#REVIEW: The Vanished Queen, by Lisbeth Campbell

Let’s start with some disclaimers: while Lisbeth Campbell and I have never met, we’ve been mutuals on Twitter (you should follow her) for long enough that I don’t remember not following her, and I saw a very early draft– like, pre-alpha, where there were bits that said things like <and then cool stuff> here and there, and I’m mentioned in the back of the book in the acknowledgments, which will never ever stop being cool. I suppose technically I also got a free ARC, but my hardcover has been preordered and will be here on the 18th when the book actually releases.

The first sentence of The Vanished Queen is — spoiler alert — When Karolje became king, he ordered rooms in the library to be mortared shut. That is an admirably well-chosen first sentence, because it does a lot of work, and really sets up the events of the novel impressively. The book takes place in the capital city of the nation of Vetia, a nation ruled over by Karolje, a despotic king moving into the twilight of his life and the end of his rule. The book revolves through several POV characters, but the two most important are Mirantha, the titular “Vanished Queen” and the mother of Karolje’s two sons, and Anza, a young resistance fighter who finds an old diary of Mirantha’s in the first chapter of the book. Karolje’s two sons are also POV characters along with a couple of others, but this is mostly Anza and Mirantha’s story, with Anza’s taking place in the present and Mirantha’s taking place through diary entries, although her presence is cast over the entire book. She has disappeared by the time the events of the novel begin, and while there is an official story explaining her disappearance, everyone (including the princes) assumes Karolje has had her killed.

While The Vanished Queen is going to be shelved and categorized as a fantasy novel, it’s very low-fantasy, with only occasional hints at magic (the king’s interrogators have abilities that can’t be easily explained) and has serious elements of a political thriller and even a bit of a ghost story to it. While there is a single organization that is called “the Resistance” in the book, they’re not exactly monolithic in their goals, and both of the princes and Anza herself have different ideas about what should happen to Vetia once Karolje is gone, assuming they are still alive to see it. Karolje himself is an interesting villain; he’s not personally a physical threat, of course, and in half of the scenes where he’s present he’s literally in bed. But no one is ever sure where anyone else’s loyalties lie, and the threat of imminent discovery by or betrayal to Karolje hangs over nearly every conversation in the book, particularly once Anza and one of the princes happen to meet after Anza is arrested early in the book. There are scenes where the people talking to him reflect on how they could kill him on the spot if they wanted to, if only they had any idea what the guards might do afterwards.

There’s a great atmosphere of dread and paranoia throughout the entire book, and while fantasy books where the line of succession is a kingdom is unclear aren’t exactly rare, I don’t know that I’ve seen a lot of them where there’s a debate as to whether there should even be a new king once the current one dies. Simply replacing the current king with a “better” king isn’t necessarily what everyone wants, and even the princes are repeatedly shown as being unsure about who and/or whether they want to take up the crown. Beyond the plot, the characters are all well-drawn and interesting, and the utterly casual reaction by everyone to Anza’s bisexuality is refreshing. It’s clear that her sexual orientation is completely normalized in this setting; at least one previous girlfriend is a character and their relationship doesn’t get any different sort of attention than anyone else’s.

Plus, my God, that cover. Look at that cover.

I enjoyed this a lot, y’all, and I think I’ll have an interview with Lisbeth on the release date. If I quietly never mention it again assume we couldn’t get it scheduled, but we’re working on it. 🙂

The Vanished Queen is Lisbeth Campbell’s debut novel. It releases on August 18.

On the canon

Scalzi had– unwillingly, it must be pointed out– some interesting things to say today regarding the existence of a capital-C Canon as it relates to science fiction and fantasy. This was brought on by George R.R. Martin embarrassing himself and everyone else at the Hugo awards a week (? two? Time has no meaning) ago.

For the most part, I agree with him. There is no Canon, at least not of the capital-C variety, and it’s questionable at best about whether there ever was one. And a lot of what certain types of people think might be part of that Canon are books I probably haven’t read. I have never done anything but bounce off of Heinlein, for example. I don’t mind Starship Troopers but I don’t think I’ve ever finished anything else of his. I’ve read my share of Asimov but nothing I care to recommend to anyone. I have read several books by Philip K. Dick and Ursula le Guin; I can’t tell you a damn thing about any of them. No Bradbury or Silverberg, at all.

Honestly, I’ve read very little of the sci-fi Canon. I’m more widely read in fantasy, as that was my obsession as a kid, but I just didn’t read a ton of sci-fi growing up and most of what I’ve read as an adult has been much more modern.

So here’s the question: I don’t think there is a real Canon– there’s no work or set of works that someone having read or not read them would cause me to cast aspersions on their spec fiction bona fides– but what if there was?

In other words, if someone came up to me right now and wanted me to make a list of works of science fiction and fantasy that they needed to read, what might be on that list?

And that’s an interesting question. These will be in no particular order and I will absolutely forget some important books, so don’t take this as– heh– an authoritative list of canonical books. Let’s just say I’m starting a conversation and go from there.

  • The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, which are probably as close as I’ll ever be willing to get to books that I insist any fan of fantasy literature must read, if only because that way you get it when people are trying to subvert them.
  • Dune. You can skip every single other Dune book other than the first one, but you should read Dune.
  • The Harry Potter series. Yes, I know, J.K. Rowling is cancelled, but there’s an entire generation of folks out there for whom these books were foundational and just because we’ve decided that they were magically written by no one is no reason not to read them.
  • Speaking of cancelled people, you really should read at least the first two books of the series that is actually called A Song of Ice and Fire but is known as Game of Thrones now. Read the third if you liked them. Do not read further than that.
  • The Broken Earth trilogy by N.K. Jemisin, the only person to win Best Novel Hugos three years in a row.
  • Read Sandman. Yeah, I know it’s a comic book. Do it anyway.
  • Frankenstein. No, seriously, read Frankenstein. Like, do it anyway even if you generally don’t care about science fiction. It’s a better book than you think it is. Seriously. Try and find an edition with the extended ending, though.
  • Read something– I don’t care what– by China Miéville. Perdido Street Station, maybe, or The City and the City.
  • I will probably catch some crap for this, but read something by Lovecraft. Yes, he is a supreme asshole. But he’s dead, so he’s not going to get any of your money and a lot of his stuff is public domain by now anyway. Call of Cthulhu, The Shadow over Innsmouth or The Colour Out of Space, maybe. They’re short. Take a bath afterwards.
  • Orson Scott Card is a living utter asshole, but … man, Ender’s Game. Do it without spending money.
  • Watership Down. Which doesn’t have swords or orcs or spaceships in it, but does have talking bunnies and shocking violence.
  • Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie’s most underrated book, and squarely in the realm of fantasy.
  • Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series could sub in for Heinlein, who is an obvious inspiration.
  • Read some Kameron Hurley. Really, just pick something, although if you pointed a gun at me I’d say something from her Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

And, like, I could definitely go on, and there are a ton of books that I think are magnificent but I wouldn’t necessarily put on this type of list (an example: the Expanse novels, which are brilliant but the series isn’t finished yet, and unlike ASoIaF I think you should actually read all of them) so obviously we could just keep adding things forever. But if this is a list of Where Should I Start, I feel like you could do worse than working your way through these.

What else is part of your fantasy/sci-fi canon?

(Also, I want to note, for the record, that I deliberately didn’t include Amazon affiliate links for any of these, because I feel like it would have been overkill.)

#Review: SCARLET ODYSSEY, by C.T. Rwizi


I keep almost saying this on the blog, but I don’t think I actually have yet: you need to be reading more African science fiction and fantasy. I don’t know if there’s an actual continental Renaissance going on right now or if it’s just American publishers trying to be more diverse and finally giving these authors a chance or what, but the number of good books I’ve read in the last few years by African or first-generation immigrant authors has been skyrocketing, particularly from Nigerian authors or authors of Nigerian descent, and you need to get in on this. In C.T. Rwizi’s case, he was born in Zimbabwe and currently lives in South Africa, and I’m pretty sure I bought Scarlet Odyssey based on not much more than the author’s name and that absolutely gorgeous cover.

I love it when that works out, and it’s funny that I’m thinking about discovering Fonda Lee’s Jade City much the same way, because I’m pretty sure The Green Bone Saga was the last time I was this jazzed about a new SF/F series. Yes, it’s that good.

If you’ve been reading me for a while, you have probably caught on to the fact that I am a sucker for worldbuilding, and Rwizi’s world is a lush, multicultural, second-world Africa, filled with magic that is in a lot of ways math-based— the way mystics officially become mystics basically requires them to derive a unique mathematical proof called an Axiom that powers and regulates their abilities– and wildlife with robot parts and a ton of overlapping political systems that are at odds with each other, alongside a religious pantheon that is just as multifaceted. Generally with fantasy you either get one or the other; you’re either dealing with kings and emperors or gods and demigods, and this series has both. I want to read a million books set in this world and I want to hear more about every corner of it, especially the bits that exist off the map that the book starts with, which are only hinted at here and there but which seem to have something entirely different going on from the vibe of the rest of the book.

The main character is Musalodi, an eighteen-year-old noble who wants to be a mystic rather than following his brothers into the warrior caste. In his tribe, magic and academics are generally women’s work, and yes I can hear you sighing over there but while this trope has started to get more than a little tiring in general, once Salo gets out of the reach of his people (I’m not going to tell you how or why) his maleness stops being an issue, except for the occasional person who recognizes where he’s from and knows how odd his powers are. Gender-swapped roles is kind of a theme throughout the book, actually; similar things will happen with a couple of different people.

While Salo is definitely the main character, the book employs a third-person rotating narrator style, over maybe eight or ten different characters, a couple of whom will eventually turn out to be the same person. The characters are scattered all over the world and several of them don’t encounter or even know about each other, so it’s likely that there will be some worlds colliding in the future. I don’t want to get too deep into the actual story; this is definitely something that you want to watch unfold on your own without knowing a lot about where it’s going. The short version is that Salo is going to come into his powers, and then get sent on a Quest, capital Q absolutely necessary, by someone who may or may not have his best interests in mind and whose motivations are deliberately kept somewhat unclear.

Oh God, y’all, it’s so damn good. The sequel isn’t due out until March of next year and I want it nowwwww. Go buy this and read it, please; I need somebody to talk to about it.

Wednesday morning braindump

This is, rather emphatically, not a review of this book, as it’s eight hundred damn pages long, I’m not quite 1/4 of the way through it, and I have no plans to abandon it at all. This will be spoiler-free, for the most part, and even if I do spoil something, like I said, I’m early enough in the book that it barely counts.

I discovered Sarah Maas had a new series out when I found it at Target, of all places, several weeks ago; buying a book from Target would prove to be only the first of several deeply weird things about this book. First of all, take a look at that cover: what’s the name of the book? If you said Crescent City, you’d be wrong, as that’s the name of the series, currently planned as a trilogy but who knows. The name of the book is House of Earth and Blood, following the modern trend of naming books Noun of Noun and Other Noun. Seriously, look around, there are dozens of them. I feel like somebody needs to have a word with whoever did the cover layout, as that’s … weird.

Second, I’m having some serious issues with wrapping my head around the worldbuilding she’s doing here. For all practical intents and purposes, House of Earth and Blood is set in the modern world, except not: this book is clearly (?) not set on Earth, although people have cell phones and order out for pizza and days of the week are called Tuesday and months are called April, and the main character works in an art gallery, except so far literally none of the main characters are fully human. So it’s sort of urban fantasy-ish, except that it’s not set in the Real World, which is how every other example of UF I’ve ever read works, but even though it’s not set on Earth there is this deeply bizarre mishmash of real, ancient human cultures all over the place: the titular House of Earth and Blood is one of the four Houses of … Midgard, and a group called the Vanir is a thing, and there is slavery in the book, and people who are enslaved have SPQM tattooed on them, which stands for Senatus Populusque Midgard, which might hit you kind of funny if you know anything about Rome.

There’s a character named Maximus Tertian, and there are also angels, most of whose names end in -iel, as you’d expect from angelic names derived from Hebrew, and there was an angelic rebellion at one point, because of course there was, and meanwhile the main character is named Bryce Quinlan. It’s all very schizophrenic and oh did I mention that despite all this the book is shaping up to be a police procedural/murder mystery? Because it is.

My ultimate opinion on this book is really going to depend on whether this ends up feeling like it all makes sense together or is just very very lazy. I really enjoyed Maas’ Throne of Glass series, so she has a ton of goodwill built up, and I’m entirely willing to believe that there is a plan for this, but right now the whiplash is really getting to me.

I probably shouldn’t even talk about this, and I’ve been resisting talking about this, because I feel like there’s no way to do it without coming across as vaguely creepy, but it’s still on my mind two days later and there’s a reason the word “braindump” is in the name of this piece. So let’s get mad at TikTok for a couple of minutes. (TikTok? Tik Tok? How do I not know if it’s one word or two yet?)

I ran into this random video on my For You page a couple of days ago. An older white lady, very very angry, ranting into the camera, which usually isn’t how TT goes for a couple of different reasons. Anyway, she was bitching about how “you” need to stop looking at “her video,” because “she” is “only fourteen” (clearly not referring to herself) and how TT is “promoting child porn” and people should stop going to look at “the video.”

First of all, this is probably a kid doing some sort of booty dance in a tank top, which is about half of TikTok at any given moment. The notion that there’s actual child porn on the site feels … somewhat unlikely. But if you think there is child porn on the site, what the hell are you doing posting a ranty video at people to stop looking at it, with no indication whatsofuckingever of what the hell it is we’re supposed to stop looking at? Like, what am I supposed to do with this information, white lady? You’re very upset about some video, and you don’t want me to look at it, which, okay, fine, but that’s literally all the identifying information you put in your video? That there’s something Out There Somewhere that is so bad you’re literally calling it child pornography, so maybe throw out a user name or something so that the rest of us can block or report it? Because it’s not like the For You page gives us a choice of what we’re looking at, right?

…and this is why I’ve resisted posting this, of course, because tell us the username so we can block and report is functionally exactly the same as tell us the username so that all the dirty old men can go look at the child porn, and now everyone looking at your stupid little video with even a trace of common sense is stuck in this weird limbo between I would like to help you get rid of the terrible thing and I am not a fucking degenerate, and you can’t do one without setting yourself up to be accused of the other, and one more time why the hell did you decide to post this? Because, again, functionally speaking, what you just posted is I don’t like someone else’s video but I’m not telling you who or which one, but I’m really REALLY mad about it.

Subtweeting on fucking Tiktok, and fuck it I’m just going to spell it differently every time I use it in this post, shouldn’t be a thing. And now I’ve posted about the stupid thing, and I can stop thinking about it.

Anyway. I’m done now.

9:18 AM, Wednesday May 13: 1,370,016 confirmed cases and 82,389 Americans dead.

In which I read a book and now I’m talking about it

Y’all know this about me by now: I typically only write book reviews when something is either worth recommending or has seriously offended me for some reason. I don’t write a whole lot of mixed reviews. Every so often I’ll encounter a book that I really liked and can’t explain why, but for the most part my book reviews around here are raves of some variety or another.

(Why is the name of the book not in the title of the review, like usual? I’m actually trying to dodge easy Google hits on this one. I have at least one negative review of a book where I like every other single book that author has written that gets more traffic than it ought to and I don’t especially want that to happen with this one.)

Anyway. I finished K.S. Villoso’s The Wolf of Oren-Yaro yesterday. I picked it up based on several strong mentions online from people I trust, plus the author is a Filipino woman and the notion of epic fantasy from the Philippines is attractive.

And … damn. I finished the book, but I finished it seriously disappointed. The biggest problem that this book has is that the main character, the Bitch Queen (the series is actually called the Annals of the Bitch Queen) and the titular Wolf, probably has less agency in this book than any character I can remember short of Arthur Dent. You can get away with writing a book about a character whose decisions have no impact on the plot if you’re writing a comedy about someone the reader is supposed to feel sorry for, but when the main character is supposed to be a queen, only she consistently makes terrible decisions throughout the book and most of the time after she makes those terrible decisions they are immediately rendered irrelevant through external events, you probably need to go back and reconsider a little bit.

I have never in my life read something where a single character is captured or has her plans derailed so many times in the same book, by so many different people. And, like, she’ll manage to escape, or be rescued, and then the exact same shit happens again. And it’s really frustrating, because there’s a good story in here somewhere, to the point where I might actually buy the sequel, believe it or not– it’s just that the main character is damn near unbearable. There are signs of her claiming some agency toward the end of the book, so maybe she’ll be better in the sequel, and once you get beyond the character work, the world is interesting, and the writing is strong, it’s just that Queen Talyien is a black hole of a character and since she’s the sole POV character it’s a real problem.

I spent the entire book wondering what Cersei Baratheon or Celaena Sardothien might do in the same circumstances, and … that’s really not a good sign, right?

Blech. I started Deborah Hewitt’s The Nightjar last night and so far the first 60 pages are pretty promising. Hopefully that’ll wash the taste out a little bit.

11:43 AM, Tuesday April 21: 788,920 confirmed cases (we will likely crack 800K today) and 42,458 American deaths.