing what they believe.

All three women are engaging, well-drawn characters (Adelaide has been previously introduced to us under another name, Moth, as a young girl in McKay’s novel The Virgin Cure). They are survivors, strong and indomitable in world that wants to force women into a more compliant mold. Characters and setting are the strengths of this story — the plot, I thought, stumbled in a few places, perhaps because there are many characters in addition to the three witches and many plot threads, some of which seemed to me to be resolved a little too easily and others left dangling without any resolution at all. In spite of these dropped threads, the overall tapestry of this story was rich and enjoyable.

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Bellman and Black, by Diane Setterfield

bellmanBellman and Black is a haunting (pun intended) little story that reminded me more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane than it did of Setterfield’s own earlier book The Thirteenth Tale (both books I enjoyed, but in quite different ways). Bellman feels almost like a fairy tale: a boy, Will Bellman, throws a stone that kills a bird, and then forgets about it. But the repercussions of that act echo on a paranormal level, and Will’s life, which initially appears to be going so well you could almost call it a charmed life, takes a sinister turn. It takes a little while for the reader (much longer for poor Bellman) to work out what’s going on. When he does begin to realize he’s under a curse, he strikes a Faustian bargain — except that the terms are unclear and he’s not at all sure the encounter ever even happened.

From there, things get stranger.

Bellman and Black is set in Victorian England, and on one level reads like a well-researched piece of period fiction — except for the odd, inexplicable things that keep happening to and around Bellman. The mystery and suspense is low-key and there’s no big, dramatic climax — rather, there’s a thoughtful meditation on what it means to be alive. If you could make a deal with the devil (or whoever) to spare your life or someone else’s — what’s the value of that life? That’s the question that this eerie little novel left me mulling over.

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The Lie Tree, by Frances Hardinge

lietreeThis was an absolutely intriguing book. It’s a YA novel, but more than compelling enough to hold the attention of this adult reader. The Lie Tree is set in Victorian England and told from the perspective of a young girl called Faith Sunderly. Faith’s father, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderly, is a natural scientist, and Faith wants to be a scientist too. She is fascinated by her father’s fossils and specimens, but keenly aware that she lives in a world that doesn’t encourage such interests in a woman. While Faith tries to impress and emulate her brilliant, distant father, her model for how to be a woman is her mother Myrtle, who uses her good looks and charm to cajole favours from men around her, and who tries to mold her daughter into a proper young lady.

When the Sunderly family arrives on the remote island of Vane, where her father has been invited to observe some excavations for new fossils, things take a sinister turn. The novel moves from being simply a well-developed piece of historical fiction to being a murder mystery with a strong thread of fantasy or magic realism. I’ve also seen it described as “horror,” but I didn’t find that it fit that description well. There’s no gore here, but plenty of dread, as Faith discovers and learns to use her father’s most shocking and carefully guarded discovery: the Lie Tree of the title.

What I really loved about this book is that it’s one of the rare times a writer of historical fiction really gets that “strong female character” thing dead right, and you know it’s right. Faith is everything a modern reader wants in a girl character: she’s brilliant, she’s rebellious, she hates the constraints her society places on women. But she also understands and, on some level, buys into those restraints. Hardinge totally avoids the trap of making Faith a twenty-first century girl in a Victorian dress. She is absolutely a real nineteenth-century woman, looking for a way out of the box her society has placed her in — but the reader never doubts for a second that that box is real, as real as Faith’s intelligence and ambition.

This is the kind of story where there are many twists and turns at the end; situations and people will not turn out to be what we thought they were. Most importantly, Faith’s view of the women in her world, including her mother, shifts as she comes to understand them better and see in a new light what is (and is not) possible for a woman.

My dearest hope for Faith is that she grows up to be Alma from Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things (but with a less tragic love story, if she has to have one at all). There were, of course, Victorian women who managed to carve out a place for themselves in the world of science despite all the odds stacked against them, and once you’ve seen Faith Sunderly solve the mystery that engulfs her family on Vane, you can believe she will have the grit and tenacity to be one of those women.

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