Magical Spins on the Past: New Books by Dennis Mahoney and Natasha Pulley

bwOriginally published in Bookpage.

No matter how strange or outlandish, most fantasy novels take place in a world similar to our own with a few meaningful changes. Sometimes the changes are drastic, as in Dennis Mahoney’s (Fellow Mortals) second novel Bell Weather. And sometimes they’re relatively slight, like Natasha Pulley’s debut The Watchmaker of Filigree Street.

In Bell Weather, Dennis Mahoney reimagines the colonial era of the 1700s, when European empires fought over the Americas. Except in his story, the Old World is Heraldia and the New World is Floria. While the geography and historical milieu are familiar, the main departure from reality is in the wmdetails of the natural world.

The rustic town of Root in the colonies of Floria is home to a variety of miraculous flora, fauna and (as the book’s title implies) meteorological phenomena. Ember gourds burst into flame after ripening, winterbears hibernate in summer and stalker weeds roam the forest looking for defenseless plants. Cathedrals and mansions are built from pale lunarite rock, seasons change in a matter of hours, and sudden “colorwashes” transform the landscape.

In the New World colonies, tavern owner Tom Orange rescues a mysterious woman from drowning. Her name is Molly Bell, daughter of one of the most powerful men in Floria. As a group of bandits known as the Maimers terrorize the countryside, stealing whatever part of their victims’ bodies they deem most valuable, Tom must help Molly escape the inevitable fallout from her past.

Mahoney’s prose is lyrical and well honed, and his characters are engaging, but it’s the magical realism of the wilderness that makes this world so memorable and fascinating.

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, on the other hand, takes place in a very recognizable Victorian-era London—with a few steampunk and supernatural flourishes. In 1883, a bookish Whitehall telegraph cleric named Thaniel Steepleton comes home to find someone has broken into his flat. Instead of stealing valuables, they’ve left him a mysterious gold pocket watch that winds up saving his life after a bomb is planted by Irish terrorists at Scotland Yard. Thaniel’s search for the watch’s creator leads him to one of the most interesting fictional characters in recent memory, Keita Mori.

Mori is a Japanese watchmaker who is part inventor, part mystic—he combines the deductive brilliance of Sherlock Holmes with the clairvoyance of Dr. Manhattan. Thanks to his ability to see potential futures, Mori has altered the course of history several times. Among his many inventions is a sentient, clockwork octopus, which is quite possibly the highlight of the novel. Together with Oxford scientist Grace Carrow, Thaniel tries to solve the mystery of the terrorist bombings. Could they be one of Mori’s attempts to alter the future?

Natasha Pulley’s debut is a clever detective story, a thrilling steampunk adventure and a poignant examination of the consequences of class warfare and English, Irish and Japanese nationalism in the 19th century.

FICTION: FANTASY, HISTORICAL

Bell Weather by Dennis Mahoney (Henry Holt)

The Watchmaker of Filigree Street by Natasha Pulley (Bloomsbury) 

A Dry Future: THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi

3Originally published at Bookpage.

No book will ever make you thirstier than The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi’s (The Windup Girl) action-packed return to hard science fiction, in which the American Southwest is ravaged by drought.

In the not-too-distant future, climate change has turned the Colorado River Basin into a dust bowl. California, Nevada and Arizona wage hot and cold war over aquifers, dams and water rights. The wealthiest 1 percent live in lush, self-sustaining “arcologies” (architecture + ecology), while the cities and suburbs of old are riddled with crime and desperation.

California has the upper hand thanks to foreign water corporations, and Arizona is a militarized backwater. But the most powerful woman in Las Vegas—Catherine Case—has a secret weapon named Angel Velasquez. He’s one of her “water knives,” soldiers trained to secure fresh water resources by any means necessary.

“Angel wondered what the river looked like back when it still ran free and fast…Children down in the Cartel States grew up and died thinking that the Colorado River was as much a myth as the chupacabra that Angel’s old abuela had told him about. Hell, most of Utah and Colorado weren’t allowed to touch the water…”

Angel is sent to investigate a potentially game-changing source of water in the most unlikely of places: Phoenix. There, his fate becomes entwined with those of a determined journalist and a teenage refugee from Texas. Together, they follow the trail of a near-mythical artifact that could shift the balance of power in the war for water.

Bacigalupi’s nightmarish vision of a dystopian America ruined by greed, bureaucracy and environmental disaster is both horrifying and prescient. It takes a few chapters to gather momentum and orient the reader, but once the story finds its stride, the pages turn themselves. The Water Knife is a thoughtful, frightening, all-too-likely vision of the future.

FICTION: SCIENCE FICTION, THRILLER

The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi (Knopf)

The Unsolvable Ripper: New Books by Alex Grecian and Stephen Hunter

5Originally published at Bookpage.

More than 100 years have passed since the Autumn of the Knife, when the serial killer known as Jack the Ripper terrorized the streets of London. Amy Carol Reeves, author of the YA Ripper trilogy, says, “writers and readers are drawn to this story because it’s a case that will never be solved,” leaving plenty of space for imagination. Such is the case with two new Ripper-themed books by celebrated historical crime novelists Stephen Hunter and Alex Grecian, out today, May 19, 2015.

Both, of course, begin with blood. Stephen Hunter’s brisk, gory epistolary novel, I, RIPPER, combines the memoirs of an ambitious j6ournalist with the Ripper’s secret diary. The journalist, an Irishman who goes by “Jeb” to protect his identity, warns readers straight away:

“Make peace now with descriptions of a horrific nature or pass elsewhere. If you persevere, I promise you shall know all that is to be known about Jack. Who he was, how he selected, operated, and escaped. . . . Finally, I shall illuminate the most mysterious element of the entire affair, that of motive.”

Hunter’s version of Jack the Ripper is a cold, verbose intellectual. Beginning with the first canonical Ripper murder of Mary Ann Nichols in 1888, it’s a well-researched retelling of history full of surprising revelations. Hunter’s 19th-century London is full of striking and authentic period details—including racism, class warfare and the treatment of Jews in Victorian England—but women are relegated to the alcoholic prostitutes at the other end of a knife. “I needed to puncture her more,” the Ripper says. “Why? God in heaven knows.”

In Alex Grecian’s fourth Scotland Yard Murder Club book, THE HARVEST MAN, the Ripper returns to London after last wreaking havoc in The Devil’s Workshop. But in this installment, Jack plays second fiddle to a villain even more horrifying: the Harvest Man, who wears a medieval plague mask and slices the faces off his victims, continuously mistaking them for his parents.

“He stared intently at the mother and father, tried to gauge the shapes of their skulls beneath the masks they wore. . . . Those were features they couldn’t hope to hide from him. He had chosen the right people this time, his own parents, spotted among the teeming masses. He was nearly sure of it.”

The Murder Club regulars are back: Detective Inspector Walter Day, his old partner Sergeant Nevil Hammersmith, the forensic pathologist Dr. Bernard Kingsley and even their favorite criminal informant, Blackleg. More pulpy and hardboiled than I, RIPPER, Grecian’s newest trades Hunter’s intricate prose for snappy dialogue in another gripping Victorian team-up. Where Hunter excels at a carefully constructed, suspense-driven plot with clear ties to history, Grecian supplies a strong cast of beloved characters and great one-liners. Although, for the record, Hunter packs a few jokes in, too (“‘Can I say ‘belly?’’’ I asked. ‘It seems rather graphic.’”).

Unfortunately, female characters in both books are largely either victims or hero’s wives. “A surface reading of the case shows only Jack the Ripper, the all-male Scotland Yard investigators, and the female victims,” says Reeves. “But we have so many cases of extraordinary women like Aphra Behn who are under-recognized in history.” Regardless, both I, RIPPER and THE HARVEST MAN are frightening, well paced, effortless reads.

FICTION: MYSTERY, THRILLER

I, Ripper by Stephen Hunter (Simon & Schuster)

The Harvest Man by Alex Grecian (G.P. Putnam’s Sons) 

Where to Visit “Uru: Ages Beyond Myst” in Real Life

Previously, I’ve tried to find the closest real-life approximations to the ages of MYST and the islands of RIVEN. Continuing that trend, here are your best options for visiting the first ages of URU: AGES BEYOND MYST (later known as Myst Online), the 6 worlds available when the game went live in 2003: the Cleft, Gahreesen, Eder Gira, Eder Kemo, Kadish Tolesa, and Teledahn.

Black_Volcano

The Cleft: Black Volcano, New Mexico

There may not be a fissure, or an airstream trailer, or an entrance to D’ni at this long-inactive volcano near Albuquerque, but it sure does feel like Atrus’s first home.


Zhangjiajie-Hunan

Gahreesen: Wulingyuan, China

These towering karst formations in Hunan Province are laced with rivers and waterfalls, just like the age of the Maintainers.


New_havasu_falls

Eder Gira: Havasu Falls, Arizona

There’s even a rock shelter behind the falls. Thankfully, you don’t have to kick any fish traps around to access it.


cenote

Eder Kemo: Ik Kil Cenote, Yucatán, Mexico

One of many cenotes near Chichen Itza, Ik Kil is open for swimming (no linking books, though).


Sequoias

Kadish Tolesa: Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Visit Sequoia National Park for that same dwarfed-by-trees sensation you get in Kadish, minus the constant threat of walking off a cliff or getting stuck in a pyramid.


Mushrooms

Teledahn: Kew Gardens, London, United Kingdom

Sadly, there are no real-life mushrooms as enormous as Teledahn’s, but the mushroom sculptures at London’s Kew Gardens are a decent facsimile.

Next time, I’ll tackle the URU expansion packs and its other added ages.