Exploring the Wilds: Magical Marshlands, Nascent Planets

A new Frances Hardinge novel is always cause for celebration, and UNRAVELLER (423 pp., Amulet, $19.99) is no exception. In the country of Raddith, people live in complicated relation to the Wilds: magical marshlands full of dangerous gifts and beautiful threats. Among these are the Little Brothers, spiderlike creatures who, out of sympathy for the angry and suffering, grant some people the ability to curse others. A curse might make a wicked man’s hands weep blood, turn a woman into a harp or children into birds, all depending on the grief and fury of the curser.

Kellen is an Unraveller — someone who can undo curses. Nettle is a girl who was cursed to be a heron until Kellen unraveled her back into her human form. Together they travel Raddith, frequently at odds, trying to fix the fraying edges of their world.

The last Hardinge book I read was “A Face Like Glass,” which had a much more mechanical structure, operating like precision clockwork. The new novel’s power springs from the wilderness in its heart: intuitive and compassionate, as intricate as knot work. Hardinge’s concept of “deep” and “shallow” wilds — and what those different proximities to magic do to people — is haunting and lovely. The two points of view make the book a kind of loom worked between Kellen and Nettle, a warp and weft intersecting to bring a richer image into view.

Annalee Newitz’s third novel, THE TERRAFORMERS (338 pp., Tor, $27.99), takes us to Sask-E, a planet owned by a corporation that custom-builds worlds over thousands of years with a lab-grown work force. Once a planet’s able to support human life, the company sells plots of land to wealthy “Pleistocene fetishists” who want to experience a pristine “Earth-away-from-Earth.”

“The Terraformers” is less a novel than three novellas, each one foregrounding distinct but related groups of characters across three different eras of Sask-E’s existence. In the first section, Ranger Destry and her Mount, Whistle — a sentient, flying moose — struggle to preserve the planet’s nascent ecology against the interests of a micromanaging V.P. The delicate balance on the emerging planet depends on company workers like Destry being its only inhabitants — but when she and her fellow Rangers find evidence of a thriving underground civilization, they have to decide how far they’ll go to question, and oppose, their owners’ project. Destry’s actions create the conditions for the next two sections, in which Sask-E goes from a Pleistocene-like ecology bare of any humans to a dense urbanity full of landlords and renters of multiple species.

There’s a lot to enjoy and admire here. No one writes weird vulnerable intimacy quite like Newitz, whose books always contain at least one casually delivered insight that quietly explodes the mind. “The Terraformers” contains several — but those insights and ideas end up provoking more questions than they can effectively explore. Using a post-scarcity world to tell an allegory about late capitalism is an awkward endeavor; though this novel is about literally building a world, it invites a lot of world-building questions, and the focus on the planet’s development ends up crowding out the development of its characters. By the third and final section, our protagonists are a flying train and a cat who’s also an investigative journalist, but they sound almost identical to each other and to the talking cow and bipedal robot who preceded them.

Newitz describes artificial “limiters” that are built into the minds of people who’ve been created for specific purposes, keeping them from expressing a wide range of thoughts and emotions. It was frustrating to feel as if there were a limiter on the book itself, preventing it from examining its conflicts and compromises to the extent they deserve.

Freya Marske’s A RESTLESS TRUTH (388 pp., Tordotcom, $27.99) is the second book in the Edwardian fantasy series she began with “A Marvellous Light,” and it’s thrilling and lovely, with the same enthusiastic attention paid to character depth and period detail that made its predecessor such a pleasure.

In the first book, Edwin Courcey and Robin Blyth uncovered a conspiracy that put every magician in England at risk; the second opens with Robin’s younger sister, Maud, sailing to England from America in the company of a taciturn magician she has recruited to help stop the conspiracy. But on the first day of the voyage, Maud’s companion is murdered over a legendary artifact, and it’s up to Maud to retrieve it, unmask her enemies and survive the rest of the trip. To do so she’ll need allies — like Violet Debenham, a dashing and provocative actress-turned-heiress, and a magician in her own right.

“A Marvellous Light” was a delightful and spicy romance between a grump and a ray of sunshine, set in beautiful homes with gorgeous wallpaper. “A Restless Truth” is a delightful and spicy romance between someone who always lies and someone who always tells the truth, set on a ship at sea. Marske is simply superb at her chosen genres, and sustains the balance between Maud’s warm honesty and Violet’s glittering viciousness to tremendous effect. Sexy, earnest and very funny, it’s also not afraid to twist a knife.

Amal El-Mohtar is a Hugo Award-winning writer and co-author, with Max Gladstone, of “This Is How You Lose the Time War.”

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