RaveThe Chicago Review of Books\"Alongside the novel’s inventive and humorous imagery, Plastic is deeply invested in questions of authenticity in the face of commercialized social pressures, and in the burden of responsibility—at individual and planetary scales—within that society. Also, there are dance numbers ... This is an immensely fun, engaging novel, and if I started reading it as though it were a puzzle—how is this world like this, why is this world like this—I finished it just deeply impressed with it qua novel, without needing my questions answered. The way that reality shifts throughout the story is really interesting, and compelling in its specifics, without feeling subordinated to some larger explanation. There’s a seamless, level-jumping fluidity to the imagery here: a sense that its ultimate objects and concerns are solid, underneath a vibrant and multifarious symbolism ... Where Plastic shines is in how it remains focused on humanity—no matter how superficial or hollow circumstances make us—and in its sheer inventive sense of play, even with such stakes.\
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books\"... an immensely engaging read—clever and nimble in its narration, pointed in its critiques—with a chorus of interesting voices and arresting images ... Full of shifting textual rhythms, pop cultural references, and darkly comedic moments among its depressing realities, Liquid Snakes constantly surprised me with its clever asides and details.\
PositiveChicago Review of BooksThe horror elements feel like the most original and interesting threads, but they seem somewhat desiccated by their subordination to the novel’s plot and Annabelle’s mindset ... An excellent and unexpected balance of inspirations and innovations. The specific homage to Bradbury’s atmosphere is remarkable enough, but this is more than a pastiche.
RaveChicago Review of BooksSimon Jimenez’s second novel, The Spear Cuts Through Water, is a fascinating experiment in richly representing the experience, not of story-telling, but of story...It’s radically unlike anything else I’ve ever read, which is a bold enough statement to make of any novel, and even more astonishing given that this is technically, perhaps even classically, an epic fantasy...Jimenez’s stylistic choices don’t feel like bits, set-pieces, or interjections to an otherwise standard novel: its very material, at sentence and paragraph and chapter level, is densely, uniquely textured...Polyvocal and thematically intricate, The Spear Cuts Through Water never comes across as preachy or artificial: it has a story and tells it well...It’s just that its approach is so novel, on every page, that it challenges how we think about reading and writing these kinds of stories.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksThe novel doesn’t shy away from heavier topics—loss and grief shape multiple characters, and homophobia has scarred Alim’s family—but Feyi’s love life is very much the core, and it allows her, and the reader, to revel in happiness when it comes. Healthy, complicated hunger is a recurring theme, with Emezi displaying a delicious skill at both teasing out its fulfillment and dealing with the messy interpersonal complications. The island getaway is a bit obviously a fantasy, but that doesn’t impede the novel’s unrepentant and joyful celebration of success, of personal beauty, and of sumptuous music, art, and food ... a strongly contemporary novel, leaning into modern slang and dialog, frequently referencing currently working artists, and with a refreshing and foundational concern for mental and emotional health ... Sometimes the emotional forthrightness of the novel struck me as a little unnatural: it’s a third-person narrative, and we’re often told Feyi’s exact feelings before it seems like she’s had time to process them. However, the overall effect is to keep the story pinned to someone working through big changes, not perfectly, but consciously ... Emezi’s character work is great, and the way the novel points towards happiness is an obvious strength, but the highly convenient elements of the romance take some getting used to. The smoothing away of all financial hurdles is one example ... These freedoms from material concerns allow us to focus on Feyi’s emotional and romantic journey (and on the luxurious setting) but I found the unrelenting wealth and privilege distracting at times. The servants who maintain these lavish lifestyles are nameless or invisible, and we really don’t get even a glimpse of life outside a very moneyed bubble—it’s not even clear which country Feyi is visiting. It all fits in innocently enough with the “billionaire romance” tropes, and the novel’s celebration of personal and material success, in the wake of loss and hardship, is one of its core strengths. But, coming from an author who has previously shown such skill at animating often-marginalized characters, this narrow focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous feels limiting. And it’s mirrored in the way that the narration spends more time naming contemporary artists than it does describing anyone’s artwork: while Feyi herself feels intensely real, the world she moves in sometimes seems more surface than substance ... Those concerns aside, the areas that are fleshed out absolutely land: the soundtrack, the sensual focus on food and bodies, the way Feyi’s relationships develop ... Emezi is showing some really impressive range and versatility here, and knocks this romance out of the park.
MixedThe Chicago Review of BooksThe world—worlds, rather—that Gladstone conjures are strange, but not too strange: while there are occasional glimpses of more fantastic alternate Earths, for the most part our protagonists only find devastated worlds, post-apocalyptic scenes of various flavors ... In many ways, their backstories feels more central than the current plot, and while I occasionally found the temporal structure distracting—the narrative jumps often and deeply between the present and decades-old memories, sometimes obscuring the stakes and pacing of the current plot—the vitality of their collegiate friendships, and the contrast with where life has taken them, is really striking. Dimension-hopping, magic-slinging, and monster-slaying are the surface hooks here, but the novel is more urgently concerned with how people change, how friendships drift apart over time, and the possibility—and impossibility—of reconnecting, and it pays serious attention to trauma and forgiveness ... I’m usually impressed with Gladstone’s ability to make his stories both grim in tone and lightly-moving, snappy; many sections of Last Exit, however, struggle and fail to cast off an essential heaviness ... I think part of Last Exit\'s dilemma is that Gladstone is avoiding that problem of allegorical interference. He names and acknowledges enough real-world problems that it’s hard to refocus on a wholly external and fictional evil, hard to read this as escapism ... It doesn’t quite seem to know where to go next, but that mental transformation is still quite a ride.
PanChicago Review of BooksBecause there is a such a rich tradition of feminist utopias and dystopias, and because Dalcher spends a lot of time reminding us of how awful men can be—serious word of warning, there is a lot of rape and child abuse in this book—it took me a while to figure out why the work contained so many currents running the other way. I kept waiting for Miranda to have some kind of revelation, some kind of compromise or reconciliation with the women of Femlandia, but chapter after chapter kept hammering it home ... The point of Femlandia, you see, isn’t that men are bad, it’s that hating men is bad ... it’s a mean-spirited caricature of feminism straight out of a ‘90s sitcom, painting Win as a shrill and hysterical monster ... Alongside this anti-feminist take, the novel is engaged in another, more subtle kind of moral or political argument, one that’s ultimately just as repugnant: a bizarre kind of passionate centrism welded to a grievance-powered feeling of Boomer-flavored righteousness ... [a] dreary book.
RaveThe Chicago Review of Books... a fascinating hybrid of gothic horror, the true crime format, and something stranger. It’s keenly attuned to how people change, how we bring our pasts with us, how the spaces we enter shape us, sometimes unexpectedly, sometimes violently. The novel is intensely (if circuitously) invested in the condition of narration—who is speaking, why are they speaking, what are they getting out of it? It’s a picture of someone refusing to tell a story they’re already committed to tell, that they’re complicit in and profiting from. While I expected bloody twists and turns, the kinds of twists and turns this novel threw at me were intoxicating ... sits in a strange place, genre-wise: horror-adjacent, full of sympathy and insight, overflowing with cryptic references and narrative culs-de-sac...suffused with atmospheric setting and character work and, in one of its least-explained and least-explicit gambits, oblique references to medieval history ... Early in the novel, I was really struck by the confidence of Darnielle’s narrator. Chandler has impeccable bedside manner, a soothing presence despite his gruesome subjects. He is also masterful at sketching out characters with deep sympathy, at capturing ambiance and group dynamics, and never fails to keep his own voice present, a personable tone anchoring unsettling stories. It’s an effective and enjoyable technique for a true crime narrative; what I absolutely love about Devil House is the way Darnielle is playing with that. This is fiction, not true crime, despite its use of the format and its many references to actual cases. Devil House focuses on that distinction; more than that, the novel is feeling its way, quite emotionally, around the ethical quandaries inherent in telling stories about real people and events ... a heady, thoughtful piece of metafiction ... There are wild and disturbing narratives here, but what’s even more interesting is the way they’re layered and interwoven and the way they sometimes contradict each other ... there’s no question that Darnielle’s strategy works, and profoundly so: layering stories and ideas, so that I was constantly both immersed in the story to hand and wondering about the story up or down a level ... Crime-thriller hooks, emotional and philosophical reflection, and one of the most subtle and devastating endings I’ve ever read: Devil House is a novel I know I’ll be returning to.
Charlie Jane Anders
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksCharlie Jane Anders is an inventive writer with a dazzling skill for short stories, and her new collection, Even Greater Mistakes, is a thoughtful and frequently hilarious delight, with deep goofiness running alongside potent examinations of depression, loss, and institutional bigotry. Resistance and persistence are woven through these nineteen stories, along with the power of change, the importance of community, and a rich and empowering imagination ... Two things (among many) that fascinate me about Anders’ work: firstly, more than most speculative fiction writers, her writing retains the kind of entertainer’s energy and timing that comes from live performances. And secondly, perhaps connected to that tradition of oral storytelling, her stories display a kind of purposeful, exploratory, and not-unpleasant messiness, for lack of a better word, often veering away from traditional plot structures or expectations ... a command performance, and it’s a delight to be in the audience.
S. Qiouyi Lu
PositiveChicago Review of BooksA blend of fantasy and science fiction animates S. Qiouyi Lu’s In the Watchful City ... it’s an interesting, challenging, and at points rather a dark story, if one that feels a bit scattershot ... In the Watchful City feels like a traditional fix-up: a fairly slender frame that ties together a collection of unrelated short stories ... One reason In the Watchful City is so striking is the way it dives into challenging themes ... In the Watchful City is full of stories that are obviously charged with meaning, and surrounded on all sides by drawers with more things to see—but the glimpses we get are so brief that it’s hard to feel their reality or understand their connections. I don’t doubt that these stories will resonate with some readers, and I wonder what other stories in this world are yet to be told.
RaveChicago Review of BooksA haunting ghost story, a mystery, a queer romance, an Appalachian street-racing adventure: it’s impressive enough that Lee Mandelo’s debut novel, Summer Sons, doesn’t get lost in its potentially-contradictory impulses. Even more impressive is the way it pulls these threads together—or, perhaps, is pulled and balanced between them—to tell a vibrant story of love and grief ... There are some seriously gory scenes here, some seriously steamy ones too, and the entire novel is enriched by a constant level of bodily awareness and detail ... Although Summer Sons is keen, appropriately enough, to accelerate into the curves at key moments, its overall pace is strangely meandering. It’s not that it’s a bad mystery, it’s that Andrew is a phenomenally bad detective ... The characters feel real, the cars feel real, and Mandelo absolutely nails the setting, right at this very specific intersection of Appalachia and collegiate uncertainty: the heat, the drinks, the casual physicality, the habits borne of rural poverty that recent affluence and city-living can’t entirely erase. The ghostly and magical elements, though disturbing, feel organic. To my eye there’s a slightly-conspicuous (if welcome) absence of gun culture, but the emphasis on the land itself, on old and bloody secrets, on lonesome roads and flexible families all combine for an honest and particular background that I rarely see in speculative fiction, and I’m here for it ... I found Summer Sons ultimately rather comforting: no saccharine happily-ever-after, but figuring it out, and intensely alive.
RaveThe Chicago Review of BooksA wildly inventive, funny, and ultimately quite heartfelt novel, The Unraveling is a chaotic romp of gender deconstruction packaged up in a groovy science-fictional coming-of-age tale ... a challenging but rewarding novel, one of the best examples I’ve encountered of a deeply weird and inventive world that just throws the reader in at the deep end and lets them figure it out ... By disconnecting gender completely from biology, and making us spend a while understanding the difference between Vails and Staids, Rosenbaum sneakily and quite effectively plays with the constructedness of gender. Fift’s predicament feels genuinely teenage, trying to sort out changing desires and roles in a society that only seems to want conformity; the novel also does an astonishing job of thinking through queerness without mapping itself to our genders or sexualities. The Unraveling casually encourages you to wrap your head around new pronouns, its invented genders feel as real and potentially as restrictive as the ones we’re familiar with, and it has a keen sense for difference, for the universality of not quite fitting into the role laid out for you ... It’s also a very funny novel, one I found myself giggling at constantly. Rosenbaum’s sheer inventiveness is a constant pleasure ... Part of why The Unraveling is so readable, despite its deeply estranging setting, is how it captures a sense of frenetic family life in ways that constantly ground and enliven the action with a kind of sitcom chaos ... The entire story is permeated, charmingly and cleverly, with things simultaneously silly and serious ... The novel is not without its hurdles for the reader — the very large cast and constant neologisms take a while to get a handle on. Although the novel follows Fift closely, ze’s perspective is always in three different bodies, which causes some disorienting jumps mid-paragraph. But, once you get into the flow of it, the kaleidoscopic narration becomes one of the novel’s charms ... Chock full of ideas, built around family life and teenage crushes even as it ponders massive social change and long-term civilizational survival, The Unraveling is a heady, thoughtful, and absorbingly creative adventure.
MixedChicago Review of Books\"... a kind of multi-layered ghost story in space ... Robots and androids are We Have Always Been Here’s strongest suit: it’s most striking in the sections where it considers anti-automation sentiments, or examines Park’s preference for androids over human company. It feels like Nguyen is using her robots to grapple with metaphors of class and racial oppression ... There’s a hint of a really interesting horror element in Park’s possibly-misguided emotional attachment to the androids, the idea that she’s spent her life caring about empty simulacra; the novel doesn’t do more than flirt with this potentially devastating idea, however, and its increasingly magical treatment of consciousness reduces the impact of its musings on artificial intelligence. The story is hampered by plot holes and some distractingly bad science. There’s an obviously artificial nature to many key plot elements ... Far more upsetting, however, is the full-throated endorsement of quantum quackery in the novel’s denouement, where a laundry list of debunked pseudoscientific ideas, redolent of Rupert Sheldrake or What the Bleep Do We Know, are put forth to explain the events plaguing the expedition. I don’t expect science fiction to provide science education, but the genre does have the power to make things more plausible in the reader’s imagination—it’s disturbing to see that power used to lend credence to frankly anti-scientific ideas ... Tossing aside any issues it might have explored more deeply, and explaining away its horrors with disappointingly rosy and complete narrative solutions, We Have Always Been Here winds up adrift, not particularly horrifying, and not particularly science-fictional.
PositiveChicago Review of BooksThis is a novel of big ideas, politically and technologically, but what carries it is how well it’s told. South’s narration is unhurried but engagingly paced—at under 300 pages, Sharpson has pulled off a complete story without any padding—with just the right amount of introspection. South’s personal backstory and the larger political context are built out with a mixture of epigraphs and commendably (if ultimately ironically) organic-feeling flashbacks, and South’s narration is animated by a kind of dry and frequently deflecting amusement, gallows humor, or sanity-preserving sarcasm—a stance that frequently breaks just enough to let real emotion through ... This mixture of self-conscious comedy and bleak consideration of atrocity constantly reminded me of Kurt Vonnegut ... Through South’s story, Sharpson confronts our transformation or obsolescence in the face of technology and the unthinkable and surreal cruelty of state-sponsored violence. Despite this high-tech, cerebral premise, the story is anchored in quiet, resilient humor and wordplay, and with an eye for both the absurdity of bureaucratic interaction and the humanity of its characters ... an odd duck—machine consciousnesses side-by-side with trilby-wearing Cold War pastiches—and all the more enjoyable for that. Its speculative elements lend a freshness to its critique of totalitarianism and petty despots, and, despite its sobering themes, it’s a hopeful novel. Sometimes brutal, often funny, it’s a remarkably assured and polished story, grappling with the best and worst instincts of humanity, even as it imagines what might come next for the species.
MixedChicago Review of BooksSomewhat hampered by clunky exposition and unexamined assumptions, the novel is nonetheless digging into near-future economic and political anxieties in interesting ways ... The novel’s depiction of life under a total gig economy is fairly plausible and extremely bleak ... Machinehood doesn’t go very far in its critique, unfortunately. Except for the Machinehood’s demands for human-machine integration, no characters consider root causes of the system’s problems. Similarly, it broaches the issue of reproductive rights without really digging in ... there are a number of worrying ideas embedded in Machinehood . My hackles immediately rise, for example, over an American protagonist whose big dream is to convince her cowardly superiors to begin a military invasion of a North African Islamic nation—a frequently-referenced bogeyman throughout most of the novel, it’s especially disturbing that \'the caliph\' is never even named ... Machinehood has what I can only call \'big cop energy\' ... the first third or so of Machinehood is filled with enough awkward mid-conversation info-dumping that it breaks the flow of the story. Important elements of plot and character motivation don’t hold up to much scrutiny.
RaveChicago Review of BooksThere are no elder gods or supernatural terrors lurking in Hummingbird Salamander, Jeff VanderMeer’s newest novel, but I found myself reading with that kind of dread ... A grippingly-paced and paranoid eco-thriller ... Action-packed, memorably voiced, and rich in detail, the novel uses the thriller format — bureaucratic espionage and private investigation — to spiral inwards to a story of personal and ecological disaster ... Right from the start, Jane’s voice has the snappy, poetic weariness of the hard-boiled private eye ... Extinction, then, the human-caused deaths of entire species, is a horror waiting to be recognized, every moment, around us, in ever-worsening degree. There are plenty of human-scale crimes and tragedies in Hummingbird Salamander, but it’s this awareness that drives Silvina to madness ... it’s leavened by enjoyable elements; Jane is not exactly a cheerful character, but I found myself tapping into her satisfaction — her competence at spycraft and skullduggery, her physical strength, her underdog tenaciousness. Like so many great PIs, Jane is out of her depth, in the sights of much larger entities, but also skillful and resilient in ways that make each chapter sing ... like much of VanderMeer’s work, Hummingbird Salamander is an attempt to imagine, not an end of the world, but a transformation.
C S Friedman
MixedChicago Review of BooksWhere This Alien Shore was ahead of its time, This Virtual Night feels oddly dated. Many elements that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in the nineties land flatly now ... it affects a kind of half-hearted Luddism, critiquing the dangers of over-connection, the addicting and reality-warping potential of video games and social media. Whatever germ of truth there might be to that message, its delivery—from the mouths of cyborgs, in totally artificial space habitats—makes it seem hypocritical, at best ... The novel feels strongest where it can stick to adventuring. While it’s plagued by some spatial issues—a few plot points are difficult to visualize—the rhythm of Ru and Micah getting into tricky spots and out again makes for a good romp, playing up their different skills and weaknesses. Ivar’s subplot—an attempt to regain his place in a violent world of gangsters—feels disconnected from the rest of the book, but the stakes are more immediate, and it makes a counterpoint to Ru and Micah’s increasingly cute relationship.
RaveChicago Review of BooksTidbeck is one of those writers whose work is delightfully hard to pin down to a genre—their work includes fantasy and science fiction, but slips between genres to new and stranger places ... Tidbeck has crafted a kind of modern folktale. Inventive, surreal, at times violent, the novel has a timeless, durable quality—in its clear prose and arresting (if sometimes obscure) symbolism, it feels like a fairy tale that’s just a little too scary for the kids ... The Memory Theater begins in a kind of enchanted pocket universe, the Gardens, where a set of amoral and apparently immortal aristocrats live the same eternal day over and over ... The novel minimizes some of the more bizarre imagery of these stories, unifying them with a fairy-tale tonality and threading them lightly through the actual world ... Tidbeck captures the dream-logic feeling of myth and folktale, even when mixing clearly original fabulation with borrowings from older traditions. And, even at its most violent moments, The Memory Theater maintains a kind of gentleness and fascination with the world—childlike and serious at once ... Tidbeck strikes an intriguing balance between vivid imagery, children’s-story wonder, and mature themes, with clear and unpretentious prose and stretches of calm pastoral. It’s a strange and ultimately quite delightful tale.
Alaya Dawn Johnson
RaveChicago Review of Books... a stylistically diverse collection animated by Johnson’s vivid, imaginative, and often brutal prose. Reconstruction is one of the strongest and most enjoyable collections I’ve read in some time; it’s a brilliant and uncomfortable constellation of ideas and absences knotted together ... I found Reconstruction haunting, not just for its vividness, but also for how Johnson writes around felt and imagined absences ... the collection as a whole feels timely, nowhere more so than in its title story ... It’s a superb story, blending historical realism with threads of speculation and magic, told in the voice of a character at once courageous and brimming over with bitterness. It’s the signature note of the entire collection – a willingness to look closely at the realities of resistance, to feel deeply the worries, fears, and complexities at every level of survival.
RaveChicago Review of BooksAasterful in its ability to step back, to allow the fairytale stay in its frame, at a bit of a distance from the immediate action. That refusal to humanize more than warranted works hand in hand with the space that Vo gives for the non-human—even when it walks and talks a bit like a person ... As a piece of fantasy literature, Vo’s worldbuilding is a command performance, if a subdued one. The material reality of the story’s present feels incredibly strong, from the stitching on Si-Yu’s boot to the brief sketches of geopolitics and history. What’s truly impressive is the way Vo weds this firm reality with fantasy and fairy tale ... The novella is rather a meditation on versions of stories, shadings and retellings, the importance of the teller’s intent and insight—and it never dismisses even the most fantastic ideas as \'just a story.\' The novella is also notable for its quiet subversion of gender norms. Ho Thi Tao and Dieu’s story is a love story about two women, though not both human; Chih is non-binary, and these facts pass without comment or judgment. The novella is particularly rich in the polysemy of feeding: as a clear metaphor for sex, as a simple fulfilmment of need, and as violence.