-Elizabeth Bear, New Amsterdam, Seven for a Secret, and The White City. A series of linked short stories and a novella, all set in an alternate history where the English Crown still has the colonies, and where magic works. It’s very effective urban fantasy, both drawing on the stereotype of the vampire as the ultimate seducer (vampires have groupies who only live for the pleasure of providing the ecstatic gift of blood, and are drawn into various relationships with humans–that run the gamut from patrons to abusers, from friends to walking pints of blood), and it just hits so many small details in a fashion that had me nodding along: for instance, at one point, one of the (rather long-lived) main characters reflects that churches are becoming unfriendly places because religion has changed beyond all recognition, compared to what he remembers from his childhood, and this is SO true. And it has Bear’s usual pretty writing, which flows along effortlessly (even though I’m sure the actual process of couching it onto paper involved blood and sweat); and wonderful and deep characters that refuse to become established stereotypes, and feel very much like real human beings with their flaws and frailties, but also their wonderful capacity for quiet heroism. I’m very much looking forward to the last book, Ad Aeternum.
–Steam-Powered 2, edited by JoSelle Vanderhooft (review copy). I’m probably not in the target audience for this, because I’m not particularly fond of romance in general, and a lot of steampunk leaves me cold (the “mad adventure and costume” side doesn’t appeal overmuch to me). And, indeed, the main problem I had with this anthology was that I could predict a lot of the endings: if a story only has two women on stage, and it’s in a book of lesbian steampunk, well, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out what will happen… On balance, I thought that the best stories in the book were those that moved away from the stereotype of two women falling in love, and dealt with other aspects of the relationship: either further along in time, like Nisi Shawl’s “The Return of Cherie”, or by questioning its power dynamics and putting it into a colonial framework (such as Stephanie Lai’s “One Last Interruption Before We Begin”); or by eschewing the mad adventure steampunk altogether and focusing on much smaller-scale events (Alex Dally MacFarlane’s awesome “Selin that Has Grown in the Desert”, by far and above my favourite story in the book). I also enjoyed those stories with a very different setting and mindset: “In the Heart of Yellow Mountain” by Jaymee Goh is reminiscient of Chinese fairytales and adventures stories, and has a very unique vibe; “Not the Moon but the Stars” by Shveta Thakrar is set in a wonderfully recreated India that brims with lovely cultural details; and Zen Cho’s “The Terracotta Bride” takes Chinese Hell as its setting, deftly dealing with issues of power between the haves and have-nots (your status in Hell being, very appropriately, determined by how many children you had, and whether they’re still burning funeral offerings for you). Overall, even though I didn’t enjoy everything, the book as a whole is definitely worth reading. (and I suppose it says something about me that the stories I enjoyed most didn’t follow the brief of “independence, romance and adventure”, and tended to be written by people outside of the US, or by US POCs *sigh* I’ll go hide away now, promise).