Book time is back. You know the drill. Share your own recommendations, revel in the literary love, and never feel ashamed about those late-night eBay purchases. No, I’m not trying to justify my own behavior, YOU are.
Truth of the Divine by Lindsay Ellis
that is a pretty sweet moon https://t.co/cxuHTvkh9O— Lindsay Ellis (@thelindsayellis) October 28, 2021
First contact has been made and things are not going well. Now that humanity knows it’s not alone in the universe, politicians are scrambling to figure out a way to rectify the situation, with debates swirling over whether these new arrivals can be legally fit the definition of personhood. Amid this, support grows among a grassroots movement for a Third Option, a law that would define the aliens essentially as second-class citizens. As the ethical and political battles grow more extreme, with militias forming and conspiracies growing ever more heated, Cora Sabino, a human who found herself unwittingly acting as a translator to these aliens, is struggling with the horrendous trauma of her experiences. Her only ally is Ampersand, the amygdalin alien to whom she is curiously bound. New to this story is Kaveh Mazandarani, an investigative journalist and close colleague of Cora’s estranged father, the whistle-blower with a cult-like following who she wants nothing to do with. Left with no other choice, she must align herself with him, but neither he nor Ampersand seem ready or willing to be truly honest about their motives and the reality of what’s happening.
I greatly enjoyed Axiom’s End, Lindsay Ellis’s debut novel and a striking entry into the crowded first contact genre of sci-fi, but wow, Truth of the Divine is a major step up! The strengths of that first novel are further developed here, particularly that balance between the grandeur of the universe’s bullsh*t and the smothering reality of being a normal person stuck in the middle of seismic change. Cora is no grandstanding hero: she’s stifled by PTSD and suicidal thoughts thanks to her near-death experience, and Ampersand is similarly impacted. Their bond is fragile, somewhat inexplicable, and beautiful in its own way. I described Ampersand in my first review as an Invader Zim who had his sh*t together. Here, he’s Invader Zim with all of the emotional panic that he would have had in the show had he paid attention for longer than five seconds. Trauma can be an individual experience. It can be shared, and it can be communal. Each aspect of it is explored here with immense empathy and raw honesty. Ellis’s description of Cora’s panic attacks felt a touch too familiar (the book comes with a content warning for those readers who may need guidance before picking up this story.)
Cora’s father operates by the ethos that ‘truth is a human right’, radical transparency at all costs. The execution of such a philosophy is less than ideal, especially when, as Ellis demonstrates, humans give into their worst, most paranoid, and frequently bad-faith instincts. Besides, what is truth if nobody really believes or cares about it? We see more of this notion through Kaveh, a devotee of Cora’s father with a first-hand perspective on the machine of charisma and propaganda that has made him simultaneously so beloved and loathed. This may be an alternate 2007 but Ellis is clearly borrowing from the horror of current days.
Of course, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t mention my unabashed delight at the blossoming relationship between Cora and Ampersand. There are evident romantic undertones here but the strength of this bond lies in two beings’ willingness to embrace the complexity of their situation, although a lot of that isn’t necessarily a choice for them. So much of Cora’s plight against the growing political noise is to find a way to convince billions of scared, angry, and violent people that aliens like her friend deserve compassion over discrimination, something that isn’t easy given her own experiences with them. None of this would work if we didn’t 100% believe Cora and Ampersand’s bond. It is the (sort-of) safe port in the storm of this narrative.
Truth of the Divine is a massive step forward for this series, one that is often tough to read due to its no-holds-barred depiction of trauma. Such darkness and political fury may be difficult for some to take but it’s a wholeheartedly worthwhile investment.
(With thanks to the publisher for sending me an ARC of this book.)
A Terrible Fall of Angels by Jane Campion
Can't sleep so I'm digging into my newest library pick.— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) October 24, 2021
I'm almost nostalgic for LKH madness but hoo boy the issues here are plentiful. pic.twitter.com/DAlzEbjQyV
That’s right: Laurell K. Hamilton is back. OK, she never really went away, but like a lot of vampire novel/urban fantasy nerds, I consciously uncoupled from her work quite some time ago. The Anita Blake series is undoubtedly a key part of the evolution of the modern vampire genre, with its first nine or so books standing as fun noir-esque reads that blend crime, romance, speculative, and action. And then things changed very quickly. I was specifically told to stop reading at book nine because of the drastic shift in focus the series took, moving more towards harem erotica than the sh*t-kicking vampire hunting PI larks of old. Since then, the series has gone on to divide fans, particularly as Anita accumulated more lovers and the characters became self-parodies. I’ve been told that some of the more recent additions to the series have swung back to that classic noir influence, but I checked out for a reason.
All of this is set up to explain that my decision to read A Terrible Fall of Angels, the first book in a brand-new series, was a complicated one. I loved the synopsis — a detective who can communicate with angels must solve the case of a demonic murder in a world where creatures of faith and deities are provably real — but Hamilton also knows how to waste great potential. If nothing else, I was morbidly curious to see how her work stood in 2021, when the genre she helped to mold has greatly evolved and left poor Anita Blake standing in the dust.
Detective Zaniel Havelock was trained from an early age to be an Angel speaker, but a terrible incident led him to abandon his calling and become a cop. Now, he’s looking into the case of a brutal rape and murder of a college student that reeks of evil. There are moments in this novel where I was 100% on board: the conceit is fascinating and Hamilton knows how to craft a good action scene. But then there’s everything else. Our hero is something of a blank slate, even with an intriguing backstory. A lot of the characters feel like they came straight from Anita Blake’s world, only with angels over vampires. There’s set-up here for something grander, a full-scale series with potentially apocalyptic conclusions, but it’s hard to find the good parts amid info-dump exposition and more than a few hanging narrative threads.
Then there’s all the weird stuff involving Zaniel’s estranged wife Reggie. She’s portrayed either as a nagging shrew or the token ‘worried wife of a cop’, and Zaniel spends a lot of time either sad that they’re not together or being relieved he’s not around all of her b*tching. The editing is practically non-existent, with pronouns inconsistently used and basic continuity errors throughout. And then there’s this weird anger towards ‘political correctness’ that thematically makes no sense. The characters are constantly grumbling about how they were forced to attend sensitivity training on issues like sexual harassment in the workplace, which is bad enough. It just becomes irritating when they lament how they have to use more inclusive language when it comes to faith. Guys, it’s not PC culture gone mad to rethink how you discuss deities when, canonically, there’s literally more than one. This is a world where pagan witches and voodoo priests work alongside angel speakers and all of their beliefs are real. It’s a ridiculously basic error for the book to make and one that comes across as wildly petty.
I had an odd nostalgic glow while reading A Terrible Fall of Angels but it quickly dulled because I was painfully familiar with how this author’s tics and years-long grudges continue to define her work. Lost potential is always a disappointment, but at least I got burned on this series before I could get invested.
Phantom Heart by Kelly Creagh
Running out of room on my Phantom shelf. pic.twitter.com/7PNJfZh0b3— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) October 6, 2021
Yes, I am back on my Phantom bullsh*t. How could I not be? The musical turns 35 this month and the ill-judged sequel Love Never Dies is ten years oooooooooooooold! There have been a few teen Phantom retellings in the YA world lately, which is evidently my jam, and this one felt the most gloriously chaotic in terms of combining the elements of the original novel that I love and the sheer madness of several decades of Phandom. The cover of Phantom Heart has the musical logo-accurate mask right there, as if you comfort us, dear nerds who care way too much about this stuff. She knows what the people want.
Our teen heroine Stephanie Armand moves into a blatantly haunted house with her renovator father and younger sister, the latter of whom immediately starts complaining about being bothered by a ghost. But he’s not a ghost. Well, not technically but he sort of is? It’s actually Erik, our masked genius of questionable temperament, and there’s a weird curse on him but also some stuff involving evil masks and there’s a lot going on here. There’s also a Raoul stand-in called Lucas Cheney — get it?! — who’s a nerdy boy with a love of ’50s dancing and paranormal investigation. But you know who’s winning this love triangle. I’ve found that most YA retellings of Phantom of the Opera tend to be wildly overstuffed with ideas, as if there’s a trope quota to meet. Phantom Heart is no different thanks to alternative points of view, the mish-mash of genres, and the details of the curse being way too confusing for this kind of story. Leroux’s original novel is impeccable in its simplicity and so many of these re-imaginings throw in too many cooks. Still, I can’t claim that Phantom Heart didn’t scratch some kind of Phangirl itch. I’m only human, after all.
A Killing Spring by Gail Bowen
Well, this was the most "this crime novel was written in 1995 and it shows" book I've ever read. pic.twitter.com/8MKI14P7Fl— Kayleigh Donaldson (@Ceilidhann) October 6, 2021
I am a known devotee of Louise Penny’s Armand Gamache series, a Canadian crime saga that got me through some tough times and continues to enthrall me after so many books. I won’t bore you with my love of Gamache because I’ve written about it before (also oh my god, are you prepared for the Amazon series starring Alfred f**king Molina?!) Penny’s work led me to read some other Canadian crime novels, with some of my favorites being by Roxanne Bouchard and Ausma Zehanat Khan. I also found myself turning to the work of Gail Bowen, mostly because I picked up two omnibuses of her work pretty cheaply and they make for quick readers.
Bowen’s long-running series focuses on Joanne Kilbourn, a political analyst and widow in Saskatchewan who finds herself, as many cozy crime heroines do, constantly adjacent to vicious murder scenes. Kilbourn does some investigating but she’s more focused on the human cost around such cases, which makes for a change of pace in this genre. They don’t grip me in the way that my boy Armand does, but they get the job done as solid three-star reads. A Killing Spring, however, was a not-so-welcome blast from the past, a book so painfully of its release year, 1996, that I half expected a character to start singing Spice Girls songs.
The victim this time around is a celebrated journalism professor who is found dead in a seedy rooming house dressed in women’s lingerie with an electrical cord around his neck. Yes. there’s some gay panic. Yes, a comparison is made to RuPaul, presumably the only drag queen with name recognition the author could think of. There’s also a subplot involving a student who accuses the golden boy of her class of harassing her, which nobody believes because the poor woman is unattractive and irritating (all the yikes in the world, right?) None of this is unique to this novel. Read enough crime fiction from the ’90s (or hell, even now) and there’s a lot of this kind of blunt shock material that concludes with some sort of proselytizing about bad first impressions and learning a lesson.
I’m cool with a formula and it’s clear that Bowen’s is working for her given that she’s now on her 20th Joanne Kilbourn novel, but this series is getting just a little too cut-and-dry for me. By comparison, Penny’s novels often diverge greatly from our expectations and take these characters we love into new and often surprising directions (I screamed at Olivier’s story in the fifth and sixth books!) I’ll probably read the sixth novel just to complete the omnibus but then I may move onto Canadian crime pastures new. All recommendations welcome.
Header Image Source: St. Martin's Press