Lorina Stephens’ short fiction has appeared in On Spec, Neo-Opsis, Polar Borealis, Pulp Literature, Postscripts to Darkness, Strangers Among Us, Stories of the Deluge, and Sword & Sorceress X. She has three novels, two collections of short stories, and two non-fiction books in publication. For 12 years she operated Five Rivers Publishing as a house which gave voice to Canadian authors. Her reviews appear on her blog and elsewhere. We will be presenting Lorina’s reviews of contemporary Canadian F&SF works.
For details of how Lorina rates literary works, you can find an explanation here: https://fiveriverspublishing.com/2022/01/25/an-explanation-regarding-my-reviews/
OCTOBER 31, 2023
FLOWER AND THORN
Flower and Thorn
Release: October 17, 2023
Publisher: Wednesday Books
You know how you feel after a really good meal? That feeling of satisfaction? Everything was perfect, or near to. Yeah, that’s how I felt after reading Rati Mehrotra’s new YA novel, Flower and Thorn.
Now in order to understand the depth of that reaction, it’s also important to know I’m a really hard-to-please reader. I’m forever questioning research, analyzing character, world and plot development. In other words, I find it hard to shut off the editor. Mehrotra silenced that editor almost from the outset.
So, what is Flower and Thorn about? The marketing blurb runs thus:
A young flower hunter gets embroiled in the succession politics of the Sultanate when she must retrieve the rarest and most powerful magical flower after giving it to the wrong hands.
Irinya has wanted to be a flower hunter ever since her mother disappeared into the mysterious mist of the Rann salt flats one night. Now seventeen, Irinya uses her knowledge of magical flowers to help her caravan survive in the harsh desert. When her handsome hunting partner and childhood friend finds a priceless silver spider lily―said to be able to tear down kingdoms and defeat entire armies―Irinya knows this is their chance for a better life.
Until Irinya is tricked by an attractive impostor.
Irinya’s fight to recover the priceless flower and fix what she’s done takes her on a dangerous journey, one she’s not sure she’ll survive. She has no choice but to endure it if she hopes to return home and mend the broken heart of the boy she’s left behind.
I do have to say that marketing blurb would not have won me over. The novel sounds more like a YA romance, and I feel about romance of any kind the way I feel about skydiving. A big hard no.
But while Mehrotra does unfold a romance, it’s really a backstory to the very compelling political and economic narrative she creates in a credible India under Portuguese conquest and control during the 16th century. The environmental descriptions are deftly entwined in character viewpoint, and the characters developed so vividly they are real and whisper in your waking moments to return to their world and walk their journey. Woven into that very rich history and environment, Mehrotra drops in rare, magical flowers which can only be found in the salt marsh/desert of the Rann, an area of 26,000 kilometres in the Gujarati region of northwest India.
And as with so many human stories, the flower-hunters of the Rann are essentially indentured slaves to the wholesalers who have a monopoly on their trade, wholesalers who reap all the profits. I was very much minded of the 18th century fishing outports of Newfoundland.
There is also Mehrotra’s handling of magic, in that it’s not easy, and it is rare. Everything has a cost. That appeals to me personally, because the caveats and difficulties around magic render the story more compelling. If you have to work hard for something, and then once you have it you’re aware this thing may cost your life, or the life or well-being of someone you love, that literary device then adds another layer of crisis to the plot and world-building. It creates a tension that’s strung to a high pitch throughout the story and keeps you reading.
As to Mehrotra’s writing style, it’s very approachable, very much in the voice of a storyteller, with evocative description, tight character point of view, and great tension. There is no exposition in her work. Every phrase, every paragraph fits together in a very skillfully-crafted package.
All things considered, I’d have to say Mehrotra’s Flower and Thorn is an excellent, escapist read, not unlike Naomi Novik’s many immersive stories. Rati Mehrotra has won me over. I’ll be looking for more of her work.
OCTOBER 15, 2023
Release: September 25, 2023
The promotional blurb for Jason Pchajek’s new cybercrime novel reads: Nikos Wulf is at the top of his game. Within the sublevels of 2120 Winnipeg, he is the undisputed king of bounty hunters, working for the elite Bounty Commission Eco-Terror Taskforce. The job: maintain the delicate ecological balance in a city holding back climate collapse. But when a series of bounties go wrong, Nikos finds himself on the trail of a troubling new player among the city’s anti-establishment. Bound to a sense of duty to the city that made him, Nikos finds himself in a deadly game of catch-up with an insidious enemy bent on bringing down everything he’s fought so hard to protect.
I have to state unequivocally that had I been browsing for my next read, this is not the sort of novel I would have chosen. To say I have an antipathy toward anything cyberpunk, crime story, or hard-baked drama would be an understatement. That’s why my reaction to Pchajek’s debut novel is startling, because I actually found myself entertained.
First some background on Jason Pchajek. He’s a Manitoban with a Master’s in Sociology from the University of Manitoba, deeply interested in climate, biotechnology, human enhancement, inequality, and the future of humans. He’s also a journalist, radio host, hockey announcer, and corporate researcher. Knowing that, it became clear to me how that experience informed and gave credibility to much of what he presents in this action-packed, Clancy meets Gibson novel.
From the first pages Pchajek creates a real and believable character in Nikos Wulf, a bounty hunter who works in the new version of Winnipeg which not only rises in skyscrapers but delves deeply beneath the tremendous rivers of this remarkable city. If I’m honest, I couldn’t help but think of a version of Thomas Jane’s engaging performance as Josephus Miller in The Expanse, a character I was deeply fascinated by and fond of.
Pchajek’s ability as a writer doesn’t stop with excellent characterization; he has an innate understanding of how to build believable and credible worlds geographically, materially, and sociologically. His is an immersive experience.
Once introduced to Nikos Wulf’s world and occupation, the story charges ahead at a brisk pace, rarely dull, always understandable. The writing is crisp, efficient, as suits the subject.
My only criticism, and this is entirely personal esthetic, is that as the major knock-‘em-down scenes unfolded, the atmosphere and characters took on an almost Marvel Cinematic Universe feeling with cloaked superhero bounty hunters in Bobbie Draper MMC special forces armour. I do, however, know many of my colleagues would twitch with glee reading Pchajek’s novel. And that is as it should be.
Oh, and Jason, yeah, about that antipathy of mine: well done, sir. You absolutely shut down that critical, elitist reader I tend to be and took me on a very entertaining journey. Thanks.
SEPTEMBER 28, 2023
A Dream Wants Waking
Release: October 3, 2023
Publisher: Wolsak & Wynn
A Dream Wants Waking is a speculative fiction novel set in the ancient city of Luoyang, China, ostensibly in the year 2219 CE. This is a complicated story, with a considerable cast of characters, and a mythology woven around genetic AI beings and modifications. There’s a lot going on here. You’d better stay sharp when reading. This isn’t a story written for bedtime somnolence.
The overarching narrative revolves around a chimeric fox/human spirit Yinhe, who time-jumps through eras to find her lost soulmate. Sounds relatively simple, but as I stated earlier, this is a complicated story. Kwa tosses around concepts and timelines like a cook gone berserk with seasonings, with the result being an overloaded dish of unidentifiable flavours. There are so many names, so many time-jumps, I felt very much as though I needed to create an Excel spreadsheet in order to keep things straight, and I like to think I’m a fairly sharp individual, capable of complicated analysis. Apparently not. Kwa lost me fairly quickly, to the point I had to keep skipping back several pages in order to again pick up the thread of the story.
I think part of that problem is not only the complexity of the plot, and the bombardment of character names and places, but of the lack of character development and world building. At this point, I still have no clear idea regarding Yinhe’s character, other than they’re utterly driven to find their lost love. None of the nuances of character traits, of internal thinking, of reaction are present. It’s all very expository.
The same holds true for the environment through which Yinhe travels. There’s no sense of weather, or quality of light, of smells and sounds, and what scant environmental detail is provided is clinical, stark, and, again, very expository so that there’s no sense of character involved in environment. It’s just all very pantomime, cardboard figures manipulated across a shadowy curtain.
Even the creatures of the whale-brain-become-AI, and the demon that slides in and out of possessions are, well, vague, insubstantial, a bit predictable.
So, this leaves me wondering why it is authors Larissa Lai (The Tiger Flu), and Jenny Heijun Wills (Older Sister, Not Necessarily Related: A Memoir) used phrases like: This is a fantasy that remembers with a purpose, and …a masterpiece of knowledge, dream and imagination. In fact, CBC listed Kwa’s novel among 74 works of fiction to read for fall 2023.
What am I missing? I keep feeling like I’ve had a Michelin Star chef’s presentation of a fragrance bubble as an amuse-bouche, and my palate is more attuned to antipasto, which then leads me to Kwa’s phraseology, which is, well, as insubstantial and ephemeral as that fragrance bubble. There is no elegant sentence structure, a lack of metaphor and literary device. It’s all rather stark writing until the last phrase, which is stunning in its beauty and simplicity.
And maybe that was the whole point of this difficult, complicated, sensory-deprived novel: that beauty lies in the destination, rather than the journey, and that concept, for me, is arresting and contrary to everything I know.
Despite my own antipathy to Kwa’s latest novel, I think you should read it for yourself. Art is subjective, and what one person praises, another disdains.
My rating: 2 of 5 stars.