The Magic (and Malaise) of Families
Here are five extraordinary books about families — chosen, imposed or estranged — and the astonishing array of skills required to secure or survive them.
Fonda Lee’s UNTETHERED SKY (Tordotcom, 152 pp., $22.99) combines falconry and ancient Persian mythology into a short, stand-alone fantasy. In Dartha, man-eating monsters called manticores stalk the countryside, insatiable and unstoppable — except by rocs, gigantic birds of prey. The people of Dartha have learned to defend themselves by capturing fledgling rocs and training them in the Royal Mews to hunt manticores reliably. Called ruhkers, these trainers live strange, obsessed lives devoted to rearing their rocs in a ferocious and mutually beneficial partnership.
“Untethered Sky” is the story of Ester, a ruhker, recalling the training of her first roc, Zahra. Having lost her family to a manticore attack, Ester throws herself into her work, developing close, fervent relationships with her roc, her fellow ruhkers — and no one else. Not even the prince who takes an interest in ruhking and decides to market it to a wider audience.
Like a hunt, the book has a tense and stalking pace, circling a distant tragedy before closing in for the kill. At the heart of the story is Ester’s knowledge that she has dedicated her life to a creature whose mind she can’t know and whose love she can’t earn, but whose power she nevertheless depends on for survival every day.
Whereas Lee’s Green Bone Saga was a sprawling trilogy rooted in the intricacies of a contemporary city-state, here she produces gripping action set in vast spaces writ as clean and spare as a dry bone, and the result is tremendous.
Reversing that trajectory, Martha Wells has followed up her best-selling series of Murderbot novellas with a return to full-length, epic fantasy. WITCH KING (Tordotcom, $28.99, 414 pp.), a deeply immersive throwback to a beloved (and for me, foundational) species of 1990s fantasy doorstop, is full of cataclysmic intrigues between mostly immortal families, complete with map and dramatis personae.
The titular Witch King, Kaiisteron, or Kai, wakes from an enchanted sleep to find that he and his best friend, Ziede, have been betrayed and imprisoned by someone close to them. Kai is a demon, able to wield magic and possess the bodies of the living; Ziede is a witch, able to converse with the elemental world. They use their powers to subdue and escape their would-be captor, but discover that Ziede’s wife, Tahren, is missing.
Together — gathering waifs and strays along the way — they embark on a quest to find her and root out the conspiracy that separated them. As they search for answers, Kai remembers his early life fighting necromantic wizards called Hierarchs and rebuilding the world they broke.
Kai is very good at protecting those he has chosen to care for, and part of the pleasure of “Witch King” comes from seeing his keen-edged competence at work, contrasted with moments of profound, bewildered vulnerability. Kai’s timelines play off each other wonderfully: Elements introduced in a dizzying rush of world building become welcome context for the flashbacks, which in turn escalate tension in the present. Wells is working at the height of her powers here, and it’s relaxing to be carried along for a ride in the company of such a phenomenal storyteller.
Intrigues among mostly immortals also abound in Nick Harkaway’s TITANIUM NOIR (Knopf, 236 pp. $28), a funny, voice-y book full of fantastic sentences that, as the youths say, absolutely slap. It’s the kind of writing that reminds you that poetry and detective fiction have a lot in common.
Cal Sounder is a genre staple: a private investigator who is a bit of a loner, a casualty of some woman trouble and an expert in a certain kind of case — only here the certain kind of case involves genetically enhanced superhumans called Titans. In a near-future world, a highly inaccessible drug called Titanium 7 allows patients to recover from illness, injury and aging by turning their body clocks back to prepubescence and running them through adolescent development at speed, leaving them much taller and stronger.
Cal used to date the daughter of the drug’s inventor until a serious accident made the injection necessary to save her life. The experience gave Cal some insight into the wealthy, red-carpet circles of the Titans, only a few thousand of whom exist in the world. Now Cal works as a consultant for the police department on Titan-related criminal investigations. So when a man is found in his apartment with a bullet in his head and all the traits of a Titan — he’s 7-foot-8 and 91 years old, though he looks “about 45 with no habits” — the cops fetch Cal for the case.
An exemplar of its genre, “Titanium Noir” twists and turns between excellent fun and deep melancholy. While Cal fits the profile of the hard-boiled detective, he is sad and kind, and lacks the bitter alcoholic cynicism of the stereotype.
A new collection of Kelly Link short stories, the first since the Pulitzer Prize finalist “Get in Trouble” (2016), is always cause for both celebration and anxiety: Few and far between are the authors whose stories knife you in the ribs so smoothly and expertly that you’re left admiring the workmanship of the handle. Those in WHITE CAT, BLACK DOG (Random House, 260 pp., $27) are no exception.
Though each of the seven stories in this collection is subtitled with a classic fairy tale or ballad, they are not straightforward retellings or reworkings; rather, Link treats them as ingredients from which to build a delicate, threatening feast. These stories have the sticky, tensile strength of spider silk, building webs that draw as much attention to the twigs from which they’re suspended as they do to the dew shimmering on the threads and to the creatures caught and trembling in them.
Standouts for me included fully half the collection: “The White Road” (The Musicians of Bremen); “The Girl Who Did Not Know Fear” (The Boy Who Did Not Know Fear); “The Lady and the Fox” (Tam Lin); and “Skinder’s Veil” (Snow-White and Rose-Red) all thrilled me. There’s a sense of chiaroscuro to the collection, an echo of the title, certainly — the book opens with a white cat’s hospitality and closes with a black dog’s obstruction — but the more I reflect on the stories, the more I find myself sorting them all into bright and murky, sharp and shadowed.
Emma Törzs’s INK BLOOD SISTER SCRIBE (William Morrow, 407 pp., $30) is astonishing and pristine, the kind of debut I love to be devastated by, already so assured and sophisticated that it’s difficult to imagine where the author can go from here.
In Törzs’s world, books of magic, all written in human blood, can do incredible things when someone feeds them a drop of blood and reads them aloud. Abe Kalotay collected these books to protect them from falling into the wrong hands, and raised his daughters, Joanna and Esther, as stewards of a beautiful and dangerous library that had to be kept hidden at all costs; in Esther’s infancy, her mother was murdered by powerful people who wanted the books.
But after Abe’s death — his blood drained by a book that wouldn’t let him read it — Joanna and Esther become estranged: Joanna lives in her father’s house, looking after the books, while Esther has spent 10 years moving every Nov. 2 at her parents’ insistence, for reasons she doesn’t fully understand. Joanna can “hear” magic books and detect their presence; Esther is immune to magic.
An ocean away, an organization called the Library hoards these special texts, and a young man named Nicholas is its well-kept secret: His blood, when mixed into ink, allows him to write magic books into being. Heir to a terrible legacy, he is drawn together with the Kalotays to unravel their respective families’ secrets.
Törzs’s precision — her attention to the mundane physicality of bookbinding, for example — makes a well-trodden magic system feel fascinating and original. “Ink Blood Sister Scribe” accelerates like a fugue, ably conducted to a tender conclusion. It’s simply a delight from start to finish.
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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