The Invention of Fire: A Novel, by Bruce Holsinger, (William Morrow), 432 pages, release date April 21, 2015

Last February, I reviewed Bruce Holsinger’s novel A Burnable Book, which was set during the reign of Richard II with a central character drawn from history, the poet John Gower, who he also depicts as a blackmailer and detective—and a friend of the better-known writer Chaucer. Now, in The Invention of Fire, John Gower is back, attempting to solve a multiple murder and international intrigue that revolves around the newly developed “handgonne.”

Holsinger, a much-honored scholar of the medieval period, knows (as one would expect) his characters and setting. The Invention of Fire is full of the kinds of details that both make the story ring true and that are of interest in their own right: the layout of London during Richard II’s reign, the interactions between members of different classes, the legal system, the complex politics in English-occupied Calais.

The Invention of Fire is a stronger novel than its predecessor, with multiple strands to its plot that ultimately pull together effectively, but not too tidily. Its ending is appropriately ambiguous, given Gower’s primary identity as a poet. Now that I’ve seen what Holsinger has done with his second volume in this series, I’m eagerly awaiting the next adventure of John Gower.

A Magical Quest for a Cure

The Water and the Wild, by K. E. Ormsbee, illustrated by Elsa Mora, (Chronicle Books), 448 Pages, release date 14 April, 2015

The Water and the Wild is described as being for ages 8 to 12—but that greatly underestimates its charms. This novel travels between present day mediocrity and timeless fantasy laced with both menace and magic. Our present-day heroine, Lottie Fiske, is an orphan being raised by a guardian who cares little (really, not at all) for her. Lottie’s a poor fit in the local school because, “She had the audacity to not be very pretty or rich or even stupid, and at least one of the qualities was essential for a girl.” She’s bullied by the popular crowd and fantasizes with her best friend Eliot about winning scholarships and leaving their small town forever. Unfortunately, Eliot’s always-poor health is worsening, and he may not live long enough to achieve their dream.

The fantasy world is Albion—a place populated by sprites, each of whom has a keen and a genga. A keen is a special talent related to one of the senses that allows a sprite to perceive the world with great intensity. A sprite with a taste keen can taste the words used by those around him to determine the motives behind those words. A sprite with a hearing keen is able to listen at great distances: through walls, in other buildings, even, with the right training, at distances of hundreds of miles. A genga is a bird companion each sprite is born with, and each genga is able to provide a particular kind of aid to its owner.

Unfortunately, Albion is beset by political turmoil that constantly threatens violence. The Southern King and the Northern Rebels each hope to overcome the other. Caught between these two forces are the Wisps, who are dying of a plague. The Southerly Court has a cure for the plague and innoculates its own citizens against it, but “the ingredients are rare. [Southerlies] don’t have enough to hand out to everyone.” As one bored Southerly explains, “[Wisps will] go extinct. Nearly a quarter are dead as it is. By the time [we Southerlies] are grown, there won’t be any more wisps left on the Isle.”

Lottie, searching for a cure for Eliot, finds herself in Albion where she’s hunted by parties on all sides who believe she’s the last of the Fiskes, the family that once ruled Albion. Albion isn’t necessarily any kinder than Lottie’s home town, but with the help of two sprites and a wisp halfling, who may or may not truly be her friends, Lottie sets out to find a cure for Eliot.

The pacing of this novel is simultaneously gentle and urgent. Lottie gradually comes to learn more about herself and about Albion, but at the same time, she needs to accomplish her goal in a just a few days if there’s to be any hope for Eliot. One feels compelled to continue reading, but is able to savor the story at the same time.

Even if you’re nowhere near ages 8 to 12, The Water and the Wild will provide you with an experience that both reminds you of your own world and that transports you to another world entirely.

A Wealth of Ideas

Her Idea, by Rilla Alexander, (Nobrow Ltd.), 56 pages, release date 14 April 2015

Her Idea is a brilliant children’s book about Sozi, a girl with—ideas. They pop up endlessly, follow her about, overwhelm her, and they keep on coming. Sound like any early-graders you know?

This fun, rhyming book-within-a-book is great for read-aloud. It’s also the sort of thing that a young reader can leaf through again and again. The illustrations are whimsical and full of details to be discovered. Those ideas—sometimes they look like baby squid, sometimes like homunculi—are everywhere.

Any children in your life who are thinkers and makers will be delighted with this book.

A Three-Hours’ Tale on the Pakistani-Afghani Border

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon: A Novel, by Fatima Bhutto, (Penguin Press), 240 pages, release date 24 March, 2015

Fatima Bhutto’s The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is a novel that deserves wide reading for its topic—but more than that, it deserves wide reading for its writing. The novel recounts the experiences of three brothers on Eid (the Muslim new year) in Mir Ali, a small town in Pakistan, near the border with Afghanistan, whose populace have been engaged in a long-term civil war against the Pakistani government.

Life in Mir Ali is perpetually violent. In addition to government and local combatants, there are US drones, and an influx of guerrillas from Afghanistan, who see themselves as freedom fighters, but who don’t differentiate between government targets and local targets that don’t share their particular branch of Islam. In fact, the violence has become so commonplace that for the first time ever the three brothers will not be attending the same mosque for Eid. Instead, each of them is going to a different mosque, a way of ensuring that at least someone will survive the violence that is apt to occur.

Although the primary action of the novel takes place during a period of a few hours, Bhutto offers enough back story that readers can unravel the complicated politics of the region. Perhaps not completely—but certainly more effectively and thoroughly  than I’ve seen them explained in any other popular source.

The use of the three brothers allows Bhutto to offer multiple perspectives. Aman Erum, the eldest, has been studying in the U.S. and is desperate to leave Mir Ali for better opportunities elsewhere. Sikandar, the middle brother, is a physician whose son, an only child, has recently been killed in a bombing. Hayat, the youngest, has devoted his life to independence for Mir Ali, having spent his childhood listening to his father’s tales of earlier uprisings. Two women figure significantly as well: Mina, Sikandar’s wife, who has begun obsessively attending funerals of victims of terrorist violence, even when they are complete strangers to her, and Samarra, loved by both the oldest and the youngest, who has risen from a position as a courier for to leader of one of Mir Ali’s most active rebel cells.

As the few hours’ action plays out, readers are thrown from one crisis to the next. Even as each character strives to do what’s right, he (or she) finds himself trapped by circumstances, forced to betray his deepest convictions.

Don’t wait for this novel to come out in paperback. Read it now—both for its political context and for its crisp prose and rapidly paced plot.

A Feminist Field Biologist in a World with Dragons

Voyage of the Basilisk: A Memoir by Lady Trent, by Marie Brennan, (Tor Books, Macmillan), 352 pages, release date 31 March, 2015

If it weren’t for the fact that Voyage of the Basilisk is the third volume in the Lady Trent series, I’d have to say there’s nothing else out there like it. Instead, I suppose I’ll say there are only two books out there like Voyage of the Basilisk, and both of them are, not coincidentally, also by Marie Brennan.

Lady Trent is a remarkable woman. Living in an alternate universe at a time that seems analogous to the Victorian era, she travels her world as a field biologist, observing the rarest, most imposing creatures: dragons and their relatives in many forms. Some of them are land dwelling, others aquatic—there’s even an ocean-going giant fire turtle. While she has some of the sensibilities of her time, she never allows these to get in the way of her scientific pursuits. She dons trousers on expeditions, takes to the sea for years with her young son in tow, and even—gasp!—goes on expedition with groups of male scientists.

Lady Trent is a woman ahead of her time, whatever that time actually is. To give readers a taste of the sort of woman she is, here’s her depiction of the plight of governesses in her era:

I imagine many of my readers are aware of the awkward position in which governesses often find themselves—or rather, the awkward position into which their male employers often put them, for it does no one any service to pretend this happens by some natural and inexorable process, devoid of connection with anyone’s behavior.

Lady Trent approaches science with the same precision she uses in her observations of the mores of her time. She takes field notes, studies carcases, translates ancient glyphs, untangles evolutionary trees. She talks (or writes) of ovipositors, vestigal limbs, artificial synthesis of dragon bones.

If you know a young woman who’s dreaming of a career in the sciences and who enjoys books where women do more (much, much more!) than primp, pout, and stand about waiting to be rescued by men, she needs to meet Lady Trent. The balance of the rational and the fantastic in her travels is positively addictive.

Silence in Eden

The Language of Paradise: A Novel, by Barbara Klein Moss, (W. W. Norton & Company), 416 pages, release date 6 April, 2015

The Language of Paradise is a slow read. I don’t mean that in a bad way. It’s slow because it lingers inside its characters, gives them room to reason and imagine.

Sophie, daughter of a Harvard divinity professor, marries Gideon, one of her father’s students. Gideon is fascinated with the question of what the first human language—the language of paradise—might have been. At first this seems like a harmless eccentricity. But when Gideon meets Leander, who shares his obsession, things quickly spin out of control. The two of them decide that the baby Sophie is carrying will be raised in silence. With no human language spoken to him, they assume the child will go back to humanity’s origins and speak in the original tongue. Sophie’s marriage become a strange sort of triad, with Leander in control.

We spend time with both Sophie and Gideon before this search for the language of paradise becomes an obsession. Sophie is a bit of a wild spirit, dancing in the fields to voices and music only she can hear. When she first sees the fair-haired Gideon, she mistakes him for an angel. Slowly the two move forward to the marriage that seems inevitable—but by time the couple are wed, neither of them is the person s/he was when they first met.

Ultimately, this is one of those novels that works its way into difficult spiritual questions, moving not toward a real resolution of those questions, but toward a new appreciation of the ordinary. The problem is, when one embraces the ordinary, sees what is, one also sees what one is not—simple joys are counter-weighted by a sense of all one isn’t, all one hasn’t accomplished.

This is a book to read when you’re not in a hurry, when you’re willing to mull things over slowly and to spend time immersed in the different characters’ consciousness. What would otherwise seem slow becomes fascinating, the pace perfect for the story.

Ghost Hunting During the Irish Uprising

The Blood Dimmed Tide, by Anthony Quinn, (Oldcastle Books), 256 pages, release date 1 April, 2015

I’ve always enjoyed mystery novels featuring literary characters. The Blood Dimmed Tide presents an interesting variation on that genre: literary character as paranormal investigator. In this case the character is W. B. Yeats. It’s 1918, World War I seems to be consuming an entire generation of young men, and the Irish independence movement is turning violent. Yeats is trying to balance his varying loyalties to the Crown and to his native Ireland.

This setting makes the book intellectually “chewy” in a way lacking for many murder-cum-literary-insights novels. The story begins in London, but quickly moves to Ireland. A young serving girl has been murdered, her body found in a two-hundred-year-old coffin floating off the Irish coast. Yeats is haunted by the girl, who inexplicably sent him a letter—a letter he didn’t receive until after her death—saying she feared for her life.

While Yeats is primarily concerned with the paranormal, most of the book’s characters are consumed by the “Irish question.” These characters include representatives of the British government in Ireland, a secret group of Irish women determined to contribute to the revolt, land owners who see an inevitable end to their generations of power, and the tenants of these land owners.

The mystery at the heart of this novel is good, not great—but the way it depicts this historical moment makes up for the lack of unanticipated plot twists.