Tag Archives: Historical

Safe Haven: A Review of Everfair

Book cover for Everfair by Nisi Shawl. Image on cover is of a pair of hands holding a globe that's illuminated by gold light and surrounded by flying birds. Title: Everfair

Author: Nisi Shawl

Publisher: Tor Books

Publication Date: 2016

Genres: Fantasy, Alternate History, Steampunk

Length: 384 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 3 stars

Blurb:

From noted short story writer Nisi Shawl comes a brilliant alternate-history novel set in the Belgian Congo.

What if the African natives developed steam power ahead of their colonial oppressors? What might have come of Belgium’s disastrous colonization of the Congo if the native populations had learned about steam technology a bit earlier?

Fabian Socialists from Great Britain join forces with African-American missionaries to purchase land from the Belgian Congo’s “owner,” King Leopold II. This land, named Everfair, is set aside as a safe haven, an imaginary Utopia for native populations of the Congo as well as escaped slaves returning from America and other places where African natives were being mistreated.

Shawl’s speculative masterpiece manages to turn one of the worst human rights disasters on record into a marvelous and exciting exploration of the possibilities inherent in a turn of history. Everfair is told from a multiplicity of voices: Africans, Europeans, East Asians, and African Americans in complex relationships with one another, in a compelling range of voices that have historically been silenced. Everfair is not only a beautiful book but an educational and inspiring one that will give the reader new insight into an often ignored period of history.

Review:

Content warning: Racism and sexism. I will not be discussing these things in my review.

Strap in for a wild ride.This book has a bit of everything!

Ms. Shawl did a very good job of explaining the political and historical landscape of the setting. I didn’t know a lot about how Belgium colonization of the Congo went so horribly wrong in our world, so I was grateful for all of the details the author provided about why Belgium made that decision and how they expected to make it work before she imaged how things could have turned out much differently for the Congo if they’d already had steam technology when this conflict boiled over.

The cast of characters was massive. Rather than telling this tale from the perspective of one or even a few different people, there were dozens of narrators and other protagonists to sort out as I read. Given the fact that each chapter was written in a form that was pretty similar to a short story and that previous characters often weren’t revisited until many years after their previous entry, I had lots of trouble keeping up with everyone and the plot at the same time. This felt like something that really should have been separated out into several novels or many more novellas. There was so much going on in the plot that nobody got all of the attention they deserved.

There was a list of characters, their relationships to each other, and approximately when and where they lived included before the story began. I was glad to have this information and would highly recommend taking a look at it before beginning the first chapter. As I mentioned earlier in this review, the cast of characters is humongous. Having a basic idea of everyone’s identity and when they lived is crucial in order to understanding the plot, and this list did help with that even though I still believe the plot would have been better served if it were divided into a series and no more than three or four narrators were included in each instalment.

Anyone who loves alternate history speculative fiction should check this book out.

Unexpected Love: A Review of The Shape of Water

Film poster for The Shape of Water. It shows the two main characters embracing.Content warning: racism, sexism, a few brief scenes involving blood, death of a pet, and sexual harassment. I will only mention the first three items in this list in my review.

The Shape of Water is a dark fantasy romance about a lonely janitor who falls in love with an amphibious humanoid creature who is being held in captivity by the U.S. government. It is set in 1962 in an undisclosed government facility.

This film was directed by Guillermo del Toro and written by del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. It won four Academy Awards, including Best Picture, as well as other honours at the Golden Globes, British Film Academy Awards, and the Critic’s Choice Awards.

The tags for this post do contain mild spoilers. I will not be discussing them in detail today but wanted to label this correctly for future readers.

Characters

Sally Hawkins as Elisa Eposito
Sally Hawkins as Elisa Eposito

 

Elisa was a mute woman who worked as a cleaner at a secret underground government facility. Her dear friend and chosen family member Giles described her as “the princess without voice.” She has a whimsical personality that found joy in little things like dancing down the hall or gently interacting with everyone she met.

While I can’t go into her backstory without sharing spoilers, I will say that she was someone who was quite alone in the world. She had no genetic relatives to rely upon.

 

Doug Jones as Amphibian Man
Doug Jones as Amphibian Man

 

The Amphibian Man could not speak, but he was intelligent. Very little was shared about his background in this film other than the fact that he was the first of his kind discovered by humans.

 

Richard Jenkins as Giles

 

As mentioned above, Giles was Elisa’s dear neighbor and friend. He’d worked as an adverting illustrator for many years but was struggling to find work as his industry switched from painting to photographs for the imagery in ads.

He was a kind, gentle, creative man who could be a little absent-minded when it came to looking after basic needs like fixing himself dinner. Like Elise, he was quite alone in the world for reasons I’ll leave to future viewers to discover for themselves.

Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller 
Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller

 

Zelda was Elisa’s co-worker and friend who served as her sign language interpreter at work. Her personality was assertive and opinionated, the opposite of how Elisa generally behaved.

 

Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland
Michael Shannon as Richard Strickland

 

Richard was a United States Colonel in charge of the project to study the “asset,” as they referred to the Amphibian Man. He followed protocol strictly and was obsessed with getting the results his bosses expected.

Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler
Michael Stuhlbarg as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler

 

Dr. Hoffstetler was the physician who was given the responsibility of figuring out the physiology of the Amphibian Man’s body. The U.S. government hoped to learn how to create astronauts who could better adapt to the rigours of space exploration by learning how this creature was capable of breathing both air and water.

 

David Hewlett as Fleming 
David Hewlett as Fleming

 

Fleming was the laboratory’s head of security. He was a rigid, unfriendly man who expected perfection from himself and everyone around him.

My Review

Prepare yourselves for some gushing. This was such a good story.

There was an immensely satisfying amount of foreshadowing. I’d imagine that anyone who is familiar with the romance or science fiction genres could spot the biggest plot twists coming ahead of time. This wasn’t the sort of film that relied on the audience not knowing what to expect next. It was how the characters reacted to them that was important, and this was something the filmmakers showed beautifully.

The cinematography was beautiful. I was immediately drawn into the plot thanks to how much effort was put into constructing this era. It was also interesting to watch shots that had important things happening in both the foreground and background.  They added so many layers of meaning to the storyline.

Octavia Spencer and Sally Hawkins in The Shape of Water.

I did find myself wishing that the racism, sexism, and other types of discrimination in this era was presented in a more nuanced manner. In my experiences with sexism and biphobia, a lot of it can be subtle depending on who is around and what prejudiced folks think they can get away with. People can convey so much with body language and the words they do (or don’t) use that I was surprised by how blatant everything was here.

Perhaps things were radically different in 1962 in this regard. I wasn’t alive then and will defer to people who may say this portrayal is more accurate than I originally thought it was. But I still would have liked to see these topics handled a little more sensitively. (I will also defer to other reviewers to discuss their personal experiences with racism and ableism as it relates to this point).

With that being said, I still really liked seeing how these various types of prejudice were not only expressed but intersected with each other and this is my only criticism of a film I otherwise loved. The storytellers did a good job of showing how someone might be advantaged in one area (e.g. race, social class, or gender) while still oppressed in others (e.g. disability or sexual orientation).

The numerous references to water in this film were well done. They included everything from bathing to hard-boiling eggs, and they were just the tip of the iceberg. One of the things I enjoyed the most as I was watching it was to take note of all of the aquatic-themed moments that needed a little more effort to take notice of. It was satisfying to add them to my list of these references and try to guess where the storytellers would subtly introduce the next one.

This isn’t a criticism in any way, but I did want to make note of the disclaimer about blood in this tale. There were a few scenes that included characters who were bleeding from non-accidental injuries. While the violence that caused these injuries was briefly shown on screen, I always like to warn my readers ahead of time about stuff like this. I’d be happy to discuss it in full, spoiler-y detail in private with anyone who needs to figure out if this is the right thing for them to watch.

I’d heartily recommendThe Shape of Water to anyone who enjoys the romance or speculative fiction genres.

The Shape of Water is available on Netflix and Apple TV.

Endless Memories: A Review of The Deep

Book cover for The Deep by Rivers Solomon. Image on cover is of a mermaid swimming past a whale.

Title: The Deep

Author: Rivers Solomon

Publisher: Saga Press

Publication Date: 2019

Genres: Science Fiction, Afrofuturism, Contemporary, Historical

Length: 175 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library.

Rating: 4 Stars

Yetu holds the memories for her people—water-dwelling descendants of pregnant African slave women thrown overboard by slave owners—who live idyllic lives in the deep. Their past, too traumatic to be remembered regularly, is forgotten by everyone, save one—the historian. This demanding role has been bestowed on Yetu.

Yetu remembers for everyone, and the memories, painful and wonderful, traumatic and terrible and miraculous, are destroying her. And so, she flees to the surface, escaping the memories, the expectations, and the responsibilities—and discovers a world her people left behind long ago.

Yetu will learn more than she ever expected to about her own past—and about the future of her people. If they are all to survive, they’ll need to reclaim the memories, reclaim their identity—and own who they really are.

Inspired by a song produced by the rap group Clipping for the This American Life episode “We Are In The Future,” The Deep is vividly original and uniquely affecting.

Content warning: Death of a parent and death of a child. I will not be discussing these things in my review. The quotes below were taken from the book.

Some types of pain echo through many generations.

Yetu was an amazing protagonist. Her struggles with acting as the Historian for her community made perfect sense. That burden had been placed on her shoulders at a tender age, and it honestly wasn’t something she was prepared to handle. While I can’t go any further into her backstory without giving away spoilers, I appreciated all of the work that had clearly been put into describing her personality, why she was given this role, and how it affected her both mentally and physically.

“Living without detailed long-term memories allowed for spontaneity and lack of regret, but after a certain amount of time had passed, they needed more.”

One of the things that I wish the blurb had made clearer was how the Wanjinru processed memories, especially since the plot wasn’t shared in a chronological order. Their minds didn’t work exactly the same as a human mind does for reasons that I’ll leave for future readers to discover, so Yetu often needed to repeat things to the audience as she remembered them again or thought of a detail she hadn’t included before. I liked this device a lot, but it wasn’t something I was expecting when I started reading.

The character development was quite well done. This was even more impressive given how Yetu’s memory worked. It’s definitely not easy to show someone growing and changing when they forget certain details over time, but the author pulled it off beautifully.

“We are not Wanjiru if being Wanjiru means distancing ourselves from pain.”

I do wish this book had been longer so that more time could have been spent on the world-building. Yetu both experienced and remembered some amazing events, but she needed to spend so much time repeating certain memories and making sure they were told in the right order that she simply didn’t have as much time as she needed in order to explain those events the way I wish they’d been shared with the audience. Another 50-100 pages of writing would have given me the clues I needed.

“Forgetting was not the same as healing.”

This is also something that could easily be fixed with a sequel if the author ever decides to revisit all of the incredible characters she created here. My fingers are crossed that this might happen one day.

With that being said, the ending couldn’t have been written more beautifully. I adored the way all of the important loose ends of the storyline were tied together while still leaving room for either a sequel or lots of fodder for the the imaginations of everyone who reads it. 

I’ve decided to end this review with a link to the song referenced in the blurb. Comparing its version of events with what happened in the book was fascinating, especially since the song came first!  It does contain spoilers, so keep that in mind while deciding when to listen to it if you’re like me and prefer to avoid spoilers.

 

The Deep by Clipping

Haunting Secrets: A Review of The Lost Ones

Book Cover for The Lost Ones by Anita Frank. Cover shows white outline of woman at top of staircase. There is a large picture window behind her and stylized leaves decorating the rest of the cover.

Title: The Lost Ones

Author: Anita Frank

Publisher: HQ (Harper Collins)

Publication Date: 2019

Genres: Fantasy, Mystery, Gothic, Horror, Paranormal, Historical

Length: 400 pages

Source: I borrowed it from the library

Rating: 3.5 Stars

Blurb:

Some houses are never at peace.

England, 1917
 
Reeling from the death of her fiancé, Stella Marcham welcomes the opportunity to stay with her pregnant sister, Madeleine, at her imposing country mansion, Greyswick – but she arrives to discover a house of unease and her sister gripped by fear and suspicion.

Before long, strange incidents begin to trouble Stella – sobbing in the night, little footsteps on the stairs – and as events escalate, she finds herself drawn to the tragic history of the house.

Aided by a wounded war veteran, Stella sets about uncovering Greyswick’s dark and terrible secrets – secrets the dead whisper from the other side…

In the classic tradition of The Woman in Black, Anita Frank weaves a spell-binding debut of family tragedy, loss and redemption.

 

Review:

Content warning: Death of a child. 

Some secrets refuse to stay hidden.

As the blurb and the content warning mentioned, one of the subplots of this tale involved what happened to a house in the years following the sudden death of a child there. That child’s identity and reason for death were things that were revealed much later on in the plot, so I won’t go into any detail about them here. What I will say is that this tale spent a great deal of time exploring how grief not only changes over time but can stick with someone long after their loss. The family who experienced this loss weren’t the only ones who were grieving. I loved seeing how the other subplots involving grief were interwoven with this one. Not all of them were quite as dramatic, but they worked together beautifully.

What made me give this book a 3.5 star rating was the behaviour of the characters, especially Stella. She’d been intelligent enough to qualify as a nurse in World War I, and yet she continually made choices that I struggled to understand even while knowing that she’d suffered a terribly tragedy while abroad. Her lack of common sense astounded me at times, especially when it came to how she responded to phenomena that had no rational explanation. The occasional lapse of judgement is totally understandable, but there were times when I found it hard to take the plot seriously because of how often she rushed into dangerous situations without thinking things through first. This was a flaw that was repeated with some of the other characters as well, including ones that had lived at Greyswick long enough to that there was something dangerous lurking there.

The treatment of the female characters was handled nicely. We’re still a long ways off from ending sexism, but it was much more insidious in 1917. Women from every social class dealt with it, and there were very few laws to protect them from harmful stereotypes about what they were capable of and how they should be treated if they stepped outside of a narrow range of acceptable behaviours. This isn’t something that a lot of gothic novels address, so I was pleased to see it get so much attention here even though I also cringed at the way women’s hormonal states or “feeble” minds were used as an excuse to avoid getting to the bottom of what was causing so much havoc at Greyswick. It was historically accurate, though!

Despite these issues, The Lost Ones was a deliciously chilling read that I’d recommend to anyone who loves Gothic literature or haunted houses and doesn’t mind suspending their disbelief for a while.

Sleeping Beauty Retold: A Review of The Spellbound Spindle

Book cover for Joy V. Spicer's The Spell Bound Spindle. The imagery on the cover is of a rose bush growing around the title and author name. Title: The Spellbound Spindle

Author: Joy V. Spicer

Publisher: Self-Published

Publication Date: 2018

Genres: Fantasy, Fairy Tale, Retelling, Historical

Length: 345 pages

Source: I received a free copy from the author.

Rating: 4.5 Stars

Blurb:

A misguided elf curses a baby to die on her sixteenth birthday.
Gem elves alter the curse to one of sleep.

But, to break the curse, the elf must die.

Princess Lilyrose seems to have it all, a family who loves her and a betrothed who is also her trusted friend. As the passing years bring the fated birthday closer, as she secretly struggles not to give in to her fear of the curse, she’s determined to live a full life.

She learns to fight. She dares to love. She discovers her true heritage. But when she learns her betrothed’s life is also in danger, she knows she must face the elf and her dark magic to break the curse.

Review:

Some legends deserve to be revisited over and over again. This is one of them.

Sleeping Beauty was one of my all-time favourite fairy tales when I was a child, so I was excited to see how Ms. Spicer reinterpreted it. She found so many interesting takes on these familiar plot twists, from why anyone would want to harm Sleeping Beauty to what happened when a spell didn’t exactly turn out the way the magical being who cast it was expecting it to.

There were a few parts of the world building that I did wish had been explored in more detail. For example, the beginning showed how and why a few young characters were welcomed into families who knew nothing about their true origins. This included a child who was adopted by a royal family and chosen as their heir! I can think of so few examples of this happening in the fantasy genre that I did find myself wishing the narrator had spent more time explaining why this rule was changed. Was there something special about that society that made them unconcerned with where heirs came from? Were most people simply unaware that this child was adopted? Since this sort of thing was a pattern, I thought I should mention it in my review. While I loved the plot in general, a few small tweaks to the world building to explain stuff like this would have catapulted it into a five-star review in my opinion.

One of my favourite parts of the storyline had to do with how well-developed the antagonists were. Yes, they did awful things, but the reasons for those decisions were explained so clearly that I understood them even as I wished they would have made better choices. I’m not generally the sort of reader who sympathizes with villains, so it was a delightful surprise to realize just how much I liked them despite the terrible things they were responsible for. There are many tales out there about protagonists who feel real. While this book had plenty of examples of that as well, it was its treatment of the characters we’re not supposed to root for that was one of my biggest reasons for giving it such a high rating.

Be sure to pay close attention to the characters as they’re introduced. There were a lot of them in this book, and many of them popped up one after another in the first few scenes. Everything you need to know about them and how they’re connected to the other characters is explained if you read thoughtfully. I actually ended up jotting down notes about who everyone was and, in certain cases, what other names they went by. That list was amazingly helpful later on, and I’d recommend doing it for anyone else who wants to stay organized while they read.

Anyone who loves fairy tales or retellings of fairy tales should checkThe Spellbound Spindle out.

A  True Selfless Act Always Sparks Another: A Review of Klaus

Last year I blogged about my to-watch list of science fiction and fantasy films. Since then, I’ve been periodically reviewing science fiction, fantasy, and other speculative fiction films. Previous instalments in this series include Into the Forest, Annihilation, Coco, Winchester, The Little Stranger, Astraea, The House with a Clock in Its Walls, A Dog’s Purpose, and Jurassic… Read More

Glimpses of Horror: A Review of Regretfully Invited

Title: Regretfully Invited: 13 Short Horror Stories Author: Jan L. Mayes Publisher: Self-Published Publication Date: 2018 Genres: Science Fiction, Horror, Paranormal, Historical, Contemporary Length: 86 pages Source: I received a free copy from Jan. Rating: 3.5 Stars Blurb: Find out the answer to this question and more with this 13 story bundle of creepy, horror… Read More

Once Upon a Time: A Review of The Raven and Other Tales

  Title: The Raven and Other Tales Author: Joy V. Spicer Publisher: Self-Published Publication Date: 2019 Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal, Historical Length: 132 pages Source: I received a free copy from Joy Rating: 4 Stars Blurb: A raven appears on a cold winter’s night. An old woman helps a stranger find his way home. A young… Read More

What It Means to be Human: A Review of Let’s Play White

A few months ago, Apex Publications invited me to be part of their Back Catalogue Blog Tour. I chose to write a book review for Chesya Burke’s Let’s Play White as my contribution to it. Other participants will be sharing author interviews and guest posts throughout this month, so click the link above to check… Read More

What to Read If You Liked The Clan of the Cave Bear

I’ve decided to start another series on this blog. Just like with the interviews with people who love speculative fiction that I’ll begin publishing here next week, Hopeful Science Fiction, film reviews, Questions from the Search Engines, and Blogging Advice, this series won’t be updated on a specific schedule. Once I’ve come up with several similar titles to… Read More