Twelve Days of Bookmas: bite-size books

Once upon a time, I would have said a doorstop was my favourite kind of read: a big chonk I could lose myself in. These days, I have shorter commutes (ahem) and less patience; consequently, I’ve come to love shorter-form. Last year, a third of my reads – and half my favourite reads – were novellas. Today and tomorrow I’ll be wrapping up my thoughts on a few I haven’t yet reviewed.

Empress of Salt and Fortune – Nghi Vo

Book cover: The Empress of Salt and Forrtune - Nghi Vo

It took me until the Christmas break to finally pick this up, and it immediately sailed into my heart. What makes it so lovely? The prose and tone, for me. Although it is a history of events leading up to a rebellion, it’s a surprisingly quiet narrative; an old woman recounting anecdotes to a (nonbinary) scholar-priest. Rabbit’s stories are understated, even oblique at times, and often end by her asking Chih whether they understand. Chih’s rather wonderful response is always that they listen; there’s no judgement and a great deal of patience.

Vo has crafted a fantasy world that we see only from its periphery and in its details, but which feels coherent and real. The characters also have substance beyond their brief appearances, not least the Empress who is by turns fierce, playful, ruthless and tender. We never actually meet the Emperor, seeing hints of his character only in his cast-off consorts and his cruelly controlling Minister of the Left. Likewise, we see the Empress plotting without ever seeing what she is plotting. We can’t even be sure that Rabbit is a reliable narrator; but her secret history is deeply satisfying.

This is a novella of phrases and moments that took up residence in my heart and will linger there: the empress, with her ‘foreigner’s beauty like a language we do not know how to read’; the future-shaping truth that ‘angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves‘; Chih, who once saw a brown carp become a calico dragon that brought the rain, and so will die content. Magical.

Drowned Country – Emily Tesh

Book cover: Drowned Country - Emily Tesh

The sequel to the glorious Silver in the Wood continues the tale of the Green Man and the practical folklorist, giving us the other side of their disaster romance. Tobias Finch has turned his back on the Wood to work for Mrs Silver; Henry – our new narrator – is pining for the love he drove away, and he’s a mess. Selfish, foolish, self-pitying, Henry is imbued with powers he barely understands and ignoring responsibilities Bramble would prefer he took rather more seriously. I should have been more empathetic – after all, he’s dealing with the terror of finding himself newly immortal, with all its implications – but he’s just so extra about everything.

Thankfully, once the emotional context is in place, the plot kicks in with a bang. Mrs Silver needs Henry in Whitby to lend a hand with a little vampire problem (well played, Ms Tesh), so he’s soon off to face his ex-boyfriend and try not to disappoint his mother. But nothing is quite as it seems in Whitby, least of all enterprising Maud Lindhurst, supposed victim and aspiring practical folklorist, a determined girl with more courage than sense.

I enjoyed Drowned Country, which romps through vampire lore AND takes us to Fairyland, as well as demonstrating the magnitude of the Green Man’s power. Along the way it explores the finer points of broken hearts and bruised feelings, guaranteeing much yelling at the page until the very end, which left my heart singing. Do I think it’s as successful as Silver in the Wood? No, but this is definitely a duology to reread and be comforted by; better, always, when Tobias is on the page.

The Vela – Serial Box

written by Yoon Ha Lee, Rivers Solomon, SL Huang & Becky Chambers; narrated by Robin Miles

The Vela was a reread for me: I hoovered this up when it first came out, snared by a combination of favourite authors tackling topics close to my heart as a star system tears itself apart in the face of a self-inflicted crisis. The inner planets powered their wasteful lifestyles by harvesting the sun; as its heat begins to fail, the outer planets are paying the price. One by one, they are becoming uninhabitable – and the waves of refugees who dare the void in cobbled-together spaceships are finding they are unwelcome on worlds newly-aware of the cost of a growing population.

The series starts on cushy Khayyam, where the president sees political capital in taking in the last ship to escape frozen Eratos. When the Vela disappears en route, Ekrem sends his favourite mercenary – an outworld refugee herself – and his youngest child to bring them home. But as Asala and Niko investigate, they realise that seemingly benign acts may mask ruthless ambition. Nobody’s hands will stay clean in the face extinction.

It’s an AMAZING pitch and – as you’d expect from the author line-up – brilliantly diverse, with trans and nonbinary protagonist, much queer loving and more action (mostly from Asala). On first read (original reviews of each episode here), I found it good if a little uneven, especially on pacing. As a reread, I found it much more satisfying; largely, I think, down to the epic narration by Robin Miles. Miles is expressive, has a knack for distinct (and consistent) voices and her performance had me giggling and gasping in public (I listen to audio reads when out for walks).

Season Two (The Vela: Salvation) is out now, so guess what I’m queuing up to listen to later this year…